There's been a story circulating the Internet for a few months now -- a tale about a pilot in Alaska who had to fly home on a wing, a prayer and a case of duct tape after his plane was mauled by a bear. Some say the bear was after fish. Some say he was just being a jerk. And some don't believe the story at all, chalking it up to Last Frontier fish tales and Internet hype.
Turns out, though, this online "myth" is grounded firmly in reality.
When bush pilot Luke Miller, 28, made an overnight stop at a friend's hunting lodge in Southwest Alaska earlier this year, he had no way to know that a large and very dedicated menace would, under cover of night, chew and claw his plane to shreds.
There are bear tales by the thousands in Alaska, and with this one the pictures alone are worth a thousand words. (Imagine what might result if a model plane made of paper-thin aluminum had a run-in with Edward Scissorhands.) At the request of the pilot, who says the images are copyrighted, we can't show them to you here. They're easy enough to find, though; shortly after the big bad bear left a big bad mess, the images of the aftermath moved through the blogosphere with lightning speed, and with each flash forward the narrative of what must surely have happened kept shifting.
But don't trust us -- have a look for yourself. From a small online newspaper report in South Africa to bulletin boards for Kawasaki motorcycle enthusiasts and Honda Element owners, to a forum on the Discovery Channel Web site and even the mythbusting site Snopes.com, what happened that late September day has become the kind of story legends are made of, plump with colorful details and a few untruths.
We had high hopes we'd get the pilot to dish out the straight story, separating fact from fiction, but he opted to remain silent and keep the mysteries alive.
What follows is the tale of the bear's destruction spree and the plane's revival as told by the pilot's dad, Mark Miller, and family friend and hunting guide Gary LaRose, who first discovered the bear's fabric-eating, metal-bending offense.
Contrary to some reports, it wasn't a fishy aroma that lured the bear in. The plane wasn't full of fish, nor had it just been used to haul fish. The pilot didn't radio for help -- he used a cell phone -- and the incident isn't a hoax dating back nine years; it happened around Sept. 26 and 27, 2009.
And yes, duct tape and plastic wrap saved the day.
LaRose had already had a few run-ins with the brown bruin, which discovered it could use the new meat shed at LaRose's lodge like a McDonald's drive-through. One night, after breaking out a window, the bear grabbed a hindquarter of freshly-butchered moose, feasting on 60 to 70 pounds of it as it dangled through the window, still hanging from the rafters.
LaRose boarded up the window, and after returning from a guided silver salmon trip, butchered the remaining moose meat, put it in the freezer and cleaned and bleached the space to eliminate all traces of the meat.
The next night, the bear pushed out a screen. Two nights later he returned again, got the door open and knocked over a bucket of broken glass collected after the first break-in.
Miller stopped in a day or two later on his way to a piloting job for another guide. A storm was moving through with heavy rain and 25 to 30 mile per hour winds, and LaRose's lodge offered a comfortable place for a night of rest. Offered a choice to tie down the plane out in the open, or about 60 feet from the shed, where it would be better sheltered, he chose the area by the shed.
"I figured the bear situation was done," La Rose said. "The meat had been gone for three or four days and I figured it got the message."
Early the next morning after a night of howling winds, in the dark before sunrise, a client reported another meat shed break-in to LaRose, who took a walk to check things out and discovered the bear had once again pulled out a window, but otherwise had done no damage.
No damage, that is, until LaRose remembered Miller's plane.
"My headlamp hit Luke's plane and it was literally destroyed," he said. "My heart sank. It was just an unbelievable sight."
LaRose was faced with the unhappy task of waking Miller up to tell him the bear had destroyed the 1958 Piper Cub's wheels by clawing at the rubber, busted out the windows on the plane's left side, and shredded fabric from rear windows to tail.
"He basically ravaged the whole plane," LaRose said, adding that, in his 38 years as a pilot in Alaska, he has never seen anything like it.
Miller had a small amount of vacuum-sealed meat for personal use stored in plastic and stashed in the gear he had brought along for his upcoming job assignment. Despite all the damage done to the plane, the bear missed it. LaRose questions whether the bear was even able to smell it, and said Miller's plane was otherwise clean.
Miller grew up in a family that owns a remote lodge and learned early on to scrub planes down with bleach, soap and water after hauling meat. He had transported caribou a few weeks earlier, and LaRose said he supposes it's possible there was a hint of blood on board, but he's skeptical, and thinks there's a better explanation -- one having to do with the bear's fondness for the meat shed and its proximity to the plane.
"He was pissed," LaRose said. "His easy food source had dried up and he was out for revenge."
If malice was indeed the motivation, the bear knew how drive the point home. It took a dump next to its handiwork near Miller's plane, LaRose said, and left a similar gift not too far away near where other planes were tied down.
After a few days of meticulous fix-it work, the plane was airworthy enough to fly back to Anchorage. Miller fitted the windows with plywood and Plexiglas, replaced the tires and the horizontal stabilizer (the bear either leaned on it or sat on it), and, according to Miller's dad, fashioned a makeshift fabric skin out of 25 rolls of duct tape and some industrial-strength plastic wrap.
As for the bear, it hasn't been seen since. It may have been "whacked" during bear hunting season in October, or it may be playing it smart. After all, bears know when it's time "to get the hell out of Dodge," according to the LaRose.
Then again, it may be off enjoying a satisfied rest.
"He's off digesting some fabric right now. He just disappeared into the night. He doesn't know how famous he is," the pilot's father, Mark Miller, said.
Email your bear tales to Jill Burke at jill_alaskadispatch.com.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing