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October 2006

Survival Story: Surviving a Grizzly Attack in Glacier National Park

On August 25, 2005, Johan Otter and his 18-year-old daughter, Jenna, hiked right into the worst nightmare of any Glacier National Park backpacker: a 300-pound mother grizzly protecting two cubs. Here, in his own words, the 45-year-old physical therapist from Escondido, CA, shares the incredible story of their life-and-death struggle.

When a grizzly attacks, it doesn’t bite, hold on, then shake back and forth like a dog. It bites and pulls away, bites and pulls away. When I recently saw the new King Kong movie, I must’ve gasped during the scene where the dinosaur and Kong are fighting, because my wife looked over asked what was wrong. I just stared at the screen, thinking to myself, that was just what it was like.

Half the time I was in its mouth, and I could see what it was doing, that it was pulling my flesh, but there was no pain. I could also see blood, though, and I knew it was bad.

I decided to throw myself away from it again, and I fell another 30 feet. I didn’t time my fall–I just jerked away. I landed face-up, which wasn’t ideal, but you can’t plan these things. The bear got right back on top of me, so I grabbed it by the throat. I was facing it. Holding onto it. It was one big block of muscle that I knew I couldn’t control. This animal was incredibly strong.

I grabbed a rock because I recalled hearing that if you hit a bear’s nose, sometimes it will back off. At this point, I still didn’t know there were cubs. Grizzlies aren’t usually interested in people as food. This reaction was not hunger. This was: I need to take you out, you are a threat to my young.

My plan to hit it didn’t work. The rock I grabbed was that slate stuff that just crumbles. And it was in my left hand–I’m right-handed–and suddenly I thought: If I hit it, I’m just going to piss it off even more.

So I curled back into protective mode, but this time it got more aggressive, gnawing and scratching my head. It felt like a dog digging for a bone. It was also biting my right arm.

I was face-to-face with the grizzly for about 3 to 5 minutes, but I don’t remember what it smelled like. I don’t recall any sounds, any grunting or growling. In fact, I never felt afraid. I was focused on survival and getting it away from Jenna.

The turning point was when I felt a tooth going into the bottom of my skull at the nape of my neck. When it went in, I heard a cracking sound and felt a lot of pressure. Then it hit me: Yes, I’m keeping this thing with me, but I’m going to be dead soon. So I thought, I need to get out of this situation. I launched myself downhill again and fell another 20 feet. I stopped in a rock chute on the edge of a cliff. My feet were strongly planted on rocks, my back into the mountain, and there were two rock outcroppings above me. Below me, there was a drop of several hundred feet.

The bear came down and just looked at me. I didn’t move or make a sound. Maybe it thought I was dead. I was sitting there preparing to kick it off the mountain if it came after me again. I wasn’t in a vulnerable position, even though I was really banged up. Honestly, I don’t know if I could ever kick a bear off a mountain, but I was prepared to try. Instead it looked down at me and walked away. I never saw it again.

Then I heard Jenna scream. That was the worst sound I’ve ever heard.

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  1. djrrxx

    With all due respect to the bear defense victims, this is probably one of the worst written stories I have read in a major media. Poor story flow, uneven, jumps all over, but that is the Backpacker writer versus the story’s subjects.

    Additionally, there are some inconsistencies to Otter’s story. Either Otter or the writer should’ve check these details prior to publishing this article. For instance, Otter state he first fell 20 feet, then another 30 and, finally, yet another 30 feet. He stated his daughter fell approximately 50 feet, in the opposite direction from him. Yet, Otter states toward the end of his story he and his daughter (Jenna) ended up only “30 feet apart.” Very confusing.

    While we know this incident did indeed occur, our automatic response is to question the credibility of his details with respect to just those inconsistencies alone. However and once more, it was the writer’s responsibility to notice any inconsistencies and question the subject for clarity and consistencies, prior to publishing this story.

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