It's not just enough to buy the bear spray. Are people practicing with it, pulling it out of the holster, popping off the safety? Because in the instance you're going to need it, you'll have no time. —Kenneth Wells
CHEYENNE, Wyo. — One week ago, Kenneth Wells never thought he would be staring death directly in the face, let alone survive the encounter.
Yet that's just what happened when a routine hunting trip north of Dubois over the weekend was interrupted by a mama grizzly and her two cubs.
Kenneth, a Southwest Airlines pilot, was bow hunting for elk with his brother Mark, a local optometrist, around the Washakie Wilderness in the Shoshone National Forest when they encountered the bear.
The two had been part of a larger hunting party that included the Wellses' father, another brother and family friends.
"While the others had seen elk and heard bugling, I hadn't seen anything in three days," Kenneth said. "On Saturday night I said around the fire, 'I sure would like to see something; I don't care if it's an elk or a moose or a grizzly.'
"And it happened the next day. I saw something, and it was a lot closer than I thought it would ever be."
On Saturday, one member of the party had taken an elk at a wallow about 13/4 miles upstream of the camp. So Kenneth and Mark decided to hunt the same wallow on Sunday, arriving at about 8:30 a.m., setting up an elk decoy and then lying in wait.
"At 12:15, we hear a whoof and stomps," Kenneth said. 'We thought, 'We got a crazed bull elk in the rut,' and it was close."
But it wasn't an elk. It was a grizzly bear, investigating the brothers' decoy.
"As I saw her, I then saw her two cubs right behind her. At that instant, she turned and saw me," Mark said. "It took me but half a second to realize the game was on.
"I said, 'Kenneth, it's a bear.' I began to retreat out of the blind, knowing I needed some space to get to my spray."
The moment his brother said it was a bear, Kenneth stood up. By the time he did, the bear had closed the distance between herself and the brothers.
"All I could see was gray hair and black eyes," Kenneth said. "I didn't notice that her mouth was open, didn't see teeth or anything. I just remember a big head and two black eyes.
"I had three or four seconds. I immediately dove out of the blind toward Mark and went into the fetal position."
As soon as he hit the ground, Kenneth could feel the burn of the bear's teeth in his right side. But the pressure lasted for just a moment as a torrent of bear spray hit the animal directly on the face.
"The spray just hit her dead on," Mark said. "She turned and wheeled, and I followed her with my spray, like you would a dog with a hose. She had gone back through the blind, back up the hill, and by the time I got up the hill she was 30 yards away on a dead run with the cubs chasing her."
The incident lasted no more than 20 seconds. It happened so fast that it wasn't until Kenneth, still lying on the ground, said, "She got me," that Mark finally felt fear.
"Right then, we realized: 'Thank God, this thing's over,'" he said.
The brothers returned to their camp covered in bear spray and with Kenneth sporting a quarter-sized puncture in his right side.
Upon their return, they found that several of the party's horses had wandered off. So they hiked all the way back to their trailhead and drove into Dubois, only to find the clinic there had closed a half hour earlier.
"At that point, I called 911 and they sent an ambulance from Lander," Kenneth said.
In Lander, a doctor cleaned Kenneth's wound and provide antibiotics and shots for rabies and tetanus. By Wednesday night, he and Mark were back in Cheyenne, having had time to consider what advice they would give to other hunters.
"I'm alive and not seriously injured because I was not hunting alone," Kenneth said. "Having a hunting partner saved my life."
Kenneth also credited Mark's use of bear spray, and not a firearm, as the key to the attack lasting as briefly as it did. Both had pistols, but they were not readily accessible.
"It's not just enough to buy the bear spray," Kenneth said. "Are people practicing with it, pulling it out of the holster, popping off the safety? Because in the instance you're going to need it, you'll have no time."
"Mark has spent the last four years hunting in Alaska, and he had spent a thousand times going over and over in his head what he would do in the event of a bear attack. So when it actually happened, he reacted instinctually and knew what to do."
Brian DeBolt, a large carnivore specialist with Wyoming Game and Fish, said the state averages up to a dozen human-grizzly encounters a year. But only about two of those end in injuries or deaths.
DeBolt said many encounters frequently involve hunters because they tend to be out at the same time the bears are active. And they may draw attention to themselves with decoys or calls.
DeBolt also credited the brothers' decision to use spray and not guns to drive the bear away.
"Statistics show you're more likely to be more severely injured or killed if you use a firearm versus bear spray," DeBolt said. "Even folks that are proficient in the use of firearms may not be able to react well under that very quick, intense situation of being charged.
"And if it takes a bear five to ten seconds to die, he can do a lot of damage in that short time."
Mark said the encounter has brought not only the brothers but their families and friends closer. And while Kenneth doesn't plan to go hunting again soon, he said the experience isn't going to end his enjoyment of the sport.
Perhaps most importantly, he said his near-death experience has given him a renewed appreciation of both his own life and the beautiful and terrible majesty of nature.
"I've been thanking God over and over the last few days," he said. "I feel like I have a second chance at life. I don't want to pass up the opportunity to express that to the loved ones in my life.
"I hold my wife a little bit tighter. And I appreciate that much more the time I have to spend with my brothers and my dad."
Information from: Wyoming Tribune Eagle, http://www.wyomingnews.com