Survivors recall bear attack in Brooks Range

Quick thinking, brave actions save woman during violent mauling

Posted: Sunday, August 31, 2008

FAIRBANKS - The grizzly bear that attacked Jo Ann Staples inside her tent at a remote camping spot in the Brooks Range on Thursday morning hit her "like a ton of bricks," the 61-year-old Kentucky woman said.

"I was just sitting in my tent on the sleeping bag and packing my pack," Staples said from her hospital bed at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital on Friday, a day after the violent attack that left her with what she described as a "mangled" right arm and an ear that doctors "put back together."

"I didn't hear anything," she said. "It was like a ton of bricks coming in on me."

Staples was with six other women at the end of a week-long camping/hiking trip on the Okokmilaga River in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, about 250 miles north of Fairbanks. She was packing up to leave for a flight out when the bear attacked about 6:30 a.m.

"It tried to drag me out of the tent," Staples said. "When (the bear) started dragging me, I started screaming for Anne and the other ladies."

Guide Anne Dellenbaugh and an assistant guide awoke to Staples' screams, said Gates of the Arctic superintendent Greg Dudgeon, who spoke with Staples and Dellenbaugh at the hospital on Friday. At first, Dellenbaugh, who could not be reached for comment, thought one of the other women may have been having a nightmare, but she quickly realized it was a bear attack, Dudgeon said. Dellenbaugh and the other woman, whose name was not known, ran at the bear yelling.

"They came running at the tent, and the bear had its head in the tent," Dudgeon said. "That got it's attention, and it left (Staples) alone and came toward the other two women."

The women had pepper spray, but they shot it into the ground, not at the bear, Dudgeon said.

"The sound of the aerosol spray and the odor was enough for the bear to turn and amble slowly away."

The women continued to bang on pots and yell at the bear until it retreated, Dudgeon said.

Staples described the mauling as "a ferocious, violent attack," Dudgeon said.

"Their quick thinking and their quick actions very likely saved her life," the superintendent said of Dellenbaugh and the other woman.

Judging from what Dellenbaugh told Dudgeon and footprints at the camp, the bear was a young grizzly. It wasn't a big bear, but it appeared to be healthy, Dudgeon said.

There were two nurses in the group who administered first aid following the attack, and the women used a satellite phone to call Coyote Air in Coldfoot, the air taxi that had flown them into the area.

Staples was "pretty well bandaged up" by the time pilot Dirk Nickisch arrived to pick her up about 9 a.m., about two hours after the attack.

Danielle Tirrell at Coyote Air, who answered the phone when Dellenbaugh called, said the guide from Maine was "incredibly calm."

"She was a cucumber," Tirrell said. "There was no indication in her voice of the severity of the situation. Those women totally kept their heads and did what was necessary to keep (Staples) alive."

Nickisch flew Staples back to Coldfoot, where medics from Alyeska Pipeline Co., who had flown to Coldfoot from Pump Station 5 after receiving a call from Tirrell, treated her injuries. Within 15 minutes of her arrival in Coldfoot, Staples was loaded aboard a Guardian Flight to the hospital in Fairbanks.

Staples also suffered injuries to her right leg and left shoulder, though the exact extent of her injuries was unclear.

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