Thread: Close Call
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Old September 18, 2000, 11:23 AM   #1
Keith Rogan
Senior Member
Join Date: March 11, 1999
Location: Kodiak, Alaska
Posts: 1,014
From the Anchorage Daily News,2360,195842,00.html


By Craig Medred
Daily News Outdoors Editor

(Published September 18, 2000)
Over the weekend in Jackson, Wyo., doctors were still trying to put together 55-year-old Gregg Fischer, a veteran big game hunter who saw his Alaska vacation come to a bloody end along the Noatak River northeast of Kotzebue when he was attacked by a grizzly bear Sept. 6.

The bear's jaws snapped Fischer's leg in two just above the ankle. The animal tore a large chunk of flesh out of the Wyoming outfitter's thigh. And then -- luckily, Fischer said -- it left.

From a bed in St. John's Hospital, Fischer said by telephone over the weekend that he still isn't sure what exactly triggered the attack.

He was hunting with 65-year-old Wyoming friend Don Cribbins out of the long-established Arctic hunting camp of Alaska big game guide Jake Jacobsen of Kodiak. Jacobsen said Fischer is an old friend who was invited north to go hunting when a paying client canceled and left space.

Only small bands of caribou from the Western Arctic herd have been moving through the Noatak area so far this year, and the men planned to hike and enjoy the country as much as hunt.

"We had a birthday party for him on the fifth," Jacobsen said. "He turned 55 on the fifth."

On Sept. 6, the dozen or so people in camp -- Jacobsen; Fischer; Cribbins; Jacobsen's sister, Pat Jacobsen, also an Alaska big game guide; several clients and camp help -- awoke to the first day without rain in a week. Better still, caribou were sighted only about four miles away.

Fischer and Cribbins set off to look for them, while Jake Jacobsen headed out with a hunter from Hawaii in search of grizzly bears.

Jacobsen said he was sitting on a knoll with the Hawaiian, searching for sight of bears with his binoculars when he saw Fischer and Cribbins head into a willow thicket almost three miles away. A few minutes later, he said, a grizzly bear sow and a cub "just came barreling out of there. They ran from 1,300 feet to the top of a 4,400-foot summit without ever slowing down."

Jacobsen felt a sense of unease, but passed it off.

Fischer said the guide need not have worried about a grizzly bear sow or cub, because he and Cribbins never saw those two light-colored bears.

What they saw was a big, dark, almost black grizzly. Fischer spotted it first, standing on its hind legs on the edge of the willow thicket only about 10 feet behind Cribbins.

"We'd gone into fairly thick willows," he said, "but not really thick."

They were headed toward a band of 13 caribou they'd seen on the other side of the hill the willows covered. Cribbins was about 25 or 30 yards above Fischer as they eased through the willows in a traverse around the side of the hill toward the caribou.

The men were moving out of the willows onto the edge of tundra when the bear stood up, Fischer said. The willows were short enough and thin enough that he could clearly see the animal.

"We're both just getting ready to break out of the willows," he said. "You're breaking out of them; they're getting pretty thin.

"I could see all of the bear. I couldn't see his feet at all, but I could see the rest of him.

"I could see he wasn't even looking at me."

What the bear was doing was staring at the back of Cribbins' head.

"I had to warn the guy," Fischer said. "The bear was not 10 feet from him. I yelled to warn him.

"I yelled: 'Don, there's a bear right behind you! Look out!"'

At the sound of Fischer's voice, the bear dropped to all fours, whirled into the willow thicket and disappeared from view for a split second.

"When I yelled, that's all it took," Fischer said. "(The bear) came right for me. He came out of the willows at full bore. He was maybe 10 yards away from me."

Fischer was carrying a .30-06-caliber rifle loaded with relatively lightweight 180-grain bullets designed to kill caribou. The bullets are big enough to kill a bear if properly aimed, but Fischer never got a chance. There wasn't even time for him to bring the rifle to his shoulder.

"I fired two quick shots from the hip," he said.

He believes at least one of the shots hit the bear, but Jacobsen said people have been back several times to look and haven't found any evidence that was the case.

What happened after Fischer fired proceeded so fast and in such a blur he still can't reconstruct it for sure.

"I don't know if I fell down or he knocked me down," Fischer said. "I know I screamed."

He's not sure whether the bear got him first by the thigh or by the lower leg. He remembers hearing Cribbins yell his name, and then the bear took off.

"After a couple seconds," Fisher said, "I grabbed my gun and went to put a shell in (the chamber) and stood up. That's when the leg collapsed."

With both bones broken, the only thing holding Fisher's foot to his leg was skin, muscle and tendons.

"The foot wasn't attached," he said.

Fischer told Cribbins to go get help. The older man made Fischer as comfortable as he could, made sure he had his rifle and plenty of shells, and took off. Fischer was sure the bear was going to come back.

"I sat there with the rifle loaded, waiting and thinking it would come back," he said. "It was a long and painful four hours."

That's how long it took Cribbins to get back to Jacobsen's camp and return with help. Jacobsen was there waiting when he came in. He'd smelled trouble when he saw only one hunter emerge from the willow thicket he had seen two enter about 4 p.m.

"I told the client I was with, 'I've got a morbid feeling about this,"' Jacobsen said. "I thought the old guy (Cribbins) had had a heart attack."

He didn't find out until he met Cribbins at camp that it was his buddy Fischer who was in trouble. Jacobsen rounded up everyone in camp at the time, grabbed the first aid kit, some tools, some tarps and a carpenter's miter box to use to splint Fisher's leg.

"It was the only thing I could find handy that looked like it would work," Jacobsen said.

It took the group a couple hours to cover the four miles back to Fischer. It took them all night to get the injured man back to camp.

"We made a drag out of a tarp with a willow across the top," Jacobsen said.

Fischer said he tried to walk, but even with someone holding him under each arm it was more painful than being dragged, as hellish as that was.

"They dragged me over tussocks. They dragged me right through the water, right through the mud," he said.

"We had several creeks to cross," Jacobsen said, "and the river was flooding. We got him back to the camp at 7 in the morning."

By then, Fischer was not only in shock, he was seriously hypothermic.

The camp crew bundled him up and started getting him warm. By nightfall, he was ready to be moved.

"Luckily, that was the first night we didn't have a miserable driving rain up here," Jacobsen said.

He pulled the seats out of the back of his Supercub, stretched Fischer out in the rear and headed for Kotzebue. A doctor there sewed up Fischer's wounds, splinted his legs and called for a medical flight to Anchorage.

Jacobsen told the doctor to wait on that at least until Fischer woke up from anesthesia.

"He doesn't have any medical insurance," Jacobsen said.

Sure enough, when Fischer woke up, he said to forget the costly medical flight. He simply made a reservation on Alaska Airlines to fly immediately back to Wyoming.

"They were nice enough to upgrade him to first class all the way," Jacobsen said. "I'll tell you, he's got a lot of resolve. After the attack, we found when we went back where he had dragged himself part way out of there (the willows) with a knife."

Fischer said he did that after Cribbins left. He wanted to be somewhere he could see better in case the bear came back.

Fischer thinks Cribbins might have surprised a resting boar.

"I think the bear might have been sleeping in there," he said. 'I don't know that it even knew what Don was."

He theorizes the bear woke up surprised and was trying to sort out who or what had invaded its territory when Fischer yelled, triggering a flight-or-fight response. In this case, unfortunately for Fischer, it turned out to be fight.

So far, Fischer has endured three surgeries to try to repair his leg.

"I hope the last operation was yesterday," he said Saturday. "They put a metal rod right down through the leg. It hasn't been fun."

Still, he feels lucky to be alive. Jacobsen, too, is thankful.

"I was lucky to have people in camp with the strength and ability to help us," he said.

He doesn't like to think what the outcome might have been if not for that.

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