Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Bear attack teaches deadly lesson — Soldotna man uses pepper spray to halt mauling

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Scott Griebel learned a deadly lesson about being in bear country — take the time to be prepared, because everything can change in a matter of seconds.

Griebel, of Soldotna, and his family — wife, Kelly Keating-Griebel, and daughter, Haylee — were camping at Hidden Lake off Skilak Lake Road on Aug. 8. Their RV was parked in the campground and Griebel decided to take a bike ride on Bernie’s Trail, a three-mile loop connecting with the campground.

As usual, the family’s 8-year-old beagle, Georgia – or Georgie, as they call her — was being her lazy self and didn’t deign to go along. Also as usual, their 6-year-old beagle, Daphney, was ready and raring to go.

Once they were clear of the campground, about a half mile down the trail, Griebel stopped to let Daphney off her leash. She always stayed close and liked the freedom of stopping to sniff, or running ahead a bit and waiting for her people to catch up.

They made it to the end of the trail and turned around. About a third of the way back the trail makes about a 180-degree turn before coming to an overlook of the lake, curving around a pie-slice section of woods, Griebel said. He stopped at the overlook to rest. Daphney stopped to sniff a little way behind him.

“I heard her barking. We were by ourselves up there, so really that could only mean one thing,” Griebel said. “I was yelling for her, and in five to ten seconds the barking changed to yipping.”

Griebel immediately thought it was a bear.

“I had to have walked right by where the bear was. It had to have known I was there and decided it wanted nothing to do with me, but when Daphney came along it was something more familiar and decided to ambush her,” he said.

He broke into a run when he heard the dog’s barking. She was 40 to 50 feet away through the brush over a little mound on the trail. When he cleared the rise he saw an adult black bear, about 300 pounds, standing over the dog.

He pulled out his pepper spray and sprayed the bear from about 15 to 20 feet away. It clearly affected the bear, Griebel said, but not enough to give up the dog. It grabbed Daphney and took off into the woods.

“She was still alive. I think that’s the hardest part for me, because she was still alive and she was in anguish,” he said. “At that point, without even really thinking, I headed off toward the sound.”

Griebel figures he ran about a quarter mile until he lost track of the bear.

“I was just kind of running thoughts through my head of, ‘How far do I go?’ And, ‘What am I going to say going back without the dog?’” he said.

He caught movement through the trees and looked to see the bear standing over Daphney again. This time Griebel got closer before using the pepper spray, less than 10 feet, he figures.

The bear left the dog and within seconds had climbed a 3-foot diameter cottonwood tree. Griebel hit it with the spray again, which made it start rounding the tree toward him. He backed off until it started climbing down, then sprayed it again.

“It started to take its front paws off the tree and slap the tree,” he said. “Cottonwoods when they’re that big are real kind of hollow, so it was a real loud kind of thumping sound.”

The bear started making guttural sounds in its throat. People familiar with bears have since told Griebel it was barking at him, but he described it as a loud coughing sound.

“To be honest, at that point I’m going, ‘Oh, man, this is really stupid,’” he said.

He backed off again and let the bear shimmy down the tree. It started heading for the dog, so he ran up again, even closer yet, and sprayed it from about five feet away, he said.

“Luckily for me it ran away,” he said.

Daphney was breathing in short gasps and had obvious puncture wounds.
“I didn’t have time to sit there and look at her so I scooped her up and started running. I could feel wet on my arm,” he said.

He got to the trail and had to decide whether to head back up the trail the 300 yards to his bike, or keep running the two-plus miles back to camp. He decided the bike would be faster, so he emptied his backpack, put Daphney inside and ran for the bike. By the time he got there, Daphney was gone.

“She just kinda went stiff and arched backwards, and that’s when she went. She just kind of let out her last breath and she was gone,” he said.

Griebel got on his bike and rode back to camp as fast as he could, keeping an eye out for the bear. He didn’t see it again, but when he told a co-worker about the encounter later, Griebel was told of friends who were camping at Hidden Lake that same night who said a bear came out of the woods and chased their dog.

Griebel told the campground host what had happened, and law enforcement came to the campground to interview him about the encounter.

“I’m not an expert on bears, by any means, but a lot of people have alluded to the unpredictableness of black bears. I don’t know enough about them to really know. All I know is it was a horrible interaction I had with it,” he said.

“I had mixed feeling about this. It took a member of our family,” he said. “In reality, the bear was just being a bear, and we were in the woods. And it might have been considered aggressive behavior, but we were two miles from the camp and it was something familiar to it, it just looked like any animal. I don’t know if I can hold fault on the bear.”

But he can learn some valuable lessons from the attack.

First of all, be prepared, because you might react without thinking.

“In retrospect it was a bad decision, likely. It was a stupid thing to do,” he said. “But at the time, you know, the thoughts that run through your mind — you know, she’s your family member, and you don’t know if she’s dead. I couldn’t stand the thought of her being a meal for another animal. All those things rush through your head and you act without thinking too much. Luckily for me it turned out all right, but it easily could have turned out the other way.”

He credits the pepper spray for doing what it’s supposed to do.

“It moved that bear off of a potential meal. For me, that suggests the effectiveness of it.”

He could attest firsthand to the potency of the spray. After he sprayed the bear the first time he ran through the discharge cloud and could feel the burning in his eyes. When he got back to camp the spray had settled on his exposed legs and arms.

“It was just on fire. It was hot,” he said.

Even so, at the end of the encounter the can was nearly empty, which would have left him with nothing to defend himself or Daphne. That prompted Griebel to rethink his stance on guns when in the woods.

“Hiking through the Russian River area I was always kind of leery of everybody carrying firearms. I thought it was more dangerous — all the people with guns — than bears,” he said.

He usually keeps a shotgun at camp but doesn’t take it on bike rides. Now he takes a .44-caliber revolver into the woods as backup for pepper spray, which is still his first line of defense.

“Pepper is always going to be the first thing I use,” he said. “Plus, I don’t really want to kill a bear, I just want to make it not bother me.”

The Griebels have since adopted another beagle, 2-year-old Chloe.

Labor Day weekend was the first time the Griebels had been back out camping in bear country since the attack. They spent the weekend at Russian River. This time, Griebel said he’s learned not to let the dogs off the leash.

“I can’t stress enough how fast it happened. I can’t even guess at a timeline. It just flew by,” he said. “… She was always close, but if they’re not on a leash, they’re not close enough to do anything if a bear decides to do something with them, in my opinion.”

That’s been the hardest part for Griebel — feeling like he could have done more to save Daphne.

“I think it’s getting easier to understand and deal with the event,” he said. “When it first happened it was really hard. The sound is what stuck with me for the first week. The sound of the dog’s anguish and I wasn’t able to help it. I hope she knew that I was with her by the time she stopped breathing.”

Griebel wonders how much worse the situation would have been if he hadn’t had pepper spray with him, and cautions everyone to take precautions when in the woods.

“You might never pull the safety latch off, you may never even touch it. But, man, if you don’t have something, whether it be a noisemaker or whatever, I wouldn’t have had a chance.”

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