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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.

Warning Signs
5 bear-country scenarios that call for extra vigilance

1 You’re near a rushing stream “A bear has difficulty hearing you above this noise, so you’re more likely to surprise it,” says Herrero. The water also makes it tough for you to hear a bear snorting. When hiking in bear habitat that’s noisy, keep up the chatter, stay alert, and stop occasionally to scan for bears, advises Herrero.

2 There’s a headwind A bear’s #1 sense is smell. A tailwind will carry your odor to bears down-trail. “Most bears will decide to avoid you,” says Herrero. When the wind is in your face, that advantage diminishes. “Bears don’t like surprises. If all of a sudden it finds a person 25 meters away, it may just run on auto-pilot.” Changing course may be impractical, but you can still make your presence known; again, talk or sing loudly. And this is a good time to be sure the bear spray on your hip is ready to fire.

3 You come upon a cluster of overturned rocks If you’re hiking in Yellowstone or Glacier, the work was likely done by grizzlies looking for army cutworm moths. “Ninety percent of the time, bears are going to be where their food is,” says Herrero. If there are also signs of fresh digging, a grizzly is probably nearby. Move swiftly by, and keep your bear antenna up.

4 You’re on bear turf Grizzlies have learned to expect people on trails, not off them. You don’t want to catch a bear off guard, like when you’re bushwhacking in tall grass. Switchbacks can be a concern if you don’t have a good line of sight. “Ideally, you want to be able to see 50 meters ahead,” says Herrero. When hiking in low-visibility areas or off-trail, let out your best yodel as often as every 10 seconds. Also, scan the ground for fresh bear scat. If beetles or larvae are in it, it’s not fresh. If not, be extremely alert.

5 A raven is circling “Some of the worst attacks have been when a grizzly was feeding on a carcass,” says Herrero. If you spot a scavenger such as a coyote or crow, assume there’s a carcass–and a grizzly–nearby. Make a wide detour around the area or back away completely.–J.C.

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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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