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Alaska bear attack: A shot too late

Craig Medred

Mauling survivor Scott Oberlitner
Scott Oberlitner survived a grizzly bear attack last week on Afognak Island in the Kodiak Archipelago.
Even as Scott Oberlitner squeezed the trigger on the .375-caliber H&H Magnum rifle and sent a massive slug flying toward the hulk of the charging Afognak Island grizzly bear, he sensed it was too late. This was like trying to stop a freight train with a bullet. A miracle was going to be necessary to halt this madness, and there was no miracle.

The bullet hit the bear, but did nothing to slow it. There was no time for a second shot. There was no time for anything except the fleeting thought that what was happening couldn't be happening. Then the bear was on Oberlitner.

"I thought it was all over," the 40-year-old Anchorage man says now, just over a week later.

About the last thing he remembers doing in the split second before the bear hit him was trying to make a bullfighter pivot out of the way of the charge. It didn't work. The bear hit Oberlitner, and he went down.

From then on, he was powerless. His life was in the hands of fate.

"She bit me on the leg. She bit me on the butt," he said, "and then she threw me on a log and cracked some ribs."

A bear for every square mile

Kodiak Archipelago brown bears are animals with which Oberlitner is familiar. He has been hunting either Kodiak Island or adjacent Afognak for five or six years. Both are thick with bruins. Alaska Department of Fish and Game studies have found densities of one bear every square mile on parts of Kodiak. The bear densities there nearly equal the human densities in the lightly populated 49th state where there are, on average, only 1.1 people per square mile, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Hunters sneaking around in pursuit of Sitka black-tailed deer in the thick spruce-hemlock forest of Afognak invariably encounter bears.

Wildlife biologist Bill Pyle with the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge noted hunters in the Kodiak Archipelago are commonly forced to deal with bear problems during the August through December hunting season.

Bears sometimes bluff charge hunters when surprised. Bears sometimes decide they want the deer a hunter has killed and take it away.

Fifty-three-year-old Ned Rasmussen of Anchorage is believed to have died in a confrontation with a bear that wanted a deer he'd shot in 1999 on one of the smaller of about a dozen islands in the archipelago. There are more than a dozen, with Kodiak the biggest and Afognak second.

Most of the people in the area live in the city of Kodiak. Bear-human encounters there are not uncommon, and elsewhere on the island they can be considered almost normal. Those between hunters and bears can get testy, but usually end without injury.

"I get charged just about every time we go hunting," Oberlitner said.

"Maulings, we're talking about one every several years," said Pyle.

‘This can't be happening'

Everyone who hunts the Kodiak area expects to see a bear at some point. Thus Oberlitner accepted it as normal when he and a hunting partner spotted a sow with three cubs in late October of this year.

"We'd shot a deer, and went to retrieve it," Oberlitner said, "and my buddy yelled 'Bear!'"

Neither hunter panicked. They'd been through this before. "I wasn't even terribly concerned at that point," Oberlitner said.

Several years earlier, he remembered, "a big old boar charged us twice." Each time it stopped short of the hunters, though the bear was clearly unhappy the men were there. It snapped its teeth. It woofed. It stood up at one point. Its behavior rattled the hunters, but eventually the bear went away.

Oberlitner thought this encounter likely to end with a lot less trouble. He figured the hunters could simply back out of the area, let the bear have the deer and everything would be fine. That's usually the way it works. Bears generally prefer fresh venison to a confrontation with people.

Not this time, though.

As the men retreated up a ridge, the bear decided to attack.

"I started thinking ‘this can't be happening,'" Oberlitner said. "It was surreal."


Unexpectedly, he was in the midst of a full-bore attack, the bear charging at him like a rocket through the brush. Oberlitner's rifle came up automatically and instinctively, but not fast enough.

"I didn't even get the scope up into view," he said. There simply wasn't time.

"We shot her at about 20 feet, both of us," Oberlitner said, and it was already was too late.

Grizzly bears chased by trucks have been clocked doing 35 mph. That's 3,080 feet per minute or 51.3 feet per second. At that speed, it would take a bear about two fifths of second -- 389 milliseconds -- to cover 20 feet. The average blink of the human eye takes 300 to 400 milliseconds.

As Oberlitner remembers the attack now, "I shot and she hit me. I started to turn and she knocked me over."

He had paw prints on both arms where the bear went over him. When she wheeled and pounced on him after that, he thought it was all over.

"That was pretty scary," he said.

The bear was not particularly big for a Kodiak brown. Both Oberlitner and a state wildlife biologist described her as a smallish sow. But Kodiak browns are among the biggest bears in the world. Even a smallish one will weigh 600 to 700 pounds in the fall as she approaches hibernation. These bears are, by most normal standards, huge, and they are powerful.

This one treated Oberlitner the way a terrier treats a dog chew -- chomping him, shaking him and tossing him around.

"The bite in my butt hit my hip bone," Oberlitner said, but that wasn't the injury that really hurt. Being tossed onto a log left the injury that really hurt.

"My chest is still the biggest pain," said Oberlitner, who probably owes his life to his unidentified hunting partner.

Physically recovered, but psychologically scarred

"Just as soon as she stopped (mauling me) for a second, I heard a shot," Oberlitner said. It was the finishing shot. The people who later skinned the bear -- the hides are salvaged and turned over to the state which sells them at auction to raise funds for wildlife management -- said both of the bullets fired at the start of the attack mortally wounded the bear, but because those bullets failed to hit any bone, they did nothing to slow the bear's attack. The force of the last shot rolled the bear off Oberlitner.

The bear dead, Oberlitner said his friend helped bandage him up and hike back to a nearby lake. They took a boat across the lake, and a friend at the nearby Kitoi Bay Hatchery came and got the hunters. Oberlitner was treated in the Kodiak hospital and spent a night at the home of a state Fish and Game biologist in Kodiak before flying home to Anchorage.

Oberlitner had gone to Afognak thinking it might be his last hunt in the area. A friend with a job at the hatchery who organized the hunting trips was leaving for a job elsewhere. Long a hunter, Oberlitner now wonders what the bear attack will do to his future hunting.

It's not easy to go back in the woods after being mauled by a bear, and it is especially difficult to go back to sneaking around in the woods after being mauled by a bear, because when you're sneaking around in the woods in Alaska there is always the possibility of surprising a bear. Bears, most notably grizzly bears, sometimes do not take well to being surprised. Hunters in Alaska comprise the group of people most often mauled by bears, and the group of people most often saved from being mauled by bears by shooting the animals in self defense.

Hunting Kodiak Island with a .375-caliber H&H rifle, Oberlitner always figured he was pretty well protected. The cartridge traces its history to the British company Holland & Holland, which designed it in 1912 for hunting dangerous African game -- lions and tigers. It has even been used in Africa for hunting elephants and water buffalo, and has long been thought to be near the ultimate stopper for bears in Alaska.

"This just goes to show, it doesn't matter how big a gun you have," said Oberlitner, who wonders how this will all play on his psyche when it comes time to go hunting again.

"I know on the two-mile hike out I was waiting for a bear around every corner," he said. "I was pretty terrified."

But he survived.

"Physically, I'm fine," Oberleitner said. "I'm sore and feel like I got hit by a truck, but I'm fine."

Fish and Game biologists who went back to look for the cubs reported to be with the sow that attacked Oberlitner said they could find no hint of them in the area. Without a sow around to protect them, they were likely to become food for other bears.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.