The bears were good neighbors to Alaskan Howard Meyer until they were not. Now he confesses to being a bit paranoid about wandering around his idyllic, edge-of-wilderness property just north of the state's largest city.
"I have no desire to go hiking around without a couple different people with me with guns," he said Tuesday.
Meyer, a 57-year-old attorney, was mauled by a grizzly bear less than a half mile from his suburban Eagle River home in mid-May. The attack on the edge of a well-developed area just north of Anchorage lasted only seconds, but Meyer is still recovering -- physically and emotionally.
Three holes the bear punched in his side, along with two more in his foot, are healing. But Meyer thinks the bear might have done some bone-crunching damage the doctors missed in the immediate aftermath. "I've really been having some problems with my ribs," he said. He thinks they might be cracked. He's planning to get more X-rays.
"He (the bear) beat the shit out of me," the attorney said.
Nearby moose carcass
Not without reason, at least from the bear's point of view. It is now believed the animal was defending a food cache. Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists found a dead moose no more than 150 yards from where Meyer was attacked, he said.
Meyer said area wildlife biologist Jessy Coltrane spotted it when she tried to guide him back to the scene of the attack to look for his glasses. "I didn't see the moose carcass," Meyer added. "She spotted it, and she said, 'Just forget your glasses, and let's get out of here.'"
Meyer has given up on the glasses. "I already went and bought a new pair," he said. He has no plans to go back to look for the old ones, now or in the near future though wildlife biologists say it is doubtful the bear is in the area anymore. Bears roam sizeable home ranges, and they don't stay in one place long unless they are on a good food source like the carcass of a moose. It usually only takes a few days to consume a carcass, however, and then they move on.
"I don't know if the bear killed a moose or found a winter kill," Meyer said. Anchorage and the surrounding area saw records snows over the past winter. Some moose, struggling to move and find adequate food in deep snow, ended up dying. Carcasses are still emerging as the snow at higher elevations melts.
The snows were only starting to melt when Meyer went out to explore the old homestead he owns on the edge of the wilderness. "I've got 66 acres," he said, "and in the back it borders on the Chugach (State Park). It's pretty -- I would put it -- remote. It doesn't have a lot of foot traffic." One of the nation's largest state parks, the Chugach blankets a half-million-acres of wilderness north and east of Anchorage.
Meyer said he left his house on the edge of this wild, bear-filled place to investigate what appeared to be an old homestead trail to a nearby creek. "Earlier in the day, I'd found an old trail ... where the (original homestead) family would go down to the creek and get water because they didn't have water or electricity. I'm pretty sure that's the trail I found because it was more than a game trail. You can only see it early (this time) in the year ... because otherwise it's so overgrown."
What Meyer didn't know as he set off along this trail was that it would take him dangerously close to a grizzly. He knew there were bears around. "I've seen black bears in my yard; brown bears, too," he said. "I had one playing around with a hose in my yard one time."
Video of that bear has appeared on YouTube.
"That's my yard," Meyer said. "I've seen occasional glimpses of bears at other times, but that's about it. There's been moose kills and stuff (in the neighborhood) where people have heard a bear getting a moose. So I knew they’re generally around."
The same can be said for just about any area in coastal Alaska outside of the central city of Anchorage, so there was no particular cause for concern when Meyer set off. He said he was making noise to warn bears of his presence, a standard precaution in bear country, but he was not carrying any sort of weapon, neither pepper spray nor a gun. He didn't think he'd need either.
Flash of movement
He didn't know he was, as he put it, "on a bad trajectory with a bear." He was just out for a hike.
"There's a pretty good slope," he recalled, "and I'm side walking the hill, maybe climbing the hill a little, trying to stay about the same level. Then all of a sudden to my left" there was the bear.
Since the attack, he's spent a lot of time playing the meeting over in his head, but he's still not sure what attracted the bear's attention. Maybe a flash of movement in the corner of his eye. Maybe some instinctual feeling there was something there.
"There was no noise," he said, "all of a sudden 'boom.' I saw it. Thirty yards ... but the more I think about it, it might have been 20 yards, 25 yards. It was a very large grizzly. He was quite chocolate in color. And all of a sudden I just saw this bear running at me."
His thought at that very moment? "I thought it was the end," Meyer said. "It was a huge bear."
"Swear, scream and sort of turn around," Meyer said. "It was at about a 45 degree angle off to my left. I basically tried to go straight up the hill (away from it). I maybe made one step and tripped and went down, and at that point I decided to curl up."
Trying to run from a bear is generally not recommended, but it is a hard urge to suppress and in some cases makes no difference. It's debatable whether a bear coming on at a full run from 20 yards away is going to stop if someone holds his or her ground. It might; it might not.
Up close with a hairy butt
Going down and covering up is a recommended practice when attacked by a grizzly bear, although one should never do this if attacked by a black bear. When black bears turn aggressive, they are far more likely to be doing so because they view a person as food. Grizzly or brown bears -- Alaska Fish and Game considers them the same animal -- usually attack to neutralize what they believe to be a threat to their food or their young, which is what appears to have occurred in Meyer's case.
"That bear just jumped on me and threw me around," he said. "The next thing I knew, I was looking at its ass end from about two feet, and it was heading away."
Meyer still doesn't know how or when he was bitten in the foot. "I'm not sure about the foot (bites)," he said. He thinks the bear might have grabbed him there and tried to pull him along during the quick thrashing.
"I keep going back trying to estimate and guesstimate stuff," he said. "For a brown bear, it wasn't so huge. I've hunted Kodiak (Island). It wasn't was big as those, but it was a big one." Kodiak is home to some of the largest bears in North America. Big males in prime condition before hibernation in the fall can reach more than 1,500 pounds. But even a grizzly half that size is about four-times bigger than your average human male.
They are big enough and powerful enough that Meyer's conclusion that "it was the end" was reasonable. He doesn't remember thinking anything after the bear left him alive.
"There wasn't even a thought that entered my mind," he said. "At that point, the only reaction I had was to get the hell out of there. I remembered I had my cell phone with me. I called 911 to let them know that I needed some assistance."
Then he started battling his way through alder brush back toward his house. "Coming back there really was no trail," he said. "I lost my shoes in the process. I lost my glasses." It was slow going, he said, but he was still back home by the time help arrived to take him to the hospital. In retrospect, he said, he feels lucky. Many who are attacked don't "get away as close to unscathed as me," he said.
He noted two of four National Outdoor Leadership School students attacked by a grizzly in the Talkeetna Mountains in July of last year were seriously injured, and 15-year-old Anchorage mountain biker Petra Davis nearly died after being attacked by a grizzly in an Anchorage city park in 2008.
By comparison, Meyer said, "I'm doing good," at least physically. Psychologically, some research suggests, a bear attack might be tougher to overcome than some might think. A study of seven victims of bear maulings in Alberta, British Columbia, Canada, found, "six of seven ... developed acute stress disorder, and one of these patients went on to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder." Meyer appears to be dealing with some of the stress now.
"I am a little more paranoid out there," he admitted. "The smallest noise kind will cause me to look around."
It's not the best of way to start summer -- the best of seasons in the north -- in the state with far more grizzly bears than any other.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com