ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Karl Wolfe had a half day to hunt for blacktail deer, but the outing ended just 15 minutes after he left his truck.
Hiking in darkness and a steady rain up a steep Sitka slope, Wolfe was attacked Sunday morning by a grizzly bear, which chomped down on his arm and knocked him to the ground.
Wolfe managed to fend the bear off by hitting it with his rifle and firing a round. He escaped relatively unscathed -- just two bites that were stapled shut at the Sitka hospital.
Department of Fish and Game biologist Phil Mooney visited the site Monday, looking for clues to what triggered the attack and for signs of a wounded bear.
Wolfe, an experienced hunter, had no way to know he was about to have a bear encounter, Mooney said.
"This bear essentially gave him no warning," Mooney said Tuesday. "It was very quick."
Sitka is a community of about 8,600 on Baranof Island. Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof islands together are known as the "ABC" islands, sparsely populated with humans, heavily populated with bears that Alaska researchers have found are related more closely to polar bears than to other brown bears.
The attack occurred about 200 feet from a road that passes near Sitka's old pulp mill and less than 300 yards above Sawmill Creek, where a few residual pink salmon remain and coho salmon are starting to come in.
"Bears have been up on that slope resting, and then they cross the road and fish at a stream below," Mooney said.
Mooney called the site a "dog hair thicket," an area overgrown with new hemlock about 20 feet tall but just two inches to four inches in diameter and few branches as the trees compete for sunlight.
"It's like walking through a forest of toothpicks," Mooney said.
Visibility is only about 30 to 35 feet even when the sun is out.
"It's a good place for bears to sit," Mooney said. They can lie uphill without disclosing their location and listen and look for anything coming at them. They're not hiding from humans, Mooney said, but from other bears.
Mooney found no evidence that the attacking bear was defending a food cache. He found few tracks and nothing to indicate the presence of a cub.
What he did find was a rock shelf above Wolfe's path. A mix of fallen trees and root wads had created a canopy and a dry spot about the size of a dining room table. A bear had dug a bed in the needles before Wolfe arrived.
"I'm just guessing, but the bear could have been asleep and didn't hear him until he was very close," Mooney said.
Wolfe told the Daily Sitka Sentinel he was "side-hilling" -- zigzagging up the mountain because it was so steep. He followed a rough trail wide enough for one person that had been cut in by the Sitka Mountain Rescue team.
The bear needed only about three steps to cover the 20 feet to Wolfe. His backpack's strap may have deflected the bear's jaw. The momentum knocked Wolfe to the ground between two trees.
Wolfe swung his rifle around and hit the bear with the butt end. The animal turned away for a moment but still had its ears back, Wolfe said.
"It didn't go away, it was regrouping," he told the Sentinel. "It swung around and was coming at me aggressively."
Wolfe chambered a round into his rifle and fired from hip at close range. He said he didn't know if he hit the bear, but he didn't wait to find out.
"I knew I was bleeding a little, and I knew I needed to get out of the woods," Wolfe said.
He said he reached his truck and drove to the Sitka hospital.
His heavy clothes and the pack may have prevented a more serious injury.
"The bear didn't hook him in the back in the shoulder blades or the ribs," Mooney told the AP. "It's just one of those things. Sometimes you just can't beat luck."
Mooney found no blood to indicate the bear had been wounded.