BOZEMAN – To survive a grizzly bear attack takes some knowledge, calm nerves, fast thinking and not a little luck.
To survive such an attack and to be able to coolly recount it, second by second, without a pause, without a wince, without a flinch, takes an unusual strength of character.
That’s what Todd Orr has. It’s a quiet strength and confidence born of years in the woods and sure knowledge of the wild areas he loves to frequent.
In October of 2016, Orr was in the Bear Creek drainage south of Ennis scouting for elk. He started walking down the trail before the sun came up.
Three miles later he first saw the bear that attacked him.
“Right after daylight I walked into a small clearing and at the other end of the clearing was a sow with two cub griz. And we saw each other at the same time and she immediately took off up the trail and ran over a short ridge and out of sight. So I thought, ‘Great. She doesn’t want anything to do with people. She’s got that way and I’ll just head up the trail the other way,’” said Orr.
Only a minute later, the bear was back.
“I heard a noise, and I turned and she’d come around the ridge behind me. And I looked over my left shoulder and here she came over the ridge, 35 or 40 yards in a wide open charge, downhill,” Orr said.
This is when Orr’s back country experience kicked in. He quickly got out his bear spray and just had time to trigger it before the bear was on him.
“I gave her a full blast of bear spray and just her momentum and speed just carried her right through the bear spray and immediately she was right there and on me.”
Orr said he was knocked to the ground but stayed hunched over his knees and clasped his hands behind his neck to protect that vulnerable area.
He said the bear immediately started biting him.
“She was on top of me chewing on my right arm and shoulder,” he said. “And I think the bear spray definitely helped because within just a few seconds, a half dozen bites, she kind of woofed, or made a snort and was gone.”
At this point, Orr could have fled screaming from the scene, but instead, he kept cool.
“My adrenalin (is) going. My heart’s beating. I’m like, ‘OK, I need to just head on down the trail, get back down to the hospital and get stitched up,’” he said.
But Orr was alone, three miles from the trailhead and he had no idea where the bear was.
“I headed down the trail, it was five or six minutes down the trail, a few hundred yards, and I’m kind of following along the creek, and it’s kind of noisy and all of a sudden I heard a snap of a branch or some noise behind me and I turned and just right there was that bear a second time,” he recalled. “And there was no time to even turn to spray. There was no time to get my pistol. It was like I just turned like this and she pretty much just knocked me to the ground. I went onto my face again protecting the back of my neck. This time she was really mad.”
Orr recounted step by step what the second attack was like.
“The first bite was in my left arm, it was up here. And I heard the crunch of the bone, and it ripped the tendons and the muscle and the nerves and my whole hand just crimped up like that. And it made me wince, and I kind of went, ‘Aahhh’ and I moved my arm away. When I did that it just triggered like a frenzy of biting and she was, you know, I’m a threat and she just really started jumping on me.”
“She bit this arm maybe 20, 25 times,” Orr said. “My shoulder, she’s standing right in the middle of my back, picking me up, slamming me down, but turned me. And I’m hunkered down like this and out of the corner of my eye I see, I’m looking right into the side of her face. Like a foot away I’m looking into her eye and I pull it back in, and I’m just trying to keep everything protected.”
“It was like a sledgehammer with teeth,” Orr said. “She was not just biting, but she would just forcefully slam me down, pick me up and shake me, move me all over. I’m getting my face slammed into the dirt, my chest is getting smashed into my knees.”
“At one point a claw caught me right here on the side of my head and it ripped a five-inch gash in the side of my scalp, kind of scalped me,” he said. “And my eyes immediately filled with blood. She was standing right on my lower back with her front claws, and they were just digging into my waistline and she just had me pinned to the ground, smashed there, and I could just barely breathe. I’m trying not to move.”
“I think she was just kind of looking around to see if her cubs were around and then she would sniff me,” he said. “And that was probably the most eeriest part of the whole thing, was actually hearing and feeling her sniffing the back of my neck and just knowing that she could, at any point, just bite right through my hands and into my spine and it would be over.”
“And finally, she stood there for a bit and then she was gone,” Orr said.
“So I reached up really slowly and kind of wiped the blood out of my eyes, and I looked each direction and I didn’t see her anywhere, but I saw my pistol laying over there about 10 feet away, so I just dove for the pistol,” he said. “Out of the holster, hammer back just in case, didn’t see her, so I’m like; ‘I gotta get out of here.’”
“I can make it to the trailhead, and at that point, if I need to, I can do some first aid,” Orr remembered thinking.
“And so it was just three miles. It was like a 45-minute hike probably, but it seemed like forever.” He said.
Once he got back to his truck Orr might have hopped in and rushed to the hospital.
Instead, he felt he needed to leave a warning for others who might come to the trailhead that day. He tried to write a note but his left hand was useless and he found he couldn’t control his right hand enough to finish the note. So he got out his phone and recorded a short video.
“She got my head good. I don’t know what’s under my hat. My ear. My arm. Pieces of stuff hanging out. I don’t know what’s going on in there. And then my shoulder. It’s ripped up. I think my arm’s broke, but legs are good, internal organs are good, eyes are good. I just walked out three miles. Now I gotta go to the hospital,” Orr says in the video which became an internet sensation.
Orr made it to the Madison Valley Medical Center in Ennis.
Eight months later, he still has some nerve damage in his left hand but otherwise is in remarkably good shape.
After months of physical therapy and working out he’s back in the woods, but he says he’s a bit more careful to watch closely for bears and avoid any encounter at all.
He’s also shared advice about backcountry safety on the video he made in October: “Be safe out there. Bear spray doesn’t always work, but it’s better than nothing,” Orr said.
But at the trailhead where Orr walked into the woods, the chance of encountering a grizzly was much higher than Orr expected, or knew.
That’s because there was a dump for disposing of dead cows 400 yards away. Just four football fields from the Bear Creek trailhead was a virtual grizzly magnet.
“That’s an area you want to avoid because bears will come back to that until it’s consumed,” said Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest District Ranger, Dale Olson.
Even months after the attack Orr had no idea the carcass dump existed.
When we asked him about it, he was surprised and for the first time in our conversation, hesitated a bit.
“Ahh, no, I’m not aware of a carcass dump. I’m not aware of it to this point actually,” he said.
Olson told us that even the Forest Service was unaware of the dump.
After the attack, a researcher noticed circling ravens and found the carcasses by accident. That’s when the Forest Service moved quickly to give ranchers an alternative in order to make the trailhead safer.
“So we’ve got something in place right now so that if there’s a carcass, the ranchers can give us a call and we’ll haul it away,” said Olson.
In addition, the trailhead and a sign designating the forest boundary both prominently display bear warning signs.
Olson ticked off the things backcountry travelers need to do in bear country: “First off just check and see if there is bear activity. And, if there is, there’ll be signs. You want to travel in groups, you want to make noise. Don’t carry things that would attract bears because basically, it boils down to scent.”
And Orr’s advice was echoed by Olson.
“I highly recommend carrying bear spray,” he said.
Orr hasn’t let his encounter keep him from the high country he loves but it has changed his behavior.
“I’m more cautious,” he said. “I’m paying a lot more attention. I want to make sure I see something and back out of the situation and completely avoid an encounter if I can.”
Orr told us that if he had known about the carcass dump he would probably still have gone on his scouting hike, but that he would have waited until daylight before heading into the woods. He says he would also have been more cautious and alert. Months later, he’s even more restrained.
“It doesn’t bother me, but I know that I was thinking that, you know, I’d love to hike back up here today after this interview. But I’m like, uhhh, I’m a little nervous you know over whether or not I’d want to do that right now,” he said.
Orr says the next time he heads up the Bear Creek trail, he’ll probably take a friend.
MTN’S John Sherer reporting