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A hike into horror and an act of courage

A California man visiting Glacier National Park with his daughter instinctively puts himself between her and the rampaging bear's claws and teeth.

April 29, 2007|Thomas Curwen | Times Staff Writer

Glacier National Park, Mont. — JOHAN looked up. Jenna was running toward him. She had yelled something, he wasn't sure what. Then he saw it. The open mouth, the tongue, the teeth, the flattened ears. Jenna ran right past him, and it struck him -- a flash of fur, two jumps, 400 pounds of lightning.

It was a grizzly, and it had him by his left thigh. His mind started racing -- to Jenna, to the trip, to fighting, to escaping. The bear jerked him back and forth like a rag doll, but he remembered no pain, just disbelief. It bit into him again and again, its jaw like a sharp vise stopping at nothing until teeth hit bone. Then came the claws, rising like shiny knife blades, long and stark.

Johan and Jenna had been on the trail little more than an hour. They had just followed a series of switchbacks above Grinnell Lake and were on a narrow ledge cut into a cliff. It was an easy ascent, rocky and just slightly muddy from yesterday's rain.

Johan took some pictures. Jenna pushed ahead. It was one of the most spectacular hikes they'd taken on this trip, a father-daughter getaway to celebrate her graduation from high school. There were some steps, a small outcropping, a blind turn, and there it was, the worst possibility: a surprised bear with two yearling cubs.

The bear kept pounding into him. He had to break away. To his right was the wall of the mountain, to his left a sheer drop. Slightly behind him, however, and 20 feet below the trail, a thimbleberry and alder patch grew on a small slope jutting from the cliff. As a boy growing up in Holland, Johan had roughhoused with his brother and had fallen into bushes. He knew it would hurt, but at least it wouldn't kill him.

So like a linebacker hurtling for a tackle, he dived for that thimbleberry patch. The landing rattled him, but he was OK. His right eye was bleeding, but he didn't have time to think about that. Jenna was now alone with the bear.

She had reached down to pick up the bear spray. The small red canister had fallen out of the side pocket of his day pack, and there it was, on the ground. But she couldn't remove the safety clip, and the bear was coming at her again. She screamed.

"Jenna, come down here," he yelled.

She never heard him. She was falling, arms and legs striking the rocky cliff, then nothing for seconds before she landed hard.

The bear did hear him, however. It looked over the cliff and pounced. Johan had never seen anything move so fast in his life. He tucked into a fetal position. The bear fell upon him, clawing and biting at his back. His day pack protected him, and his mind started racing again.

His daughter didn't have a pack. He always carried the water and snacks. If the bear got to her, it'd tear her apart.

He turned, swung to his right and let himself go. Only this time there wasn't a thimbleberry patch to break his fall. It was a straight drop to where Jenna had landed, and instead of taking the bear away from her, as he had hoped, he was taking the bear to her.

JOHAN Otter lived with his wife, Marilyn, and their two teenage daughters in a two-story home in a semirural neighborhood of Escondido, Calif. He worked as an administrator at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla. He ran in marathons and bred exotic birds. He knew the love of his family, success at his job, good health. At 43, he had dreams of a long and happy life. But dreams are often upended. Johan knew this, and whenever possible, he tried to distance himself and his family from risk.

It was Aug. 25, 2005. Seven days earlier, Johan and Jenna had packed up the family pickup truck and driven north through Nevada and Utah. In September, she would begin her freshman year at UC Irvine. Hiking was their special bond. He was a runner, she was a dancer; they both were in good shape for the trail, and it wasn't unusual for Marilyn and Stephanie, their younger daughter, to stay home.

Johan and Jenna checked into a motor lodge on the east side of Glacier. Johan was eager to experience the wildness of the park, and the first night he did. A black bear, just outside the lodge.

For millenniums, bears have lurked on the periphery of everyday life, dark shadows just beyond the firelight. On this continent, they have been our respected competition and greatest threat. Even though close encounters with bears, especially grizzlies, are rare, they trigger a conditioned response, a reflex of fear and flight that is seldom called upon in modern life. Sometimes we get away. Sometimes we can't.

But most of all, bears inspire a deep fascination. Johan remembered how, as a boy, he would go with his family on vacations to Norway and how his parents, his brother and he had always wanted to see a bear. The curiosity never left him. Three years ago, during a trip to Canada with the family, he and Stephanie saw a cub. Marilyn and Jenna stayed back.

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