A wildlife research technician with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is recovering after being attacked by a bear while surveying streams in the backcountry wilderness. A quick response from his coworker and preparation through emergency training reportedly kept the situation from being far worse than it could have been.
As a fisheries technician, 31-year-old Jess Coltharp spends a lot of time in bear country as he monitors salmon populations in streams and rivers across the Alaska.
Given the amount of time he spends in bear country, he’s no stranger to bear sightings and interactions while on the job and by this point in his career he’s experienced with handling those situations. He said that he typically runs into about 80 – 90 brown bears a summer, and over the course of his 14-year career, he estimates he’s had roughly 1,000 encounters with bears.
“Of course, not all of those encounters are close contact, but a good good portion of them are. You’re eventually going to run into them in a bad situation where you don’t know they’re there or you startle them.”
An unexpected and startling situation is exactly what happened to him recently while surveying a stream on West Chichagof Island a few hours north of Sitka. He was with a coworker and a volunteer and they had already finished surveying fish for the day so they were walking back down a trail towards their boat at about 5 pm.
Coltharp was walking out in front of the group when he heard the bushes rustling. In interviews with Snopes and KTOO News, he said what happened next occurred so fast it seemed like a blur.
“I remember looking over my shoulder, and I was saying something to them when I kind of heard the bushes crashing, and that’s when I looked up and looked over toward where the sound was coming from.
I couldn’t even really see it all at first because the brush was pretty thick, but about 20 feet away … this bear comes charging out of the brush at full speed. And without any warning at all.
Normally, when they’re defensive over their territory, they let you know. They get all huffy and puffy and they start popping their jaw and making a lot of noise, and there was absolutely none of that going on. So it was kind of a unique situation
I turned back around, and the bear was coming at me, flying out of the thick of the brush. It was just way too quick to do anything about it.”
With an agitated brown bear barreling down on him, Coltharp unslung his gun and tried rack a bullet into the chamber but the bear was faster than he was.
Knowing he was about to get attacked, all he could do was try to dodge the bear in hopes of protecting his head and vitals from the initial onslaught. The 500-pound bear quickly sank his teeth into Coltharp’s leg.
“And that’s when the bear reached down and just kind of chomped me right above my kneecap. And the bear was just shaking me around by my leg.
I was just laying there as it’s got me, just yelling, ‘Shoot it, shoot it, shoot it, shoot it!’ as fast as I could say it.”
At that point his coworker, Anthony Wallach was about 15 feet away with a loaded shotgun.
“I had my shotgun up, and then just like, in a second I was like, this is the safest shot I’m going to have.
I took one shot, the bear rolled right off of Jess. And then I pumped two more shots into the bear just to make sure that it wasn’t going to get back up.”
Coltharp said that at exactly the same time he heard the gunshot he could feel the bear release its jaws from his leg.
“And the moment I heard that gunshot was the exact same moment I felt that bear release. And I turned around and all of our eyes are so wide open. We’re all pretty worked up over the scenario.
Your adrenaline is kind of fighting your body, wanting to go into shock, almost. So it’s like, you’re kind of fighting with yourself a little bit trying to figure out how to deal with it.
I remember standing up immediately afterwards, and just looking at Anthony and telling them you know, like, ‘Nice shot, thanks for saving my life. I think I had a smile on my face because I was just so damn relieved that the bear didn’t have me anymore.
Adrenaline is insanely powerful. I was able to walk out mostly on my own power. I knew I had to get out of there.”
Wallach said that as soon as he heard Coltharp start thanking him, he could breathe a sigh of relief.
“He’s like ‘Hell of a shot, buddy!’
And at that moment when he said that, I was like, that made me feel a little calmer in that situation. Knowing that Jess, he could still talk to me, and everything seemed all right.”
The men made a tourniquet to stop the bleeding, patched up Coltharp’s leg wound the best they could, and contacted their boss on a satellite phone to have a float plane sent in for a medical evacuation.
Coltharp said the walk back to the boat with a chewed up leg was tough, but he was grateful to be alive.
As he sat down on a log to catch his breath, he posed for a picture displaying his fresh leg wound and a thumbs up. He said the the juxtaposition of both the wound and his thumbs up is symbolic of the whole situation.
“I remember thinking, wow, this is something I’m really gonna have to remember. It was symbolic, I guess. At least to me, it felt like the right way to go about it.
There’s no reason to freak everybody out. You know, you’re in the situation you’re in. You might as well keep your spirits up while you do it. And I think that that can make all the difference in getting out of there quickly and safely.”
Both men credit emergency response training training with preventing the situation from being much more dangerous.
“I’m not somebody that thinks that, you know, there’s bears out there in the woods ready to jump on you even though that is pretty much what happened.
Being prepared just in case it does happen is is huge. You might think, oh, I’ve walked this trail 100 times, and I’ve never had any issues in my whole life. But that one day where you do, if you’re not prepared, it’s the difference between life and death.”
Once they made it back to the boat, Coltharp was airlifted to a nearby medical center and underwent surgery just two hours after the attack. Though his leg is patched up he still has weeks of recovery and physical therapy ahead of him.
He said he’ll never be able to thank Walloch for his quick reaction, which likely saved his life.
“Anthony’s never gonna have to buy a drink around me ever again. I definitely owe that guy a lot. So he’ll be reaping the benefits of that for a while.”