U.S.A. –-(AmmoLand.com)- In 2020, Mike Becwar was, without provocation, attacked by a cinnamon black bear in Alaska. He fought back with a folding knife and survived. This is his story.
On May 29, 2020, Mike was going stir-crazy. This was during the COVID restrictions. He had been pushed to extend two weeks longer than the usual period in the remote camp at Pump Station Number 5.
He had to get out of the camp to relieve stress. He chose to take a run along the road to the camp airport, around the runway, and back into camp, about a 3 1/2 mile run. Going to the airport and back was a fairly common activity for camp workers in the remote location. He expected to be gone no more than 40 minutes. He told camp security staff where he was going and how long he expected to be gone. Mike was 53 years old.
At the end of May, that far north, there are more than 20 hours of daylight. It is always at least twilight because the sun does not dip far below the horizon. There are no climbable trees in the area. The temperature was 58 degrees.
Mike has been in Alaska for 28 years. He is an experienced and capable outdoorsman and hunter. He has hunted and dealt with many bears over the decades. Mike has a policy of never going outdoors in Alaska without the means to start a fire, a knife, and a firearm. It became an impossible policy at the camp. The company authorities forbade the possession of firearms by individuals.
Mike was carrying a SOG Trident Elite #ad, a locking folding knife with a 3.7-inch blade.
Mike was dressed for running in T-shirt, running shoes, running pants, and a hat. When he first saw the bear, it had crossed the runway behind him, placing the bear between him and camp. The bear was about 300 yards away, near the junction of the airfield and the road back to camp. Mike yelled to let the bear know he was there and human. He continued on his run around the runway. Mike considered going cross country to avoid the bear. It was spring in Alaska, and there was meltwater standing everywhere. Mike had been near many black bears, much closer than this bear was. The lesser risk appeared to be to continue back to camp, carefully keeping track of the bear.
The airfield did not yield any expedient weapons. The gravel for the runway had been carefully prepared. The biggest rock was the size of a nickel.
As Mike came back, he watched the bear. The bear ambled over near the tower, where there were fuel tanks and a parked car. Mike hung back, keeping his distance, allowing the bear to move away. The bear started down the road toward camp, then turned down a side road that led to a sort of junkyard. In his experience in Alaska, Mike had often been around black bears. He had passed them much closer than this bear was. As the bear moved away, Mike moved past the intersection. The bear was about 70 yards down the side road. Mike continued to make noise to let the bear know he was there.
Everything changed in an instant. The bear looked at Mike and started running toward him, moving onto the road to camp behind him.
Mike was not passive. He yelled at the bear. He waved his arms and tried to look big. He kicked gravel at the bear and threw his hat at it. He had the knife out, open, and locked.
The bear charged to within 10 yards, stopped; closed to five yards, stopped; closed to arm’s length, and paused. It happened much faster than can be told. Mike said the look on the bear’s face made it clear the bear was in predatory mode. This was the bear’s lucky day, and Mike was lunch!
Mike slashed the bear’s snout as the bear raked his face with its claws and hooked Mike’s knee from behind to pull him down. As Mike went down, he stabbed the bear in the chest. Mike said at that point, the bear’s attitude seemed to change. Mike had hurt the bear. Mike was now not just prey but an opponent. The bear was working hard at controlling Mike and keeping Mike’s face away from him. (When bears fight, their primary weapons are their teeth). Mike squirmed and twisted, trying to find openings to use his knife. As the bear bit his shoulders and arms, Mike managed to drive the little blade to the hilt in the bear’s rib cage three times.
The bear broke both of Mike’s shoulders and tore up Mike’s arms and face. The knife blade was not long enough to reach the bear’s vitals. At one point, the bear was straddling Mike with paws on both sides of him. Mike had lost much strength in his arms but was able to position the knife so that he could use his leg to help drive the blade home. This was when he inflicted the six-inch long gash on the bear’s chest. The gash can be seen in the picture. At this point, the lock on the blade failed. Mike recovered control before his fingers were cut. The blade was very sharp.
The bear kept tearing at him for a couple of minutes. Then it started to drag him off of the road. Mike realized the bear was taking him somewhere to eat him. Without strength in his arms, he started vigorously kicking the bear. The bear responded by fracturing his left leg and biting through his left calf. The bear went for his head. At this point, Mike remembers the bear’s teeth grating on his skull. Eventually, the bear dropped Mike, came around, and stared into Mikes face from about a foot away. Mike had managed to get on his side. Mike stared back. Both of them were covered in blood. How much was from which was impossible to know. The bear turned and walked away.
Mike gathered what energy he had and struggled to his feet. He looked back. The road showed two areas, about six feet in diameter, covered with blood. Blood drizzled from Mike’s body onto the ground. Mike had lost a shoe in the fight. He picked it up and tried to put it back on. His hands were too mangled, and his strength too spent to accomplish the task. He told himself: walk back to camp. He made about ten steps before he started to pass out. His strength was spent. He had started the fight after a 3 1/2 mile run, far from fresh. He thought: rest for a bit. He lay down on the road, his head on his shoe. He found, after numerous attempts, he no longer had the ability to get up, no matter how hard he tried.
The bear had walked off at 7:13 p.m. Mike had fought the bear for 15 minutes.
Camp security had a routine of checking the airfield at 9 p.m. Mike had told them he would be back no later than 7:15. Mike hoped they would realize he was overdue and come to see what happened to him. They found him at 8:40. Security applied first aid. They medevaced him by plane to Fairbanks, two hundred and fifty miles away. Mike was down two units of blood, a quart low. He was in bad shape. One shoulder was fractured into several pieces.
Mike has a lot of experience with bears in Alaska. He has dealt with numerous bears and hunted many. He told camp security the bear would be back between five and nine p.m. the next day. Camp security showed up at the airfield at five p.m. The bear showed up at 5:05. Security shot at the bear with an AR15 rifle in .223. The bear ran off, and they could not locate it.
Personnel searched for the bear the next morning. The bear was spotted from the air. The bear charged the security team personnel. They shot the bear with a 12 gauge shotgun loaded with 2.75-inch Federal low recoil slugs. The bear was killed.
Mike has recovered much in two and a half years. The damage was extensive. He has lost considerable capability.
The necropsy on the bear showed it was a fully adult boar with a 12-inch long skull, 8 inches wide. In Alaska, it would be a six-foot bear, by the way hides are measured. The bear had a problem with its stomach. It could not ingest very much food at one time. It was probably always hungry. It was considered in “poor shape” but not emaciated. It was spring, and bears tend to be thin after winter hibernation.
Mike’s policy is to carry a handgun with him everywhere, especially outdoors in Alaska. His policy was thwarted by the company banning privately owned guns in camp. Mike says if he had a handgun, he could have solved the problem.
“If I would have had a handgun, I could of killed him a dozen times. I would have a cool story instead of a really bad time.”
As with many survivors, Mike finds himself often thinking about and re-living the life-changing attack. In Mike’s words:
“What could I, what should I, have done to make this better?”
“He visits me every day, mostly at night, and we fight again”.
Mike says he knew the risks and went ahead anyway. Many others took the same risks and were not attacked. Mike thinks black bears in the area are more aggressive because there are no trees to climb. It is mostly grizzly country. The theory is they need to hold their own against grizzly bears to survive. Cinnamon bears in the area seem to have been involved in more human conflicts in recent years.
Mike and I considered the fact that bears which are not hunted are not afraid of humans. There is a corridor, five miles on each side, along the Alyeska pipeline, where hunting with firearms is not allowed. Mike said bears in the camps are often pampered, given names, and tolerated.
Mike does not believe bear spray would have solved the problem. He pointed out examples where people sprayed bears and were attacked. Some were killed. Researchers have noted predatory black bears appear to be resistant to bear spray.
Mike and this correspondent agree. If a bear shows no fear of humans and approaches to less than 10 yards, it should be met with gunfire. There are plenty of black bears in Alaska. Removing the bears which are not afraid of humans will not have a measurable effect on the bear population, except to remove potentially dangerous bears.
Bears are powerful predators. They are unpredictable and can inflict enormous damage very quickly.
Banning Alaskan workers from having firearms appears to be a relatively recent policy in historical terms. From this correspondent’s reading, attitudes toward firearms changed in the middle ’60s.
Workers should be allowed the option of having a firearm for defense when they leave the camp perimeter. Many do so for exercise, to fish, to pick berries, to relieve the stress and boredom which comes with camp life.
Camps could provide a range to help workers sharpen their skills. Most people in Alaska know how to shoot. There is plenty of space for small ranges in Alaska. It would be another way to recreate.
About Dean Weingarten:
Dean Weingarten has been a peace officer, a military officer, was on the University of Wisconsin Pistol Team for four years, and was first certified to teach firearms safety in 1973. He taught the Arizona concealed carry course for fifteen years until the goal of Constitutional Carry was attained. He has degrees in meteorology and mining engineering, and retired from the Department of Defense after a 30 year career in Army Research, Development, Testing, and Evaluation.