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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.

Jenna has recovered very well. She is now dancing at Cal-Irvine.

At some point, I decided I needed to run another marathon. And so I entered the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in San Diego in June.
There was extra pressure because the media were there to report on my race, but after mile four or five, I didn’t care. I just wanted to finish. Then at mile 20, I thought, I don’t want to go through this. My left leg isn’t as strong as my right because of the injury, and the hat I wear to protect my scalp traps the heat in. I’ve been through enough pain in the past year.

Perhaps my struggle was simply recognizing that I’m not 100 percent yet.

But I finished in 3:39. My PR is 3:13, and I still hope to qualify for the Boston Marathon before the end of this year. Running the marathon was mental healing, and I know the mental toughness I had from being a runner saved my life. Those last couple of miles of a marathon are not fun. You have to push yourself through it, and that was a trait I needed that day in Glacier. It also helped that my blood pressure is low and my heart is strong.

Finishing the marathon was a barrier I had to overcome. I needed to know that I was myself again physically.

My other unfinished business is that hike. I plan to go back to the specific spot of the attack with the rangers that helped us and continue on to Grinnell Glacier. I am not fearful of going back into the wilderness–it’s just one of those things I have to do.

Park officials closed all area trails after the attack and searched, to no avail, for the Otters’ grizzly. However, rangers had determined that the bear was acting defensively and shouldn’t be destroyed if found. As this issue went to press, the Grinnell Glacier Trail had seen no encounters since the incident.

You know how to hike smart in grizzly country. You travel in groups and carry pepper spray. You make noise and keep a clean camp. “But you need to be extra cautious if you encounter certain situations,” warns zoologist and renowned bruin expert Stephen Herrero, author of Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance.

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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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