'I got complacent,' survivor of bear mauling says

nherz@adn.comAugust 26, 2013 

— Jim Tuttle knew the bear that mauled him.

Its nickname was Buddy. Tuttle and the hunters he guided often spotted the small female grizzly in the rolling tundra northwest of Anaktuvuk Pass.

They joked that it was the most photographed bear north of the Brooks Range. It had even snuck into camp, stealing the hanging chunks of caribou meat that Tuttle would save for dinner.

The hunters would toss rocks or clap their hands to scare the bear away. But it had never been aggressive -- until two weeks ago, when Tuttle, walking alone along a creek, heard a grunt and turned to see Buddy charging straight at him, snapping her teeth.

He hoped it was a false charge. It wasn't.

"It's only 20 or 30 feet away, and I have two or three seconds," he said. "I can remember the sickening feeling when you realize she's not stopping."

The attack left Tuttle gushing so much blood from his left arm that he had to tie a tourniquet to stop it. His cheekbone was cracked; he remembers spitting out broken teeth. And he was still 36 hours away from a rescue.

But after a flight in a National Guard helicopter, a surgery, and dozens of stitches, Tuttle, 52, is now back home in Anchorage, recovering from the mauling.

His left wrist is in a cast, fixing his forearm in place so that it can grow back a missing chunk of muscle. The swelling on his face has gone down, but nerve damage from the bear's bites remains, as do wounds to Tuttle's groin and knee that have left him temporarily hobbled.

In an interview Sunday, with small strips of tape still patching the wounds on his face, Tuttle was upbeat, saying he felt lucky to have escaped from the attack, and grateful to the National Guard crews that flew through dense clouds and darkness to rescue him.

But he also had some regrets, saying that 16 years of guiding in the area had dulled him to the risks of working in bear country. When the mauling occurred, Tuttle said he was walking to a caribou carcass by himself, armed only with a pair of trekking poles.

"I am partly to blame. I got complacent, and I paid for it," he said. "I guess I should have had a gun in my hand, safety off, ready to shoot."

Tuttle had flown into the hunting camp in early August. It was 15 miles away from the base camp run by his outfitter, Arctic North Guides, and Tuttle planned to remain there for two weeks, as small groups of caribou and bear hunters rotated in and out.

Grizzlies were a common presence in the area and would feed on meat scraps the hunters left behind, said Chris Carrigee, a Texan who had stayed in Tuttle's camp with his son before the mauling.

Carrigee, 46, was familiar with Buddy, and even photographed his son and Tuttle in front of the bear with their coffee and oatmeal.

"We didn't feel that there was any danger at all. It was almost like our entertainment," Carrigee said. "We weren't going to shoot this bear -- it wasn't a challenge."

Carrigee and his son each left the camp with two caribou. On Aug. 14, Tuttle was working with a new pair of hunters with one day left before they all flew out.

The group had killed a caribou in the morning, three-fourths of a mile away from their camp. They carried some of the meat back, ate lunch, and then Tuttle returned alone to the carcass.

He was walking along a creek bed, through waist-high brush, when he heard the bear coming from his left, just behind him.

"There were no options," Tuttle said.

Tuttle said he swung his trekking poles into the bear's face as it plowed into him, but it still knocked him over, then bit him on the arm and hand before it started walking away.

"I thought maybe I'd get lucky, and she'd leave. No, she turned right back around, and then really chewed and got into where she could bite my face," Tuttle said. "I said to myself, 'You're dead.' I thought that was going to be it right there. Then, she stopped."

The attack took less than 15 seconds, Tuttle said, leaving him "a mess, that fast."

He climbed up a nearby embankment, trying to calm his breathing to slow the blood he could see flowing from his left arm, then used a piece of rope from his backpack to tie a tourniquet.

After 10 minutes waiting to make sure the bear didn't return, Tuttle limped back to his camp, where an assistant with first-aid training dressed the wounds and stopped the bleeding.

The hunters called Tuttle's girlfriend with a satellite phone to request a rescue. But after two weeks of good weather, fog had descended on the camp that morning, making a flight too difficult.

The following morning, during a brief break in the weather, the owner of Tuttle's hunting outfit flew in with a single-engine plane, bringing a retired paramedic and medical supplies from the base camp. They left Tuttle where he was, since they didn't think they could fly him all the way out to a hospital.

At that point, Tuttle said he was stable--just uncomfortable from lying immobile on a cot, and worried about how long it would take for rescuers to reach him, given the potential for his wounds to become infected.

"I've seen the weather up there," Tuttle said. "That can last for a week."

Finally, at 3 a.m. that night, Tuttle heard the sound of an airplane, then a helicopter--the National Guard coming to rescue him. They loaded him into the helicopter and flew him to Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks where he was transferred to an ambulance and rushed to a hospital. He was released two days later.

Buddy is now dead; she was shot by one of the hunters in Tuttle's group.

What provoked her attack is hard to say, said Harry Reynolds III, a retired biologist who worked for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for more than 30 years.

"They're wild animals, so you can't ascribe motives to them, as you would to a human," he said.

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4311.

 

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