Jason Umbriaco was mauled by a brown bear while hiking Sunday near Skilak Lake on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. The injuries, while not life-threatening, were “pretty gnarly,” he said.
But despite the pain, his focus in the immediate aftermath was on finding his 13-month-old border collie, Buckley.
It took nearly two days, but with the help of hospital workers and internet strangers, Umbriaco and Buckley were reunited.
Umbriaco arrived in Alaska early this summer from Whitefish, Montana, with plans to spend the summer hiking and camping. An experienced outdoorsman with plenty of backcountry experience in Montana, he was looking forward to unwinding after an emotionally rough winter.
He’d spent part of last weekend camping in Hope and was headed back toward a dispersed-camping site along Kenai Lake on Sunday when he decided to check out a trail off Skilak Lake Road, he said.
Umbriaco and Buckley walked just over a mile on the Upper Kenai River Trail. On the downhill hike, he said, he noticed scat but didn’t realize it was bear scat.
They wandered slightly farther down the path before deciding to turn back. But only a few minutes after turning around, Umbriaco spotted a brown bear. Behind her were two small cubs.
What happened next felt almost like a blur, Umbriaco said.
“It all happened so fast,” he said. “I mean the whole encounter between the bear and I, it probably lasted 20 seconds from start to finish. From the time I met her to the time she’s back walking up the hill.”
The sow charged forward slightly before stopping, Umbriaco said. Then Buckley, usually fearful and mild-mannered, ran forward and confronted the bear, he said. He saw the bear swipe at the dog before Buckley disappeared into tall grass alongside the trail.
The bear turned her attention to Umbriaco and charged. He put his arms up in a defensive position. The bear sank her teeth into his right forearm and released.
“Up until then I was thinking, maybe she’ll charge at me and then walk away, but then you realize: No, this is really happening,” he said.
Into the river
Umbriaco was on a grassy bank along the river. With no other ideas about how to escape the bear, he jumped into the water, unsure how deep it would be or how strong the current was.
“As it turns out, the water was only up to my hips and the current was slow enough that it didn’t take me away,” he said.
The bear, now lumbering above Umbriaco, leaned over and bit his right shoulder, he said. She released after the bite, and he tried to swim out into the river to distance himself from the bear.
The sow retreated up the hill with her cubs. Umbriaco said he waited until they were out of sight for a while before he dragged himself to shore.
He was bleeding from the large gash on his arm where muscle was exposed. He could tell that his shoulder had been badly wounded, but adrenaline kept the pain at bay, he said. He didn’t want to leave Buckley alone and feared the dog had also been injured. He called for Buckley and tried to spot him in the tall grass.
“Shortly after, I came off the adrenaline, and so then I got shaky and woozy and everything looked sort of sparkly,” he said. “I was concerned that if I didn’t start hiking out of there, I wouldn’t be able to.”
The hike back to his car was all uphill. Cell service is limited around Skilak Lake, and Umbriaco said he dialed 911 several times from the trail, but the call could connect only long enough for him to utter a few words before losing the signal.
Once he reached his truck, he said, he had enough service to make a call for help. He stayed on the phone with the 911 dispatcher as he drove out to the Sterling Highway, where he waited for the Alaska State Troopers and an ambulance.
At a Soldotna hospital, doctors cleaned his wounds before adding a few stitches. He said he feels lucky the injuries weren’t worse.
Umbriaco said the pain in his arm and shoulder was sharp, but it didn’t worry him. The only thing he could think about was Buckley.
Umbriaco was suffering from severe depression before he met the friendly, energetic brown and white pup. Buckley goes everywhere with Umbriaco now.
“I was just so worried about him,” he said. “I was just trying to like, reassemble images of what happened to see if I could see any scraps of anything to help me maybe remember what happened. And all I could come up with was Buckley entering the grass by the bear’s feet.”
Umbriaco stayed overnight at the hospital and on Monday met Bonnie Nichols, the director of organizational experience. Nichols said she’d been told by nurses and the chaplain that Umbriaco had been mauled by a bear and was missing his dog. A dog lover, she knew immediately that she wanted to help.
“People have enough to deal with in dealing with their injuries, then to have some horrible grief that they’re experiencing on top of it makes healing a lot harder,” she said.
Nichols told Umbriaco she’d help him find Buckley. Umbriaco doesn’t use social media, so he sent Nichols photos of Buckley and a map of where they were during the attack.
Nichols posted the photos and asked others to share them in hopes that someone nearby would find Buckley. Another hospital employee also posted the photos to Facebook groups.
Umbriaco said he felt comforted and grateful that there were people “rooting for me and cheering for me.”
Later that day, a woman reached out to Nichols to say she’d found a border collie Sunday night that looked terrified sitting outside an outhouse near the trail.
“He didn’t have a collar on or anything, so she just grabbed him and put him in the car and took him home and bathed him. She said he was a pillow hog and her cats were really upset about it,” Nichols said, laughing.
When Nichols showed Umbriaco the photos she’d received of the dog, he was overwhelmed with relief that Buckley was alive and had been found. Nichols washed his clothes and found a new shirt for Umbriaco. Another hospital employee’s son drove him back to his truck on Monday.
The woman who found the dog drove out to Umbriaco’s campsite in Cooper Landing to reunite the pair that evening.
Once Buckley was back in his arms, Umbriaco said, he knew things would be all right.
Looking back, Umbriaco said there are so many things he would have done differently. He said he should have been paying closer attention when hiking.
“I’m always a pretty conscientious hiker and camper, but in this particular instance, it was my fault,” he said. “That was part of what was bumming me out so bad was just ... on the ambulance ride back, I was just like, remembering everything that I’d seen on the way down. In hindsight, you can easily deduce that there were bears. ... If I had seen that and really perceived it and understood it, I would have gotten out of there.”
Umbriaco said he’s healing well and not letting the experience scare him away from the outdoors. On Wednesday afternoon, he was snuggling with Buckley at a firepit on Kenai Lake near their tent.
“It’s a bummer when you have to learn a lesson from experience,” he said. “But I did, so I’m going to learn the lesson and move forward.”