When the grizzly bear came barreling out of the dark to grab Ronn Hemstock by the shoulder, lift him wholly off the ground, and shake him like a golden retriever playing with a rolled-up newspaper, the Seward wrestling coach knew he was in serious trouble.
But it wasn’t until after the bear dropped him face-down on the ground and tried to flip him over that Hemstock feared for his life. The one-time bear wrestler had a sudden, ugly vision of being eviscerated by a bear.
“I could feel her turning me over,” he said Sunday by telephone from his bed at home in Seward. “I felt at that point the bear was going to kill me. I thought she was going to eat me. In my mind’s eye, I saw my guts being eaten.
“I thought, ‘This is horrible. She’s going to eat me, and I’m not dead.”
Scientists who have spent their careers studying grizzlies will tell you the big bears don’t try to kill their prey, they just eat it. At some point, the quarry dies, but the death is never pretty.
An Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist who listened to the tape that recorded the death of self-proclaimed bear whisperer Timothy Treadwell on the Katmai coast of Alaska in October 2003 said his screaming went on for a long time after his last instructions to girlfriend Amie Hugenard to hit the bear with a frying pan.
That didn’t work. The bear killed and partially consumed both of them.
Hemstock figured he had to do something to avoid such a fate.
“I stuck my hands in her face,” he said.
It almost cost him his thumb when the bear chomped down, but the move distracted the animal enough that Hemstock was able to roll back onto his stomach and cover up. The bear lost the chance to gut him.
A normal morning
Thursday, Oct. 27, a school day, had started off dark and cold for Hemstock. He estimated it was 25 degrees, a little chilly for the Resurrection Bay community, when he set out at 6 a.m. to take a walk with Dax, the family dog.
It was a morning ritual for the two. An avid pilot, Hemstock liked to walk along the runway at Seward’s small airport. It was something of a public service. He would pick up debris and check to see all the runway lights were working properly. If there was anything wrong, he’d promptly report it.
A typical small town landing strip lacking all of the security of the big city, the Seward airport is one of the biggest open areas within miles of the small community 125 miles south of Anchorage.
Lots of people walk their dogs in the open space. Hemstock had seen bears and bear sign there before, but he didn’t think much of it. It had been a busy summer for bears in Seward, especially grizzlies or “brown bears” as Alaskans tend to call them.
Everybody had been seeing brown bears everywhere.
Still, about the last place Hemstock expected to run into one was at the airport. He figured the place was so wide-open and so heavy with human and dog scent the bears would stay away. He left the bear spray, which he’d been carrying on hikes all summer, at home.
Once at the airport, he let Dax out of the car. Dax ran off into the dark. Hemstock started walking. He was dressed heavily with two hoodies over a long-sleeve shirt. He wore a wool hat and had the two hoods up over that.
“I’d just left the warmth of my bed,” he said.
As the walk began, he called his brother on a cell phone. Hemstock’s daughter was making wedding plans, and Hemstock wanted to fill his brother in on the good news. He had the cell phone against his ear under his hat under the two hoods when Dax bolted out of the darkness and almost ran between his legs.
Even in the dark – “it was black out,” Hemstock said – the man could see the husky mix had his hackles up, and “he was looking back over his shoulder.”
An experienced Alaska outdoorsman, a hiker and hunter, a guy who’d spent a lot of time in-country, Hemstock knew immediately these were all bad signs. And in a millisecond before bear hit man, he had one simple thought:
“Lord, let this be a moose.”
Hemstock turned to look at what was coming and “I got a really good look at that bear” silhouetted against the lights that brighten a small part of the airport. Hemstock started yelling into his phone and turned to run.
He knew better, but instinct took over. It didn’t matter; he didn’t get far.
Hemstock estimates the bear covered about 20 meters in two strides, and then it had him.
“It grabbed me by the shoulder and just shook me,” he said. He was suddenly glad he’d bundled up in all that extra clothing. He yelled into the phone that he was being attacked by a bear, but his brother just heard yelling and thought Hemstock was shouting at Dax.
That didn’t matter, either. The phone promptly dropped the signal, and Hemstock dropped the phone.
The bear dropped him, too, but it was mainly to shift its grip. This time the bear got hold of Hemstock by the leg. It felt like the bear was trying to drag him farther from the edge of the runway. He thought maybe she was trying to drag him into the grass to cache him as food.
He was screaming. Then the bear tried to flip him over, and he hit it, and got back on his belly and decided, for whatever reason, that maybe his screaming was making things worse.
“When I went quiet, the attack pretty much ended,” he said.
The bear’s last action was to stand on the man’s back. In the process, Hemstock believes, it popped back into place a rib he’d displaced demonstrating a wrestling move days earlier; thank you very much.
Belly down in the gravel long the Seward runway, Hemstock listened to the bear walk away. He could see his cell phone, which he’d dropped in the melee, about three feet in front of him.
He waited a long minute or more before reaching for it. About 200 meters away, he could make out a wary Dax still keeping his distance.
“The runway lighting, the way it was, I could his eyes (glowing),” Hemstock said. He figured if Dax was staying away the bear had to be somewhere close still.
Very carefully, the man pulled the phone to him and called his wife, Jill. Speaking softly, he told her what had happened. After that, he dialed 911.
“While I was talking to 911,”he said, “the bear came back.”
Hemstock stopped talking and waited. He could hear the bear crunching gravel. Though it is thought the animal that attacked him was a sow with cubs, Hemstock neither heard nor saw any cubs. There was just the one bear moving nearby.
“To be honest,” he said, “I hardly saw the bear. It was that dark.”
He very clearly heard it come close a second time, however, and he worried.
Then he heard the sound of the bear moving away, and there was another sound, a good sound, a very good sound, the jingling of tags on a dog collar. Dax was back. That was the best news. Hemstock took it to mean the bear had moved off.
A former college wrestler at Bemidji State University in Minnesota, the now 55-year-old Hemstock thought about getting up, walking back to his car and driving back to the local hospital.
“I didn’t think I was hurt as bad as I was,” he said.
Logic, however, kept him on the ground. It seemed safer there.
“I didn’t know which way the bear went,” Hemstock said. He had Dax nearby now as a warning system, and he knew help was on the way. Better to wait than stumble into the bear again.
“I was really glad I had my phone,” he said.
After the 911 call, it didn’t take the Seward Police Department and local paramedics but minutes to get to Hemsock. And the hospital in the community of 2,700 is only a fews minutes from the airport.
Doctors there started working on Hemstock immediately. The worst damage was to his arm, he said; “I’ve lost one of my triceps muscles.”
He doesn’t know how many stitches and staples it took to close all his wounds. It is somewhere between 40 and 50.
“It’s mostly staples,” he said.
He was hoping to get out of the Seward hospital Thursday night to help set up for a Friday wrestling tournament, but he had to be flown from Seward to Anchorage for evaluation because doctors were concerned there might be unseen damage to his neck and shoulder.
Evrything turned out to be OK, and he was able to make the wrestling matches on Friday and Saturday, though he was a little beat up.
“I’m feeling remarkably well,” he said Sunday. “I’ve cut my pain meds in half. I’m a lucky guy.”
Playing it back
When there is a bear attack in Alaska, almost everyone second guesses what happened, but no one does more second guessing than the victim. Hemstock admits to having now gone over this attack in his head dozens of times. He’ll likely go over it dozens more before the memories start to fade.
“I’m so grateful I had all of those clothes on,” he said. “It could have been much, much worse.”
“If my dog had run the other way,” he added, “I’d probably never known there was a bear out there.”
“If I’d been without the dog, I don’t think anything would have happened,” he said. “I’d already walked past that spot. I’m guessing my dog got right into the mix.”
If he’d stopped, turned to face the bear and yelled at it instead of running? Who knows.
Hiker Phil Buchanan tried that in Denali National Park and Preserve when charged this summer. The bear ran over him and knocked him down. He, like Hemstock, survived by playing dead, a recommended practice with grizzly bears but the absolute wrong thing to do when attacked by a black bear.
A gun? Bear spray?
“I don’t know if it would have done me any good,” Hemstock said. “I don’t think that I would have had time to use it because I didn’t see it coming, because it was black out. I didn’t think they were that fast.”
Compared to the speeds at which people move, bears are near as fast as lightening and just about as dangerous.
A unique bear history
The son of a military man, Hemstock was born in Seattle and grew up in Los Angeles, but he spent the summers of his youth at an old family cabin in the northern wilderness near Bemidji, Minn.
Victor the wrestling bear was sometimes traveling that part of the country in the 1980s. Hemstock encountered a bear-wrestling show, probably Victor, while still of high-school age and, being a pretty good wrestler, wanted to give the bear a go.
His father very firmly said no. Once Hemstock got to college, however, it was a different matter.
“When I was 19, I actually paid money and wrestled a bear,” he said. He lasted a full five minutes with the 600-pound animal.
“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “I was really excited.”
Over the years that followed in Alaska – Hemstock spent several years in bear-filled King Salmon on the edge of salmon-rich Bristol Bay before moving to Seward 22 years ago – the shop teacher thought many times about that wresting match, and took some consolation in the idea that if he was ever attacked by a bear he could probably hold his own.
That view is now history.
“When this bear grabbed me,” he said, “the first thing that bear did was pick me up. I was totally off the ground. I realized how inconsequential I was. I thought 40 years ago, I could probably get a lick in.
“But I could hardly cover my face when this happened. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.”
Still, in the end, Hemstock won the most important prize. He survived. He is alive to fight again. He is back coaching his wrestlers and appreciating life a little more.
“I’ve been pretty happy since this whole thing happened,” he confessed. “Really chipper.”
Life is something we all take pretty much for granted every day. That’s normal. Death in the modern world doesn’t lurk just outside the entrance to the cave. It’s so removed most of us forget about it until disease, accident or age bring it to our doorstep.
And if we survive the visit, we never take it quite so much for granted again. Ronn Hemstock is enjoying every minute of life now because it could all so easily have ended Thursday.