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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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