Charged by a Grizzly
Mark Matheny came away from this encounter bloody, bruised and battered, but lived to tell the tale.
June 01, 2009
Prelude To Disaster
Mark Matheny carried a longbow into the Montana wilderness in September 1992 with his long-time friend Dr. Fred Bahnson. Snow had fallen overnight, lying white under aspens flaring autumn gold. Early that morning Bahnson downed a 4-point mule deer in the crisp air and they smiled and felt triumphant. As the sun rose the snow melted, softening the earth, letting them slip silently along hoping to see more game. Matheny was leading as they emerged onto a wooded bench. He saw two grizzly cubs run away. Then their mother charged.
The Struggle for Life
She grunted madly as she came. Matheny spun and looked vainly for a tree to climb. Bahnson was 20 yards up the trail, so Matheny ran toward him, yelling, “A bear, get your spray!” Weeks before the hunt Bahnson had read about the increasing use and success of pepper spray as a bear deterrent, and had bought a small canister of “Karate In A Can,” a spray designed for people, not bears. He even fashioned a homemade leather belt holster to keep the spray within reach. As Matheny ran, Bahnson groped for his spray, then leaped off the trail.
Matheny jumped behind a log. When the grizzly followed him he thrust his bow at the bear and yelled, “Get out of here!” The sow hit the bow out of his hands and leapt on him. The bear dug its teeth into his face and neck. He screamed, “She’s got my head. She’s killing me!” Then he realized he was supposed to play dead.
Just then Bahnson came screaming and the sow charged him. Then Matheny was up and running and the bear turned and ran him down again. The sow started tearing his arm this time. Despite the anguish, he lay still, which is just when Bahnson hit the bear in the mouth and nose with the pepper spray. The bear shook its head, spun and ran away with her cubs.
Bahnson assessed Matheny’s wounds. The left side of his face was torn open. His cheek was hanging. Bahnson rigged a pressure bandage, but blood from a puncture wound on Matheny’s scalp kept pouring into his eyes. As they neared their Jeep, Matheny decided to stop and take pictures of his wounds. A photo of his face bathed in blood would make him famous.
Matheny spent the next spring in the mountains coming to terms with his fear and deciding how he felt about bears. He walked down from the mountains and became a spokesman for a bear-spray company and traveled around the country teaching bear-safety tactics, and touting the message that grizzlies shouldn’t be irrationally feared, but need to be respected. Hunters need to be prepared for the worst. He has since developed products designed to fend off grizzlies and has accrued piles of testimonials from hunters and hikers who’ve used his products to stop charging bears.
"Running from the bear," now says Matheny, "was a total mistake. Not only does running increase the likelihood of a full-blown attack, it doesn't work. You can't outrun them." But carrying pepper spray was smart; in fact, Matheny has told classrooms of kids, "Look, this was a bad situation, but bears are not out there looking to do this to you. The bottom line is you should be prepared and carry bear spray in bear country. Hopefully you won't need to use it, but if you do, it can save your life." He was also hunting with a partner, which is another thing bear experts advise. In this case, Bahnson's bravery might have made the difference.