After a glorious week of watching herds of migrating caribou in the wild mountains of Alaska's Brooks Range, Jo Ann Staples was in her tent packing her bags to head home to Kentucky when a grizzly bear jumped on her back and nearly killed her, Gates of the Arctic National Park superintendent Greg Dudgeon said Friday.
Dudgeon had just returned to his Fairbanks office from visiting Staples at the local hospital and talking to the guides who were with her on an all-woman, wildlife watching trip to the remote Okokmilaga River about 500 miles almost due north from Anchorage.
"She's going to have a long recovery,'' Dudgeon said of Staples. But, he added, she probably wouldn't be alive at all if not for the courage of guide Anne Dellenbaugh from Maine, a graduate of the Harvard Divinity School, a former Zen priest and head of the wilderness guiding business "Her Wild Song" (www.herwildsong.com).
"If it hadn't been for Anne, the lead guide, coming out of her tent with a pot and pan and making noise,'' Gudgeon said, Staples probably would have been killed. Dellenbaugh and assistant guide Sharon Sandstrum had been awakened Thursday by the sound of "what they thought initially was someone having a bad dream,'' Gudgeon said.
The time was 6:30 a.m. It was the last day of a seven-day trip. It was still dark outside. Staples was up early only because she was scheduled to go out on the first plane back to civilization and wanted to be ready when it arrived. She was packing in the light of a headlamp.
"Jo Ann described to me that she was sitting on her sleeping bag ... putting things in their place,'' Dudgeon said. "Then this thing was right on her back. The bear came through the tent. She had no idea what it was. She described it as ferocious. It came through the tent like a whirlwind.''
Staples, who grew up on a farm and has spent time in Africa, knew she had to fight, Gudgeon said. So the 59- or 60-year-old woman (Park Service officials were unsure of her exact age Friday and Staples wasn't taking phone calls at the hospital) started kicking and hitting.
The commotion brought Dellenbaugh out of her tent.
She "saw the bear with its head essentially in the tent of Jo Ann, and the tent was in a different place than where it had been staked,'' Gudgeon said. "She did a very brave thing, the lead guide, and ran in the direction of the bear.''
The bear dropped the tent containing Staples, stood up on its hind legs to get a better look at Dellenbaugh, then dropped to all fours and approached the guide. Dellenbaugh estimated the animal came to within seven or eight feet, Dudgeon said.
Dellenbaugh stood firm. Down on all fours, the bear's head came up to near her chest, she told Dudgeon. Dudgeon noted Dellenbaugh stands nearly 6 feet tall.
"This was not a scrawny bear,'' he said.
As Dellenbaugh -- an ordained member of the Order of Interbeing -- faced off with the bear, she was joined by Sandstrum, who normally teaches cooking at the Rising Tide Market in Damariscotta, Maine. Sandstrum brought the bear spray.
"It was just the two women standing shoulder to shoulder against the bear,'' Dudgeon said.
They decided to use the bear spray to drive off the animal, but instead of spraying the bear in the face as recommended, they sprayed to either side of it. Dudgeon wasn't sure why. Dellenbaugh couldn't be reached Friday.
Whatever the case, the sound of the bear spray going off and the orange cloud it spread across the tundra was enough to send the bear packing, Dudgeon said.
"It turned around and started making its way out of camp,'' he said.
Joined by the four other women along on the Alaska caribou-viewing trip, Dellenbaugh and Sandstrum then went to Staples' tent and "cut it away from the victim. She was fully conscious,'' Dudgeon said, "but she knew she'd been badly hurt.''
As Dellenbaugh, who is trained as wilderness first responder, began providing first aid, other members of the party got on a satellite phone and called Coyote Air, an air taxi based out of the remote truck stop of Coldfoot on the Dalton Highway.
A single-engine plane landed on a gravel bar along the Okokmilaga not long after. A bench seat was stripped from the aircraft for use as a backboard, and Staples was strapped to it. She was then loaded and flown to Coldfoot. Guardian Flight, a medical evacuation service, ferried her from there to the Fairbanks hospital. Her husband, a State Department employee, and daughter were on the way to the hospital Friday, Dudgeon said.
An initial Park Service assessment of the incident has concluded there was little the group could have done to avoid the attack.
"This was a base camp,'' Dudgeon said. "They had been out there a week, had not seen any bears at all.''
The camp was clean, he added. Food and waste were stored in bear-proof containers the Park Service had provided. Those containers were, in turn, stored in another tent more than a hundred feet from where the women camped. The bear apparently entered the food tent first, Dudgeon said, and destroyed it during a futile attempt to get into the bear barrels.
Why it attacked will never be known. Attacks on humans in tents are so extraordinarily rare scientists can't even posit a guess as to what triggers them. Starving bears have on occasion appeared to be going after people as last-ditch prey.
Park rangers patrolling in the Okokmilaga drainage on Friday were on the lookout for the animal but didn't really expect to find it.
Find Craig Medred online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.