An hour after the attack
On September 27th two years ago, my coworker Catherine and I went on a hike to celebrate the end of our summer work season. I have a bad knee from snowboarding and she had previously sprained her ankle, so we decided to take an easy route to Row Lakes in Glacier National Park. Some of our friends were going to meet us out there after they took a tougher course.
It was a nice day. It had just snowed so there was a little bit of white on the ground, but it was sunny and pretty warm. It’s about a 17-mile hike that we were going to do. We got to the top of the Piegan Pass, which is smack dab in the middle, and two friends who had come along with us decided they wanted to head back and do some canoeing. Catherine and I chose to go on. A mile or so down, we started going off-trail. We were following a path that Catherine knew from before. It was the migration trail of some elk or something. We kind of went up and over toward the mountains. Catherine pretty much knew where we were going so I just followed her.
We passed a creek and then a little ways from that we entered really thick bushes. It was thick enough that you had to really push through. At one point we even needed to crawl. We realized we had lost the trail, so we separated to look for it, going in different directions and circling upward, calling back and forth to each other so we wouldn’t lose the other. We were being plenty loud. Then we came back together because we couldn’t find the trail anywhere.
We were standing there discussing what to do when we first heard the bear woofing and huffing and snapping its jaws. The growling started, and it was so loud the vibration shook my body. We looked at each other and realized that neither one of us had any place to go or anything to get under. I had gone hunting a lot with my dad and brother when I was little and they always told me to try and get under something if there was a grizzly coming.
Then the bear started charging at us. All I knew was that I didn’t want to actually see the bear coming for me, so I turned my back on the sound of it crashing through the bushes. I didn’t see what happened to Catherine, but it seems she was pushed from behind, up into the trees, and then down on her bad ankle, spraining it again. The bear sort of shoved her out of the way to come for me. They do that because they figure the one in front is the strongest, so they get her out of the way and go for the weakest—the one at the back.
The first thing I felt was teeth biting into my shoulder, and then I was down on the ground on my stomach with the bear on top of me. It was standing on me with a paw on each of my arms. It was the weirdest sensation to have teeth piercing me. I wasn’t even scared of dying; it was just strange and I knew I didn’t want to see it happen. After the third bite, I started to focus on my breathing. I tried to slow it down as much as I could so that I would seem dead. Grizzlies like to eat rotting meat. They kill their prey, make sure it’s dead, and then come back to eat it a little later.
Once I did that, the bear stopped and then took one more small nip at me. I was able to look up at it then, and I saw its nose and its mouth right above me. I could somehow tell that it wasn’t going to keep biting.
Catherine, when she landed, had been able to knock the safety off on her can of bear spray. I looked over at her and saw a red cloud of mist coming toward the bear and me. It hit us and the bear took off right away.
I couldn’t breathe or see either. I was coughing like crazy. Catherine was trying to figure out if I was OK. Since I had my backpack on, she couldn’t tell how bad or just where my wounds were—just that there was blood. There were scratches on my arms from his claws too.
I just wanted to get out of the trees. Being surrounded by them was starting to be not the best feeling. We made our way back to the creek. I kept asking Catherine, “Are you sure the bear’s not coming? They can smell blood up to ten miles.” Catherine kept looking behind us and reassuring me. At the creek, she took off my backpack to check out the bite wounds. We put Ace bandages on them. Then we tried to wash the bear spray out of my eyes. Using my cell phone and a radio, we tried to contact help. Neither worked.
So we decided to hike on to where we’d been heading. It was quicker than going back the way we’d come. We hiked about seven miles. It was a zigzaggy trail with lots of switchbacks. When we got to the bottom there was a really nice waterfall I’d never seen before, so we stopped there to take a picture.
Still, I wanted to get somewhere to get all this bear spray off me, so I wanted to go fast. Catherine had a sprained ankle, so she wanted to go slow. It was a matter of compromise.
We got to a ranger station and we totally filled the room with bear spray, so I volunteered to wait outside. They called an ambulance.
The attack happened around one or two in the afternoon and we finally got to the hospital around 9:30 at night.
They had no set procedure for bear attacks there. They even had to call poison control to get the antidote for bear spray. The worst part of the pain at that point was definitely the bear spray. They tried bathing me with Dawn. Bear spray is cayenne pepper with an oil base, so it seeps into your pores. The Dawn is supposed to cut the oil. So smearing Dawn on my body felt good, but as soon as they rinsed it off it hurt twice as bad as before. Poison control said to try milk. That ended up being the best. Bathing in milk really soothed it.
At that point I was living in the town of St. Mary’s, which is total bear country. I had some trouble going home that night. Eventually I fell asleep. I couldn’t lie on my back or my side, so I had to prop myself up with pillows. When I woke up the next morning, it hurt a lot more than it had before. Bruising had set in and it was really bad.
We went back to the hospital, and my family doctor was there by then. He said, “They never should have sent you home last night.” Then they readmitted me and started surgically cleaning the puncture wounds twice a day, keeping them stuffed with gauze between cleanings. It was hard to do because the holes were deeper than your finger, so they had to kind of jam the swab down the hole and pull it out again.
The nurses would always come in and ask me if I wanted more morphine. They would say, “What’s the pain like on a scale of 1 to 10?” I’d just be like, “It’s a fucking 15! Are you kidding me?”
I’m Blackfeet, and a lot of us believe that no Indian has ever been attacked by a bear. That is total bullshit. So there was a lot of negativity directed toward me from people in the hospital and from Blackfeet reporters. People were saying things like, “No real Indians hike in the park, so since she was hiking the bear didn’t know she was Blackfeet. That’s why he attacked her.” Then they said that once it bit into me and realized I was Blackfeet it just decided to stop. Such a ridiculous thing to say. Because I’m Blackfeet I’m not supposed to hike in the park? This is our land. Where am I supposed to hike?
KELSY RAE RUNNING WOLF
Left: “The puncture wounds were really clean. The ones on my chest didn’t really start bleeding until I began moving around. My arm started to swell up to the size of my hand. It looked like I didn’t have a wrist! Thank goodness we had a first-aid kit.” Right: Kelsy today. She’s just fine. Shirt by Morphine Generation; jacket by Meltin Pot.