A moose hunter attacked by a grizzly bear north of the Denali Highway survived the severe mauling Monday after hiking to his camp, traveling by boat downriver to a wilderness lodge then getting an airlift via Alaska Air National Guard helicopter to an Anchorage hospital.
Donald "Skip" Sanford, 65, was hunting about five miles upriver from the Maclaren River Lodge when the bear attacked, according to Alaska State Troopers.
Sanford had been hunting with his son John, 12, his friend Monty Dyson, 47, and Dyson's son Chad, 22, Dyson said.
Dyson relayed Sanford's story Tuesday by radio phone from the lodge, which sits on the highway 42 miles west of Paxson.
Sanford walked away from camp Monday about 2 or 3 p.m. to find a hand-held radio he lost earlier, Dyson said.
Sanford was on a game trail when he saw the bear stand up, Dyson said. Sanford backed up, but the bear seemed to circle around him, Dyson said.
Sanford told rescuers he first saw the grizzly about 75 yards away from him, said Joe Snyder, one of the many people at the lodge who helped treat Sanford and get him out of the wilderness. The bear quickly closed the gap between them, Snyder said.
"He turned around and the bear was about 20 yards away, and it was coming at him pretty fast with its head down," Snyder said.
SQUEEZES OFF A ROUND
Sanford -- a "tougher-than-nails" former-Marine and a Vietnam veteran, Snyder said -- had just enough time to fire one shot from his .30-06 rifle before the bear grabbed him. The bear's claws dug into Sanford's back, near his kidneys, Snyder said. It bit his head, tearing an ear and leaving deep wounds with its canine teeth at the base of Sanford's skull, Snyder said.
Dyson said he heard the shot and turned his own radio on.
"He was just mumbling. 'Monty, a bear got me. A bear got me,' " Dyson said. Dyson couldn't figure out Sanford's location, so he started walking toward where he'd heard the gunshot.
Dyson found his friend covered in blood, he said.
"Skip said he remembered his head being in the bear's mouth, just going at him," Dyson said. "All he could do then was pray to the Lord that the bear would let go."
Sanford guessed the attack lasted about 45 seconds, Dyson said. The walk back to camp was more than an hour, and Dyson radioed his son to prepare a boat to float down the river, he said.
Back in camp, they loaded Sanford into a small boat, and Chad Dyson, holding a rope attached to the boat, floated him down the Maclaren River. Along the way, they met another group of hunters who used a satellite phone to call troopers, who called the lodge, Dyson said. Two men, including Snyder, drove a jet boat from there to meet the hunters, Snyder said.
"Skip was laying flat in the small boat, with severe bleeding, shivering, probably going into shock at that point," Snyder said. "He was just bloody. It was just full of blood. So I knew we had a situation on our hands."
They loaded Sanford into the jet boat, started first aid and rushed him to the lodge, Snyder said. "There wasn't a person here who didn't help out in some way," Snyder said.
AIR NATIONAL GUARD JOINS RESCUE
Meanwhile, the troopers had requested help from the Alaska Air National Guard due to the remote location and the severity of Sanford's injuries, said troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters.
Snyder said they laid Sanford down in the dining room and wrapped him up in warm blankets from a dryer. "He would just snuggle into it and go, 'Ohh.' He really liked that," Snyder said.
Later, an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter with two pararescuemen landed at the lodge, according to the Air Guard. The rescuers hopped out and helped put more bandages on Sanford while the helicopter took off and refueled in the air with an HC-130 that had also been dispatched, the Guard said.
When the helicopter landed again, the rescuers loaded Sanford inside and then flew him to Providence Alaska Medical Center, troopers said.
A Providence spokeswoman said Sanford was listed in "fair" condition late Tuesday.
Dyson, his hunting buddy, returned to the camp to take down their tents and find Sanford's backpack, which he'd dropped during the mauling: It was about 30 yards from a moose carcass, Dyson said.
"That bear was protecting a moose kill that he had there, and Skip just came up on it, and I think that's probably why the bear attacked him," Dyson said.
Reach Casey Grove at email@example.com or 257-4589.