A Fish & Game fisheries technician is recovering after being attacked and mauled by a bear during a routine stream survey north of Sitka in August. Jess Coltharp said quick response from his coworkers and emergency training kept a bad situation from getting worse.
Sitkan Jess Coltharp has worked for Fish and Game for 14 seasons surveying streams.
“For the most part, the main part of my job is just walking creeks and counting salmon, and then reporting escapement numbers back to the office,” Coltharp said, in an interview with KCAW last week. “So they have an idea of how many how many fish are going up the creek and spawning.”
Most jobs have hazards; some are worse than others. Fishermen have to be aware of the weather. Postmen have to know where the unfriendly dogs are on their route. For Coltharp, bear awareness is important: Sightings and interactions are common in his line of work.
“It’s usually about 80 to 90 bears a summer is what you run into. And of course not all of those are close contact, but a good good portion of them are. And so, over 14 years, now you’re looking at around 1,000 bears,” he said. “You’re eventually going to run into them in a bad situation where you don’t know they’re there or you startle them.”
And that’s what happened on August 19. Coltharp was a few hours north of Sitka, surveying a stream on West Chichagof Island with his deckhand Anthony Walloch and a volunteer named Ethan. It was around 5 p.m. and they’d already walked the stream and they’d counted the fish. Relieved to be finished with their work for the day, they were heading back to their boat on a side trail about 20 yards away from the river.
Coltharp was walking ahead of the other two men, when he heard the salmonberry bushes rustling.
“I remember looking over my shoulder and I was saying something to them, when I kind of heard the bushes crashing, and that’s when I looked up and looked over toward [where] the sound was coming from,” he said. “I couldn’t even really see it all at first because the brush was pretty thick but about 20 feet away…this bear comes charging out of the brush at full speed.”
Coltharp said it happened so fast. “And without any, you know, warning at all. Normally, when they’re defensive over their territory they let you know,” he said. “They get all huffy and puffy and they start popping their jaw and making a lot of noise, and there was there was absolutely none of that going on. So it was a it’s kind of a unique situation.”
Coltharp grabbed his gun from a sling on his back and tried to load the chamber, but the bear was faster than he was. So he jumped to the side to get his upper body and head out of the way, in the hopes that Walloch, who was also armed, could get in a shot.
“And that’s when that’s when the bear reached down and just kind of chomped me right above my kneecap,” Coltharp said. “And [the bear] was just shaking me around by my leg. I was just laying there as it’s got me, just yelling, ‘Shoot it, shoot it, shoot it, shoot it!’ as fast as I could say it.”
Walloch was standing about 15 feet behind Coltharp, when the bear charged. “I had my shotgun up, and then just like, in a second, I was like this is the safest shot I’m going to have,” Walloch said. “I took one shot, the bear rolled right off of Jess. And then I pumped two more shots into the bear just to make sure that it wasn’t going to get back up.”
“And the moment I heard that gunshot was the exact same moment I felt that bear release,” Coltharp said.
“I looked at Jess and I turned around looked at Ethan, and all of our eyes are so wide open. We’re all pretty worked up over the scenario,” Walloch said.
The next part is a bit of a blur for Coltharp.
“Your adrenaline is kind of fighting your body wanting to go into shock, almost. So it’s like, you’re kind of fighting with yourself a little bit trying to figure out how to deal with it,” Coltharp said. “I remember standing up immediately afterwards, and just looking at Anthony and telling them you know, like, ‘Nice shot, thanks for saving my life.'”
“He’s like ‘Hell of a shot, buddy!’ And at that moment when he said that, I was like, that made me feel a little calmer in that situation,” Walloch remembers. “Knowing that Jess, he could still talk to me, and everything seemed all right.”
“I think I had a smile on my face, because I was just so damn relieved that the bear didn’t have me anymore,” said Coltharp. He said the relief washed over them for a moment before reality sank in.
“And then I remember feeling the blood run down my leg, and then it became a little bit of, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ve got to still make sure that we’re going to be okay.'”
So the three men took a moment to work out a plan. They made a tourniquet for Coltharp’s leg wound. They had an inReach satellite communication device, so they contacted their boss, who made preparations to send a float plane to pick them up where they’d left their boat, a half-a-mile hike away.
While the walk back wasn’t easy with a severe leg injury, Coltharp took time to commemorate the occasion when he took a moment’s pause to sit on a log.
“And I remember thinking, wow, this is something I’m really gonna have to remember,” said Coltharp. So he asked Walloch to take his photo, while he rested on the log. Coltharp and Walloch laughed, and he smiled and gave a thumbs up, displaying his fresh injury. The photo has been widely circulated on social media, and made the front page of the Sitka Sentinel.
“It was symbolic, I guess,” Coltharp said. “At least to me, it felt like the right way to go about it. There’s no reason to freak everybody out. You know, you’re in the situation you’re in. You might as well keep your spirits up while you do it. And I think that that can make all the difference in getting out of there quickly and safely.”
Between the men, they had a lot of emergency response training. In addition to their training from Fish and Game, Walloch had EMT training from the Sitka Fire Department. Coltharp credits that training for keeping a bad situation from becoming worse.
“I’m not somebody that’s, thinks that, you know, there’s bears out there in the woods ready to jump on you even though that is pretty much what happened,” Coltharp said. “Being prepared just in case it does happen is is huge. You might think, oh, I’ve walked this trail 100 times, and I’ve never had any issues in my whole life. But that one day where you do, if you’re not prepared, it’s the difference between life and death.”
Coltharp was rushed back to Sitka on a float plane and was in the Mt. Edgecumbe Medical Center emergency room being attended to a little over two hours after the attack happened. He’s had surgery since then, and now he’s on the mend, though he has weeks of recovery and physical therapy ahead of him.
He said he can’t thank Walloch enough for his quick reaction, which likely saved his life.
“Anthony’s never gonna have to buy a drink around me ever again,” Coltharp said. “I definitely owe that guy a lot. So he’ll be reaping the benefits of that for a while.”