Competitor Classics: Surviving A Battle With A Grizzly Bear

“I wasn’t afraid at all,” he insists. “I just knew I had to keep the bear with me.”

The bear finally left him and he yelled to see if Jenna was okay. It turned out that she had played dead, but was scratched on her right cheek before the bear and her cubs disappeared. When Jenna finally saw her dad again, he was coated with blood and crawling towards her.

The two screamed for help for an hour before some hikers heard them. It took two hours from the time of the attack for the rangers to get there and four more hours for a helicopter to arrive. By that time, the paramedics could barely find Otter’s pulse. They strapped him down and, with Otter dangling 30-40 feet below the chopper, flew him out.

“After they landed, they asked if it was okay to go back and pick up my daughter before heading off to the hospital,” he laughs. Since his one-on- one battle with the bear was all about keeping Jenna out of harms way, there was no way he was going anywhere without her by his side.

Back at the hospital he got the diagnosis.

“The minute they told me I had a broken neck, I told them no fusion,” says Otter, a physical therapist himself. Instead, he sported a halo for three months.

“They couldn’t convince me otherwise and, quite frankly, I was in such bad medical shape I really wasn’t a candidate [for a spine fusion] at that point. It took eight hours of surgery just to clean me up.”

Otter is a long-time marathon runner. His first was the inaugural Rock ‘n’Roll Marathon in San Diego in 1998, and his personal best is 3:14:05. He knows that the fitness he accumulated from his passion for running saved his life. It was not surprising that in June of 2006 he would try to keep his streak alive at the Rock ‘N’ Roll Marathon. He had run the first eight events, so why not number nine?

“The first time I tried to run after getting the halo off, I had to stop after about 10 minutes,” he recalls. “It was a total bummer.”

Ten months after the attack, Otter ran 3:39…. and was disappointed.

This is from a guy who had  most of his scalp destroyed by the bear. The doctors took skin and muscle from other parts of his body and are still working on rebuilding the top of his head.

But what’s inside seems damn near indestructible. In late July 2006, Otter went back to Montana to finish what he started on August 25 of 2005: the hike to the Grinnell Glacier. While Jenna wasn’t interested in getting back on the trail, for psychological cleansing, Johan Otter knew he had to complete the trek.

When you are out hiking in bear country, you are taught to carry bear spray and to yodel so that you don’t ever catch a bear by surprise. Not that it would have mattered, but on his first hike Otter’s bear spray was in his pack and not on his belt where he knew it should have been. And he hadn’t been very good about yodeling either.

But for the return engagement, he was a yodeling fool on the trail.

“I yodeled all the way up,” he insists. He did the hike with his wife and the 10-mile round trip with 1,600 feet of climbing took around seven hours.

“It was a really emotional experience,” says Otter. “When my face was coated with blood and I wasn’t sure if I was blind, the first thing I saw out of my right eye was Glacier Lake. That was right before I jumped off the cliff and into the bush. To see the lake again made me feel at home.”

He also saw a few bears from a distance during that second trip.

“I thought to myself, ‘you’re an amazing animal, but you’re not that good looking up close.’”

Does he harbor any anger?

No way. He totally understands.

“The bear did exactly what she was supposed to do,” he insists. “She was protecting her family.”

Just like Johan Otter.


Bob Babbitt is the founder and editor-in-chief of Competitor Magazine.

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