Having a shitty Monday? Hey, at least you haven't been attacked by a bear, made a lucky escape from that bear, and then once again been attacked by that same bear.
Just over a year ago, that's exactly what happened to outdoorsman Todd Orr in Montana's Gallatin National Forest. Despite suffering a shopping list of injuries, he lived to tell the tale, so I spoke to him what it's like to survive a bear trying to tear your face off.
WARNING: This article contains graphic photos of Todd's injuries.
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VICE: Hey Todd. Tell me who you are and what it is that you do.
Todd Orr: I'm an outdoor enthusiast. I’ve been employed by the Gallatin National Forest for 28 years now, and I also run Skyblade Knives, a company selling handcrafted knives to hunters and collectors. On the 1st of October, 2016 I was attacked by a grizzly bear. Thanks to quick thinking, bear spray, training and the will to live, I survived, after hiking three miles out of the mountains with a broken arm, severed tendons, dozens of puncture wounds and a severely lacerated scalp. I drove myself to the hospital.
Let’s go back to the day of the attack. Where did the attack take place and what were you doing?
I'd decided to scout for elk prior to the upcoming hunting season. It was about a 90-minute early morning drive to the trailhead, and a one-hour hike in the dark for three miles to the location where I was attacked. I love exploring the backcountry of southwest Montana and, as usual, I was doing so alone. Rarely do I find someone willing to take on a 20-mile hike up to 10,000 feet with a 4AM start.
Yeah, I'd pass.
So that morning, just after daylight, I stepped out of the trees into an open meadow. Immediately, I noticed a sow grizzly bear with cubs at the fork in the trail. Then she and the cubs ran a short distance up the other trail, out of sight, over the ridge. I waited about 30 seconds before deciding she had left the area and I could continue. I took a few steps out into the tall grass of the opening, when the sound of a branch snapping over my left shoulder caught my attention. Turning, I saw the sow grizzly bear breaking over the low ridge, straight in my direction.
She was going about 40 miles per hour. I pulled my bear spray from its chest holster and yelled out so the bear knew I was human, in the hope she would turn back. No such luck. Within seconds, she was on me. I smashed the trigger down hard on the bear spray and gave her a blast in the face. Her momentum carried her through the pepper mist and onto me. I wrapped my arms around the back of my neck, locking my hands for protection. I expected her to run over the top of me and be gone. Again, no such luck. She was on top of me, repeatedly biting me. I could hear the tearing of the muscle as her teeth buried deep into my right arm with each bite. Then she disappeared.
That’s an utterly terrifying thing that happened to you…
And we’re not done. After about eight minutes hiking down the trail toward my vehicle I heard a noise from behind, only to find the grizzly was back. Again, it happened so quickly, I had no time to use the bear spray again or my pistol. I dropped to the ground to protect myself, like I had done before. I couldn't believe this was happening a second time! I was actually asking myself what I’d done to deserve this. Again, I protected the back and sides of my neck, head and face with my arms wrapped tightly around them. I kept tight against the ground to protect my face and eyes. She slammed down on top of me and ferociously bit my shoulder and arms over and over, but with much more aggression than before.
Forgive me asking a voyeuristic question, but what does that feel like?
Well, the force of each bite was kinda like a sledge hammer with teeth. One bite on my left forearm went through to the bone. I heard a crunch. My hand went numb and my fingers were unusable. The sudden flash of pain made me gasp. That slight sound triggered a frenzy of bites to my shoulder and upper back. I knew I needed to play dead, or the bear was going to tear me apart. I huddled there, hunched in a ball, trying to play dead. Another half dozen bites and a swipe from her paw to my head opened a 5-inch gash above my right ear, nearly scalping me. The flap of flesh flopped over the side of my head and the blood gushed into my eyes. I couldn’t see. I still didn't move. Adrenaline had blocked out the pain, but my other senses were heightened. I could feel and hear the tearing of each bite as her teeth tore into my muscles. She would lift me up and slam me back down, biting, over and over. I thought it was the end.
Then the bear suddenly stopped her attack and just stood on top of me. I will never forget that. Dead silence except for the sound of her breathing and sniffing. And the smell! I could feel and hear her breath on the back of my head and neck, inches away from my spine. There she stood, motionless, pinning me to the ground. I was helpless. But I remained quiet and still. And then she just… left.
Being attacked twice by a bear is very rare, no?
Extremely rare. It was just very bad luck. I headed down the trail toward the truck after the first attack, and she decided to follow the top of the ridge heading away from the site as well. We basically left in the same direction! The ridge she followed and the canyon and trail I followed eventually came together 500 yards down the mountain. I believe she saw me below her on the trail and attacked a second time.
Tell me about the injuries you sustained.
After driving myself to the hospital and receiving X-rays, two doctors worked about seven hours to clean and stitch up all the puncture wounds. I had a broken left arm with large bite wounds that had shredded the forearm muscle, damaged nerves and torn two tendons away from the muscle. My right arm and shoulder received approximately 25 deep puncture wounds and tears as well. There was the gash on the side of my scalp, just above the ear, and a bite to my right side just above the waistline, leaving four puncture wounds. My lower back received deep puncture wounds from her claws digging into my back as she stood on top of me. The following day I had to visit an orthopaedic surgeon to assess the damage in my left arm. Exploratory surgery was needed to re-open all the wounds, cleanse them, determine the damage and repair the torn muscles, then re-attach the severed tendons. My left arm looked a lot like shredded hamburger.
And how do you feel now?
Fortunately, after three months of physical therapy, I was able to regain about 90 percent of movement and strength back in my left arm. It continues to slowly improve with time and weight training. I will never be 100 percent, but I’m doing almost everything I want to do with my left arm now. You wouldn’t notice except for the scars.
And how do you now feel about bears?
I don’t hate them. I don’t want revenge. I don’t feel the bear that attacked me should be put down. She just felt I was a threat and was protecting her young. I learned a lesson. When I’m in the woods now, I’m far more alert than I ever was – I was too fearless before – and there are still some places I’d rather not go alone.