‘The unRevenant’ attack

An Alaska brown/grizzly bear with lunch/Steve Hillebrand, USFWS

Grizzly bears do not intentionally practice catch and release mauling, but don’t tell this to the New York Times.

Once the pillar of U.S. journalism, the Times last week reported an unidentified miner in the hills north of Nome suffered an “ordeal that could pass as a sequel to ‘The Revenant,’ in which Leonardo DiCaprio was mauled by a computer-generated grizzly bear.

“‘At some point, a bear had dragged him down to the river,’ Lt. Cmdr. Jared Carbajal, one of the pilots of the Coast Guard helicopter (that rescued the man), said in an interview Wednesday.”

The story did not explain how the man freed himself from the bear’s grasp, and now it appears the bear never had hold of the man. So it couldn’t have dragged him anywhere.

“He wasn’t mauled,” Alaska State Trooper Sergeant Aileen Witroskyon told the Nome Nugget newspaper, which identified the man as Richard Jessee, “a longtime summer miner” on the Seward Peninsula in Northwest Alaska.

“Though (Jessee) had no visible lacerations, he had several large bruises and a knee injury,” the Nugget’s Julie Lerner reported.

This would make him a lot different from DeCaprio, who is in the movie pretty much ripped to shreds by a bear. Jessee, it appears, suffered his injuries when a bear knocked him off an all-terrain vehicle, which the miner described as a “bike.”

Afterward, he retreated to a cabin that the bear visited for days.

According to troopers, Jessee was rescued by a passing Coast Guard helicopter on July 16. The stories that appear in the Nuggett, which identified him, and Times, which didn’t, date to July 22.

Why the time lag between the rescue and the news is unclear. But the dramatic version – the one reported by the Times in New York on nearly the opposite side of the North American continent from where the attack happened –  is, notably, the one that exploded across the internet.

“Man rescued after being stalked and repeatedly attacked by grizzly bear for a week,” the Independent headlined in England above a much-shared Coast Guard photo of the “mining camp” where all of this happened.

The “week” be the four-day week English work week.

The story posted with a photo of a couple shacks and an outhouse along a brush-lined creek in a tundra-filled valley with no hint of any soil being turned in years. It had knowledgeable Alaskans asking simply “where’s the mining camp?”

“The unidentified man, in his fifties or sixties, told the US Coast Guard that he’d arrived at the camp on 12 July. Some days later, near the mining camp, he encountered the grizzly, which dragged him to a nearby river,”  Bevan Hurley wrote at the Independent.

“He managed to escape the bear’s clutches, sustaining injuries to his leg and chest, and found his way back to a hut at the camp, where he treated his wounds.”

The bear later returned to that cabin repeatedly to claw and bang on it, but never entered despite the structure lacking a door.

That Jessee was terrorized by the bear repeatedly visiting his cabin is wholly plausible. This has happened in Alaska before. Four deer hunters on Admiralty Island in the state’s Panhandle in November 1980 spent three days and nights being harassed by a brown bear, the coastal version of a grizzly, before finally killing it.

Fred Shelton, one of the hunters, said the group thought the problem might be food smells in the public-use cabin they’d rented from the U.S. Forest Service.

So they cleaned the structure, hauled everything that might have lingering odors to a site 250-feet from the cabin and burned it. The bear kept coming back anyway.

Only after it came for one of the hunters and was shot dead did they discover the animal was in bad shape. It had almost no fat on its body at a time when it should have had inches of fat in preparation for hibernation, and most of its teeth were gone.

They suspected the animal was on its last legs, looking at humans as potential prey and trying to figure out how to safely kill one of them for food. It is rare for bears to prey on humans, but it has happened.

World-famous attack

Bear lover Timothy Treadwell and girlfriend Amie Huggenard died in the teeth of one such bear. It grabbed Treadwell first. His last words recorded on the soundtrack of a videocamera with a cover over the lense were a plea to Huggenard to hit the bear with a pan, their only weapon.

That did nothing to slow the attack because once bears grab “prey,” human or otherwise, and drag it away from a camp they have only one thing in mind – eating their quarry.

The Jessee incident as described by the NYT, the Independent and others  – a case of a bear attacking someone, dragging him some distance off and then letting him go so he could get away – would be so rare that it might be wholly unprecedented.

As a former Alaskan and one-time editor at the now-gone AlaskaDispatch observed upon first reading the story, “it doesn’t smell right does it? But he was down to two rounds of ammo. So dramatic.”

You’d think that at a newspaper once as prestigious as the Times someone  – an editor, another reporter, an intern – would have the sense to realize they’d never heard of an attack like this before and ask, “how often does this happen?”

But, obviously, you’d be wrong if you thought that because healthy skepticism is dying, if not dead, in the journalism business, which is now full of people writing on subjects about which they know nothing.

Neil Vigdor, the reporter who wrote the Times story, “is a breaking news reporter on the Express Desk,” according to a Times description. “He previously covered Connecticut politics for The Hartford Courant.”

On MuckRack he self describes as a reporter of “breaking news for The New York Times 🗞 🚨• photo geek 📸 • politics nerd 🗳• discovering cooking 👨‍🍳 • Vandy alum.”

There’s nothing in his background to indicate he could tell a black bear from an Alaska brown bear from a cinnamon bear. Oh, wait. A cinnamon bear is a black bear but a brownish-black bear.

And an Alaska brown bear, or what the Alaska Department of Fish and Game calls a brown/grizzly, is what the rest of the world knows simply as a grizzly. 

The massive, coastal grizzlies of the 49th state long ago came to be called “brown bears” to differentiate them from the smaller grizzly bears of the Interior.

A large, male brown bear can weigh up to 1,500 pounds, about three times as much as a large, male grizzly. The size difference is attributed to the much richer diet available to the coastal bears. 

Seward Peninsula bears are among the smaller of coastal browns, but one wouldn’t have had much trouble killing Jessee if it had really wanted. One would have killed Nome’s Wes Perkins a decade ago if friends hadn’t shot and killed it first.

As it was, Perkins was badly maimed and disfigured. He spent four months in hospitals in Anchorage and Seattle. He lost his tongue and the sight in his left eye. It took doctors 26 surgeries and cost more than $1 million to rebuild his face. 

He was still left badly scared, his speech so impaired he often just wrote notes to others to communicate. He was like DiCaprio in The Revenant.

Jessee got off the Coast Guard helicopter and walked to a waiting ambulance, which took him to the Norton Sound Regional Hospital where, Lerner reported, “his doctor told him to stay off his feet for a few days.”

This was a most unRevenant end. In the movie, DiCaprio saves himself from being eaten by killing the bear but is then left for dead by his companions. They bury him in a shallow grave out of which he eventually climbs and crawls away eventually to be saved by a friendly Indian.

Jesse was in no way part of a “Real-Life Revenant Nightmare” as Microsoft News headlined. But the claim makes for a better story.

Will the NYT correct it? Most likely not. The story is such a trainwreck that it would be hard to write a simple correction. It’s not like Jessee’s name was misspelled because it isn’t in the story.

What would a correction even say?

“CORRECTION: The man in this story was not mauled like Leonardo DiCaprio in ‘The Revenant.’ He was not given up for dead. He was not buried in a shallow grave. He did not drag himself out of that grave and crawl cross country until he was saved by a friendly Indian. In fact, there is no indication the bear ever put a paw or tooth on him, but he did have a terrifying experience with a dangerous animal that did not want to leave him alone.”















10 replies »

  1. It’s kind of ridiculous to criticize the New York Times for publishing this human interest story based on interviews with Coast Guard officers/eyewitnesses and correspondence with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. What do you expect the newspaper to do, get a court order to haul the guy before a magistrate so he could be cross-examined under penalty of perjury? I mean, come on.

    • a.) i expect them to rely on someone with knowledge of bears as their bear expert, not some random member of the Coast Guard. b.) i expect them to be able to distinguish between being ripped to shred by a bear as in “The Revenant” and being terrified by a bear as in this case.

      when the “victim” has no bite marks, his story pretty clearly has nothing in common with “The Revenant.” any comparison then can only be called “fake news.”

  2. I thought this piece was funny! I mean we ARE talking about New Yorkers……most of them wouldn’t know a bear from a guy running around in a gorilla suit.

  3. “The story posted with a photo of a couple shacks and an outhouse along a brush-lined creek in a tundra-filled valley with no hint of any soil being turned in years. It had knowledgeable Alaskans asking simply “where’s the mining camp?”

    I’d say anyone that is a knowledgeable AK’n would notice those bike tracks might lead to….

    • yeah, they might lead back to Solomon, or to another more substantial camp a few miles to the east, or both.

      they might even lead to a gold panning site or a small sluice box. neither which anyone in their right mind classifies as a mining “camp.”

      one might call this, at most, a prospector’s camp, although from the looks of it, prospectors shack would be more accurate. or a maybe “one-time mining camp,” like when back when the shacks had doors.

  4. Im trying to decide on the newsworthy-ness of this, as if they are going to send a reporter to Ak to sniff around, but never mind.
    If I’m not mistaken the Revenant is a remake of a Peter O’toole movie.Based apon a supposedly true story from about the early 1800’s or so.Again there may be some journalistic license at stake with the original version.Sorta reminds me of the Bible….

    • “The Revenant” is roughly based on the story of mountain man Hugh Glass:

      Times were different in the 1800s. We don’t know how damn easy we have it today.

      I’d suggest a reading of “Blood and Thunder,” a biography of Kit Carson written by historian Hampton Sides. It might be the most accurate history you can find of what the early American West was really like. It was not that mythical place where the animals and the people all happily cohabitated in peace.

  5. Great story Craig… the tale of two actors. Love it…shame Jessee didn’t add the flintlock for effect.. I did see a guy boxing a brownie by a river once on YouTube.. They both even got in a few kicks. Ah, the stories he could tell…

  6. A person living in Nome with whom I spoke said the word in town is that this so called “miner” wanted to get back to town but had no means of doing that other than to put the SOS out for aircraft to see. Looking at the picture of the “mining camp”, I can understand why he wanted out.
    His story about being dragged down to the river by a Grizzly and then being released and climbing back to the cabin is not believable. First he would have suffered all sorts of bites and tears etc by the time he was supposedly dragged to the river. And the bear would not have allowed him to ever get away after that attack. He would have been killed and eaten.

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