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Competitor Classics: Surviving A Battle With A Grizzly Bear

Johan Otter and a mother grizzly bear had a lot in common: they would do anything to protect their family.

Doctors took skin and muscle from other parts of Johan Otter's body to rebuild his scalp. Photo: John Segesta

This piece first appeared in Competitor Magazine in 2007.

Written by: Bob Babbitt

It was August 25, 2005, and 43-year-old Johan Otter of San Diego and his 18-year-old daughter, Jenna, were out for a hike in Montana’s Glacier National Park. The two were 90 minutes into a six-hour hike when they came around a corner and ran smack dab into hell.

A 350-pound grizzly bear was five feet away with two of her cubs. The bear and Johan Otter were kindred spirits — both taken by surprise, both wanting nothing else but to protect their own.

Otter put himself between the bear and Jenna and it was on.

“The bear bit down on my left thigh and wasn’t about to let go,” Otter remembers. “It wasn’t very pleasant.”

He recalls being shaken around like a rag doll.

“If you are attacked by a bear, you’re supposed to get into the fetal position to protect your front side and play dead,” says Otter.

Fat chance.  The bear already had him by the front side and he was at the worst spot on the trail to be attacked. The only escape from the dental-floss-thin trail was a cliff with a sheer drop off.

Options? He didn’t have many. The bear was inflicting major damage, breaking seven vertebrae in Otter’s neck and back, one in five places. His right eye socket was crushed and he had numerous puncture wounds and three broken ribs. His scalp was torn nearly completely off, and he was on his way to losing 50 percent of the blood in his body.

“If I stayed there, I was going to die,” he says.

To stay alive and to keep the bear away from Jenna, he dove 25 feet off the cliff while grabbing the bear by the throat. The two landed amidst the hard scrabble and continued their battle. Otter seized a rock and repeatedly beat the bear in the head. He knew he was in bad shape when he could actually feel the bear’s teeth going into his skull. The two tumbled another 50 feet, 75 feet total, down the side of the mountain.

Time was crawling. Johan Otter’s life had been altered forever in the span of what turned out to be five minutes.

“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.

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