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Survival / July 24, 2016

How one man fought off a Kodiak bear

Written by: Renee Howard

On a cold November day in 1999, Alaskan hunter Gene Moe was nearly killed by a bear. He was 69 years old.

It was cold that day—twenty degrees or so. It had been a hard winter for the deer. Many had died as heavy snow pushed them down to the water’s edge on Raspberry Island, part of the Kodiak archipelago.

“Deer need roughage to survive,” says Gene. “Every time it snows, the deer go down to the beach. Deer eat kelp when they get pushed down to the water. Then they bloat. Lots of deer died that year.”

Gene was on a hunt with a young mentee named Steve, who struggled to stick to a plan. The two men’s relationship had devolved some over few days in the woods, and on the day of the attack they decided to separate. Gene had promised to call in a four-point buck by the end of the day, and he planned to follow through. So he left Steve to wait about 200 yards away.

Before leaving, Gene noticed that his young partner had pulled the ear flap down on his hat.

 

“I asked him if he could hear and he insisted he could,” says Gene, adding that he doubted Steve was telling the truth. Already tired of arguing, he didn’t press the issue. He told his partner to find him if he heard the sound of a gunshot, then set off on his own.

At the age of 69, Gene Moe was attacked by a hungry bear while skinning a freshly killed deer.

The massive scar left behind on Gene's right arm.

The four inch blade that saved Gene's life.

Step into the Ring

When Gene managed to call in and shoot a deer, Steve never came. Gene didn’t wait. With the daylight dwindling, he skinned the blacktail quickly.

He was three steps away from his rifle when the bear charged out of the brush. Too far away. He held fast to his four inch Buck knife and mentally prepared to persevere.

“He was spittin’ and carryin’ on. And you know, I prayed. ‘Lord please help me. I need help.”

In a split second, he decided to shove his knife down the bear’s throat once it got close enough. When he did, the bear removed most of the muscle from his right arm as it thrashed its head around.

“You see the bear’s mouth is small from the side.” Gene points to the bear, which is now mounted on his wall. “It’s like a dog when he bites down, he grabs and twists like this.” Under the sleeve of his T-shirt, I spot a huge C-shaped scar.

“I didn’t want to look at my arm. I thought it was gone. It’s a funny feeling, you know. I was a pretty tough guy staying in shape for hunting and fishing my whole life, but this was bad.”

He switched hands for a few left jabs. Instead of playing dead, Gene sparred for three or four rounds of the bear coming at him.

During one charge, Gene “bulldogged” the bear—a move he learned in his younger years wrangling cattle. He wrapped his arm around the bear’s neck and literally wrestled it until it sent him sailing eight feet through the air.

At the next charge, Gene knew the bear would come at him with its right paw.

“I had watched a lot of bears when I first came to Alaska. I noticed early on they were mostly right-pawed, like people. I saw that paw coming and I was ready for it! I stepped back, and he kinda got me across the face and sliced this ear in two.” Gene points to his right ear, which actually looks pretty good, considering.

The bear came at him again. “I was on my back, and the bear overshot me.” Luckily Gene had some sturdy boots on, “and so I took both feet and landed them underneath there, and rolled him over like this” Gene leans back and bends his legs, showing off his best version of a double kick. “That time I was up first!”

The bear kept coming at him. Gene, now grievously injured, anticipated its reactions and stabbed the bear repeatedly in the neck and head with his knife.

At one point, lying on his back, Gene shook his foot to distract the bear from eviscerating him. The beast managed to take a sizable chunk out of his inner thigh.

Gene draws my attention to a bear-hide rug on his floor. “See his claws? See how those are rounded and smooth. Those are for pulling meat off the bone, not just slicing. The bear claw pulls everything out.”

 

Centuries of evolution have made bear claws the perfect tools for rending flesh from bones.

Thanks to those claws, Gene’s right thigh had muscle, skin and gore dangling down to his calf.

The bear wasn’t looking so hot either. With a particularly good knife stick , Gene had managed to nick an artery and probably the spine as well. The bear’s head was listing badly to the side. Both combatants were weak, disoriented, and losing blood.

“The bear left the arena,” says Gene, “but it wanted more.”

“Come on!” Gene shouted. “The Lord’s on my side!” It was a last battle call. Though he was literally torn to pieces, Gene drew on his experience as a combat engineer in the Korean War to carry on.

As the bear heaved itself at him yet again, Gene threw his best left hook and landed a shot on its tender snout. He knocked the bear out cold, busting his knuckle. He kicked the bear. It was dead.

“I said thank you, Lord, and laid down for I don’t know how long next to the bear. I woke up and was shivering pretty bad. I ate some snow and decided to get out of there.”

The Kodiak Archipelago as seen from Pasagshak.

Kodiak Island, eponymous home of the fearsome Kodiak brown bear.

A long haul

Gene managed to wrap up his injuries and headed toward the beach, which was about two miles away.

“That was the toughest afternoon of my life. I laid down two or three times thinking I might die. I followed a game trail through alders which tore me up pretty bad. My head was a little goofy but I oriented myself and I was right on track.”

Gene made it to a river and laid down, yelling for help. Two of his hunting partners came, including his son, Carl, who later went to retrieve the bear. Meanwhile, Gene’s partner Steve had deviated from the plan and hiked back to the beach.

“I asked Steve to shoot me and he said, ‘No… but if you’re here in the morning I’ll shoot you.’ I was in a lot of pain.”

From that point a complicated rescue ensued from Sleese Island. Gene made it to the Kodiak Hospital barely alive. Along the way, the helicopter pilot told Gene, “You’re gonna make it.”

Gene replied, “How do you know?”

“You’re on three prayer chains.”

As a man of faith, Gene needed that affirmation. He held on to hope and made an astounding recovery. Even after hundreds of stitches, multiple surgeries, a hospital escape and an encounter with a game warden who was a real piece of work, Gene returned to 100% his old salty self.

 

Gene and my fiancé Mark visit and tell stories under the watchful eye of the notorious Kodiak bear.

The 750-lb. Kodiak brown bear that Gene got the best of.

As Gene’s story spread, media calls came from around the world. He was even offered ten-thousand dollars for his Buck knife, but he declined.

Instead he had the knife framed on his wall, and the hungry bear mounted right next to it in his living room. Gene proved that with the right attitude, physical and mental preparation, survival under crushing odds is entirely possible.

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about the author

Renee Howard

Renee is a photographer and writer based out of South-central Alaska. Her interest in bridging gaps between all manner of outdoor sports, philosophy, folk culture and backwoods artistry is a significant motivation for her work.

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