Thomas Nerison is a 60-year-old cabinet-maker from North Dakota who has lived in Kalispell, Mont., since 1981. An avid runner, he regularly jogs through the woods on the edge of Glacier National Park. He almost always carries a can of bear spray with him.
On the morning of June 7, he forgot it.
INLANDER: Paint a picture of your surroundings that morning. Where were you? Is it woodsy country? Hilly? Flat?
Quite flat. It runs parallel to Going-to-the-Sun Road. It’s beautiful. It’s in deep woods, western red cedar, lots of needles on the trail. Lots of moss and ferns.
I was alone at the time but planning to rendezvous with some other runners who were running a longer run than me. I had started from Avalanche [camp], and I was running back toward the west, planning on running into these people. I had only run 2.5 miles and then turned around, because I was afraid I’d missed them.
I carry bear spray almost without exception. I realized after I left the car that I forgot it but I didn’t bother to go back for it.
At a certain point, I heard a real distinct sound of a dog barking in the distance. There’s a trail to a little lake that was close to where I was, and the trail itself is really close to the road. I’m absolutely convinced I heard a dog barking, and it could’ve been that someone illegally had a dog on the John’s Lake Trail. Or someone could’ve been on the sun road with a dog in their car and pulled over. I would guess if a bear just heard a dog barking, very likely they could’ve been running from the sound of a dog barking.
[Then] I heard quite a commotion behind me. I turned around and saw two grizzlies running behind me at full gallop. They were like 75 yards [away]. They were galloping hard. You could hear them breathing.
I think I just had time to utter an exclamation of belief, like ‘Son of a gun,’ or something stronger than that. But really I had a maximum of two or three seconds before they closed on me. And you’re not supposed to run. And I never thought to climb a tree. I don’t know if I’d have had time to make it up one. But I was past the point of being afraid. I was thinking in the moment of how to keep from getting hurt.
He advanced on me and I could tell he was going to try to bite me. I kicked him right in the face and he backed off, actually. He started in on me again and I kicked him a second time. He backed off again, but I lost my balance and fell. I was down on my left side with my feet toward him. I was kicking at his face. He grabbed ahold of me and actually pulled my shoes off before he ever bit me.
But about that time, I located a small stick next to me. He tried to get ahold of me, but he knew I was trying to kick him so he grabbed my calf. I hit him with a stick and he let go right away. The calf bite was deep but not like you usually hear.
The stick broke. It broke right over the top of his head. He bit me again on the thigh, but then he backed off again.
About that time I located a bigger stick. I was holding it up in front of me, right in front of his face. I thought, ‘I’m going to try to jab him in the face.’ There was a split second where I could tell he was hesitating, and I had time to think, “Please, please, please don’t do that again.’
He probably realized I was no threat to him, or he thought he was going to get another one in the face, and he just turned and ran off.
During all this, did you ever think, “This could be it”?
It never got to that. Maybe kind of sub-consciously.
I wanted to get away from the area immediately. I had this stick, and it helped me get to my feet. It was kind of like a walking stick. I tested my leg and realized I was able to walk on it. I was on a trail that kind of parallels Going-to-the-Sun Road. I decided to bushwhack through the undergrowth toward where I knew the road was. It was probably 300 yards. It took about 10, 15 minutes. I flagged a car down and talked the people into giving me a ride back to my car.
I didn’t know myself just how bad I’d gotten bit. I had on black running tights. I believe they were really instrumental in constricting blood loss, and they didn’t show the blood. They took me back to the car. I realized I was going to be able to drive my car. I drove back to Kalispell, to the Emergency Room. From there on, the doctors kind of took over.
So how are you now?
I’m well on the road to recovery. I’ve been getting excellent medical care and am scheduled to go in for my third surgery to stitch me up.
The medical facilities here have been excellent. I have a doctor, Dr. Larry Iwersen, who is a renowned expert on bear attack treatments. He’s real good at going in and cleaning them out. Infection prevention is a big factor with problems with bear bites and maulings afterwards.
[Iwersen] said the worst [bite] lacerated my IT band. That’s always a concern for runners. People get inflammation of the IT band. [But] he expects I’ll get a total recovery.
You’re going back out there?!
I was probably running four or five days a week. [Now] the doctor says I have to wait a couple months before I can run again. I’m gonna try to beat that. [I’d] been recovering from plantar fascitis, and I was just getting back into shape again.
The only behavior [I’ll] change is there have been just very occasional moments when I’ve forgotten my bear spray. I can guarantee you there will not be another time I do that.
So, in retrospect, do you feel the bears were out to get you?
I know they didn’t know I was there when I saw them. I am totally convinced that they were retreating from something that startled them. They have poor eyesight and there would’ve been no time to smell me. They didn’t even see me. They were running so fast I had no time to get [out of their way]. He got real close to me before he realized I was there and he stopped on a dime.
I’ve seen bears in the woods a few times, and I’ve talked to many people who say they avoid contacting humans whenever possible. These bears were acting entirely appropriately.