Rocky Mountain Wrestling: A Long-Distance Runner's Grizzly Encounter in Grand Teton National Park

Long-distance runner Michael Dunn was incredibly fortunate to survive his encounter with a grizzly in the backwoods of Grand Teton National Park in 1994. NPS photo.

Editor's note: This past Sunday's incident in Glacier National Park in which a trail runner was bitten by a grizzly bear was just the latest in which a runner came face-to-face with a grizzly bear. Michael Dunn's encounter in the backcountry of Grand Teton National Park was much more life-threatening. Indeed, he was lucky to survive. This story, which I wrote in September 1994 as Mr. Dunn was recovering, illustrates the dangers of long-distance running in bear country.

Michael Dunn always wondered how he would die, whether his life might be lost in a plane crash or
if he would grow old and simply not wake one morning. But as he repeatedly was raked by the grizzly's 4-inch-long claws and berry-stained fangs, he feared fate was at hand.

"I had this overwhelming sense in my mind of thinking, 'This is the day that I'm going to die,'" Dunn said while recounting his near-fatal encounter with a grizzly in Grand Teton National Park this past summer. "I've always wondered how or when it would be that I'm going to die, and this is it."

Today, recuperating in his Park City home, the 36-year-old finds humor in the attack, holds nothing but respect for the grizzly and looks toward the day his wounds will be healed enough to let him return to his trail runs in the mountains.

It was such a run on Aug. 14 that brought Dunn and his grizzly together in the lodgepole forest between Two Ocean and Emma Matilda lakes in Grand Teton's northeastern corner.

Out for an early morning, 18-mile run to prepare for the St. George, Utah, marathon on Oct. 1, Dunn was seized by the day's beauty, the surrounding countryside and the wildlife crowding it. Mist lifting from the lakes drifted through the trees, the slowly rising sun backlit the forest, pungent smells of early autumn
hung in the air. And berry bushes abounded: buffalo berries, huckleberries, ripe, juicy fruit bears relish, especially during this dry year that has left the bruins' usual diet of white bark pine nut crop scant.

"I had seen evidence of bears eating berries because they usually leave a little pile, or there's some bear scat and I had seen a little bit of that and it had actually slowed me down," he said. "At one point I had slowed to a stop, to sort of observe the area, because you want to look ahead everywhere on the trail."

After a moment Dunn's nerves settled and he fell back into his rhythmic, loping pace. He sang loudly _ "funny songs, singing dumb songs" _ with hopes any bears would hear him and run off long before he approached them. But the morning was too perfect and his pace so strong that Dunn soon lapsed from his singing and concentrated instead on the wildlife about him.

"I'd see a lot of blue heron that I sort of flushed up. I saw elk that day. In fact, it was really funny. I made a mental note. I said, 'I'm going to count all the wildlife that I see and I'm just going to add them up in all these categories,'" he said. "So I had seen a dozen elk and eight blue herons, and a grizzly bear. That's where the count stopped."

The bear, possibly a sow with cubs or one simply surprised while foraging, detected Dunn long before the marathoner realized he had invaded its territory. The grizzly had spent the early morning feasting on the rich berry crop, gorging itself in preparation for the upcoming winter. Realizing an intruder, and then spotting Dunn, it crashed through the understory in pursuit, snapping branches and bowling over bushes as it tore towards Dunn in what would become the first recorded mauling in Grand Teton's 65 years.

"I've heard that before, when you scare elk and moose," Dunn said of the crashing sound. "But it was so close and almost like rolling thunder, a kind of earthquake happening kind of sound."

Glancing over his shoulder, Dunn saw the bear barreling down on him on all fours, the hump on its massive grayish-brown back rolling with each stride. For an instant the man turned back to the trail in front of him, looking for a possible escape.

Then, "he just literally jumped on me," said Dunn. "He just kind of burrowed me into the ground. The only thing I can equate it to is football, just sort of being blind-sided by a big, very big linebacker. And then just riding you into the ground, just smeared into the ground."

Dunn jokingly refers to the tussle, which lasted two minutes, perhaps, as "Rocky Mountain wrestling." After slapping his quarry to the ground, the grizzly began biting Dunn on his left hip and buttocks. As his prey twisted this way and that to escape, the bear's teeth and claws worked their way across Dunn's body. Claws sliced through the back of his shirt, tearing through muscles to his rib cage, repeating the process seconds later on his chest as Dunn squirmed for freedom.

"At one point he reached around and he had a claw in my mouth," said Dunn. "And inside my jaw right now there's still a big pock mark where the tip of his claw was hooked in. It was the weirdest thing, almost like Rocky Mountain wrestling. He was twisting my head back and I remember the sensation of almost getting to the point where you hear bones crunch. Krrcchh.

"I was thinking, 'He's going to take my head off, or break my back.'"

As Dunn struggled one of the claws ripped a 2- to 3-inch tear along the right corner of his mouth. Another slit ran from the base of his nose through his upper lip and flesh along the right side of his face was laid open to the skull. As the bear _ a deep, throaty growl rumbling all the while _ worked to flip Dunn over, one of its paws pulled at the man's upper right thigh and razor-sharp claws tore two deep, gaping wounds through the muscular flesh. Miraculously, the slash just missed the femoral artery.

It was at this point in the attack that Dunn realized death was approaching.

"I thought, 'I hope it's quick.' I remember thinking that. 'I hope that it's not a painful thing,'" he said. "Then I went the next step and I started thinking, 'I hope it's not too awful when they find the body, and who's going to tell Linda, my wife. How will the kids react?'"

As he lay under the bear Dunn finally realized that if he was going to live he would have to feign death. He had heard such advice from the start of his backcountry trips years ago, but it only dawned on him now as the bear worked to tear him apart.

"I then did the stupidest thing of the adventure," recalled Dunn. "I had this arm (his left) free and he's looking around, so I thought, 'Well, if I'm going to die, at least I want to go out swinging and I want to see what I can do to fend off this bear.' And so I made a fist and then just reached up and popped this
bear as hard as I could.

"Because of his arm length, I couldn't get close to his face, so this blow landed like in the arm somewhere," the Utahn continued. "The effect was so staggering on the bear, it was sort of like when you see a fly land on a race horse. The bear didn't even acknowledge it. Nothing at all. And as I did it I thought, 'That was really stupid.'"

Then, rolling over on his side, Dunn went lifeless, and the bear paused. The grizzly, apparently distracted by something, got off Dunn and walked down the trail about 30 feet. There it stood on its hind legs and slowly surveyed the surrounding woods before lumbering off into the trees. No one knows if the bear was indeed a sow, but park biologists say this behavior suggests it was looking for cubs.

Dunn, meanwhile, appraised his injuries and was amazed to find he could stand up.

"I knew I was bleeding but I didn't know if things were broken. I mean, I was almost in shock because I thought everything was broken," he said. "I looked and I could see these wounds on my leg. They were hideous, they were so deep. I knew I was in trouble."

He immediately set off down the trail, dragging his right leg along, blood streaming from the right side of his face and screaming as best he could through his torn mouth with hopes of summoning help.

"It really was a slasher movie kind of thing," said Dunn. "I've yelled before and you think you can scream, but the screams were so loud. It was almost spooky, inhuman, how loud you can yell."

Forty minutes took him maybe a mile. Each step brought fresh pain from Dunn's thigh. He worried what he would do if the bear returned.

"You think you were defenseless before, now you're just Hamburger Helper on two legs," he said.

When the woods gave way to a meadow Dunn stopped and sat in the middle of the trail, figuring if he passed out any hikers who happened along would have to "march over my dead body to miss me." But he didn't lose consciousness and soon his cries were heard by three Jackson area hikers _ Jim and Linda Bourett and Trisha Lavin.

"It was quite obvious that he was hurt pretty bad," said Lavin. "He was pretty cut up. I never felt like he was going to die or anything because he sounded so strong and he seemed really pretty calm."

While Jim Bourett ran for help the two women stayed with Dunn and tried to comfort him. At one point, said Lavin, Dunn talked about dying. Indeed, he later said that at one point death seemed preferable to the intense pain.

"He said, 'Please tell my wife I love her and my kids that I love them,'" Lavin recalled. "I'm sure if I would have been in his position I probably would have thought I was going to die, too."

Shortly before 11 a.m. _ nearly three-and-a-half hours after the attack _ a helicopter arrived to take Dunn to St. John's Hospital in Jackson. The wait for the whirlybird and the flight seemed to take forever to Dunn, who experienced what he referred to as "almost this out of body experience."

He felt needles being injected into his arms, watched the medics frantically working on his wounds, heard the noisy rotors of the helicopter.

"It was almost like I was on my way to another world," said Dunn.

Dunn's wounds shocked the hospital's doctors. Not because of their severity, but because they had been inflicted by a bear.

"You see wounds like that from motorcycle accidents at 90 mph, car accidents, that kind of thing," said Dr. Paul Fenton, an orthopedic surgeon on the team that sewed Dunn back together with more than 300 stitches. "It was weird, it was like watching a great, incredible act of nature take place. You're almost in awe. ... You just couldn't believe that something could do that to him, that some animal or some force of nature could do that to him."

On Dunn's back doctors could actually see the imprint of one of the bear's paws.

"He put his paws into him and it dug right down to his ribs. The bear must have been like 'Edward Scissorhands,'" said Dr. Fenton, referring to a movie character whose fingers were scissor blades. "Just the strength and the shear power of him was incredible."

That the bear missed Dunn's femoral artery also amazed the doctors, one of whom told Dunn that he couldn't have come any closer to the blood vessel with a scalpel.

"Obviously those claws can rip anything to shreds," said Dr. Fenton. "And how he never touched the artery is still beyond me. If he would have hit the artery he would have bled to death right there. That's a main conduit to your leg."

For five hours doctors and nurses cleaned Dunn's wounds, pulling berries, twigs, pine needles and mud from them. They didn't close all the gashes, deciding it better to cleanse them and let them drain for a day or so to ensure that infection didn't set in. Two days after the attack Dunn spent three more hours in surgery as doctors closed the wounds, leaving drains in some for two more days to help in the fight against infection.

Astonishingly, the damage was restricted to soft tissue _ none of Dunn's bones was broken, his lungs weren't punctured by the bear's 350- to 500-pound bulk, he didn't lose an eye even though a claw had left a sizeable dent in the right lens of Dunn's sunglasses. By Christmas he could be skiing.

Throughout his ordeal Dunn uncannily kept his wits about him. When he reached the meadow he realized it was big enough for a rescue helicopter to land; as Linda Bourett and Trisha Lavin sat with him he instructed them on the symptoms of shock; as he was readied for surgery he joked with his wife and their 10- and 8-year old sons.

"He was so coherent and he was so himself and he even had humor at that point by saying things to the kids like, 'I'm going to be OK, just don't feed the bears,'" said Linda Dunn. "The kids kind of laughed and we all knew that he was OK."

Since the mauling Dunn, whose slow, shuffling gait is evidence of the chunks of muscle torn from his thigh, has studied bear and animal behavior in books friends have given him. Two of the books _ Tales of the Grizzly and Outwitting Critters, A Surefire Manual for Confronting Devious Animals and Winning _ set on his living room coffee table.

He harbors no animosity toward the bear, and jokes about his most severe wounds, the two gouges taken out of his thigh: "There was a lot of muscle removed out here. It's just gone. Sushi on a tree somewhere up there."

Additionally, Dunn has developed something of a kinship with the bear.

"In a strange sort of way, as I've been reading about grizzly bears, I sort of really identify with them. I almost feel a kindred spirit," he said. "Not that I like to go out and maul people, but there's some really neat characteristics of grizzly bears. Ironically, we were the only two out there that morning, both in an area that we love.

"His instincts were probably just the same ... if I had seen him coming, what if I would have had a gun? Maybe my instincts would be to get really defensive and blow the bear away," said Dunn. "I don't know, but I'm sure I would have had similar instincts, like there's an intruder, there's an invader coming into my area."

Postscript: Mr. Dunn made a full recovery and went out to a successful career as a motivational speaker.

Comments

Also, interesting timing as the news this morning reports a grizzly attack just outside of Yellowstone - http://www.bozemandailychronicle.com/articles/2009/06/11/news/20bear.txt . You'd think on this coincidence that they happen every day.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World