Gene Moe snapped his head around at the ferociously loud and deep bawling roar of a close and angry bear. At first glimpse, he knew he was in for the fight of his life. This was no trotting charge of a bluffing bear. Both front paws reached forward together in each leap of a galloping bear going in for the kill. Gene made one instinctive step toward his rifle, just 5 feet away, and then recognized the futility of dropping an inferior weapon to grab a superior one he’d never have time to shoot. The knife he had been using to skin a Sitka blacktail deer was still in his hand, so he thrust it forward to meet the raging bear’s wide-open mouth, hoping to shove it down her throat. He was keenly aware that he could lose a hand, or more, but no better defense presented itself.
Gene might not have been in this life-threatening predicament had his partner of the day been able to follow their plan. Two years earlier, the same partner and Gene had just skinned out the hindquarters of a deer when a Kodiak bear appeared and plopped down 100 yards away, probably called by the dinner-bell shot. “Hey, we’ve got company,” Gene said. “Get the two quarters onto my backboard, and let’s get out of here.” They were a meager 50 yards away when the bear arrived to carry off the rest of the deer.
This year, they were camped on Afognak Island northwest of the village of Kodiak, but Gene, 69, and his son, Karl, 44, and their two partners, Tom Frohlick, 44, and Steve Fitzpatrick, 48, both employees of Gene’s concrete contracting business, motored their skiff across the straits and down about 10 miles to the lower end of Raspberry Island to hunt Sitka blacktails. Gene’s plan was to position Steve on a ridge, move out about 200 yards, and circle to move a deer toward him. If by late in the day Steve hadn’t gotten a deer, and Gene got a chance for a buck, he would take it. The rules called for the partner to be alert for the shot and then listen for the owl hoot. It would then be the partner’s job to join Gene and watch his back during the field-dressing. About that time Steve dropped his cap’s earflaps.
“Can you hear with those flaps down?” Gene asked.
“Oh yeah,” Steve answered, but later he heard neither shot nor hoot. And the bear bearing down on Gene wanted and needed more than a gut pile. This was November 1, 1999. The berry crop had been poor, a severe previous winter had killed an estimated third of the deer, and Asian ships with 20-mile nets were making clear-cuts in the ocean’s fishery. Few Pacific salmon came upstream at Raspberry Island to spawn, die and provide the fat-building nutrition essential for bears to hibernate.
The Battle Begins
Raspberry has an open grassy top, but at lower elevations moss hangs from big timber in the world’s northernmost rain forest. That year, snows had driven the deer down to the forest. Gene did watch a beautiful buck for 20 minutes, but it spooked before his partner could get a shot. About 2 o’clock, he saw another buck and decided to take it while there was still enough daylight to get it back to Afognak. Steve didn’t show up, so he began skinning it out alone. All the meat was off the carcass and laid out on plastic, and the heart and liver were in his hands when he heard the bloodcurdling roar. His only chance of survival depended on what he could do quickly with the 3¾-inch blade on his Model 110 Buck folding knife. And that chance was rapidly diminishing. Foam does bubble forth profusely from the mouths of excited bears, and this hungry sow was so excited that Gene now saw more foam than head. He could only aim his blade at the center and hope.
The knife slid alongside her head, and the bear bit Gene’s right arm above the elbow, taking out a big chunk of flesh. He could feel her trying to tear off the arm completely. He quickly reached over her head with his left hand to jab a finger in her eye, but came to an ear first and rammed his finger in as hard and far as it would go, then twisted. This experience proved to be so new and so intolerable that she relaxed her grip on his arm and tried to pull away, but Gene’s left arm was over her neck. Thinking he might put her on the ground in a more helpless position, he attempted to bulldog her as he had young bulls during his youth on the farm in Minnesota. Big mistake. She flipped her neck and threw him 8 feet.
Having watched bears doing lots of berry picking and digging, Gene knew she’d swing at him with her right paw. Like humans, the majority of bears are right-handed. This one stood up on her hind legs, arms outstretched in scarecrow fashion, and began circling, picking her moment to end this confrontation. A grizzly can decapitate a cow with one swipe; a Kodiak brown is even bigger, and Gene knew his head would come off a lot easier than a cow’s. He was also certain that she was standing on her hind legs to place that right paw at the best level to accomplish this. He tried to move closer to his rifle while focusing his eyes on nothing but that right paw. He saw it coming the instant it started. And at that same instant, he jerked his head back the way a boxer dodges a right hook. She missed, but came close enough that one claw split his ear and almost tore off the earlobe.
Since that failed, she dropped to all fours, hit his legs and knocked him on his back. She’d be on top of him next, bouncing or biting to crush his ribs or skull, so he jerked both heavily booted feet together and kicked upward with all his strength as she came flying in. The collision knocked her off to the side, and Gene leaped to his feet.
She began circling him again, and like a prizefighter up against a taller man with a longer reach, Gene knew that he had to get inside that right paw to survive. She was beating him to death. She came at him fast on all fours, and this time Gene was stepping off with his left foot, right foot still on the ground, as the paw started to swing. The paw missed and swung around his back, so she bit a large chunk out of his right leg above the knee instead. The pain was severe, but now Gene was inside the right front paw and against the bear’s shoulder with his left arm over her neck. His right arm had no feeling, and flesh from above the elbow hung down to his fingers. He reached over the neck and stabbed four times as hard as he could. Then, changing tactics, he moved closer to the jaw to slice the neck so he could push his knife and fist into the cut to stab deeper.
The sow tried to stop Gene by raising him off the ground with her right paw. He hung on and kept cutting the hole deeper, but he couldn’t hold her when she dropped him to push away with both front feet. Nevertheless, before her head pulled out from under his left arm, he managed one more hard stab into the deep slash near her jaw. Blood squirted all over them both. Immediately, this Kodiak brown wanted a breather between rounds and circled out beyond the little arena of beaten-down snow.
Noticing that some of the fight was going out of her, Gene yelled, “Bear, the Lord’s on my side, so come on!”
She did. And as she ran, Gene could see blood still gushing from the cut nearest the jaw. He also noticed that her head was cocked oddly sideways, suggesting that the last stab had probably gone deep enough to injure a vertebra. Terribly battered with loose skin and flesh hanging from his arm, claw gashes in his shoulders, and painfully dragging his right leg, 6-foot 3-inch Gene tried to stand tall and move toward her looking as menacing as possible. He would not allow her the added confidence of thinking the fight had gone out of him.
Whatever she thought, it did not stop her from charging–though not with the speed demonstrated earlier.
All Gene had left now was a little prayer and the advice of a dog-musher friend who said a blow to the nose from a light club he carried would stop nearly any animal. Gene drew back his left fist, and as the bear leaped at him, he threw the hardest punch of his life. He missed the nose, but struck her cocked head just under the eye. The impact of the punch combined with the momentum of the 750-pound brown was so powerful that his arm and hand went white and he had no feeling left in the knuckles. The sow’s head twitched, and she bared two front teeth that were still covered with Gene’s “meat,” as he tells it, before suddenly dropping with her paws under her body. Her cocked head straightened with the blow, and her nose pulled downward during her fall, ramming it into the moss. She lay motionless.
Crawling For Help
Gene had seen so many animals go down that he knew it’s a brain or spine shot when one drops with its feet under it. Hit other organs, it will go down with its feet or legs out from under its body. He believed this one was dead from damage he had inflicted to the spine with his knife and fist. But he wasn’t taking any chances; he stepped back to get his rifle. Before he could shoot, however, he had to first free his hand of the knife–but found he couldn’t relax his grip. Eventually, he was able to pull his fingers from the knife with his teeth, but then the loose skin and flesh from his arm fell over the scope of his rifle. Finally, he managed to raise the rifle high enough to get the flesh off to the side, and then lower it to shoot the bear twice in the chest.
A little fur flew both times, but the bear never twitched. Clearly, Gene’s lethal punch had finished breaking the vertebra of his 750-pound opponent. Gene’s ordeal, however, was far from over. He was two miles from the boat, feeling dizzy from loss of blood and still bleeding badly. He pulled the hanging flesh back up on his right arm and wrapped a plastic bag around it as best he could. His hunting pants–purchased in 1948, made of quarter-inch thick wool and worn only for the annual hunts–had probably reduced the potential damage when the bear bit a chunk out of his right leg. At least for now, he could still move on his feet. He had not seen the cubs, which later evidence showed the sow had, but as a precaution, he picked up his rifle as he left. He could easily meet other bears on Raspberry Island.
He doesn’t know how far he got before exhaustion forced him to lie down in the snow. When he felt it was time to move on, however, he couldn’t sit up. Finally, he struggled onto his stomach and pushed himself off the ground with his left arm and leg. At this point, he recognized what carrying extra weight was doing to the limits of his strength. Meeting another bear now seemed less of a gamble than whether he’d reach the beach at all. He abandoned his rifle.
At least twice he had to again lie down in the snow to rest. During one of those rests he remembers trying to die. “Lord, take me home,” he begged, but it wasn’t his time. So Gene struggled on, sometimes walking, sometimes crawling.
At one point, it appeared as if he was about to lose in the gamble of discarding his rifle–and his death wish would soon be fulfilled. He was hearing sounds from an animal too big to be anything but another bear. Yet being eaten alive did not exactly seem like a reasonable answer to prayer, so Gene remained motionless long after the noises ceased. If it had been a bear, wind direction had played in his favor.
Struggling through alder thickets was the most difficult challenge of the entire two-mile trek. The tree limbs would snag the plastic bag and yank it off his right arm. He’d stop, pull the hanging flesh back up and rewrap it, only to have it happen over and over again.
Finally, Gene spotted an opening in the woods and knew he was right on target. Within 200 yards of the beach, he could go no farther. He wearily halted, yelling for help, hoping somebody was near the boat. He was fortunate. Tom and Steve were already there and responded immediately, warming him with another coat and a full-length flotation vest. Steve had not heard the last two shots, either.
It was the custom among these hunters that the first to get back to the boat around 4 p.m. would fire his rifle as a signal that it was time to come in. The others would return answering shots, and everybody would be out of the woods before dark. They fired the routine shot and Karl answered, but then Tom and Steve began calling excitedly, trying to hurry him in so they could get Gene to medical help more quickly. Karl could not understand their words and concluded that a shot followed by loud, excited voices meant that a bear was somewhere between him and them. Instead of hurrying him in, the calls slowed Karl into greater caution, but he speeded up when he got close enough to understand. He was thoroughly shocked by his father’s appearance. The three quickly got Gene into the skiff and headed for the nearest habitation: the Silver Salmon Lodge owned by Peter and Barabel Guttchen.
Too Old to Heal?
Peter saw the skiff motoring into the bay with men waving wildly. As he walked down to ask what was wrong, he was astonished to see a man chewed and torn beyond belief step out of the boat and walk up the beach toward the lodge. A new front room was being built on the beach side of the lodge, so Gene also walked around to a door in the rear, refusing to be carried. He lay on the living room floor while Tom carefully rearranged the flesh on his right arm and bound it with an Ace bandage provided by Barabel. Karl wrapped his dad’s right leg with strips torn from her apron.
The Guttchens had the only radiotelephone in the vicinity, and immediately called the Coast Guard at Kodiak. By luck, they were going on maneuvers and had a helicopter already 10 feet off the ground. They quickly arrived at the lodge. By that time, the bandaging was finished and Gene was in a sleeping bag.
Gene was flown to the then three-year-old, 23-bed hospital at the little fishing village of Kodiak, where, without a break, Dr. Barry Goldsmith spent 12 hours caring for him, 7 of them stitching the wounds. Four years later, the feeling had not returned in two of the knuckles in the left hand.
The day after the attack, Gene’s hunting partners returned to Raspberry Island to find the rifle and knife and skin the bear. Alaska law requires that any bear taken in self-defense without a tag must be turned over to Fish and Game. Gene later bought back the hide at the annual auction. The partners found the blood trail very easy to follow–sometimes drops, sometimes a spray, some smears on branches, some on trees he had leaned against, and three pools where he lay down. Behind a log with a large smear of blood, they found the rifle. Finally, as they followed the trail back to the attack site, two young bears were standing over the few remains of Gene’s deer. They were probably the dead bear’s 2½-year-old cubs, which she was trying to drive off so she could have more offspring that winter during hibernation.
Back in the hospital, Gene overheard two nurses discussing how he was too old to heal properly. The next day, however, the doctor was asking what medic put his arm back together so expertly. “Tom Frohlick,” Gene answered, “a cement finisher who works with us.” (Annually, to make his employees more aware, careful and competent in an emergency, Gene has them take an 8-hour class in first aid. Gene himself certainly benefited from his employees’ training.) Two other reasons he could outfight a bear? He never smoked and he worked hard all his life. The doctor would later say that Gene has the muscle tone of a 33-year-old man.
Gene offers one more tip to those who hunt in bear country. Something he has noticed many times, but never told anyone until now, is how raven behavior ties in with deer hunting in bear territory. “When a raven flies over and sees you,” Gene says, “he’ll give a squawk or two. If you keep watching him, you’ll probably hear him squawk again and notice that he’s flying over another ravine. I figure if he squawks when he sees me, he’s squawking when he sees something else. When the wind has been in my face, I’ve sneaked over to see what’s there, and sure enough, I’d find a deer in that ravine. But you have to be careful. It could be a bear with a kill or cubs to defend. About half of the time, when I’d start to get close, I’d see a bear coming from the other direction. I don’t know for sure if bears are smart enough to catch on to raven behavior, but I take the possibility seriously. I’ve certainly had enough experience with rifle shots calling bears to dinner.”
Excerpted from Bear Attacks of the Century: True Stories of Courage and Survival, by Larry Mueller and Marguerite Reiss. (Lyons Press; lyonspress.com)
THE KNIFE SLID ALONGSIDE HER HEAD, AND THE BEAR BIT GENE’S RIGHT ARM ABOVE THE ELBOW, TAKING OUT A BIG CHUNK OF FLESH. HE COULD FEEL HER TRYING TO TEAR OFF HIS ARM.
SHE’D BE ON TOP OF HIM NEXT, BOUNCING OR BITING TO CRUSH HIS RIBS OR SKULL, SO HE JERKED BOTH HEAVILY BOOTED FEET TOGETHER AND KICKED WITH ALL HIS STRENGTH.