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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.
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?
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.
Then what happened?
It moved off, and went the direction it had come from. I heard it huffing and puffing and it stopped, still huffing. I played dead for 2 minutes, and I was starting to feel that the likelihood of it coming back was increasing. I knew Pat was close and playing dead, too, but I didn’t know if he was hurt. I also knew he had the pepper spray, which there was no time to get during the attack. I felt the wisest thing for us, if the bear came back, was for us to have the spray in our hands. So I whispered, hopefully loud enough for Pat to hear (but not the bear), “Get your spray.” Then I waited a long minute. The bear didn’t move; it just continued it’s rhythmic huffing I didn’t hear anything from Pat. So I said a tiny bit louder, “Get your spray.”
A minute later, Pat said something, something like, “got it” or “yeah.” Whatever he said didn’t immediately incite the bear to attack. But, to my horror, a minute or two after he acknowledged he had the spray in hand, I heard the bear coming back. It was huffing, and I heard footsteps. Right when it passed my head and was heading toward him, I said, “Now!” wanting Pat then to rise, turn, and fire. A second or two later, I heard scuffling and I heard the spray go off. The instant the spray went off, the huffing stopped and the bear went away, leaving in the direction it had first come. Pat told me later that the bear was 2 feet away when he used the spray, and that he got it right in the face.
After the bear moved away and we couldn’t hear it anymore, I finally raised my head up and said, “Pat?”
He sat up and said, “The goddamn thing bit me!”
I thought, Oh Christ…he lifted his calf and on the front of his lower leg was a small puncture wound-about the size of a pencil eraser. We thought for a minute, now what do we want to do? Neither of us panicked. Panic doesn’t get you anywhere. We looked at his leg and we thought, we probably shouldn’t camp here. People laugh at that, but we waited all year for this. Since Pat had a puncture wound on his leg, we knew that he needed first aid. I said, “Do you need to treat that now, Pat, or should we get going?” And he said we should get going. We knew the bear would be in the other direction. We didn’t want to dawdle. We scooped up our stuff and hiked back to the lakeshore to where we could get some good visibility.
We hiked quickly. It had taken us about 2 hours to reach that spot on the way in, but we got out in about an hour and 15 minutes. He wasn’t bleeding much, and we knew we had to report this to a ranger. So we boogied back. The odd thing is, I wasn’t really scared. I’m scared driving once a week or so on my 20-some-mile route home from the zoo, with people driving inappropriately and having near-death experiences. There you have adrenaline that has nowhere to go, so you just get all cranked up. But this was an appropriate adrenaline response. It was as much of a workout as either of us had had in a year.
On the way back, we ran into a group of three people, two women and a man. We told them, “Oh, we had a little bit of a bear encounter.” And they said, “What do you mean?” And Pat pulled up his leg up. And they said, “Oh!” And they escorted us back. After the bear attack, we still had the presence of mind to know that other bears might have been around. So we were still making a ton of noise. When we met these people, they asked, “Why are you doing that? ”
After we told them, they all started yodeling right away.
What did you do when you got back to the trailhead?
So we got back to the truck and got to the ranger station at Old Faithful. While Pat was being treated, a ranger interviewed me and then him. They were trying to figure out what action they needed to take.
How bad was Pat’s injury?
I’m reluctant to talk about Pat’s medical treatment-just to maintain his privacy. They cleaned and disinfected it. It was a dirty bite, and they said he had the option of continuing some other preventive medical treatment that would have to be continued over weeks. We reluctantly continued to Livingston to do that, and when we started driving up there we were silent for a while. We had 2 more weeks and it was a great feeling of disappointment. It was a sad time. The next day, Pat decided he would rather be in Bismarck, where he’s from. Reluctantly, we realized that the wise thing to do was to call it quits.
The good news is that Pat’s wound healed fine.
Did the bear event affect how you feel about backpacking?
No, not at all. Every night I spend in a tent is a happy time for me. Yellowstone is the best, because you can get away from everything and be in a true wilderness situation. It is the rewarding thing for me. Up until that point I didn’t have a particular interest in bears, and now I do. It has made me more of an advocate. Again, I still had 2 weeks of vacation. When I came home, I said hi to my wife-she was glad to see me-and then went to the Boundary Waters for a little bit. Just to test myself and get back on the horse again. I went to some areas that were familiar to me. I hiked to these high areas at sunset and purposely hiked out in the fading light with a flashlight just to make sure to quell any willy-nillies.
Were you nervous?
A little. But nothing that panicked me. In fact, I wanted to feel skittish and be able to deal with it. The reason I go to into the backcountry is to look at the geology and the wildlife, and then go to the library in the winter and try to learn more about these things so I can go back out there with new eyes. I think the bear attack opened a new avenue of interest.
Would you have done anything different?
Many things. First, I should have been carrying bear spray as well. In the haste-I was in a hurry to get on the trail, I forgot my pepper spray. When I realized I didn’t have it, I should have gone back to get it. Second, when we saw that scat, in hindsight, it would have been a good idea to find an area with good visibility and take an hour break. Third, after we saw that scat, we should have had the pepper spray in our hands. Rangers reluctantly mention pepper spray-for good reason. People think, oh I have pepper spray, I don’t have to worry. But if I had used pepper spray on the first charge, the grizzly might have left right away.
Why do you think this bear attacked you?
My hunch-and I have a master’s in animal behavior-is this was not an animal seeking us as food, it was an animal trying to reduce a perceived threat.
Do you want to go back to Yellowstone?