Haunted by a bear attack
No one knew what to expect on the trail to Grinnell Glacier one late summer morning, but a second bull moose less than an hour out was hardly a good sign. During September and October -- mating season -- it’s always best to give the spindly-legged animals plenty of room.
That’s exactly what Jenna Otter wanted to do. She wasn’t of the mind to take pictures, let alone chances. If she felt safe, it was only because she was hiking with a large group.
It was a reunion of sorts. She and her father, Johan, were joined by Heidi Reindl and Heidi’s parents, brother and boyfriend. Ken Justus had taken the day off from work as well. Once strangers, the hikers were now best of friends, brought together by what had occurred three years ago in these mountains just a few miles ahead of them.
Jenna never thought returning would be easy.
The first moose saw to that. More than the others, Jenna knew how unassuming moments can quickly turn dangerous, and as the animal started to walk toward them, close enough that she could see that its antlers had been scraped of their velvet, it was beautiful and frightening all at once. When the moose saw a clear path ahead, it ran, disappearing into the brush.
The second moose acted more skittish, and it started toward them, hooves hitting the dirt like a panicking horse. Jenna bolted up the hillside, and just as quickly it veered off the path and was gone.
Three years ago, Jenna and her father were not so lucky. They had gotten an early start for the glacier, and an hour out, had encountered a grizzly that didn’t disappear in the brush. It laid into them -- like 400 pounds of lightning.
The story played well in the national media, including the Los Angeles Times. The through line -- father fights bear to save daughter -- was compelling, and Johan’s recovery, for the severity of his injuries, was nothing short of miraculous. Jenna’s story, however, was lost in the drama of her father’s.
Although her wounds were less life-threatening, the mark on her psyche -- like the scar the grizzly left on her face -- was more pronounced and more difficult to understand, and on this clear and sunny morning in the park, surrounded by friends who had been their rescuers, Jenna hoped to regain what the bear had stolen.
‘Do you guys mind if I yell out?” Jenna asked Heidi, once the moose were gone.
“Sure. Go ahead.”
“Aa-oo!” she shouted, always the best precaution against surprising any animal.
When Jenna was a little girl, Glacier National Park was her favorite place in the world. She first saw it during a family vacation when she, her sister and their parents drove there from their home in Escondido. She was 8 and didn’t know she’d wait 10 years before returning.
When she did, she had just graduated from high school. It was a father-daughter trip, a chance to blow off a little steam hiking in the Tetons and Glacier before she started college. Everything had been perfect until the attack. Afterward nothing was the same. She couldn’t shake the memory of the bear coming right at her -- and standing right over her.
Last summer her father planned a trip to the park, his second since the attack. She went, but when he kept encouraging her to join him and a few others on a hike to the glacier, she snapped at him and stayed off the trail that day. Having recovered from his injuries -- a torn-off scalp, numerous puncture wounds and gashes, neck broken in three places, broken ribs -- Johan chose to exorcise the demons of the attack by facing them head-on. It wasn’t so easy for Jenna.
She wished it was, but life was different now. She felt it as soon as she got out of the hospital, and she didn’t like it. To begin with, there was all the attention she was getting -- from the “Today” show, “Good Morning America,” Cosmopolitan, Animal Planet and some British magazine whose name she couldn’t remember. She wanted it to stop. She kept saying that moment on the mountain wasn’t going to be her 15 minutes of fame.
She had a different plan for herself, and it began freshman year at UC Irvine. She wanted to study and she wanted to dance. Her injuries -- lacerations on her chin and heel, puncture wounds on a shoulder and the back of her head, a broken tailbone and fractured vertebra -- kept her from dancing, so she poured herself into her general-ed requirements. By the second quarter she was taking 30 units, more than twice the average, had begun practicing again in the dance studio and was volunteering at Hoag Hospital.
When patients asked about the pink scar running from the corner of her mouth to her chin, she told them about the attack and used the experience to relate to their illness and discomfort. She was proud of the mark, certain she’d never have it erased by lasers. Still, it was evidence of the trauma that had fallen across her life, and occasionally she found herself caught in its unwanted eddy.
One time when friends invited her to go canyoning, Jenna backed out at the last minute. She wasn’t sure why; she really wanted to go. She questioned her father’s judgment whenever they went hiking. She found herself more emotional than ever. Large animals, especially dogs, made her uneasy.
But today, in spite of her nervousness, she was happy to be on the trail. The park was so beautiful. On the dock at Lake Josephine, she and Heidi posed for pictures. Yellow fringed the edges of the aspen and thimbleberry leaves, red the huckleberry and alder, and the still morning water hourglassed the jagged peaks, distant patches of snow and the palette of colors.
Well above the western bank of the lake, the group stopped at an overlook of the cliff and ledges that lay ahead.
It was on this spot that one of the rescue helicopters had tried to land, and it was up there in the distance, discernible by a distinctive V-shaped shadow of overhanging rocks and a clump of alder growing in the ledges, that the attack had taken place.
Jenna felt slightly disoriented: She could have been back home looking at her computer, where she and her father had downloaded the photographs from the park service’s report of the incident. She couldn’t believe that she was here again.
“I have to keep reminding myself that this actually happened,” she said.
“And how amazing that, if it had to happen, it happened in the most beautiful place in the world,” Heidi said.
Heidi’s company today was reassuring. Three years ago, she had been one of the first hikers on the scene and had stayed with Jenna throughout the day, encouraging her to sip water, to sit up, to answer all her questions. Afterward, Heidi and her family often kept her company in the local hospital.
Jenna was now 21, Heidi 25, and their worlds had taken them in different directions -- Jenna as a college student and Heidi as an Air Force enlistee -- but they stayed close through Facebook. They seldom spoke of the attack; they didn’t need to.
Just past Thunderbird Falls, a familiar landmark along the cliff, the trail rose through a narrow defile between two rocky outcroppings. Railroad ties formed stair steps. Then the trail leveled out and turned sharply to the right.
Three years ago, as she stepped around that blind corner, she saw the grizzly walking toward her, two cubs in the distance. Its eyes popped wide as if it were just as surprised as she was.
Jenna spun around and tried to run away, but she tripped onto the hillside. By the time she looked up, the bear had her dad. She grabbed the bear spray that had been jostled to the ground, but the safety clip kept it from working. When she looked up again, the bear was coming toward her.
Today, she followed the steps to the turn and then backtracked. A breeze fanned across Grinnell Lake, turquoise blue far down in the valley below.
“Here I stumbled,” she said, pointing to the trail. “And here.”
For someone haunted by the what-ifs of life, Jenna could not escape feeling guilty for not driving off the bear with the spray. She peered over the cliff and down the narrow slot. Alder covered the gap, creating the impression that this was a slope and not a sheer drop. It was here that she fell.
She doesn’t know why. She must have passed out, coming to with arms and legs striking the side of the mountain just before landing on a ledge about 50 feet below. She scrambled into some brush, and saw and heard her father struggling with the bear. Then everything went quiet. She heard panting, and her heart began to race. As the bear approached, she tried to be still, but when it stood over her, she reached up and put her hands around its neck in an attempt to hold it off. That’s when it lunged, biting and jostling, and took her head in its jaws, tearing her chin and slightly puncturing the back of her neck.
Last year she didn’t want to go on this hike because she was afraid that she’d be overcome by the emotion, and she has never been comfortable with crying. But this year she discovered that the emotions were more elusive, more difficult to comprehend than she could imagine.
She had seen her father die. She had seen herself die. Their survival did nothing to erase those impressions, and she was at a loss. What words, what feelings exist for something that seemed so real but never was?
“Jenna, come over here,” Johan called, peering over the edge.
“No,” she said. “I’m good.”
Heidi’s mother pulled out her camera. Jenna felt her father put his arm around her shoulder, and as quickly as everyone gathered, they moved on.
Less than an hour later, the group came to the end of the trail and scattered themselves across the rocks that edged a small lake formed by the glacial melt. High above them was a notch in the mountains through which Ken piloted the helicopter that rescued Johan and Jenna.
The air was cool, but the sun was warm. They ate their lunch, the stillness of the moment broken only by the sound of the water lapping in the distance.
That night, after dinner and goodbyes to the rest of the party, Jenna and Johan sat in the lingering twilight on the deck of the Many Glacier Hotel, overlooking Swiftcurrent Lake. Two men smoking cigars next to them talked about the latest Wall Street crash.
Jenna was quiet.
“I don’t think I want to go hiking tomorrow,” she eventually said.
“I don’t want to get a stomachache tonight,” she said, short-hand for more complicated reasons.
When her father again asked why, she said that all the emotions from the hike today had finally caught up with her. She said that her knee was hurting.
Johan tried to find a way around it. “Let’s see in the morning,” he said.
Jenna sat silently, once again caught in an unwanted eddy.
“It’s OK if I don’t go tomorrow, isn’t it?” she asked. She hated disappointing him.
“Let’s see how you feel in the morning,” he repeated.
The next morning, Jenna and her father met Ken in the lobby of the lodge, and she wore her purple day pack. That night she had lain awake wondering what it would be like not to go. She would have regretted it; she would have been jealous of her father and Ken. So instead she thought about the hike and the reward: a piece of pie afterward, apple if they had it.
There would be one more hike before they left. On their last afternoon in the park, she joined her father and Ken on an even more isolated trail where a mountain lion warning had been conspicuously posted.
When they had reached their destination, Otokomi Lake, and were eating lunch in a meadow surrounded by a half-circle of mountainous cliffs, Ken pulled out a telescoping fishing rod and tackle box and began casting for the trout that could be seen swimming in the shallows.
Jenna tried her hand and reeled in a small cutthroat. Before releasing it, she held it up for pictures, and when she smiled, there was no past and no future, just the joy of being here now.
Previous Column One articles are available online.
See Thomas Curwen’s original stories, additional photos and video of the rescue.