Everything happened so fast when a grizzly bear attacked in the thick brush along Alaska’s Humpy Creek at the end of July that Kim Woodman found himself acting purely on adrenaline and instinct. Only after the gunfire ended with him on his back and a grizzly bear dead inches from his feet did he notice the blood running out of his boot and realize he’d been wounded.
Seconds before, he’d broken out of a thicket into an opening that revealed a pool of water maybe 30-feet wide in the stream just across Kachemak Bay from the small, end-of-the-road, Kenai Peninsula community of Homer. A long-time resident of the Homer area, Woodman was surprised to see three bears – a sow grizzly and a pair of two-year-old cubs – up to their necks in the water of the pool.
“It was the last thing I expected to see at Humpy Creek,” the 57-year-old, 48-year Alaskan said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “Who ever sees brown bears over there?”
And yet, there they were.
“The cubs saw me first,” Woodman said. “They ran.”
He was not as lucky with the sow. She went for Woodman.
“As soon as she started turning, I pulled the gun out of my pocket,” he said. “She just came flying out of there roaring.”
He was lucky to have the gun, a 10mm semi-automatic. He’d thrown it in his backpack almost absent mindedly, not knowing for sure why when he left his boat at tidewater to go looking for an old cabin along the creek. He thought about the gun later when he ran into fresh bear scat in the thick brush.
Humpy Creek is not known for its brown/grizzly bears, but black bears are regulars there when the salmon return in summer. “ Black bears frequent the mouth of Humpy Creek during the months of July and August, when salmon are spawning,” a Kachemak Bay State Park hiking brochure warns.
The bear scat reminded Woodman of the gun. He doubted he’d need it, but if he did it wouldn’t do much good stuffed away. He pulled the chunky pistol out of the pack, loaded it, and slipped it in his pocket.
When the grizzly sow charged, he was glad he had the weapon, though he had no desire to shoot a bear. He remembers thinking about that in the blink of an eye it took her to cross 30 feet of water.
“All this stuff is swirling through your mind,” he said. “It was very quick. And then you know you’ve got to pull the trigger.”
Woodman, who captains ocean-going boats for a living, is unsure whether he shot four or five times. He was sure “he hit her twice, but she just kept coming.
“It’s amazing she takes a couple hits from a 10mm and just keeps coming.
“Subconsciously, I’m backing up,” he said. “She’s getting very close. I’ve got these sight pictures I can remember.”
Still shooting, he tripped and fell on his back. The bear was so close by then he thinks he might have instinctively put his foot up to fend her off. An Alaska State Parks ranger who later went back to the site to retrieve the bear’s hide and skull found the sunglasses that fell of Woodman’s head only two feet from the body of the animal.
“It all happened so fast,” Woodman said. “I thought, ‘Shit, I shot a bear.’ Then I looked down and saw this blood running out of my boot.”
He also noticed a neat round hole through the boot and pulled it off.
“There was just the bone of my middle toe sticking out,” he said.
A round from the 10mm had blown the rest of it off.
Woodman put the boot back on, and started trying to figure out what to do next. The way he’d come up along the creek through a jungle of brush and blowdown trees was nightmarish. Luckily, he said, he’d loaded a map of the area in his smartphone before leaving Homer. He lacked for cell phone service at Humpy Creek, but the map showed him he wasn’t far from a state park trail.
Still thinking about what problems the cubs might cause – “they weren’t much smaller than the sow,” Woodman said – he took off for the trail.
“I decided I’m just going to start hiking,” he said. “I didn’t even take a photo (of the scene).”
It didn’t take him long to find the trail, and aside for a stop to work out a cramp and shoot a short video of blood leaking out of his bullet-holed boot,(“I blew a toe off. Crap.”) he kept going for the boat.
“I was actually feeling pretty good,” he said. “I think it was a bit of an adrenalin high.”
Once back at the shore of the bay, he got in his boat, made the run for several miles across the Bay, got in his truck, and drove himself to the Homer hospital.
It was there the adrenaline started to wear off as emergency room personnel, seeing the bloody legged man in font of them, tried to sort out how bad the damage.
“I probably looked like a friggin’ scare crow,” Woodman said. “That’s when the pain started. All of a sudden, you let your guard down. Before that, it was OK.”
Woodman’s middle toe appeared to be pretty much gone at the first joint. Doctors cleaned up what was left, put a bandage on and sent him home. They don’t expect him to have any long-term problems related to a half-length toe.
It has been harder to deal with the people upset that he shot a grizzly bear, an endangered species in most of the U.S. but common in Alaska.
“There are people who don’t actually believe you need to shoot one,” he said. “I get it that people don’t want to have somebody shoot a brown/grizzly bear. I like bears, too. They’re fascinating.”
But sometimes there isn’t much choice.
The bear is the second Woodman has shot in self defense. More than 20 years ago, he shot a large, boar grizzly that charged him in the Anchor River river drainage during moose-hunting season. Woodman was at the time stalking a bull moose he’d seen earlier.
“That was a whole different situation,” he said.
Hunters, who spend their time sneaking around in the woods trying to get close to animals, comprise the group most often attacked by bears in Alaska. But even then attacks are rare.
“Usually, if you want to get close to them, you can’t,” Woodman said.
Jeff Sellinger, the Kenai area biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, told the Homer News that he expects it likely the cubs will survive if, as Woodman believes, they are two year olds. The state has no plans to go looking for them unless more bear problems are reported in the Humpy Creek area.