‘It wasn’t a bluff charge:’ Man recalls Monday bear mauling
An Anchorage doctor mauled by a brown bear earlier this week during a Copper River rafting trip has come forward to share his story, saying the attack hasn’t affected his love of Alaska’s backcountry.
Chris Zerger, 46, spoke with KTVA Thursday about the sow grizzly bear with cubs which attacked him Monday night near a Taral Creek campsite. Zerger, who practices internal medicine at Providence Alaska Medical Center, was traveling with a Providence nurse Jessica McCarthy.
As a longtime hiker and 16-year Anchorage resident originally from Kansas, Zerger said he’s hiked in much of Southcentral Alaska and been part of several rafting expeditions – including rides on the Chitina and Copper Rivers he was tackling this week.
“I had done the Chitina on a trip and I had gone down the Copper on a trip from farther up; I thought it would just be fun to revisit the area and do it again on one big trip,” Zerger said. “Jessica knows the river and grew up in the area, so she’s an expert rafter.”
When the two stopped on Taral Creek off the Copper River to make camp, Zerger said they had bear spray but no guns, based on their personal experience.
“Neither one of us own firearms, and I think anyone who knows anything about bears would say if you don’t know anything about a firearm, it’s not best to use a firearm as your deterrent,” Zerger said.
The bear spray wasn’t close at hand in the moments after they made camp, Zerger said in a written account of the mauling, as he and Jessica sought firewood and considered a surveyors’ plaque nearby marking a “bearing tree.”
“In the chaos of unpacking, we had set the bear spray canisters down on the ground,” Zerger wrote. “Jessica had already wandered into the trees behind camp and wanted to show me the curious plaque. I did not happen to see where the bear spray was laying amid the gear. Nor did I look.”
There weren’t any signs of bear activity at the campsite, Zerger said, so he and Jessica were talking “incessantly” but weren’t deliberately making noise as they would in the presence of a bear.
“It was at a distance of maybe 20 meters,” Zerger wrote. “It charged immediately. Tearing through the brush. I have seen many dozens of bears (black, brown, polar) in the wild but had yet to be charged. This one was coming at an incredible velocity. Not a large brown bear but a grizzly nonetheless. I did not see any cubs.”
On Thursday, Zerger said he was still surprised that the bear charged from the distance it did.
“Bears, usually when they see a person, there’s enough space to assess each other and find out who’s whom; you don’t see the bear, you see the bear’s butt because they usually run off,” Zerger said. “This was the first time I’ve ever been charged – it wasn’t a bluff charge, but she wasn’t charging to kill.”
It wasn’t until during the attack, Zerger said, that he saw the sow’s three cubs, all of them well behind the bear. He doesn’t believe that he or Jessica got between the sow and cubs at any point.
During the attack, Zerger said his mind flashed on a brutal bear mauling in the 2015 Western movie “The Revenant,” in which Leonardo DiCaprio's character kills a bear that nearly kills him during a sustained attack.
“I distinctly remember three different occasions where it came in at fast speeds and grabbed me by the leg and the arm and immediately released me,” Zerger said. “It released me as I fell screaming on my back; it could have just come up over on top of me and killed me instantly, but it didn’t. It would make a bite and as it saw that I fell and was incapacitated, it had no intention in eating me – it would go away and go back to its cubs.”
At one point, Zerger said, he ended up in the waters of the creek, but the bear didn’t attack him.
“She didn’t come down in the creek; she just stared at me,” Zerger said. “I wouldn’t call it a charge – she was looking at me from the bank.”
Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials have said the attack was consistent with a defensive or surprise mauling, in which a bear reacts to a human presence, rather than a predatory mauling in which a bear targets a person. Biologists didn't have any plans to hunt the sow as of Tuesday.
After the bear left, Jessica was able to give Zerger first aid. She also called for help on a satellite phone he had bought just before the trip.
“Her father happened to know a charter captain that happened to be on the river at that time, so he enlisted help from that captain,” Zerger said. “She kind of went into nurse mode, and she did an excellent job of taking care of me and of making sure we were not subjected to further assaults – I think she was very calm under severe circumstances.”
Help arrived in about an hour, although Zerger wasn’t sure Thursday exactly how long it took.
“I was in shock, and time really meant nothing to me at that point,” Zerger said.
The charter vessel took Zerger to O’Brien Creek, where an ambulance took him to Gulkana. From there, he was flown to medical treatment at Providence, where he was treated and released Tuesday for his injuries.
Even as he waited for help, however, Zerger said he hoped he could continue his rafting trip on the river. The mauling hasn’t traumatized him, despite his memories of the experience.
“I’m really bummed out that I’m not on the Copper,” Zerger said. “I’ve got another trip on the Brooks Range in a week or so; I’m just hoping I heal up well enough so I can go on that trip. It’s just a central aspect of what I do with my life.”
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