Nome Nugget reporter Julie Lerner deserves a journalism award for digging down into a sketchy claim of a bear attack on the Seward Peninsula earlier this month, but you can pretty much bet the house she won’t get it.
Her reporting, unfortunately, indicates the New York Times hoaxed itself. The Times took a questionable tale being told by a regular summer visitor to Northwest Alaska, tied it to the bear-mauling scene in the movie “The Revenant,” and sent a ripple of bearanoia around the globe.
There was from the start, one huge problem with the story as told by the Times. The man “mauled” by the bear – 74-year-old Richard Timothy Jessee – didn’t have a mark from claw or fang on his body, unlike actor Leanardo DiCaprio who was ripped to shreds in movie.
And now there is this from Lerner, who talked to someone who visited the site of the attack:
“‘There’s just no way it was a bear,’ the anonymous source said…. A cooler was sitting on the ATV with two pounds of bacon. ‘It was completely untouched.'”
The ATV was the one Jessee was riding when he said a bear pushed both the machine and himself into a river now identified as Big Four Creek.
Times reporter Neil Vigdor didn’t bother running down Jessee to see what the man had to say about the reported bear attack but took what information he could get from a Coast Guard helicopter crew who picked Jessee up. Vigdor then embellished their account to turn it into “a weeklong ordeal that could pass as a sequel to ‘The Revenant.'”
Where Vigdor got the weeklong timeline isn’t clear. His story doesn’t say, but it most likely came from a Coast Guard media release.
And these days, when a government bureaucracy says something happened, few journalists question the report no matter how far farfetched.
It now appears Jessee was at the cabin for the short week – four days.
Over those four days, Jessee claims, a bear came back repeatedly and attacked the cabin while trying to get him, but the problem is hungry bears never leave the bacon behind, or the cooler for that matter.
Grizzly bears have incredibly good noses. A hungry one will force its way into a cooler quick to get food rather than fool around attacking a cabin to get at a man inside.
Needless to say, Jessee’s story had a lot of problems from the beginning, and they’ve only grown bigger as others have investigated.
Jessee, meanwhile, has started changing his story.
His ATV, the loss of which it was suggested in his first account was the reason he had to put an SOS on the roof of the cabin to attract help, was no longer in the creek when others arrived at the cabin, Lerner reported.
When Lerner tracked Jessee down for a follow-up interview, he offered this explanation as to how the ATV that supposedly went in the creek turned out to be at the cabin:
“‘The bear pushed on the bike [ATV], is what she did….It pushed me into a hole of deep water. That’s pretty much what I remember. It was all so fast, the bear was mighty big, and I was in deep water trying not to drown.’
“Jessee said the Can-Am winch on his four-wheeler still worked (however), and he was able to use it and some rope to get the ATV and trailer out of the water later.”
When Jessee rescued his gear and trailer, the story doesn’t say, but in his first telling of the story Jesse was in the water “hypothermic” after the bear knocked him over. So he must have climbed out of the water, warmed up, and “later” returned to get back in the water to winch the vehicle out.
Except in his original telling of the story, the bear was always nearby threatening him after the crash.
Before the Nugget published Lerner’s second story, a born and reared Nomite all too familiar with the area’s bears said, “I smell a fish with this story. I don’t know the guy. He ‘summers’ here and lives elsewhere – your typical non-functional ‘miner’. Most of them are old coots who I feel come here to get away from their wives. None of them are successful miners.
“His shack is in the Big Four creek area, close to the Casadepaga River. There’s several of these guys out there at times. Most are remnants of the now-deceased GPAA (Gold Prospectors Association of America) organization out of California.”
GPAA used to operate the Cripple River Mining Camp out of Nome. It went out of business, but it appears GPAA is now active again and promoting the AkAu Alaska Gold & Resort in the Nome area.
As the setting for the TV reality show “Bering Sea Gold,” Nome has become a big attraction for wannabe gold miners, and some of them are not the most reputable characters.
“The (Jessee) story is hokey,” the old Nomite said. “He didn’t get mauled, much less bit. I shake my head every time I read it. It’s full of holes.”
Lerner reported that some Nome residents found the holes big enough that they hauled their own ATVs out the Council Road and headed up the trail to Big Four Creek to investigate.
The Nomites who ventured to Big Four told Lerner that when they got to the cabin, which wasn’t Jessee’s but that of another miner, “we couldn’t find a bear track within 500 feet of the place, but it should have been all torn up, according to his story.”
When they stomped around in the muddy terrain in the area, they found no bear tracks, no hair and no bear scat, ie. crap. And bears crap a lot.
“Also, the door to the cabin that the bear supposedly vandalized had been tampered with, the door knob appearing to have been knocked off by a hammer,” Lerner reported. “The source said their trip out to the cabin left them with more questions than answers.”
Jessee’s response to those questions didn’t clarify anything.
“They can believe what they want,” he told Lerner. “I was there. I know what happened. I haven’t been that scared in a very, very long time.”
That might well be, but he also revealed that while waiting for rescue he went back to his trailer to get his food.
“I didn’t touch any of the food that was in the cooler – bacon, hamburger, all kinds of stuff,” he told Lerner “I didn’t want the smell of it to come out and attract the bear. I grabbed the dry food, repacked the trailer and left it there.”
But if the bear had already been attracted to the cabin in pursuit of Jessee, it boggles the mind of anyone who knows bears to believe that a bear acting like the one Lerner described wouldn’t find and rip into the food.
As the National Park Service notes, “bears have an insatiable appetite and an amazing sense of smell, and they consider anything with a scent to be ‘food.’ This can include canned goods, bottles, drinks, soaps, cosmetics, toiletries, trash, ice chests, sunscreen, bug repellant, fuel, items used for preparing or eating meals….”
Bears have been regularly known to bite into tin cans to get at the food inside. It’s near impossible to believe a bear would spend days harassing Jessee in a cabin without finding Jessee’s food and ripping into it.
Jessee’s story is, on its face, impossible to believe. One noted authority on bears, a scientist with decades of experience studying the animals, offered this simple opinion of the tale:
“(It) probably got a few rounds bought for him at the local watering hole….”
Could the story have happened as Jessee originally told it? Yes. Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.
Unfortunately, there is no evidence to support Jessee’s story – no photos, no witnesses, no bear-savaged cabin and no sign of bears around the cabin.
Along with all the other things that are hard to believe here, it is hard to believe that a bear that supposedly wanted in that cabin so bad when Jessee was inside wouldn’t get in the cabin and tear it apart, as bears do, once the Coast Guard hauled Jesse away.
Meanwhile, the preponderance of evidence points toward Jessee telling a tall tale, a big bear story if you will.
Will Lerner’s reporting lead national or international news outlets to revise the tall tale the New York Times started and so many hyped?
The Times can easily hide behind the defense that no one can prove what Jessee said didn’t happen. That is putting the cart in front of the horse, but that is the way journalism often works these days.
And even when something is proven wrong, well….
The moose and her newborn calf were spied wandering into the parking lot before bedding down only to be surrounded by a crowd oohing and aahing the animals.
But a moose and newborn calf bedding down in an Anchorage parking lot is not nearly as good click-bait as “moose gives birth in Lowe’s parking lot” or “a grizzly terrified a man in Alaska for days.”
And the country’s urban-media elite wonder why the rural, red part of the country doesn’t trust them.