In a fight between a 47-year old hunter and an approximately 500-pound brown bear, Greg Matthews of Plano, Texas came out the unlikely winner this past fall.
Matthews conceded that, for all intents and purposes, he shouldn’t be alive after facing off with a grizzly while on a hunting trip on the Kenai Peninsula. Matthews, a retired firefighter of 21 years, said he and his brother, a former member of the military, had been planning the excursion to the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge’s Doroshin Bay area for two years. The duo were around six days into a 10-day moose-hunting trip when they unexpectedly came face-to-face with another of Alaska’s big game animals.
Matthews’ encounter with a female brown bear on Sept. 22 marked the third bear attack on the peninsula in two months. He was flown via LifeMed to Central Peninsula Hospital, where he was treated for severe injuries, before returning to Texas.
Matthews recalls the two brothers had made a base camp near Caribou Island, and taken a 23-foot boat into Doroshin Bay the day before the attack. They packed what they needed from the boat the next morning and started up from the shoreline. They ended up about a mile inland after coming across clear signs of moose rubbing their antlers against trees, he said.
“We knew right then and there that we had a really, really good viable spot that a moose had been in…” Matthews said.
Matthews was hunting with a bow — though he said he decided at the last minute that day to take a rifle with as well. His brother, Roger Matthews, followed behind with another, more powerful rifle. When the two settled down and Roger began making moose calls, he was about 40 yards away from Greg.
It was about one hour into calling and waiting that Greg said he saw something out of the corner of his eye.
“Then I slowly turned my head and it (the bear) was probably 35 or 40 yards (away) right where this trail had turned from the trees and the brush,” he said, adding that he noticed two bear cubs accompanying it. “They looked like the size of black bears, normal sized, to me… My first thought was to go to the ground and hide, hoping that maybe they wouldn’t see me.”
But Greg said he realized the other branch of the trail led directly to where his brother was positioned, and that he didn’t want him to end up with an unpleasant surprise.
Swapping his bow for the rifle, Greg said he moved back around the side of a tree, and said “woah, bear,” to alert the animal to his presence.
“That’s when the bear stopped, looking right at me, (and) lowered its head,” Greg said. “All the hair stood up on its back and this big muscle on the back of its head raised up like a brick. And from that point it basically charged me.”
Greg said he managed to get off one shot with his rifle as the grizzly advanced, but because it was not built for big game hunting, he had to wait until the bear was nearly eight feet away from him to fire.
It made contact with the bear’s head, but it didn’t stop the attack.
The force of the bear hitting his body knocked the gun back into his forehead, Greg said.
The bear tackled him, slid across his body and then pinned him face-up to the ground with its two paws on his shoulders. Greg said he turned to the right when he saw the bear’s head coming down to him, and that the first bite ripped off the skin from the bottom his chin and down his neck, and that he felt the bear’s teeth sink into his jaw.
“After it bit my face, it got to a point where I couldn’t see at all…” Greg recalled.
From there, the bear took the whole back of Greg’s head in its mouth, put a 7-inch laceration across his head and spine, bit all the way through his arm trying to flip him over and through his leg as he tried to kick it.
It then lifted him up by the hip before trying to drag him into the brush.
“I was basically punching it in the nose trying to get it to release,” Greg said.
Meanwhile, Roger, who had heard Greg’s warning to the bear and came to help, tried to get the sow to turn toward him and away from his brother, but it took several tries.
Greg was mauled by the bear for about a minute and a half, his brother later told him.
“Obviously if it wasn’t for my brother that bear would have basically had its way with me,” Greg said.
Once Roger finally distracted the sow enough to make it turn toward him, he shot it twice — once in the chest and once in the neck — before it ran off into the woods, Greg said.
His prior training as a first responder kicked in and, still unable to see, he said he got up on his knees and instructed Roger to tell him what his injuries were.
Together, they used their multi-use, protective head cloths called shemaghs to bandage what they could before hiking back down to the shoreline and retreating onto their boat.
Greg walked ahead while his brother followed with his rifle in case the bear followed, Greg said.
“I was like a walking steak, basically all my clothing was covered in blood,” he said.
At one point, Greg said he fell and felt unable to get up, so his brother prayed over him until he was able to continue. Once on the shore, the brothers ran into three fishermen in a boat who went back to an area with cellphone reception and called 911.
Roger and the fishermen cut brush from the woods and made a smoke signal while they waited for help to arrive. They wrapped Greg in a blanket and set him on the beach with a rifle in case the bear returned, he said.
“I was freezing and I was bleeding and I was covered up just hoping that someone would come,” he said.
It took first responders four or five tries to get an IV in his arm when they arrived, Greg said.
From there, he was taken to Central Peninsula Hospital where he said he had just enough time to call his wife before being taken into surgery.
“I can’t say enough about the treatment. Those people absolutely know what they’re doing,” Greg said. “I know good EMS and good rescue practices… At some point, some way, somehow, I am going to make a trip just to Alaska just to go to those people and thank them.”
Chris Johnson, a supervisory law enforcement officer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was one of the first on the scene in the aftermath of the attack. He also investigated the other two bear mauling incidents on the Kenai Peninsula this past fall, and has responded to an average of one-per-year in his 27 years of experience, he said.
Johnson actually spoke with Greg and Roger the day before the attack and went over hunting regulations with them, he said.
In terms of responding to a crisis, Johnson said the brothers handled themselves by the book.
“I have to say that together, both of them, Greg being an ex-paramedic and his brother being former-military — Greg’s life was saved because of them being able to work together on that,” Johnson said.
Investigators found the bear dead in the woods the day after the attack.
They couldn’t locate its cubs, but Johnson said they were on the older side because it was obvious the sow had no longer been nursing.
There is no way to tell exactly how or why the bears were that close to Greg and Roger, but their use of moose calls for hunting could have potentially played a part, Johnson said.
“It’s a little different than the other ones because people were running or hiking in the woods,” he said. “He was making moose calls so that could have made the bear curious. I don’t think it was hunting him, but it probably got startled when it got pulled in by the calls.”
After a stay in the hospital, and with his brother, Greg returned to Texas, his wife and his three children.
“I’m 100 percent (recovered) other than, you know, a few scars I have to look at in the mirror,” he said. “… I’m just slowly getting back into what has always been a passion, which is being outdoors in the elements.”
A longtime hunter, Greg said he has always prefers bow hunting because it levels the playing field between animal and hunter.
He has recently taken one of his sons out duck hunting, he said.
Greg has also begun putting his experience to paper, and is about 100 pages into a book about the attack, he said. He hopes what other people get out of his story is a greater awareness and appreciation for being prepared for accidents and emergencies in the wilderness, he said.
“Just being able to get that on paper is therapeutic,” Greg added.
The attack has not soured Greg on Alaska as a whole.
He has hunted in the state previously with his brother and plans to return in the future, he said.
“My dream is to basically take a bull moose with a bow, and that’s something that, even now… I plan to definitely come up on another moose hunt up there and, you know, try,” he said.
Reach Megan Pacer at firstname.lastname@example.org.