JUNEAU, Alaska — As Josh Dybdahl waited for help on the side of a mountain and tried to hold pieces of his flesh together after a bear tossed him around like a ragdoll, he tried to concentrate on the bright side of things.
“At least it’s sunny out,” Dybdahl recalled telling his hunting partner while the pair were waiting for a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter to find them.
Dybdahl, 30, knew he was losing a lot of blood, he knew that there was a chance the helicopter might not find him and he also knew there were more bears in the brush circling them. But none of that mattered. He had already made up his mind that he was going to live.
Sitting up in his hospital bed Tuesday, Hoonah resident Dybdahl went over the surreal mauling he had suffered just three days prior while on a hunting trip near Port Frederick bay with his friend Anthony Lindoff, 36. The two had taken a boat out to an area just 10 miles southwest of Hoonah to look for deer. As they were getting ready to make deer calls, Lindoff said, he heard something. He hoped it was a deer, but then he turned and locked eyes with a sow brown bear running straight toward him.
“It didn’t get the memo that it was supposed to bluff charge, this was serious,” Lindoff said. “It chased me first, and as I was running, backing away, I was trying to swing at it with my trekking poll because my rifle was in my sling on my backpack. I immediately thought that was the biggest mistake I could have made. . I felt like the worst hunting partner.”
Dybdahl threw off his pack and headed farther down the hill, trying to get his rifle in position to help out his friend. Unfortunately, Dybdahl didn’t know that the same direction he was moving in was where the sow bear had left two of her cubs behind. In what Dybdahl said seemed like a single moment, the bear changed direction and Dybdahl was on the ground. His rifle no longer in his hands, he screamed for his friend to shoot the bear as it pinned him down, and had its teeth in his flesh.
Dybdahl said he had never been more “in the moment,” able to see, hear, and smell everything so intensely. Everything he knew about bears went racing through his head. He realized quickly he was angering the bear more by moving and screaming. His body went limp and he was silent. But even though he made himself appear harmless, the sow didn’t stop. For the next 10 seconds, he said, his whole body could feel the bear’s ferocity and rage.
“When she bit down on my leg, my thigh, she ripped so hard. . I could hear everything,” Dybdahl said. “It sounded like paper ripping and she pulled my thigh. I felt my whole thigh muscle move away from my leg bone.”
Fast actions, calm voices
Inside Dybdahl’s hospital room, his girlfriend Adrian Lee’s eyes watered up as she heard the story told again. Lindoff, the man who would ultimately save Dybdahl’s life, cringed at the details, closing his eyes and looking away from Dybdahl’s lively reenactment of events.
Although he flinched when Dybdahl recreated the sound of flesh tearing, Lindoff was not as unsettled on Saturday. When he saw the bear on Dybdahl, he went through six motions in approximately 10 seconds, never skipping a beat. He slung his rifle in front of him, took the gun sleeve off, took off the scope cover, chambered a round, aimed and fired.
“I’ve never de-slinged my rifle that quickly,” Lindoff said.
The bullet entered the bear’s side near her lungs. She had just locked her jaw onto Dybdahl’s skull. Lindoff shook his head at the pure luck that his rifle’s scope was already focused for the shot. One more second to adjust the scope and his friend could have been scalped, Lindoff said.
Lindoff fired a final shot into the bear’s chest when she was on her back, barely moving, but clearly in pain, to put her out of her misery.
The only communication device the men had to call for help was a cellphone that, to their surprise, was in range to make a call. It took exactly 59 minutes from the time that Lindoff called 911 to when they saw a helicopter in the sky.
During that time, Dybdahl called his girlfriend back in Hoonah to tell his parents what was happening. Lee said when she picked up the phone, the utter calmness in Dybdahl’s voice let her know something was wrong, but he had a handle of the situation.
“The calmness in Josh’s voice assured me that he was going to be OK,” Lee said. “He’s a warrior. I’m amazed by the strength I see in him.”
Dybdahl’s mother Sally Dybdahl said she too was scared when she heard what happened, but when she found out her son told his girlfriend he was going to make it, she knew he meant it.
“He’s never lied to me,” his mother said from inside Dybdahl’s hospital room. “It just set my mind. He’s going to be OK.”
No bad feelings
Dybdahl would say that he is more than OK, he’s experienced like he’s never been before when it comes to bear encounters. He and Lindoff said that in Hoonah, they live off the land and the same could be said for most people in rural Alaska. The only thing that could keep him from going back into the woods and hunting is if he was in a wheelchair, and even then he said he’d try to figure something out.
He also said he doesn’t harbor any bad feelings toward the bear that had to die for him to live. He knew that she was only trying to survive and take care of her cubs. Lindoff said it will haunt him for the rest of his life that he took a bear’s life.
Dybdahl said he’s glad they were able to avoid shooting the two cubs, though he said calling them “cubs” was a stretch based on their size.
“I love bears. I love watching bears. I think it’s a treat to see a bear in the woods,” Dybdahl said. However, he said he’d rather not see a bear again under the same circumstances because “there’s no fighting back. There’s no comparing human strength and animal strength.”
Dybdahl is the fifth person this year in southeast Alaska to suffer a bear mauling, according to Tom Schumacher, a regional management coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. That number is “more than normal” but he couldn’t immediately comment on specific patterns over the years. Even if there was a noticeable trend of more maulings, the “why” would remain a mystery.
“Questions about why animals do things are very hard to answer,” Schumacher said.
Dybdahl said he too doesn’t know what he could have done differently to avoid the mauling and calm the sow’s fears, but what he does know is that having a hunting partner that day saved his life. He said he knew it from the moment the bear locked eyes on him.
“In those seconds I knew I was going to get mauled, I knew she was going to tear me up real bad, and I knew Anthony was going to shoot her,” and that he would live, Dybdahl said.
For all of his hunting friends, Dybdahl said, he wants them to know that they should, when possible, hunt with someone, take radios for communication and bring medical kits, even if they add weight to the packs they’re carrying.
He also said they should stay calm. Negative things come more quickly when you think negatively.
“I made the choice. I knew I wasn’t going to die, even though I knew there was a chance I could die. I made up my mind that I was going to survive. At least I was going to carry that feeling ’till I died,” Dybdahl said.
Information from: Juneau (Alaska) Empire, http://www.juneauempire.com