ANCHORAGE, Alaska – ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The bearded, sandy-haired geologist was on a job in the remote Alaska wilderness when a grizzly bear suddenly emerged from the brush just yards away.
So Robert Miller did what he was trained to do — he fell to the ground, clasped his hands around his neck to protect it and played dead.
The bear wandered away and Miller thought he was in the clear. Pulling himself to his knees, he found out how wrong he was.
The bear charged again and "this time he didn't want me to move. He was really thrashing me around," the 54-year-old said Wednesday from his hospital bed, his right arm and leg swathed in bandages, his left ear criss-crossed by stitches.
Miller had been out scoping possible mining projects Sunday for his employer, Millrock Resources Inc., in a remote valley of the Alaska Range mountains near the Iditarod Trail. He'd finished for the day and was waiting for a helicopter to pick him up.
Miller was clearing brush with a handsaw so the helicopter could land, when the bear appeared about 25 feet away.
"When he stepped into the clearing he didn't snarl and stand up and show me how big he was. He just came for me," Miller said.
Miller managed to pull out his .357 Magnum revolver and squeeze off a single shot, possibly grazing the animal. Then his survival training kicked in: He fell onto his stomach, dug his face into the dirt and covered his neck with his hands to protect it from the grizzly's claws and teeth.
The bear went for his exposed right arm, gnawing and clawing it and chipping the bone off the tip of his elbow. The attack lasted 10-15 seconds, then the animal lumbered away.
"I thought it was over, I thought he was gone," Miller said.
He rolled over and was getting to his knees when the bear, which was only about 40 yards away, came at him again.
"As soon as I turned, he was running already. It was shoot, shoot and roll back over," Miller said.
He managed to fire two more shots, but with his right arm badly injured he thinks he missed the bear. Then he lay still as the animal gnawed and clawed at him.
"It was no problem to lay there with my neck covered and let him chew. It was actually painless at that point," Miller said.
After the second attack, Miller played dead again, lying still for three to five minutes as thoughts raced through his mind. Was the bear still around? How bad was he bleeding? Where was his gun?
He tried to move and realized he couldn't. He was too badly injured.
"I was just hoping my radio was still in my vest pocket and it was," he said. "I got it out and started radioing mayday, which nobody answered."
He tried calling for help about every 20 seconds; about 20 minutes passed before a voice came over the radio.
It was the helicopter pilot. Not knowing there had been a bear attack, he was calling in to let Miller know he was within five miles and needed to know the exact pickup spot.
"I told him what had happened. So he came in low, just doing outwardly expanding circles to make sure there was no bear around," Miller said.
Reassured the grizzly was gone, the pilot flew to the next valley and picked up geologist Ryan Campbell, who was trained as a wilderness medic.
Campbell cleaned Miller's wounds and applied pressure bandages to stem the bleeding. That's when Miller really began hurting.
"When he was cleaning out the wounds with this spray bottle ... it was a mixture of fire and electricity," Miller said.
He was flown to a nearby air strip where an emergency medical technician was waiting, then taken by medical helicopter on the more than hour-long trip to Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage.
Miller was fortunate to have survived, said Rick Sinnott, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist.
He should have been packing a more powerful gun, Sinnott said. "You have to be a very good shot or very lucky to stop a brown bear with a .357 Magnum."
Miller did the right thing to play dead with the grizzly, Sinnott said.
"Most of the time they just want to neutralize you and if you are playing dead after they swat you or hit you, you are pretty much neutralized. But if you try to run or stand right up or are screaming or waving your arms around, then they think you are still a danger," he said.
Propped up in his hospital bed Wednesday, Miller gingerly touched what he thought were bite marks just above his buttocks on his left side. His right arm was heavily bandaged from bicep to wrist; another bulky bandage encased his right thigh, which the bear had chewed from the back of his leg to the front.
Miller's face was unscathed except for a few scratches, but the bear nearly ripped off his left ear. Using his finger, he traced where it had been reattached with two rows of stitches.
Still, the geologist, who until five years ago worked as a roofer, said he holds no grudge against the bear.
"The bear was just doing what bears do," Miller said.