Attacking grizzly bear was a blur of fur

Posted: Friday, November 29, 2002

ANCHORAGE - The bear came from nowhere to grab Mike Harmening by the leg as he slipped along the edge of a Hinchinbrook Island muskeg Monday looking for Sitka blacktail deer.

One minute he was the hunter. The next he found himself in the position of prey.

"I swear to God, I just saw a flash, and I was on the ground," the 36-year-old Anchorage surveyor said Wednesday from home, where he is recovering from bite wounds to his calf and knee.

Harmening doesn't know whether he stumbled into a pair of grizzly bears in a thicket, woke a couple of bears settling in for hibernation, or worse.

"I startled them as much as they startled me," Harmening said. "Either that, or they were stalking me."

Harmening, whose job often takes him into the wilds of Alaska, prefers not to think the latter. The recorded instances of brown bears stalking humans are rare. Far more common are chance encounters between people and bears that end badly.

"I was deer hunting. I was being quiet in the woods," he said. "It was a windy day. I was going through some thickets. There was some yellow cedar just on the fringe of this muskeg."

Everything was prime for Harmening to unknowingly sneak up on a pair of grizzly bears even if that was the last thing he was trying to do.

He and hunting partner Marshal Wade of Anchorage were hoping they could find a big buck they had seen the day before, as they worked into the wind through dense forest and thickets a mile or two from the U.S. Forest Service's Double Bay cabin on Hinchinbrook, just west of Cordova.

The hunters had plenty of natural noise to cover their movements.

"It was blowing about 40 mph," Harmening said. "It was really, really noisy."

The wind noise covered any warning sound the bear might have made before the attack - a woof, the popping of teeth, at least the sound of heavy footfalls on the forest floor.

Harmening heard nothing and didn't see much.

"I really didn't see her," he said. "I saw her a split second before, and I threw my leg up."

The sow grizzly grabbed him by the right leg and pulled him to the ground. It let go for only a fraction of a second to get a better grip on Harmening's leg just above the knee.

By then, the hunter was pointing a .338-caliber Magnum rifle toward the bear.

"I had a bullet chambered," he said. "My hand was on the safety when the whole thing happened."

Despite being that close to ready to fire, he wasn't able to get a shot off until the bear had him by the leg.

"I was being spun around," he said. "Where I shot, I can't say. It did make her let go of me."

The bear turned and fled. Harmening saw another bear, a cub almost as big as the sow. Although the attack left him confused about the position of the cub, he thought the two animals would flee.

"I honestly thought she was leaving the scene," he said. "She went about 30 feet away."

Then the sow stopped, turned and charged back. Harmening, still shooting from the hip, pointed the .338 in the bear's direction and pulled the trigger. There wasn't time, he said, to shoulder the gun and take aim.

The second bullet hit the sow, because it crumpled. A final shot in its skull ensured it wouldn't attack again.

Harmening started screaming for Wade, who was about 40 yards away. Then the cub charged.

"I was in that high-adrenaline stage," Harmening said, "and I fired at her."

He has no idea whether that bear was hit. He does know it fled and never came back. Alaska Fish and Wildlife Protection troopers are still trying to determine if the bear was injured. Unless it is gravely wounded, they will leave it alone. Bears in the wild commonly survive what people would consider massive injuries.

By the time Wade - who was still on Hinchinbrook Island on Wednesday - got to Harmening he was in rough shape.

"If he hadn't been there," Harmening said, "I don't know what ... I was disoriented for about 15 minutes."

Wade helped his hunting buddy back toward the cabin about a mile and a half away. They had a marine radio there.

Fortunately, Harmening said, "it was a lot of downhill, and I could slide on my butt. I was bleeding constant, but it was a real slow bleed. There was a lot of muscle damage, but no arteries" had been hit.

By 1 p.m., the two men were back at the public-use cabin, and Wade was stoking the fire. Harmening was in pain, but found the warm, secure cabin comforting.

"I knew I wasn't bleeding out," he said. "If I was bleeding out, I was dead, and I wasn't bleeding out. I just wanted to get it clean."

Wade got on channel 16, the VHF radio emergency channel, and put out a plea for help. It was answered by Michael Glasen aboard the fishing vessel Morning Thunder off the north tip of the island about 25 miles west of Cordova.

Glasen relayed the report to the Coast Guard in Valdez. The Coast Guard summoned a rescue helicopter from the Kulis Air National Guard base in Anchorage.

The rescue, Harmening said, seemed like overkill, but he will be eternally grateful.

"I was a little surprised," he said. "I felt bad they had to come in there. I would have rather (someone sent) a boat from Cordova."

The Kulis Pave Hawk lifted Harmening to Cordova in minutes. A C-130 fixed-wing airplane, also from Kulis, was there waiting with its engines warmed up. By 9 p.m. Monday evening, Harmening was being rolled into surgery in an Anchorage hospital.

He considers himself a lucky man.

"Just my right leg is the only damage I incurred," he said, "and my neck is stiff. The biggest shock to me was when she first grabbed me, and I fired off that first shot. I thought she was gone. ... When she turned and came back, I remember thinking, 'It's over.' "

It was for the bear, but not for him. As for the deer hunting, Harmening's not sure when he's going back to that.

"I'm almost exclusively a deer hunter," he said, "but right now, I've lost a lot of my enthusiasm for it."

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