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Death knocks twice on the Kenai Peninsula

10/24/2005

  • For more on grizzly attacks, click here for a profile of Nick Jans and his book "The Grizzly Maze: Timothy Treadwell's Fatal Obsession with Alaskan Bears."


    The Caribou Hills region of the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska can be a forbidding place to hunt.

    It is a windswept, extremely cold and treeless region in the mountainous areas fit for only Dall sheep and mountain goats. The lower elevations enjoy brush as thick as any Amazon jungle.

    Simply said, it is prime Alaskan moose habitat. Other big game resides here, as well, and at the top of the food chain are the commanders — the great Alaskan brown bears.

    Rollin Braden is an Alaskan hunter from Soldotna who grew up in this region; he knows the place better than anyone.

    As a youth he scampered around the hills and riverbeds fishing, trapping and in general, simply enjoying life in the Alaskan bush. Riding hell-bent on a snowmobile, Braden would search out the most remote and hard-to-get-to hunting areas for the best eating and trophy big game. He would memorize each place for possible future hunts.

    The moose were his favorite since a kill would mean feeding his family some of the best meat in the world all year long on a single bull harvested.
    Several years ago, Braden's late August hunt for one of those elusive and hard-fought animals began with a great deal of enthusiasm. Since he had built a small cabin nestled yards off a trail in this prime hunting territory, it was very convenient for him and his partners to load up their 4x4 truck and make their way 18 miles off the main road into it.

    Unloading their gear, Braden made sure his .338 was in good working order; it's a gun that almost never leaves his side when he's up in the hills. He had carefully sighted it in and, with a deadeye aim an hour later, Braden started hunting not far from his little camp. The numerous trails were thick with sign.

    Hunting the alder thickets and scrubs, Braden had seen a great many moose tracks that day. They were present in the mud and he had seen a few cows and calves running off into the scrub but no bulls.

    He decided to walk into the Four Corners area to hunt, as it was not too far from his cabin. And, in the past, this area had produced some pretty respectable bulls.

    As a good hunter should, he would walk a few steps and stop, listening for any sounds one of those delicious walking steaks would make.

    Braden, a retired small-business owner who was then in his 40s, previously had learned to listen to the bull either grunting or scraping the black spruce trees. Camp-robbing jays and Clarks nutcrackers fluttered overhead as he quietly tread the woods.

    The tar-black, deep-throated ravens would make hoarse guttural announcements to their comrades as the day wore on. They were the Howard Cosells of the vast forests; for anything that moved, they broadcast it for miles.

    Suddenly Braden heard the soft and muffled sound of a branch breaking just a few yards into the dense thicket. He cocked his ear in the direction of it. He listened in the dead silence that followed … then, again, more noise came from the thicket.

    His heart began to beat faster as he became convinced it was a moose. He thought is was right in front of him, although he couldn't see it, yet, because of the heavy brush.

    The tangles of briars, trees and bushes made it impossible for him to get a glimpse. He decided to get his .338 ready to fire since things could happen rapidly in this type of country.

    Maybe a fraction of a second would be all that would stand in the way of hundreds of pounds of meat or nothing. A bull can vanish forever in a thunderous plow of breaking branches and limbs into the forest growth.

    A tree was in his way and Braden stepped to the side of it to get a better look when, suddenly, the attacked occurred.

    In a split-second, not one, but two Alaskan brown bears came like fright trains, snarling with intent to kill him.

    Braden tried in vain to get a shot off at the monsters but only started to pull up his rifle when they slammed into him with the full force of their weight. A shot rang into the stillness of the August afternoon and it missed its mark.

    Braden was knocked to the ground, and then the horrible and bloody mauling began.

    The bears unmercifully bit and chewed his defenseless body, their huge incisors tearing flesh from bone. The rifle was hurled yards away from the force of the impact.

    He lay helpless in the damp moss and leaves, waiting to be again and again torn and shredded. He was convinced that death was imminent. One of the bears was sure to hit a vital artery and he would bleed to death in seconds.

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    But Braden also has a desire that most men don't have and he was to prove that in a test of life vs. death shortly after the attack.

    Taught to always play dead if a brown bear attacked, Braden rolled himself onto his stomach. He covered his vulnerable neck with clasped hands, breathing very slowly and being as quiet as he could.

    He fought to control every movement so as not to allow the bears to think he was still alive. Anything might trigger another flurry of huge, sharp teeth and deadly claws these huge animals wield.

    His instinct was to scream and run, but to do so would only trigger the predatory response in the bears. It also might heighten the ferocity of the attack even more.

    Along with his steaming blood, panic lay right next to him. So he lay there as the bears continued to sink their teeth into his flesh. He fought it every second of the unbelievable attack.

    Like a horrible nightmare, "How could this be happening to me?" he asked himself over and over. As he closed his eyes tightly, he could smell the horrific breath of the bears as they bent over him, exhaling the putrid scent.

    Moments later, as if God had intervened and given mercy, the bears left. Braden lay on the bloodied earth, beaten and horribly mauled but alive.

    For what seemed like hours, he lay there to give the bears time to leave the "kill". When he was convinced they had left, he slowly began to get up off the ground to seek help.

    In a state of shock, he gathered the courage and strength to stand upright … when seemingly out of nowhere, the bears charged him a second time.

    They slammed him back upon the ground and began the nightmare all over again. After the first attack, the bears had left Braden's body in a heap of blood and walked just yards away. When they heard him trying to get up, it prompted an attack response again.

    This time, the bears had either bitten or swiped Braden with their razor-sharp claws across the back of his head causing severe wounds, his scalp now lay in his face. His buttocks, legs and arms also were severely bitten and torn.

    Suddenly the bears quit their unmerciful and gruesome carnage on the experienced hunter and left a moment later. They simply and quietly disappeared in the forest.

    Not knowing if, like the second attack, the bears were still nearby, Braden knew that if he didn't get up this time he would die. He was too horribly injured to hesitate.

    He staggered to his feet. Braden knew he was close to death and had to get immediate help. He was going deeper into shock and bleeding badly.

    As Braden stood, he realized his bleeding scalp was now hanging in his face causing him to be partially blinded. He then took his red bandana and wrapped it around his chin and pulled his scalp back over his bleeding head. He tied the bandanna over it to keep his scalp from falling onto his face and began walking.

    With a supreme and gallant effort that few experience, Braden stumbled out of the woods. He was found by his hunting partner, who had heard the crack of his rifle at camp.

    His partner never did hear the attack; it was too far away. He thought Braden had spied a bull and shot at it but had missed, since he did not hear the three-shots-in-a-row signal that he had bagged one.

    Eleven hours later, Braden lay in the intensive care unit at an Anchorage hospital. He had been flown by helicopter out of the remote region. The attending emergency-room doctors told him he had received severe punctures and lacerations by the brownies. He was in critical condition.

    In addition, he had contracted six different types of infections from the tainted mouths and saliva of the bears. The pain in recovery would be almost unbearable. But though a great support team of doctors, nurses, friends and family alike, he would work through it. Months later, his wounds would begin to heal.

    A year passed by and Braden had recovered from his horrible and near fatal attack, lucky to be alive. He decided the encounter was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and began hunting again. You couldn't keep him out of the woods that he had grown to love so deeply as a kid.

    Some time after, Braden decided to go bear hunting during an open season on brown bears about three years ago — and not 50 yards from his cabin, a big brownie strolled by his way.

    The crack of his .338 ignited the Caribou Hills with the deadly aim he practiced so much after the attack. The bear fell dead. He put two more slugs in just for good measure and clambered down from his perch atop a 7-foot-tall hunting platform.

    I heard the shots from 100 yards away and came running to Braden faster than I have ever run.

    Blood was everywhere on the snow where the great beast had thrashed in its death throes. Looking at Braden, I was out of breath and saw he had blood running down his face, as well.

    In the excitement I asked him what the hell had happened. He excitedly replied that as the bear neared him before he shot, it had taken a powerful swipe at his face, causing the blood and wound.

    I stepped closer to make sure he was OK, when I saw the wound on his forehead made a perfect match for the ring on his scope.

    Braden smiled at me and proudly walked over to claim his prize.

    Jim Oltersdorf is a writer and photographer who lives in Soldotna, Alaska. He was researching a free-lance article on Alaska bear attacks when he discovered this true story of survival. Visit his Web site at www.joltersdorf.com.

  • For more on grizzly attacks, click here for a profile of Nick Jans and his book "The Grizzly Maze: Timothy Treadwell's Fatal Obsession with Alaskan Bears."

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