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Heroic response saved Alaska bear mauling victim

Craig Medred

The quick shooting of a Nome dentist and his son, along with the first-aid they and others provided a badly mauled hunter, were Tuesday being credited with saving the life of the former chief of the Nome Volunteer Fire Department.

Wesley Perkins is now in the Harborview Medical Center in Seattle where surgeons are planning reconstructive surgery to repair the damage done by the bear that attacked him Sunday on Alaska's Seward Peninsula.

The attack lasted only seconds, but left the 54-year-old Perkins near death. Perkins friends Dan Stang, a Nome dentist, and his son, Edward, a student in dentistry school, shot the bear off Perkins, began life-saving first aid, and then radioed for help from Nome.

Perkins' brother Nate, who took the radio call, almost single-handedly organized a rescue to lift his brother from a wilderness area far from the remote Bering Sea community. Wes was flown by helicopter to Nome, stabilized at the Norton Sound Health Corp. hospital there, and on a medevac flight south within hours.

"The care Wes received in the field from the Stangs, the physician and attendant flown to the scene, and the emergency care he received at Norton Sound hospital once he was flown to Nome by ace chopper pilot Ben Rowe saved his life,'' Nate reported Tuesday; "this according to the tending surgeon this morning at Harborview.''

Heroic behavior all around is a testament to the resilience and can-do attitude of those who live in rural Alaska. It is a small miracle they managed to save one of their own. Wes was bear hunting in a wilderness far from the community when the attack happened. Rescue is difficult in such circumstances. It can sometimes take days to find someone and get them to a hospital.

Nate, however, had a helicopter and a doctor at the scene of his brother's mauling in a little over an hour, and Wes was in a hospital tens of minutes later. "We had him back in Nome as quick as possible," Nate said by telephone from Nome Monday. "All of the ducks were in a row."

Wes spent only about an hour in the Nome hospital before being loaded on a medevac jet bound for Anchorage. By the time the plane landed in the state's largest city, the attending ER doctor from Nome had consulted with physicians at Providence Alaska Medical Center, who decided that because of the nature of Wes's injuries it was best to take him on to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

Gruesome details of bear mauling

The bear -- a huge boar -- grabbed Wes by the head. It tore loose his lower jaw, ripped loose teeth, removed "half of his tongue" and damaged his left eye socket, Nate said. Doctors are hopeful they can save the eye. Wes, a well-known and popular figure in Nome, is expected to survive.

"He's alive," Nate said. "He's strong. He recognized those around him. (But) they've got him in a medically induced coma now."

Matt Johnson, Nome's current fire chief, said everyone in the community was praying for Wes, who's lived in the old gold mining town more than 30 years.

"He's done so much over the years to help others," Johnson said.

An avid and experienced outdoorsman, Wes was among the last people anyone in Nome expected to get mauled by a bear. He had hunted grizzlies many times over the years, and that is what he was doing again on Sunday. There is a large and very healthy grizzly bear population on the Seward Peninsula. Bears are so plentiful there that they have sometimes been considered a problem. The Nome Native association some years ago petitioned the Alaska Board of Game to allow bears to be shot any time they approached a subsistence camp because the bears were so often raiding stored salmon.

The wildlife management board refused to do that, but it did liberalize bear hunting seasons in the area. Alaska residents are allowed to shoot one bear a year. In other parts of the state, the limit is one bear every four years. The bears of the Seward Peninsula are just now emerging from their dens. Snow still blankets good parts of the area along the Bering Sea coast, located about 550 air miles northwest of Anchorage. Nome is not connected to the Alaska road system.

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Nate said Wes and hunting partner Dr. Dan Stang, a Nome dentist, had driven about 30 miles out of town on the Nome-Council Road with Stang's son over the weekend. In the Kigluaik Mountains not far from Skookum Pass, they unloaded snowmachines from a trailer and set off in search of bears. It didn't take them too long to find the tracks of a massive grizzly. The men followed those tracks for several miles.

Eventually, Nate said, they caught up to the bear where it had bedded in a creek bed. For reasons as yet unclear, Wes then decided to take photographs of the animal instead of shoot it.

"He took out his camera to take a picture," Nate said. "He had his rifle on his back."

Big old grizzly's surprise attack

At that point, the bear came to its feet and charged. "It attacked him in seven steps," Johnson said.

Actually, Nate said, it was more like seven bounds or strides. Stang and his son counted them later. "Seven strides and it was on him," Nate said. A running bear can cover 8- to 10-feet in a stride.

Though this would put the bear a seemingly safe distance of 50- to 70-feet from Wes when it decided to charge, it takes an 8-foot-tall grizzly bear less time to cover that distance than the average reader needs to get through this sentence. The Stangs saw the bear charge.

They yelled at Wes to gun his snowmachine as soon as the bear charged, Nate said, but for some reason Wes jumped off the side of the machine instead.

"Everyone's thought now is, 'Why didn't he just drive off?" said Nate, who is hoping Wes will one day be able to answer that question.

It is quite possible he might have thought the bear would stop at the snowmachine, providing enough time to unsling the rifle and shoot. The bear did not, however, stop.

"It just came over the top of the machine and knocked him down," Nate said.

The Stangs almost immediately started shooting. It is unclear how many of their rifle shots hit the bear, but the shooting drove it off Wes.

The animal stumbled away and died 30 or 40 yards from the scene of the attack. The Stangs then rushed to Wes's aid. Within seconds, they were performing first aid, and Dan was on a HAM radio calling Nate, who had been just getting into his truck in Nome.

"I could tell immediately it was a frantic call," Nate said.

Dan relayed the report that Wes had been attacked by a bear, told Nate his location, and said to get someone on the scene fast. Nate got back in his pickup and headed for Bering Air, which has a helicopter. There he told pilot Ben Rowe even as he was dialing 911 on his cell phone.

The 911 call rolled the Nome fire department into action. Jim West Jr., a fire department EMT, was at Bering Air in minutes. West got on his phone and managed to get a doctor and a physicians assistant to the airport and aboard the helicopter before it lifted off.

Help was winging its way toward Wes within minutes of Dan Stang's call.

As for the bear attack itself, Nate said Monday that the whole attack lasted less than a minute.

"Dan told me this morning he didn't think it took more than 30 seconds from the time the bear attacked Wes until the bear was dead. It was a big, old boar. It obviously had ulterior motives. It was hell bent on doing damage," he added.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com