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Grizzly Details: Surviving a Bear Attack

Hiker Gerald Holzer recounts a 2005 grizzly attack in Yellowstone.

Have you ever had a bear encounter before?

One time we were in the north part of the park at Elk Creek for 3 nights. We were sitting around the fire after dark and we heard a big branch break within 50 yards. We were real alert and couldn’t see anything. In the morning, sure enough, there was fresh bear crap 50 yards away. And later we saw a grizzly a mile away. Anyway, I bet half of the backcountry campsites we’ve been at have had signs of bears within a quarter-mile. You don’t know how fresh the tracks are, or how fresh the scratches on the trees are.

So back at the lake, what happened next?

After we passed that scat, we stopped and talked for a bit. Should we go back to the truck? Should we stay where we’re at? That didn’t seem good, to stay next to fresh scat.

So we decided that we’d continue on to our camp, traveling slowly and making a lot of noise. That way, if there were a bear, it’d hear us and get out of our way. I was really nervous the first couple hundred yards, expecting a bear at any time, but as we got farther, I felt a little better. We were within 100 yards of our campsite, even though we never saw it. We were at a point where the trail was twisty and surrounded by thick underbrush. The trail had started to turn to the left downhill a bit, and there was a large area of brush on our left. I was ahead and Pat was behind me. Suddenly, we both saw this charging grizzly. It was maybe 15 yards away.

Can you describe the bear?

I only saw it briefly. It was moving faster than I’ve ever seen a wild animal move. I don’t know if it was on the trail or beside it. It’s almost like I have stopped images of it-like stills instead of a video. We both said "bear" at the same time. It was a matter of 2, maybe 4 seconds before it got to us.

Rangers tell you that most grizzly charges are bluff charges. So that’s what I was hoping. That we would just stand there. Pat said I was going, "Ho there, yo bear! Ho bear!" That’s what I sometimes say to animals at the zoo. I was hoping the bear would stop.

But it didn’t slow up. It made up that ground incredibly fast. I just had time to shift my weight to the left. The bear whizzed by without touching me. It was almost a bluff charge, because if it wanted to jump on me, it could have. Pat also tried to move to the left, but a tree was in his way. So he tried to move sideways to face the tree. The bear swatted at him and then continued another 10 feet. Then it stopped and turned around toward us, snorting rhythmically.

We both hit the ground. I went facedown with my head on the trail. My 50-pound pack was still strapped to my back.

Did you think about it, or was it instinct?

It’s hard to dissect. I went facedown, and I have a nice internal-frame pack that extends above my head. We both had hiking poles. I hit the ground, closed my eyes, and tucked my hands up by the sides of my ears. Pat was on his belly and looking away from the direction the bear had first come from. I thought the bear might have been on him, but I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t see what was going on.

I heard the bear coming closer and then I felt a tremendous weight on my back. The first impression I had was that it was the bear’s full weight.

How much do you figure it weighed?

I figure 300 pounds, but I could be wrong by 100 pounds.

What does that feel like?

Very humbling.

I didn’t really notice any real discomfort. But later on, Pat told me that when the bear climbed on me, he heard me go, "ooooooph."

I’d guess the total time it was on me was a half a minute. I was playing dead-that’s what the rangers tell you to do. I felt the full weight of the bear and I could feel it mouthing my pack and swatting. Not fiercely. Just batting my pack. I felt my camp chair and sleeping bag get knocked off. And then I felt full weight again-this was maybe 20 seconds into it. And then I thought: This isn’t so bad. Although my legs were sticking out, the back felt like turkey drumsticks. They felt really vulnerable.

For that first 20 seconds, I could feel the weight, and I thought, oh jeez, I hope this doesn’t go too badly. But I was starting to feel better, because nothing had happened. The bear hadn’t touched me as far as I knew, and I was safe. And then my hat got knocked off-a broad-brimmed backcountry hat. I had a momentary urge to grab my hat and put it back on. Luckily I didn’t, because that would have been a mistake.

The odor was really strong. All bears have a unique odor, even in real clean environments. Also, I’ve had to handle wet animals, so there was that odor, and there was a fecal odor and sort of a rotten smell. Probably his breath; if it had been feeding on a carcass, that would make sense.

Was it male or female?

I’m not sure. If I had gotten a longer look, I could have made a better guess. My guess is an adult female. It was big, but wasn’t huge.

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