Never again will Mike Warner wear mittens on a hunt. The 53-year-old Seward resident learned the hard way that when struggling under 400 pounds of angry grizzly, something as trivial as an ordinary glove can spell the difference between life and death.
“When it happens, it happens fast.” Warner said of the attack, which occurred during a Sept. 13 hunting expedition off the Charley river, a tributary of the Yukon.
Warner had made base camp with friends Scott and Cheyenne a mile off the river after traveling 65 miles up the Yukon, then another four miles up the Charley in Warner’s SeaArk Predator. On the morning of the attack, Warner left his friends at base camp and embarked on a solo moose hunt.
“I kinda like to hunt off of the Yukon,” he said. “One of my dreams is to get a Yukon river moose.”
Warner set out on his Predator and put ashore another mile up the Charley. He then made his way through a high brush field toward a ridge from which he hoped to scope the landscape for moose.
“It was a really foggy day that day,” he said, “and cold. And where I usually hike into the ridge, I stopped about halfway in because I heard some noises.”
A thick mist obscuring his view, Warner decided to wait until the fog lifted before pressing on. As the sun burned the fog away, he resumed his trek up to the ridge, where he spent the remainder of the morning. After several hours in the frigid mountain air without a moose sighting, Warner said that the warming fires of base camp began to beckon.
“It was pretty cold,” he said. “Didn’t really want to hunt too much longer in the afternoon, so about 12:30 I decided I was going head back down to base camp.”
Retracing his steps through the brush field, his .338 Alaska Bush Rifle slung over his shoulder, Warner stopped again. Here, in roughly the same spot he had stopped on his way up, he found himself the target of a newly-awakened mother grizzly, charging to protect her cub.
“About right where I stopped in the morning is when I stirred up a sow and a cub that was maybe three, four feet from me.” As Warner describes the encounter, a hint of adrenaline is palpable in his voice. “She turned at me and took one lunge at me and knocked me down to the ground.”
The bear pinned him onto his back before Warner had time to draw his weapon.
“I had my rifle on my shoulder, and when I got knocked down to the ground, I tried to get my gun off of my shoulder as well as my glove off of my hand,” he said. “And by then she was gnawing on my leg, and I’m laying on my back, and she’s shaking me back and forth a little bit. She’s got her canines into my leg.”
After an eternity gripped in the beast’s teeth, Warner was granted a brief reprieve when the bear released him and began heaving thick clouds of angry breath into the cool midday air. Warner now had precious little time, not just to ready his weapon, but to remove his mitten and liberate his trigger finger. As he seized the opportunity, he reawakened the bear’s wrath.
“Every time I would move, she would attack my legs again,” he said. “I was keeping my legs occupied with her, so she wouldn’t come over top of me and try to cut my belly or cut my neck or something vital.”
Warner had scarcely managed the rifle off his shoulder when the grizzly knocked it away with a powerful swipe. Again the bear threw herself into the ferocity of her attack. If ever the bear did show signs of abating, the slightest movement would rekindle her fury.
“It’s almost like a cat-and-mouse thing,” Warner said, “where the cat catches the mouse, and if the mouse moves, the cat attacks it again.”
He lay on his back, his gun beyond reach, his mitten half removed, and he knew that if he was granted another opportunity, it would be his last. It had to count.
Yet there was hope. Though he couldn’t reach his rifle, his mittened fingers still clung to the strap. In the tumult he’d managed to free his shooting hand from its mitten. The bear had released her grip on his left leg and now bit angrily at his flailing right foot. It was now or never.
Pulling it in by the strap, Warner brought the gun to his belly, planted the barrel into the bear’s chest, and pulled the trigger.
“That barrel touched her chest when I pulled the trigger,” he said. “I thought that I might’ve shot my foot. That’s how close it was. She had my foot in her mouth. I’ve got to get this barrel in front of her.”
And with a shot that echoed off the mountain ridge, the grizzly sow rolled off Mike Warner and fell lifeless at his side.
Adrenaline still coursing, Warner stood and removed his shirt before using it to dress his leg wound and fashion a makeshift splint.
“I took my shirt off, tied my leg up because it was bleeding,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what the damage was, but I didn’t want to look at it in the woods.”
Then began the mile-long trek back to his waiting boat. After a mile down the river, and yet another mile limping back to base camp, Warner finally found himself in the company of friends, who decided his wounds warranted the attention of Fairbanks doctors.
70 miles downriver and another three and a half hours by car, Warner checked into the hospital over nine hours after leaving camp. He received 30 stitches to his left leg, and another ten to his right big toe.
Warner’s stitches were removed on Sept. 25, and though he continues to monitor the canine punctures for signs of infection, he says his recovery seems to be progressing steadily.
“God looked after me, I guess,” he said, recovering at home. “People think you’re ready for a bear charge. When you’re in a bear’s space, believe me, they’ve got control of what’s going on. They’re going to use their force to protect their boundaries, and it is a frightening thing.”
Warner admits it’s a fear that doesn’t end with the attack. “I can see her mouth, her eyes and her jaw with her bottom lip hanging down, and that’s what really haunts me.”