Ready Airman repels bear attack

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Brady Penn
  • 349th AMW Public Affairs

I lay face down in the tall grass and braced for the inevitable bite that would crush my skull. I was pinned to the ground by a fully grown Kodiak Grizzly bear which had its massive paw planted squarely between my shoulder blades. There was nowhere to run, no way to fight, my mind raced for a way out but found none.

Kodiak Island is situated in the Gulf of Alaska where rugged wilderness and military service have coexisted for decades. The island is home to one of the largest U.S. Coast Guard bases as well as a small U.S. Navy installation where Sea Air and Land Teams conduct their cold weather training. During World War II the island served as a crucial outpost for military defenses against an anticipated invasion.

The Kodiak Archipelago is also home to some of the best hunting and fishing in North America. The island boasts incredible salmon runs, massive Roosevelt elk, and atop the food chain the Kodiak bear, the largest bear in the world.

Last spring, I got an unexpected call from my dad; he had won a hunting lottery for Alaska residents that distributes permits to hunt one of the island's famous elk. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity, so I agreed to join him on the weeklong expedition. A few months later I was standing on a blustery dock in Kodiak, peering through the morning fog at a single engine float plane which would take us to the hunting ground. I had spent the weeks and months prior to this moment painstakingly preparing. We had tested and retested our equipment, discussed every contingency, physically trained for the grueling hikes ahead, discussed contingencies with more experienced hunters, and gone to the range to improve aim. Readiness, a skill and concept I had worked to hone in the military was essential to our success and survival.

As I watched the plane approach through the choppy waves, my nerves intensified. Afognak Island, where we would spend the next seven days, sits within the Kodiak archipelago and borders the Shelikof Strait, named for the Russian fur trader who founded the first Russian settlement in Alaska in 1784. The strait is notorious for its ferocious weather; 90 mph winds regularly roll through the strait making emergency rescue from Afognak often impossible.

“Well, it’s only going to get more windy,” said dad through the crackling headset as we made an initial ascent in the de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver. “I guess we’re going to find out how well our tent holds up in the wind.”

After a turbulent 45-minute flight and precarious landing on a small lake, we unloaded the plane. As we hauled items to the beach, we scanned the windswept hills surrounding us for a suitable campsite or a glimpse of elk.

“That hill right there is going to be your best bet,” barked the pilot. “I’ll see you in a week unless we hear from you sooner, I can’t say I envy you out here in this weather.”

With that he turned, boarded his plane, and was gone. As the evening progressed the wind increased to an un-flyable gale. Even if we called for a flight out now, we would have to wait for better conditions. This meant we were trapped on this island for the next couple of days. We would have to rely on only each other and our supplies.

The next morning, we were up before daylight drinking burnt coffee and rubbing sleep from our eyes in the freezing winds and light rain that continued through the night. We could hunker down and wait for the weather to subside or continue into the wilderness in search of elk.

“Well, we knew we’d have to fight the elements a bit,” I said as I pulled on a fourth layer. “I guess it would be better to be cold out there than cold right here.”

With that, we proceeded out into the dark and windy wilderness. The hike was slow going with alder trees and thorny raspberry bushes blocking our path. Our many layers protected us, but when I forgot to replace my glasses after we paused to catch our breath, a branch whipped me in the eye blinding me and making me stumble, a potentially deadly mistake on the steep mountain face. Later, another branch jabbed into my ear, a unique level of discomfort, even in a morning full of plentiful discomfort. It was clear that any exposed body part would be struck, jabbed or whipped by the brush on this journey.

As we struggled to the saddle of the mountain ridge, we surveyed the terrain. We could make out signs of trampled grass and a barely distinguishable game trail in the valley below. We headed into the valley, continuing to place more distance between ourselves and camp. We tried to maintain high ground, but the brush continued to degrade our view of the rest of the valley, each step into the valley meant substantially decreasing our line of sight.

We continued to pick our way across and down the valley, as our visibility narrowed, I suddenly spotted movement, maybe a quarter of a mile away and blended with the undergrowth browns and greens.

Elk at eleven o’clock,” I whispered in hushed excitement. “It looks like 15 or 20 in the herd, but I can’t see much.”

We made our way toward the herd, trying to maintain silence and stay upwind from their position. At one point we looked up to find that the elk were completely hidden from view. The landscape full of alders and tall grass had obscured the herd of massive animals completely. I felt we may have lost them for good. We had nearly given up, when we stumbled to the top of a bluff and found ourselves nearly face-to-face with a huge bull elk, its antlers stretched out like massive branches on a tree. The howling of the wind made my eyes water as I gauged the shot. I had only seconds before the elk would move out of sight or smell us and bolt.

As the shot rang out across the valley, the large animal weighing about 1,200 pounds fell forward and down the adjacent valley wall. Relief hit me as I saw that it had not gone over the edge of a cliff face a few yards ahead of it. The difference of a few feet would mean potentially many more hours of labor, packing hundreds of pounds of meat up the steep ravine. We spent the next hour making our way the short distance across the valley to where the elk lay. The huge animal could not be moved by the two of us, so we cut branches and small trees out of the way to access it and began the process of processing the meat and packing it back to camp. We had had great luck by managing to kill an elk on only our second day on the island, however the difficult part was about to begin with many hours of trekking to and from camp with heavy backpacks full of elk ahead.

Early the next morning, we headed back. We needed to use all the available daylight, and then some, to get the meat processed, back to camp, and hung in a nearby tree and away from potential scavengers. In Alaskan winters, food is scarce and bears and wolves will travel miles to find food.

As we crested the valley and headed down toward the patch of alders where we had left the remains of the elk the afternoon before, something wasn’t quite right.  The bright white game bag tied to a branch to mark the spot where the elk had fallen was missing. I had hung the bag high enough that it could be seen over the trees from the top of the valley.

“Was it the wind or a bear that knocked it down,” I wondered aloud. “I guess we should be ready for anything.”

About 75 yards from the elk, I put a round in the chamber of my rifle, and we began talking loudly to ensure that any scavenging wildlife would hear us coming. Fifty yards from the kill, we reached a small meadow, and I was relieved to be able to walk more comfortably again in the tall grass. Birds chirped, the wind slowed, and I took in the natural beauty around me.

The stillness of the moment was broken by the cracking of branches like firecrackers and a low growl. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a grizzly, barreling towards me, less than ten yards away. Its ears were back, head low, charging through alders as if they weren’t there. By the time I turned my body to fire my rifle, the bear had reached me. A paw reached out, and I was airborne and spinning. I landed face down, my rifle beneath me. A paw pressed my back, the metal frame of my backpack bowed under the bear's weight as I lay helpless in the grass.

Time slowed as I grasped for any way to turn or free myself from the weight of the bear's paw. As I considered my options, weight lifted from my back, and I heard the bear moving away from me to attack my dad. I could hear grunting as he struggled with the bear, which had disarmed him with a quick swipe and pinned him on his back. I struggled to my feet in the chest high grass and wheeled around, rifle raised and fired without thinking. The motion was automatic and instinctual. The shot struck the bear in its rear hip, the closest and most exposed part of its body. The bear let out a roar and took off back into the alders, as quickly as it had come. We could hear it crashing through trees and growling in the thick tree line.

I continued to scan the brush with my rifle anticipating another surprise attack. Working together, I watched the woods while my dad searched the tall grass for his weapon. As I took stock of the situation, I noticed that the entire left side of my pants had been torn open by the bear’s claws.

“Does the back of my leg look alright, or is it just the adrenaline?” I sputtered as I continued to fix my eyes on the tree line.

“It looks like a scratch,” my dad replied as he began to assess his own limbs for injuries. “I think we’re okay.”

He had sustained puncture wounds in his hands from the bear's teeth but the heavy Teflon gloves we were wearing had saved him from more serious injury.

We backtracked along the edge of the woods where the bear had come out. When we reached the saddle of the ridge, we paused and used our satellite phone to call for a pickup.

“Wind is too strong, earliest pickup - 24 hours,” said the operator. 

We went to bed with winds battering our tent. My mind raced all night, rationalizing each noise and focusing on returning home. Relaxation techniques I had used in basic military training returned to me, and I was eventually able to fall into a restless sleep.

Securely back inside the float plane that would take us home, I was struck by how valuable our teamwork and preparedness was to us during the trip. We had managed to stay situationally aware in the midst of a challenging situation, and our satellite phone, my backpack and rifle had all proven indispensable. I reflected on our luck to be leaving that island at all. If one piece of equipment had failed, or if we had not worked together to distract and repel the bear, things could have ended horrifically different. My dad's painstaking preparedness and our resilience in a moment of panic had played vital roles in our escape.

My hunting expedition showed me that preparedness and wingmanship are essential in any endeavor. As an Airman, I hope to be ready, resilient and situationally aware in future deployments. Regardless of an Airman’s career or hobbies, you never know when their good habits and practices honed through training may someday save a life.