A Brownie Got Me
THE BEAR'S CHARGE was not a surprise.
Getting clobbered was. The brownie in our trap was one of the largest that I'd seen on Kodiak Island, far bigger than any I'd roped so far. He had lain quiet with each toss of my lariat, so when he charged, I was ready.
The small brownies that I'd roped -- that we had tagged, weighed, and measured before we released them -- had charged me on less provocation. The smaller bears were more bellicose than the larger ones, in fact, and the charging me took them quickly to the end of the trap chain. When the chain snapped taut, the bear usually went nose-first into the wet Kodiak Island grass.
When a bear rose from this ignoble position, dropping a loop over its head -- from a yard or so out of its reach -- was the easiest roping that any lariat-thrower could expect.
But this huge boar, an admirable trophy even though his coat was rubbed so badly that his hide was as slick as a hog's, had put up with a lot more from me than even the oldest and most statesman-like brown bear could tolerate for long. Finally, he charged -- but he didn't plow his nose into the ground, as I thought he would.
His great weight hit the end of the chain and tore the trap apart. With nothing to restrain him, he took the few steps that closed the gap between us, rose on his hind legs, and stood almost erect. Then casually, it seemed, he swept a paw at my head.
I'd felt only mild surprise when the chain failed to plop the bear onto his nose and I looked up into his face, almost nose to nose with mine. I'd already gone into that swift mental pace that slowed every motion and muted every sound, putting me into a quiet personal world where all seemed calm and peaceful.
I watched without alarm as that huge paw floated toward me -- coming so slowly, his swat looked more like a gesture of affection than a clout of exasperation. It impact startled me. I'd had my share of falls and collisions, but nothing with such an impact.
I wasn't alone. Three of us were trapping Alaska brown bear, to measure, tag, and weigh them before we let them go. Will Troyer, then manager of the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, was a career employee of the U S Fish and Wildlife Service. Earl Fleming and I were summer employees in this second year of the bear study -- Earl as a regular, I in the place of another regular who had decided to take a different job that summer.
The summer before, Will, Earl, and Ken Durley had used culvert traps to catch brownies -- with some success. We used culvert traps, too, but hadn't caught any bear with one yet. We had a Cap-Chur gun, with darts and anesthetics that hadn't been used on brown bear, so we had no data to help us figure how much anesthetic to shoot a bear with.
Our problems were that a short dose would do no good at all, while an overdose could kill a fine animal. To figure the right dose, we'd have to estimate the animal's weight, excluding fat, and put a dart together with the right amount of anesthetic -- so many cubic centimeters per hundred pounds of bear.
But we didn't know how much to use per hundred pounds, and although "experts" had estimated the weights of brownies for decades, nobody knew how much one really weighed. And to make all this even worse, we were using a particularly demanding anesthetic -- alkaloidal nicotine -- with one peculiarity that ruled out using a small dose first and adding a bit more with each follow-up dose until the bear began to conk out.
A weak dose of nicotine salicylate immediately produces temporary immunity to any further dose for up to twenty-four hours. We would have to get it right, on the nose, with the first dart. We hesitated to risk killing a fine trophy-size boar, so we relied instead on our third trapping method -- steel traps.
Since we wanted to catch only cubs, yearlings, two-year-olds, and three-year-olds, we could safely and humanely use steel traps with padded jaws to hold bears until I could get a couple of ropes around their necks and snubbed to two trees. Then Earl and I usually threw them and hog-tied them to restrain them further, so that with a snub around a bear's neck, we could hold a bucket -- with ether-soaked cotton in the bottom -- over the bear's snout and put the bear "out" long enough to work on him.
Any bear four or more years old was too big for us to know which year it was born -- a basic statistic that was vital to our entire project and the data that it was to produce. With the teeth ground off its jaws, the Oneida Newhouse number 150 wolf trap was just right for catching the smaller bears that we wanted but not big enough to catch one too big for us to handle.
Grinding the teeth off the trap left the jaws separated, and we wrapped them to protect our bears' feet still more. The nine-inch jaw spread was big enough to catch our size of bear but small enough that a fully mature bear -- with paws as wide as twelve or thirteen inches -- could step on a trap and snap it without getting a foot caught.
Usually, we three big-game biologists worked the bear project alone. But on this August afternoon [4 August 1958], we had an audience. That morning, Earl [Fleming] and I had checked the traps and had found all of them snapped and empty -- until we came to Salmon Creek. We knew that some fisheries biologists from a neighboring camp were working in that vicinity, so I stayed at the mouth of the creek to meet them if they came along -- to keep them from running into a trapped bear.
Earl found that we had caught two brownies and that one had hauled a trap into the brush. Earl took our boat back to camp to get Will (Troyer, refuge manager) and our bear gear. When Earl and Will arrived, three fisheries biologists had come along. They promised to stay well out of our way as they followed to see us handle our bears.
For about half an hour, I trailed the bear that had dragged a trap away -- a 265-pounder, a three-year-old -- and found him in a dense tangle of alders. (Crawling on all-fours through that tangle and looking up to see a mad bear staring at me from just a couple of yards away gave me enough of a start to last me awhile, but that's another story.)
I yelled. The others brought the gear, and we took care of that bear without delay or great excitement. It was the largest bear that we'd caught so far, but Earl had said that the one farther up the creek was "a big one." All the while that we worked on the three-year-old, our minds were on that big one.
He had wrapped the trap chain low around the trunk of a cottonwood beside his head. The trap held the three middle toes of his right foot. Close on his left, the trunks of two cottonwoods formed a V, making a tough toss for my lariat. He had walked the grass flat all around but obviously hadn't been violent in his attempts to pull his toes out of the trap.
He kept tugging, trying to pull his toes free, as we watched and took pictures, but except for keeping his eyes on us, he ignored us. Will, Earl, and I circled him carefully to make sure that the big grappling hook -- a huge "treble" hook shop-made for us out of reinforcing bar -- at the end of the chain was securely caught on something that would not let go when the bear hit the other end of the chain in full charge. The hook was caught under a huge cottonwood root, and the chain had no slack or loop that would give the bear a longer reach than I expected when I came near to put a loop over his head.
When I walked closer, he stopped trying to get loose and gave me his full attention, so I didn't go as close to him as I usually would. When I threw a small loop, he knocked it aside or dodged it. The cottonwood trunks on both sides interfered with large loops, usually by collapsing them before I could get them over the bear's head. And the bear quickly got out of the few large loops that I managed to get over his head, before I could yank one tight on his neck.
He took all that hassle with admirable and amazing calm -- with just an occasional mild snarl and now and then an impatient swipe at the lariat. I tossed more than a dozen loops without getting anywhere.
Then I decided to work in from his right rather than directly from his front. He locked his gaze on me as I edged carefully to my left. Behind me, Chuck Conkle -- one of the fisheries men watching -- lowered his gun-stocked 16mm movie camera as I moved between him and the bear and put the camera under his armpit to shelter it from the light Kodiak drizzle.
Next, Earl -- standing guard with his .375 Skinner Magnum -- had to raise the muzzle as I moved directly into his line of fire. At that instant, the bear leaped clear of the single cottonwood at his right and lunged to meet me.
I don't remember any snarl or any other sound from him. There really wasn't enough time in a normal mental pace for alarm to form -- what I saw next was the face of a mighty big bear, awfully close and looking down at me from higher than I would have thought that a bear could stand.
Every movement was as slow and every sound as quiet as a dream, giving me time to note some unusual details. I saw with distinct surprise that the bear wasn't standing fully erect but with his torso tipped forward in the faintest suggestion of a bow, giving him an uncommonly courtly look.
I would recall later that I hadn't seen the broken trap fly free, but I did note that no part of the bear's body jerked when his great weight hit the end of the chain. I didn't want to arouse him further or to make him run me down, so I kept my face toward him and slowly backed away.
(That was my honest impression -- but not the way that my retreat looked to the others. Conkle had been a track star in college, and he told me later that my "slow edging away" from the bear -- in full working attire, including hip boots -- was faster than he could run forward on a cinder track. So much for the accuracy of a participant's impression of what happened!)
I saw the blow coming, but it didn't look like a blow, so I didn't really try to avoid it. I turned my head slightly, and the bear's left front paw slammed into the right side of my head. The impact of so slow-moving a paw (that's how it looked) was stunning in both its unexpectedness and its sheer impact, yet it didn't knock me unconscious.
Still fully aware of everything, I felt myself lifted from the ground by that blow, and sailing in the lightness of dream flight for about fifteen to twenty feet. I felt only lightly and vaguely the impact of my shoulders and the back of my head striking a log. All my impressions were like a dream, but deeper I knew what had happened to me -- knew what such a blow from the paw of a full-grown brown bear could do.
It could tear the head off a grown steer -- that's what it could do! Knowing this, I realized the illusion of my senses and knew that the top of my head had been casually wiped away. The blow was the one thing that hadn't been dreamy. But I felt no pain -- none at all, anywhere, certainly none above the eyes, where I surely no longer had any head. I felt no tingling, needling numbness. I felt absolutely nothing, and that absence of feeling further convinced me that I was either dead or on the edge of death.
The bear waddled forward, with better agility than I would have expected, and stood over me, peering intently at my face but making no sound or threat. Earl had his .375 on the bear but wisely didn't shoot. He knew that if I wasn't dead already, a dying bear falling on me could savage me to rags in an instant.
I was dying, I knew, and I had no animosity toward the bear -- who was now strangely a closer associate than any of my companions, and a friend, not an enemy - so I made no move toward my .44 magnum but lay waiting for the end of my life.
Assured that I was no further threat to him, the bear seemed to remember the others. He turned a bit to his right, dropped to all-fours beside me, and ran off up the mountainside. As he left, I heard a faint and hollow "floop" as Will shot him in the rump with an anesthetic dart from the Cap-Chur gun.
Until then, I had feared dying for one specific reason -- that I might not meet it like a man, that a shameful fear would show. Instead, dying seemed worth no worry at all as far as I was concerned. My one regret was that my dying, that way and so far from home, would cause my family great anguish. I felt intense relief that I could die so calmly, so casually.
I didn't die, of course. The world didn't grow dark, nor did I find myself floating toward Heaven, leaving a discarded body behind. That too was a surprise. Curious, I put my hand to the top of my head. If the top of it was gone, and surely it had to be, how was it possible that I was still alive? But it was all there, and the only moisture on it was rain water, not blood or oozing brain. I'd forgotten that we'd been working in that steady drizzle.
I got up, looked fuzzily around, and found my glasses, my Stetson, and the .44 Ruger that had popped out of my holster when I hit that log. The fisheries biologists were looking at me with a lot of eyeball showing, but Will and Earl were gone -- after the bear. I found them up the hill, high in a cottonwood, looking down on a groggy bear. The dart had held only enough anesthetic to daze the bear a little, so we couldn't use the ropes and ether. As we watched, he wobbled to his feet and went his unsteady way.
We had lost him, but we hadn't killed him, and he hadn't killed me, so -- all in all -- we'd had a good day. We even got the dart back -- found it the next day, where the bear had worked it out of his hide in a muddy bear wallow.
Copyright 1959, 2001, 2002, Dr Kenneth E Howell. All rights reserved.