On September 14, 2005, Gerald Holzer and his longtime friend Pat MacDonald had a Yellowstone backpacking adventure interrupted in terrifying fashion. Here, in his own words, the 52-year-old Holzer relates the riveting details of the attack-and how the pair survived.
So what were you doing in Yellowstone?
I’ve been lucky enough that my job and family situation has allowed me to spend much of September in Yellowstone for 8 of the last 9 years. Sometimes it’s for as long as 30 days; sometimes only a couple of weeks. It’s the kind of thing that pushes my buttons and charges my batteries.
What kind of job lets you do that?
I’m a zookeeper at the Minnesota Zoo. I’ve got a sweet deal at the zoo-a part-time position with flexibility. Over the last 20 years, I’ve taken care of moose, bison, wolves, beavers, otters, wolverines, and lynx. I deal with many of these creatures on a daily basis. It’s part of the reason why visiting Yellowstone is such a unique opportunity-a chance to see these animals in close range in a protected wild environment. Often, they’re doing their own thing and almost ignoring you. There’s no other place on the continent I know of where you can do that.
How do you know Pat?
We went to high school together. As it turns out, as the years have gone by, it seems like we have more in common with each other than we do with anybody else. We are well matched as far as physical ability and being able to put up with tough conditions. When you camp with someone you always compromise-how far you want to go, things like that. But we are really well matched. Plus, he’s got a job where if he plans it in advance, he can get the time off.
So you had already been in Yellowstone for a while?
We had been in the park for about a week already. Since we’re both 50ish, we’ve learned that rather than doing something real aggressive right away, we’re better off camping and dayhiking at first. That way we can get used to each other and get into hiking shape a bit. In those first 7 days, we had done a short 2-night backcountry trip just to make sure we had the right gear and weren’t duplicating stuff. Then we had 4 days of really bad weather-a lot of snow, sleet, really cold temperatures. So we spent 4 nights car-camping at the Lewis Lake campground at the southern end of the park, waiting for the weather to break. Weather permitting, our goal was to spend 5 nights on Shoshone Lake and spend at least one day at the Shoshone Geyser Basin.
So when did you finally hit the trail?
It was a Wednesday, September 14, and we had secured a 5-night backpacking permit, to be camping along the north shore of Shoshone Lake. At around 1 p.m. we finally started hiking from the DeLacy Creek trailhead, which isn’t far from Old Faithful. Our permit for the first night designated a campsite about 4 miles in, hiking down DeLacy Creek and then a mile along the lakeshore. The first 3 miles, it was just gorgeous trail down an open, meadowy creek area. And when we got down to the lakeshore, we encountered two dayhikers who were returning to the trailhead. We talked to them a little, and they said they had seen a bear. Actually, they had seen two bears-a black bear, and what they said was a young grizzly on the DeLacy Creek section of the trail. We had already passed over that section.
We are pretty conscientious. Pat was carrying a canister of pepper spray. But in our hurry to leave the truck, I had forgotten to strap on my bear spray. We were already about a mile and a half down the trail when I realized I had left it in the truck. Pat said, "I have mine." And we thought, we’re fine-we’re aware bears are out there and we don’t want to have an interaction.
So then what happened after you left the dayhikers?
Not long after that, we passed the first designated campsite, which wasn’t ours. And not far past that we saw fresh bear scat. It was two small patches of dark, tarry stuff. Which to me signaled either a bear that was nervous or one that had been eating on a carcass.
I guess as a zookeeper, you know this stuff. I know shit. (laughing)
We were only a quarter-mile or a half-mile from our intended campsite when we saw this fresh scat. The whole time we were making a lot of noise, yelling "Hey bear, yo bear," and whistling. When we saw the scat, we thought, this looks fresh. We looked around, and didn’t see any tracks on the trail. So here we had this dilemma-there was probably a bear here recently, but where is it now? People have second-guessed us: You saw bear crap and you kept going. But we didn’t know which way that bear had gone. The trail we were hiking parallels the lakeshore, and I had a hunch that the bear had crossed the trail.
This is a part of the park that wasn’t burned in the ’88 fires, so it’s pretty thick. There were places of real low visibility. We were real aware of bears. I have put several hundred miles on the trails in Yellowstone, but my bear antennas were up more than ever.