After getting bit on his right leg by a brown bear sow, Michael Justa found himself looking right into the eyes of the animal — his face a mere several inches away from hers.
“I was knocked down on my back so I kind of curled up my legs in front of me and this mama brown bear was standing over me, just looking down at me in my face,” Justa said during an interview Wednesday. “Then it kind of chuffed, looked up and then meandered away.”
It was the 26-year-old’s first ever encounter with a bear in the wild.
Justa was one of the two UnCruise Adventures guides who were mauled by the bear on Sitkoh Lake Trail on Aug. 18 while leading a group of 22 guests. Justa was the lesser injured of the two guides. The incident was the second of three dangerous bear-human encounters in the Sitka area that month, as reported by KCAW. The other two incidents resulted in the bear getting shot.
Justa, originally from upstate New York, was the rear guide on the hike that day; 41-year-old Anna Powers, of Hawaii, was the lead. Justa and the guests called Powers by her middle name, Marika.
“We saw plenty of bear signs on the trail — lots of poop, lots of dead salmon. The river was really thick with fish, but we were such a big group, making a lot of noise talking,” Justa described of the walk prior to the attacks.
With 22 guests between them, Justa estimated being about 150 feet behind Powers during the hike.
“Then I heard a big roar, a really intense sound and the first connection I made in my brain was that it was a chainsaw — ‘Oh, there’s some logging going on. No, that’s not right, it’s a bear,’” he described.
Justa didn’t react immediately, thinking the situation was under control.
“Everything is probably going fine up there. She’s got everybody together looking big, talking to it, and then as I kept meandering forward, people started coming back and one of them said, ‘Bear’s got Marika,’” Justa recalled.
As he ran toward the front of the group, Justa un-holstered his bear spray, which he hadn’t used since training, and took the safety off.
“I didn’t actually see the bear on Marika at all because the bear was already charging towards me. It closed the gap really fast, must have been five or 10 seconds,” Justa said. “I stood and I sprayed, and it hit the bear right in the face for a least three or four seconds. Then, it bit me in my right leg and knocked me down and bear spray got flung off.”
Looking into the bear’s eyes, which Justa described as “dark, black and small,” he said he doesn’t recall what he was thinking.
“I don’t really know, to be honest. I mean, I guess I was just kind of braced for impact; whatever was going to happen was going to happen,” he said.
Justa said he can’t be sure if the sow felt the threat was neutralized or if the bear spray actually worked.
“What I was expecting was some sort of reaction, like you or I would do if we got sprayed in the face with pepper spray, like be taken aback, and that didn’t happen. It just kept coming at me, but it didn’t keep attacking when I was on the ground. It just decided to walk away,” he said.
As far as pain, Justa said the bite felt “kind of like getting hit by a baseball,” and he was able to walk immediately after so he knew nothing was broken.
“I went up towards Marika and I saw her and I saw what the bear had done to her,” he said. Justa wouldn’t describe Powers’ injuries, saying it’s her decision whether or not to share that information.
“She’s totally conscious and she had done exactly what you’re supposed to do. I saw her face down with her hands over her neck,” Justa said. “She’s a very energetic person and she’s very lucid and still calling the shots, like saying, ‘Mike, we got to get out of here. Get my first-aid kit, see if there’s anybody who can help from the guests.’”
A trauma nurse and a medical doctor were among the group of hikers and Justa said they helped tremendously with splinting, wrapping injuries and taking her vitals, for which he’s grateful.
“While I have all my certification for emergency wilderness medicine, I’ve never had to draw on them. I haven’t encountered a lot of traumatic incidents, so to be involved in that was more shocking to me than being bitten by a bear,” Justa said.
He was able to make contact with the UnCruise Adventures boat and its medical team responded within 40 minutes. Shortly after, the U.S. Coast Guard transported Justa and Powers to Sitka by helicopter where they taken to separate medical facilities.
Powers was medevaced to Harborview Medical Center that same evening and brought to the intensive care unit in serious condition. A few days later, she was moved out of ICU and has since remained at the hospital in satisfactory condition, according to Harborview spokesperson Susan Gregg.
Justa received 12 stitches in three different parts of his thigh and calf for the one bear bite — an injury that only left behind a small hole in his XtraTuf boot and another small hole in his hiking pants. Justa was wearing both during an interview at GonZo.
“They’re good pants,” Justa said lightheartedly. “Eddie Bauer.”
After the mauling, Justa took two weeks off before returning to work for UnCruise. He’s added more big bandages and gauze to his first-aid kit, and he’s more aware of what’s in his pack and where to find everything. While tending to Powers, Justa had to dump everything out of his pack to find what he needed.
“I’ve learned that you can only prepare for so much and then the world is going to happen to you, but knowing your resources and being familiar with what you have is definitely a better way to go about being prepared,” he said.
Justa doesn’t think what happened to him is that big of a deal, though he said he recognizes it potentially could have been.
“As far as bear encounters go, it luckily went really well,” he said. “Nobody is dead, including the bear, and we were able to get ourselves out of there. None of our guests got hurt, and we’re all going to be OK.”
Contact reporter Lisa Phu at firstname.lastname@example.org.