A grizzly bear mauled the former fire chief for the city of Nome during a weekend hunting trip, leaving the 54-year-old in critical condition Monday in a Seattle hospital.
Wes Perkins had been tracking the bear with friends on snowmachines Sunday east of the Seward Peninsula city when the big grizzly charged, according to Alaska State Troopers. Perkins' companions shot and killed the animal during the attack.
"He was taking a photo or something when this occurred," said Matt Johnson, who replaced Perkins as the volunteer fire chief in 2007.
The hunters called for help on a hand-held radio at about 2 p.m., said Bering Air helicopter pilot Ben Rowe. Rowe landed a Robinson R44 at a snowy creek about two-thirds of the way between Nome and Council.
Perkins was badly hurt, including severe injuries to his face. Medics held his shoulders as he walked to the helicopter and Rowe could hear the doctors talking to Perkins as he flew across the snowy tundra and rolling hills back to Nome.
"I'm going to ask you some questions. Squeeze (your hand) once for yes or twice for no.' Something like that," Rowe recalled.
Rescuers shuttled Perkins to a hospital in Nome. Soon he was flying by King Air to Anchorage and then on a Learjet to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, Rowe said.
Perkins -- a lifelong Nome resident -- underwent emergency surgery Monday morning as his wife, children and other family gathered in Seattle. Doctors told the family that the care Perkins received as medics rushed him from flight to flight saved his life, said Casey Perkins, the injured man's son.
"He's fighting hard and they're trying hard to help him," Casey Perkins said.
Perkins was on a spring bear hunt with two other men when the group spotted the bear, according to troopers.
"He's had a camp down in Council for probably 30 years," said Johnson, the volunteer fire chief.
The bear lay in the deep snow beside a creek. Perkins, riding ahead of his partners, passed the animal. He drove another 70 feet and turned around, troopers say.
The grizzly charged. Perkins, still on his snowmachine and handling gear, wasn't able to get out of the way, according to troopers.
"My understanding is that it was a very large bear. One of the biggest that people have seen around here," Johnson said.
The other hunters shot the animal, which wandered away and died, troopers said. The hunters skinned and salvaged it, said trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters.
"We have no indication that it was anything other than a tragic hunting accident," she said.
Perkins was surprisingly coherent when help arrived, the helicopter pilot said. He indicated his leg and arm were hurt but was unable to talk with medics because of severe injuries to his face and mouth.
"He was responsive and he was able to respond through hand squeezes, yes or no."
Perkins recently worked for the Nome school district and is now the area supervisor for the telecommunications firm TelAlaska, according to the company's website. He's served on the Nome Volunteer Fire Department for more than 30 years, including a seven-year stint as fire chief, according to TelAlaska.
Perkins also is the president of a Nome-based amateur radio club that operates on the same system that his partners used to report the bear attack, said Colby Carter, a longtime friend and fellow amateur radio operator.
"For anybody that needed help, (Perkins) would do his utmost to help you any way that he could," Carter said.
The Nome fire department planned to hold a "fill-the-boot" fundraiser for the former chief as early as tonight.