If he’d been on either of the big islands of the Kodiak Archipelago, Alaska fisheries biologist James Jackson would have been worrying a bit about the fabled Kodiak brown bears as he waded up a salmon stream, counting fish.
But on comparatively tiny Shuyak Island — a 47,000-acre forested chunk of rock at the north end of the island chain 200 miles south of Anchorage — they weren’t in his thoughts earlier this month.
“You don’t see many bears on Shuyak,” he said in a telephone interview this week.
Unfortunately, it only takes one bear having a bad day to mess you up. Jackson, a 10-year employee with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, discovered that the hard way. He thinks perhaps the one he encountered woke up startled from a nap along the creek when he and fish-counting partner Kurt Peterson came splashing along on Sept. 4, but there is no way of knowing for certain.
What Jackson does know for certain is that when he heard the huffing start along the stream bank, the hair on his neck stood up. Then he saw the bear.
“He was probably 15 feet away,” the biologist said.
Coming fast and hard
After 15 years in Alaska, first as a student in the environmental studies program at Alaska Pacific University and then working for the state in the Kodiak area, the former Idaho resident has seen plenty of bears. And, like many who spend time in wilderness areas, he’s been bluff charged.
Never before has anything worse than a scare resulted; though, as Jackson admits, “They usually don’t start (a charge) as close to me as this one did.”
This bear came fast and hard from a couple of bear-bounds away. Jackson grabbed for the bear spray in a holster on the belt of his waders even though he didn’t expect the bear to grab him.
“It was sort of surreal,” he said. “I thought he was going to stop eventually, but he never did. I remember thinking, ‘She isn’t going to stop. She isn’t going to stop.'”
The bear didn’t, and Jackson’s draw wasn’t fast enough. The bear hit Jackson full on before he could fire off the spray, and the blow knocked him onto his back in the creek.
“I tried to kick her, and she grabbed my foot,” he said. “I had a death grip on my bear spray. I tried to spray her, but I had the safety cap on.”
In an interview, Jackson used the pronouns “he” and “she” interchangeably in referring to the bear and said he really has no idea of its gender. He wasn’t looking closely for genitalia, he said. Neither he nor Peterson saw or heard any cubs in the area.
The bear was big — most Kodiak bears are — but not that big.
With Jackson’s leg in its mouth, the bear was occupied just long enough for the biologist to get the safety cap off the spray.
“Before she could do anything else,” he said, “I sprayed her.”
The shot of Mace-like pepper to the face did the trick. The bear beat it out of there. A wet and battered Jackson scrambled to his feet. He was sore and knew he’d been bit, but that wasn’t all.
“Where she threw me back and I landed in the stream, I really bruised my back and hip,” he said. He thought his leg likely had a couple of puncture wounds. Those weren’t hurting enough to stop Jackson from hiking, so he and Peterson headed for their boat. Jackson said he was a little pumped up from the encounter.
“Talk about an adrenalin rush,” he said, “you could have hit me in the head with a baseball bat afterwards and I wouldn’t have noticed.”
The mile-long hike to the boat passed quickly. The state Fish and Game employees passed the time discussing why the bear had failed to hear them coming along the stream.
“Kurt and I are loud,” he said. “We were in a conservation. The only thing I can think is the stream covered our sound.”
Or the bear simply wasn’t paying attention. It happens. Animals are like people. They’re not always fully alert, or fully cognizant of what’s going on.
Back at the boat, Jackson found out he’d been hurt a lot worse than he thought. When he wrestled out of his pricey Simms waders — “I learned they won’t stop a bear bite,” he said — he discovered there was a puncture near his Achilles and a long chunk of flesh ripped open on his leg where the bear’s tooth had caught him near the calf and then dragged through flesh toward his ankle.
“I pulled down the waders and went, ‘Holy crap,'” he admitted.
The next thing he did was get on the phone to a pilot friend in Kodiak to ask for him to come get him with a float plane. After that, he and Peterson got out the antibiotics and started cleaning the wounds. The weather was overcast, typical for a September day in the Gulf of Alaska. They weren’t sure a plane could get in, but it did.
Within hours of the attack, Jackson was aboard that plane bound for the Kodiak hospital.
“I called the guys I work with,” Jackson said. “So my wife, Sonia, she found out. Someone told her there’d been a bear attack, but James is fine. He’s just missing a chunk of flesh. Sonia said, ‘What does that mean? Does he have all of his limbs?’
“This kind of stuff doesn’t happen elsewhere. It could have kind of worked out a lot different. I got off pretty light.”
Physical and psychological scars
Three and a half hours after the attack, Jackson was getting sewn up at the hospital. Doctors had to do what he calls some “minor surgery” to get his lower leg properly stitched back together.
“I’m going to have an interesting scar,” he said. “That’s pretty cool.”
Three days after the attack, he was well enough to attend a wedding where coworkers had a little fun with him.
“They all basically talked their little kids into sneaking up behind me and going, ‘Grrr!,’” he said.
Jackson laughed, though he admits there are psychological as well as physical scars left from the attack.
“The first two nights were interesting,” he said, “because I’d have, like, a dream. I’d wake up reliving the attack with the bear chewing on me, but it was always chewing on my arms or something other than my leg.”
He admits the bear “scared the crap out of me,” and that “I think I’ll probably have a gun with me for a while now,” though he’s not sure a gun would have made any difference. Everything happened so fast.
“I lucked out,” Jackson said. Luck is a good thing. Now he’s moving on. He has no plans to leave Kodiak and expects to be back in the field, where he loves working, next year.
“I’ve got a wonderful job,” he said, “(and) usually I don’t have to deal with bears on top of me.”
Contact Craig Medred at firstname.lastname@example.org
Related stories from around the North:
Canada: Google Street View maps polar bear country in Canada, CBC News
Finland: Eastern Finland is this summer’s snakebite hotspot, Yle News
Russia: Russia hosts meeting on polar bears, Eye on the Arctic
Sweden: Family of moose attack schoolboy in Sweden, Radio Sweden
United States: Rash of bear break-ins hits Northwest Alaska cabins, Alaska Dispatch