Bitten on hand, Alaskan still remembers bear’s bad breath 25 years later

A man with light hair and a light hat, dark long sleeve shirt and dark pants stands on grass in front of trees.
William Young survived a bear attack near White Mountain in 1996. (Casey Grove/Alaska Public Media)

It was the summer of 1996 when William Young — an Alaskan fond of wilderness and solitude — survived an attack by a brown bear.

Young was far from help, building a cabin about 50 miles outside of White Mountain, a tiny remote community in Western Alaska. He was taking a break from his project, hiking one day in July with his dog Yukon.

Then they ran into a sow with cubs.

Here’s what happened next, in William Young’s words:

The following transcript was lightly edited for clarity.

William Young: Well, I was up building a cabin. I was about five logs high on it. I built it with a Swede saw and axe. I was just out hiking the country. I was going to another camp — an old camp that we built in the ’80s, ain’t nothing there anymore.

I left a few things up there. I was gonna camp out. It has really good grayling hole. And I was going to cross the river. A storm just passed and it was bright and sunny, and I was going down to the creek. And the brown bear was just to the north of me. And it was a real close encounter. She had three cubs. They were probably two year olds.

I threw the gun up. She ran toward me, like a bluff. My dog was with me and, you know, he was kind of harassing the cubs, I guess, or maybe trying to protect me. He was very loyal. So she ran toward me, like 40 to 50 feet. That’s like three seconds — 35 miles an hour a second that hey can run. And she clamped ahold of my right hand and basically took the gun away from me. I just fell down on it.

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She had me down and I kind of looked at her out of the corner of my eye. She came back, after biting me, and she stood up and swiped at my leg, could feel the claw on my pants leg.

Then she ran toward the cubs. Yukon, my dog, was still over there.

And then she came back. Stood up and all that. I was still on top of the gun. And her head was like right up against my head. It was huge. You could smell her breath. It stunk real bad. On the river, there were a lot of spawned-out salmon, chum salmon and pink salmon. She had plenty to eat. They were fat and roly-poly.

But she didn’t want her cubs messed with. That’s mainly what it was. Giving me a scare. But you know that one bit could have been life-threatening.

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Casey Grove is the host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media with an emphasis on crime and courts. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org.