Surviving an Attack

By Beacon Staff

Curled in a ball, Dave Reich felt the ground shake before he saw the flash of brown. He heard the sow’s sonorous growl as he lifted his head and looked into her eyes, then smelled the keen reek of carrion on its breath an instant before the attack.

“We made eye contact,” the Kalispell man says nearly 20 years after he was mauled by a 300-pound grizzly bear in Glacier National Park. “That was a big mistake. You never make eye contact.”

It was Sept. 16, 1995, and Reich, along with two friends from church, Mike Ware and Paul Montieth, were hiking through Preston Park near Mount Siyeh. They had left a car at Siyeh Bend and planned to hike over Siyeh Pass before dropping into Baring Basin and walking out to Sunrift Gorge.

The trio was about a half mile above the Siyeh Pass/Piegan Pass trail junction, in an area of scrubby subalpine fir, when they heard the low rumbling behind them. Montieth was the first to spot a sow and large cub charging from 100 yards away and the men quickly stepped off the trail, huddling in low brush.

The bears barreled past the men, but the sow circled back and returned. Reich, who was in the fetal position, raised his head just as the sow came toward him with its snout lowered toward the ground. The bear attacked, biting and swatting at Reich’s back while Montieth remained curled in a ball.

“At first she was kind of huffing and then she was on me,” he said. “It was like if you were laying next to a train and the ground is shaking. I don’t know how to describe it.”

As Reich screamed, Ware rose to his knees and drew his pepper spray from a holster on his belt, unloading the can into the bear’s face.

“I remember the bear screaming from the pepper spray,” Reich said. “It completely soaked the bear’s face.”

The sow loped away and, after lying still for several more minutes to make sure the bears weren’t coming back, Reich asked his uninjured companions to check his wounds. With what first aid supplies they could muster, they bandaged the puncture wounds that were bleeding the worst.

As they hiked out toward the road, they passed another hiking party and explained what had happened before hiking out together to notify a ranger.

Reich shared his story April 5 during a conference hosted at Kalispell Regional Healthcare. Called “Bear Maulings: Before and After,” the conference was spearheaded by two surgical technologists, Cara Boka and Marsha Lyles and, while developed to inform medical personnel, featured compelling discussions by Reich, as well as a former Glacier National Park ranger and a plastic surgeon.

Retired ranger Gary Moses was in charge of the park’s bear management planning and operations for 23 years. Introduced as “the person who has likely treated more bear attack victims and investigated more bear attack incidents than anyone in the continental United States,” Moses described the “pre-hospital component” of bear attacks, which often involve dispatching park resources and medical personnel to remote and isolated areas.

Now retired, Moses is a product ambassador for Counter Assault pepper spray, which is specifically designed to repel a bear that is charging or attacking. Moses said he believes the increased popularity of bear spray among hikers through the years has caused a downturn in bear attacks because the animals are adopting a learned response.

“Bears are matriarchal learners. Mom teaches her cubs, so the more times that bears have been sprayed the more bears have learned to give a greater deference to people,” Moses said. “I firmly believe from my experience that bears are learning to stay a little bit more wary of people. The beauty is that when they are sprayed with bear spray they learn something and they pass it on. When they are killed with a weapon they don’t learn anything and they don’t pass anything on.”

Dr. Brent Buchele, a plastic surgeon, Dr. Larry Iwerson, an orthopedist, pharmacist Donna Reber, and ALERT helicopter crew member Reece Roat were also on hand to talk about their experiences.

To prepare for the presentation, Reich pored over photographs, maps, National Park Service reports and medical records. He recalled how, after the attack, park rangers cut off his tee shirt to treat his injuries before sealing it in a plastic bag. One year later, Reich removed the clothing from the bag and was overwhelmed by the lingering pepper spray.

“If there was one tragedy I wish I’d avoided it was opening that bag,” he said, joking.

Displaying graphic photographs of his injuries, Reich said it was four months before the severe bruising began to disappear up and down his back and he could resume his favorite exercise – swimming. When he could return to the pool, he did so with gusto, completing the “Around Flathead Lake in 80 Days.”

He still keeps in touch with one of his hiking companions, and showed conference attendees photos of the smiling hikers taken just before the attack.

“We took photos of one another at the beginning of the hike with my camera. After the attack I had them developed and put them in my bear-mauling file. Not many people have a bear-mauling file,” he said.

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