Chris Zerger describes bear mauling in his own words
The Bearing Tree
“And so what is a Bearing Tree?”
“I do not know. Maybe it is a place where hunters bait bears?
“But it does not seem that there is any evidence of bear activity here – no scat, no prints. And no bait.”
“Maybe it is for monitoring bear activity?”
“But there is no camera.”
“Only this plaque.”
“Maybe its from a long time ago.”
“Why are we not wearing bear spray right now?”
Having landed at the headwaters of the Chitina River we had already floated approximately 120 miles. At last, we had rounded the corner onto the Copper River when a fierce headwind through Wood Canyon had convinced us to seek shelter for the afternoon. We had just set up camp for the day.
Due to a heated argument at the start of the journey, we had contemplated quitting the trip early at the town of Chitina. However, along the way, we had resolved our differences and were eager to continue together down this mighty river. The swift gray waters had pushed us away from Chitina and committed us to the next 100 river miles ahead. We would soon be squeezing through Wood Canyon which would deliver us to the Bremner dunes. Then rounding a bend to Abercrombie rapids we would enter the ethereal iceberg studded Miles Lake and witness the calving of the Miles and Childs glaciers. Camp on the Million Dollar Bridge and end the float at Flag Point. The Copper River is absolutely massive and now ever more so, swollen with summer runoff from snow and glacier melt as well as the recent rains.
The Copper River is the 10th largest river in the US. It drops an average 12 feet per mile and drains an area the size of West Virginia. The river runs at an average of 7 miles an hour. Though right outside of camp, it was flowing much faster due to the constriction of the landscape as it pierces the Chugach mountain range.
In an intermittent drizzle, we set up a tarpaulin over the tent and had just started considering what to have for dinner. The beach fronting the tent offered a close view of the churning river. It was populated with a noisy colony of gulls. I wondered if I would be capable of sleep under such a raucous chorus. We had set camp next to a clear water stream – Taral Creek, located on the east side of the Copper River, opposite and a couple miles downriver from Obrien Creek. The beach on Obrien Creek is teeming with people, as it is connected to the Alaskan road system by a sporadically maintained gravel track. We could see a host of tents and vehicles and so had opted for a more intimate backcountry night across the river.
Glacial water is unpalatable. The Copper River is thick with silt from the action of the glaciers grinding down the mountains. The silt clogs filters and UV purification has little impact. The only means of purifying it is through boiling. So, we were delighted to find the clear waters of Taral Creek as a camp site.
Thus far on the journey, we had seen a wolverine and one black bear. Countless wolf and moose tracks. A few lonesome eagles. But otherwise not much in terms animal life. Even the fish were missing. The Copper River, a world famous salmon fishing destination, is currently closed to commercial fishing due to low counts this season.
In the chaos of unpacking, we had set the bear spray canisters down on the ground. 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. I followed her and came into a large clearing a few paces from our tent where we found some rough hewn benches. We puzzled over the meaning of the plaque. The Bearing Tree.
Then, less than a minute after I had uttered the question of whether we should grab the bear spray, we saw the bear. It was at a distance of maybe 20 meters. 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. We were not very near to it when the charge began. I was puzzled why it would charge at all. I have been far closer to other bears in other circumstances. The usual routine is for the bear to become aware of me and flee in the opposite direction. If we had had bear spray on us, we would have had plenty of time to react. But we did not.
So I stood my ground. As we have been told to do with a grizzly charge. And tried to grow large. And hoped that it was a bluff. It was not. In a moment, the grizzly was upon me and knocked me backwards tearing at my leg. Jessica ran. Then suddenly the bear was gone. It had left me. Perhaps to chase after Jessica?
Bitten, but very much alive. it was hard to know what damages I had sustained. I leapt up and darted away. But I wondered if the grizzly was killing Jessica. I could not see her. And initially, I could not see the bear. My hesitation cost me.
The bear came bounding through the woods again. A repeat of the prior attack. Fangs bared. Growling. There is no escape. This is how it ends. I still could not understand why the bear would continue to charge. It did not seem to want to eat me. Why is this happening? What could it be thinking?
It was on me again. Knowing I would not outrun it, no match for its grace and power, I turned again and stood my ground – screaming at it. It was going to bite again. Falling I landed on my back as she tore into me and again. And again. And then she was gone. Just like that.
Having survived the second charge, I leapt up again – ready now to run with every thing I could muster. But this time she had remained much closer. She did not allow me to get far. And I felt certain that she would finish what had started. She bit me again. This time my right elbow which I held up flexed in front of my face to fend her off. I knew I would die. What an unexpected turn. I wondered just how it would unfold and how painful.
But she was gone again. And I was not dead. Only battered. My thoughts filtered through the movie scene in Revenant. The movie depicts a hyper-real sequence where the lead character is brutally mauled by a grizzly that disappears and then the bear is filmed suddenly rushing back again. It was happening. It was happening right now. It was happening to me.
I could stand. And for a split second, I could not see the bear. In my flight, I had backed up against the creek which is lined by a thin wall of trees and brush upon which I had fallen during the last attack. She came again. I leapt over the brush into the icy water of Taral Creek. She stood up above me on shallow bank. Behind her I could clearly see the three cubs. A mother bear and her three cubs. She and I locked eyes for a moment. She did not enter the creek. I turned and fled, without a glance back. Listening for her splash as I feared she would pursue me.
I was very quickly to the raft and the camp. Pain had found me. It seeped into my right elbow, my left thigh, my right foot. Adrenaline surging. I took an internal inventory. Blood soaked through the garments. I sat on the edge of the raft until I felt cold and lightheaded. Jessica was there. She had run for the bear spray and the satellite phone after seeing the grizzly charge and take me down. Hearing my screams and then my silence, she thought that I must have died.
Seeing me, she tried to assess the wounds, all the while calling out loudly to ward off the bear and holding two bear spray canisters at the ready. She then used the satellite phone to call her father. Reception cut out. Then was back. Then cut out.
I slid down to the beach. Shivering. Staring up at the opposite ridge. A bird was circling in the hidden currents. The trees swayed with the wind. Though alive, I wondered if I would be dying soon. Jessica secured rafting straps around my left thigh and right leg below the knee– a sort of pseudo-tourniquet. I would request alternately that they be tightened fearing that blood loss might be factoring into my lightheadedness and then requesting they be loosened fearing lack of blood flow and ischemic tissue damage.
The escalating pain disappeared if I moved not at all. I lay still and bled. I calmed. Then, more detached, I waited to see how this would play out. Crawling deeper into my thoughts; panic abating. Jessica remained fearful that the bear would come onto the beach – after all we were likely within 30 or 40 meters of the mauling. Jessica suggested we get the raft in the water in case the bear did emerge from the brush. But I could hardly stand much less help move a raft. Moreover, the river is dangerous in this strong wind. And we would be moving further away from possible help. We really had nowhere to go. No escape. The gulls peered at me with their painted eyes. Perhaps wondering if I would soon be food. Or just curious about the antics of this creature who had invaded their beach.
Jessica remained on the phone. I tried to decipher the fragmented communication. Would someone be coming soon? Would it be too late?
I was staring out. Shivering. Time passed. Jessica removed my soaked shoes and socks and dressed a wound on my foot. She placed warm socks on my feet and placed my sleeping bag over me. I slowly regained warmth. I would not allow her cut my clothing - not wanting to know what grotesque horror lie under my shredded. I did not want to see what muscle, bone, sinew might be exposed.
Then, Jessica turned to me and stated that a jet boat was on its way. Her father had contacted a friend who happened to have a jet boat on the river already. He would come down to us and transport us back up river to Obrien Creek and the road system. Ironically, we would be quitting the float trip early at Chitina after all, just as we had discussed at the on the first days of the adventure – but not for a reason we had imagined.
I was able to hobble over and entered the jet boat. Men with guns leaped onto the beach. And in my torpor, I realized they meant to stay, search the woods and to kill the bear.
We were soon moving up river. I was still looking upward at the sky. A powerfully build man with a deep black beard commanded the craft. He gave the impression that he rescued people on a daily basis. He exuded a sort of perfect confidence.
A young woman attended to me. She introduced herself as a wilderness emergency first responder. She sought to address the wounds, to stop the bleeding. She was tremulous. I could see a mix of panic and concerted focus in her eyes as she cut open areas of my pants across the left thigh and then again to examine the wounds on the lateral right leg and right foot. She held pressure to the puncture in the left thigh which was still freely bleeding. The pressure caused me great pain. But I said nothing and admired her. Where did she come from? Why was she here on a wild river in storm conditions, holding pressure on a bleeding stranger?
At Obrien Creek, the Chitina EMS had already gathered to transport me up the gravel road. The man with black beard wanted me to stay on the litter as they lowered me overboard – then multiple people hefting me up the hill so that I saw the upper world shifting by in jerks as my rescuers strained under the burden of my weight. My mind shifted again to the movie, Revenant. To the scene when a hapless DeCaprio is hauled up the steep mountains in a makeshift wooden stretcher as the men struggled valiantly and futilely.
Soon after, I was loaded into the rear of an old station wagon. The Chitina ambulance. They were eager to place oxygen on me. Though I could not fathom how oxygen would help, in my gratitude, I left it in place for the moment as my hyper-oxygenated blood was leaking out of the puncture wounds. We drove a short distance to meet the Copper River Valley EMS. They were quick to inform me that they are not allowed to administer medication but they can assist me in administering my own. Actually they can administer one medicine -- oxygen. And they wanted me to have it.
The Copper River Valley EMS is staffed by volunteers. These three individuals had been called from their dinner to assist a bear mauling victim but had not been provided any more details. They had expected entrails and organ meat. Not a conversant patient – more or less intact. There is no cellphone reception along the route and so they go into these situations all but blind to the realities on the ground. They seemed pleased that the night would not be marred by tragedy. That all would turn out well. The joked happily.
We had an hour together enroute to Gulkana Airport with an elderly woman driving at high speeds on the road buckled by frost heaves and riddled by pot holes. We urged her to slow down. I could imagine the emergency physicians trying to sort out which injuries were bear related and which were from the vehicular accident. The medics took the oxygen off my face at my request and asked me all the usual questions.
They then informed me what is meant by a Bearing Tree. Bearing Trees has nothing to do with bears. It has to do with bearings. It is a surveying tool. The bearing tree that Jessica and I came across was placed by the Bureau of Land Management, perhaps to define the border of the national park.
We arrived soon into Gulkana Airport where I was met by Life Med. We repeated the drill of shifting and trading litters for yet a third time as I was placed on board a fixed wing plane. Soon we were up in the air on a 30 minute flight to Anchorage where I ended up in the Providence Emergency Room to which I am well familiar since I have worked in that hospital for over fifteen years.
The nurses cut the blood soaked clothing from my body and I saw for the first time the flesh wounds. Not as bad as I had feared. I had imagined entire muscle beds would be exposed or missing. Ironically, I was wearing a t-shirt depicting a bear in combat with a giant squid. That and striped black and white pantaloons and pink crocs.
The wounds were irrigated thoroughly after I received lidocaine injections. Then the suturing and the bandaging took a couple of hours. I was provided antibiotics. The Emergency physician who sewed me back together was now off duty and offered to drive me to my home. I wore the pink crocs leaving a thin trail of blood as I limped to the parked car.
Thinking back on the events, I have come to the conclusion that the story of a bear mauling is no story at all. In all likelihood, the bear was just traveling through the area. She had not been on the beach and had not left any tracks in the clearing; nor had she left any scat. Jessica and I also had only just arrived. Our lives, tracing back to our respective births and then inexorably arcing to an intersection on the banks of the Copper River - at a Bearing Tree. The incident was violent and brief. The greater story is the story interrupted. For me, the narrative of the float trip transected abruptly by this random meeting. Or the greater narrative of all my past wilderness adventures.
The bear’s story is not known to me. If the men with the guns did not find her, she will continue her story with her three cub deep in wilds of the Wrangell’s St. Elias National Park. Just as I will continue mine.