Gruesome Grizzly Mauling

Mark Matheny describes how he responded, recovered after being attacked by bear

Gruesome Grizzly Mauling
Gruesome Grizzly Mauling
When I strung my longbow and set out on the trail that crisp September morning in 1992, I never guessed that in a few hours my life would be not only threatened, but forever changed. At the time of the attack, I was a 39-year-old general contractor, and was with my 49-year-old hunting partner, Dr. Fred Bahnson, from Bozeman, Mont.

A skiff of snow had fallen overnight, and the hunting conditions northwest of Yellowstone National Park were close to perfect. At first are optimism seemed justified. By mid-morning we had downed a four-point mulie. We said a brief Prayer of thanks for the animal, then dressed it and hung it in a tree, planning to return the next day with our children.

By noon we were hunting back down the trail, single file, with myself; 20 yards in the lead. The early snow had melted and the woods were damp, making it easy to move along quietly.

Click image for photo gallery of Matheny, but beware there are graphic images

As I came over a hill and onto a bench of open timber, I saw movement in the trees off to my left. At first it was hard to fathom: two brown shapes hurtling into the air, 35 yards away. Then I realized they were first-year grizzly cubs, the size of German shepherds. The cubs had been nursing as the mother lay on her back. At the sight of me, the sow jumped to her feet, tossing the young bears into the air.

Immediately, the sow charged. Grunting harshly, head low, she closed the gap with unbelievable speed. I remember seeing those little black, beady eyes, and the anger-like an aura around her.

I spun, looking vainly for a tree to climb. Bahnson was 20 yards up trail, so I ran toward him, yelling, “It's a bear, get your spray!”

Weeks before the hunt Bahnson had read about the increasing use and success of pepper spray as a bear deterrent, and had bought a small canister of a product called "Karate In A Can" (actually designed for urban use against human aggressors, not bears). He even fashioned a homemade leather belt holster to keep the spray within reach. I planned on buying a can of spray too, but, as I said later with equal parts rue and wonder at what now seems an obvious oversight, I just never got around to it.

Running from the bear, I now admit, was a total mistake. Not only does running increase the likelihood of a full-blown attack, it doesn't work. You can't outrun them. They're like missiles homing in on their targets.

But I ran toward Bahnson. Bahnson groped for his spray, which stuck in the leather holster. He dove off the trail. I jumped behind a log.

I turned around and there she was, a few feet away. I couldn't help thinking, what a beautiful, magnificent animal -- silvertip, healthy, maybe 400 pounds. But that thought was quickly replaced by fear that this is really happening.

I thrust my bow at the sow and yelled, "Get out of here!"

She whacked the bow out of my hands with one paw, and leapt over the log. It all happened so fast. Next thing I know, I'm just seeing teeth and trying to jump out of the way. "Oh God help me!"

The bear lunged, biting me in the face and neck. I could feel my face ripping. Then I was on the ground, the sow on top of me. I felt her teeth crunching down on my head.

I screamed, "She's got my head, she's killing me!" However, my cry only intensified the attack. Then I realized, I've got to play dead or I'm going to be dead.

At that moment, I had what I now thinks of as an epiphany. When she put the head bite on me, I felt the power she had to kill me. Time just stopped then. I remember thinking, "My time on earth is done. I'm going to miss my wife and kids. Now I'm going to meet my creator."

But with his pepper spray canister in hand, Bahnson came running toward the bear, screaming. She dropped me and lunged at Bahnson, who shot a split second blast of spray into the bear's face just as she knocked him down.

I saw Bahnson fall, thinking this is horrible, now she's getting both of us. I started squirming away like a mouse, as fast as I could. That got the bear off of Fred; she turned back to me. I saw her coming so I covered my head with my arms. Then, wham, she pounced on me like a cat on a mouse. I remember the weight of her, the incredible pressure against the ground. She started ripping at my arm, shaking it violently. I thought she was going to rip it off. I didn't feel any pain. It all happened too fast.

The sow, as we later learned, had been feeding on a nearby elk carcass, and she stunk horribly, like rotting, decaying flesh. She smelled like death.

I made myself lie still as the bear mauled me. Then she left me and turned back to Bahnson, who hit the charging grizzly approximately 10 feet away in the mouth and nose with the nearly full 4-ounce can of spray, emptying it. Gasping and choking, the bear veered off into the woods, the cubs bounding after her. (By the way, the can that was used in this attacked is not a Bear pepper spray). 

Through my struggle to stay conscious, I heard Bahnson say, "Are you all right?" Now Bahnson's experience as a physician came into play. He calmly assessed my wounds and assured me I would survive. The left side of my face was torn open, the cheek flap hanging. Bahnson rigged a pressure bandage that I held in place as we began walking out to our vehicle. Blood from a puncture wound on my scalp kept pouring into my eyes, making it difficult to see the trail. I adjusted by walking with my head tilted forward and down so the blood could fall directly from my forehead to the ground. The only pain I felt was in my arm, which I thought might have been broken.

Twenty minutes later, as we neared our Jeep, it occurred to me to take a photograph of myself, my face covered with blood and my cheek deeply gashed, just to record the event. Little did either of us realize the impact these photos would later have, or how useful they would eventually prove to be in my future life. Only when I looked into the Jeep's rearview mirror did the full extent of my injuries hit me. It was also at this point that the pain began: Suddenly my head and face ached terribly.

Bahnson had also suffered some injuries. The grizzly had bitten him once in the side as she knocked him down, but because of his coat and clothing the bite had not penetrated the skin. His side was bruised and abraded and the compression force had separated some ribs from the sternum. But at the Bozeman hospital, Bahnson insisted on attending to my wounds. He worked on me for nearly seven hours. The first bite had ripped open the left cheek, tearing the jaw muscle loose from the jawbone, cutting through the saliva gland and across the larynx. Most frighteningly, but also most fortunately, the lower bite wound included a tooth puncture that had come a scant 1/8-inch from my jugular vein.

The "head bite" had punctured my eyebrow bone, between the brow and the eyeball, and also the crown of my skull. Total head and face repairs required more than 15 inches of stitching. My arm was black and blue, and would be sore for several weeks, but was not broken or dislocated. The headaches, nearly constant, would continue for almost two years -- all this from a mauling we estimate lasted less than 20 seconds.

If the attack and rescue seemed over quickly (I went home from the hospital that same evening) the larger repercussions of the experience were just beginning. My construction business had been progressing, with custom work contracted by the likes of Ted Turner and Jane Fonda, as well as the nearby Big Sky resort; but after the mauling I found it difficult to focus on the job. All I could think about was bears and bear stuff. I needed to make my peace with it.

I spent as much time as possible in the mountains, not wanting the attack and the fear it engendered to ruin the outdoors for me. When a pepper-spray company heard of my experience and asked me to do a live-appearance testimonial at an outdoor retail show, I jumped at the chance. Soon after, I quit construction for good and joined the company's staff as a part time sales rep. I became obsessed with the subject of pepper spray as a bear deterrent to stop this kind of an aggressive attack. 

Within months I had ideas for improving the product: a much hotter pepper concentrate for more effectiveness, a "fluffier" formulation that would hang in the air longer, a carrying holster with a tied-on trigger safety wedge that wouldn't be as easily lost as the customary loose one, and even a glow-in-the-dark safety clip so a spray canister could be quickly located at night in a tent. I didn't invent the wheel, I just improved it.

When the company resisted my suggestions, My wife Becky and I decided to take the cold plunge and start our own pepper-spray business. We mortgaged our home and 30 acres near Bozeman to finance the operation we called UDAP.  It was a total learning situation, both in product development and later in marketing and distribution. But long hours and hard work paid off; within six months UDAP was shipping its Pepper Power bear deterrent to customers, and sales took off quickly. The business has grown each year.

My goal from the start was not just to sell pepper spray, but to help educate the public -- outdoorsmen in particular -- about the causes, prevention, and realities of bear attacks, so that what happened to me could be avoided by others. To this end we have produced bear-safety pamphlets, made a video, and shared my experience and knowledge in a Discovery Channel documentary. I give frequent talks to sportsmen's gatherings across the country, to National Forest Service and State Fish and Wildlife personnel, and to schoolchildren (one of my favorite venues) etc. People of all ages, I have discovered, are eager to know more about bears.

People are also struck by the graphic close-up photo taken of me shortly after the mauling. My blood-caked, gouged visage is a disturbing reminder of the potential severity of a bear attack. Yet the vividness of the picture has also brought criticism from some corners, particularly from environmentalists who feel that such images sensationalize and even distort the already too-sensational subject of bear attacks.

I do admit, I thought long and hard about making the photo public. It's a very emotional picture to me. I decided to use it because if it helps someone else think about bear safety and gets them to carry a can of spray and maybe stop an attack, then that picture was worth it. In this case a picture really does speak a thousand words. When I show it to kids and then tell them not to bring peanut butter and jelly sandwiches into the tent at night, they're more likely to listen and take the advice seriously.

At the same time, I am also sensitive to what I call the negative-sensationalizing of bears. I tell people, "Look, this was a bad situation, but bears are not out there looking to do this to you." I try to simmer down people's fears, while also educating them to the reality, all in perspective.

The bottom line is you should be prepared and carry bear spray in bear country. Hopefully you won't need to use it, but if you do, it can save your life. It's better to have bear spray and never need to use it, opposed to needing it, and not having it.

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