Michael Ober

Bear Attack!

Randy certainly had not planned on lying down in the middle of the trail that day.  But there he was, clutching his now dead flashlight.  His face and neck were covered with dry-black blood, flies buzzing around.  After he realized I was there, looking down at him incredulously, he managed to put a few halting words together.

“Don’t go in there…!  There’s a bear.  It’s his home.  He lives there...”

Just moments before I had been absorbed in the numbing foot over foot trudge up the steep trail, focused only on the tops of my boot laces, hunched over, making slow time.  I almost walked right over him. 
Whooa…Oh.  OH!  I think I said in astonishment.  And then, looking at what lay before me: “Holy...  Are you… Are you OK?”    Then he told me, in halting words, of his bear attack.

I ditched my large pack, helped him to his feet and together we stumbled downhill to the trailhead, just 1/8 of a mile away.  As I stopped to let him rest he explained that he had hiked all night putting painfully slow distance between him and the Lincoln Lake backcountry campground.  Eventually, he said he could hear cars on the road, could even see some flashes of headlights through the trees as they passed by in the early morning darkness.  But he could go no further and lay down, facing the dark sky,   spent.

I had left the trailhead early to beat the July heat, destination Lincoln Lake.  Over the previous weeks my partner and I had knocked off all the other seasonal evaluations on the backcountry campsites in our district and I drew the short straw for Lincoln, “Stinkin’ Lincoln”, as it was dubbed because it was just so hard to reach and a singularly boring 8.8-mile trail in.

I did not have a radio to call Headquarters to report finding Randy so I drove to the District Office.  Back then, 1972, there was no ambulance service that responded to Park calls so we folded Randy into Dave’s patrol car and drove him to the nearest hospital in Whitefish.

There, Randy took on an almost celebratory fame.  After all, it is not common for any emergency department in North America to admit a bear mauling victim.  Soon, all kinds of health care personnel were swooping into the room, taking measurements, taking photographs, asking questions, administering drugs, examining wounds with an almost giddy fascination.  We obtained enough details from Randy for our report and left, leaving a small knot of folks, hospital counselors, the grievance pastor, social service officials and other assorted “lookie loos” clustered around Randy’s gurney.  Word spreads quickly through the halls of a small local hospital.

Next day, another ranger and I took two horses and a mule into Lincoln Lake to examine the campsite and pack out his stuff.  Arriving, the scene unfolded with perfect clarity.  True to his story, a bear had collapsed his tent in the early morning hours and had chased him up a tree, seizing his legs and pulling him down.  He fell through the branches and onto the side of his face, breaking his nose, fracturing an orbital socket and a cheek bone.  Despite the gashes and puncture wounds on his feet and lower legs where the bear had bitten him, he managed to thrust his bare feet into his boots, grab a large D cell flashlight and fled down the trail.  He hiked all night.  At little creeks he filled the lens cavity of his flashlight with water as if it were a live-giving cup to quench the thirst brought on by blood loss.

We gathered up Randy’s gear.  From the looks of things, the bear had stayed around quite a while and worked the camp over, consuming any food items and scattering gear everywhere.  We found his sleeping bag, torn and tattered, in a nearby alder patch, leaking down feathers.  Back near the outlet creek at the foot of the lake, we saw telltale black bear tracks in the mud.  And at the campsite it was clear that the bear had climbed up the tree after Randy, leaving obvious claw marks all around the trunk of the large spruce tree.  Freshly broken branches littered the base of the tree.

“Wow.  Look at this”, Dave said as he handed the binoculars to me that he had been using to follow the claw marks high up into the tree.  “Bear went all the way up there!  D’ya see that?”  He pointed twenty-five feet up the tree.

In the day-to-day events of working in a national park it is easy to forget that raw nature can be very unforgiving.  Just two summers after Randy’s incident, I witnessed similar wounds on a visitor who self-reported at the West Entrance, his naked back looking like it had been riddled with buckshot.  Puncture wounds and larger gashes in tissue peppered his shoulders and he sat there, on a stool, shivering with shock.  After he went to the hospital, we inventoried his backpack and found a diary that contained this entry: “Go to visitor center.  Find where most bears are.”

Several seasons after Randy’s incident, I was sitting outside one of the Park’s backcountry patrol cabins, drinking scotch with an old sage ranger that we all revered.  I told him about Randy’s encounter with the black bear that summer.  After a moment of quiet reflection, he looked off to the distant ridgeline as if picturing the moment.  Then, after pouring another scotch, he said, “Well, you know, wilderness ain’t wilderness ‘less there’s something out there as kin gitcha!”

~Michael Ober