'I thought I was going to die'

Juneau man recounts Friday morning bear attack on Admiralty Island

Posted: Sunday, December 02, 2007

A "crack" in the brush. A split second to turn and see the bear. Another second to click the gun's safety off.

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That's all the time Dr. John Raster had before the brown bear attacked him.

"I screamed and fired a shot into the air," he said. "It was already on me and the gun was still pretty much slung around my shoulder. He bit me and started scratching me and pushed me down into the water."

The Juneau doctor had been walking alone Friday morning along a stretch of beach on Admiralty Island, just a few hundreds yards from a cabin where he stayed with a hunting party. He carried a Lumix digital camera to take pictures of the sunrise when he heard the bear take its step in the woods, about 20 yards to his left.

"It was all very quick," he said Saturday. "He tried to roll me, tried to bite into my left flank. I thought, 'I have to protect my front.'"

Struggling to stay on his stomach, he put his hands over his head and neck but heard bones crunch as the bear bit down.

"I thought it was my neck," he said. "I thought I was going to die ... I was afraid it was going to eat me and drag me into the woods."

He may have lost consciousness or been stunned, but a few minutes passed before he realized he was soaked through and cold.

The bear had walked away.

He grabbed the 6 mm rifle out of the water, jammed another cartridge into it and watched the woods. Stumbling, he got up and saw his companions walking towards the beach.

"Bring a gun!" he yelled. "I just got attacked by a bear!"

Drake Peterson and the other two men had heard Raster's gun go off from the tiny cabin. Peterson and Gary Stears, both longtime hunters from Juneau, had quickly pulled on their XtraTufs and coats and grabbed their rifles to go outside.

"We thought he'd shot a deer," Peterson said. "But then we could see he's bleeding from the head, soaking wet."

Shivering with hypothermia, Raster walked back to the cabin where the men helped him undress. Stears used a satellite phone to call Temsco Helicopters for a rescue and Peterson checked Raster for injuries, finding mostly puncture wounds on his arms and torso and a laceration on the back of his neck.

His hand was broken, too, when the bear bit down on the back of his head.

Within an hour, he was boarded on the helicopter and flown the 30 miles to Bartlett Regional Hospital.

While most bears are denned up for the winter this time of year, some will stay out if there is a food source, said Ryan Scott, assistant wildlife biologist in the Juneau area for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Raster, an avid outdoorsman who said he has seen up to 50 bears while hiking for 12 years in local forests, guessed the coastal brown bear that attacked him Friday was a young male, maybe 4 years old, that stood 7 feet tall and weighed 400-500 pounds.

"The problem was that I was alone," he said, adding that he would never again go solo into the back country.

Raster, 44, does not hunt, but the men he camped with on Admiralty Island took five deer in the days leading up to the attack. The cabin owned by Stears's family is equipped with a generator, and the men kept the carcasses in a freezer. They had planned to hunt on the island for a week.

The cabin is located on the eastern side of Admiralty Island in Seymour Canal, just north of Windfall Harbor.

Upon arriving Sunday, the men saw bear prints around the site, and a few days later spotted more while hunting a few miles to the north. Thursday night they heard a bear outside the cabin popping its teeth and breaking branches, Stears said. They shined flashlights outside but didn't see the animal.

Friday afternoon, they packed up and took a floatplane back to Juneau.

Details of the incident seemed to indicate it was a defensive - rather than predatory - attack by the bear, said wildlife biologist Cathie Harms, who works in Alaska's interior for Fish and Game.

"Stopping and looking, popping teeth or huffing, stomping the ground, these are all signs of stress," Harms said. "If he is stressed or feels threatened by a person, he attacks, lessens the stress and runs away."

Fish and Game would likely determine if there was a problem with this particular bear and decide what to do next, although Scott said it is unlikely the bear could be found and identified.

Raster, an ear, nose and throat specialist who owns a local practice, said he expected to go to work this week. He left the hospital Friday after undergoing surgery on his left hand, and went home to have a dinner of chicken soup with his family.

"I was lucky," he said. "Twelve hours earlier I was lying on the beach thinking I was a dead man."

• Contact Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or kim.marquis@juneauempire.com.

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