Editor’s note: It is still a special occasion these days when residents of the central Kenai Peninsula make a big splash in a regional or national publication, but several decades ago the event was a bona fide rarity. Forty years ago this fall, what is arguably the peninsula’s most famous bear mauling occurred on the Kenai National Moose Range, and while it received strong newspaper coverage at the time and magazine coverage a year later, it really sparked interest in 1983 when it was included as the first full story in Larry Kaniut’s “Alaska Bear Tales.” Almost 30 years earlier, however, the rigors and joys of peninsula homesteading life received national attention when a Ridgeway couple was highlighted in a multipage, 13-photograph spread in Better Homes and Gardens. This week’s Almanac will recap the story of the bear attack, and next week’s edition will discuss the homesteading tale.
By Clark Fair
File photo by Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter. A brown bear attacked Al and Joyce Thompson, of Ridgeway, during a moose hunt in 1972. The tale eventually made it into a book and a spread in Better Homes and Gardens.
When state game warden Al Thompson, severely injured and with a piece of his scalp missing, staggered out of the wilderness and onto Funny River Road in September 1972, he slumped to the ground along the roadside.
His left arm was in a sling, and his face, hands and makeshift bandages — formed mostly by strips of muslin torn from game bags — were covered with dried blood. He was exhausted from the laborious task of hiking more than 10 miles out from the camp he had been sharing with his wife, Joyce, during a moose-hunting expedition gone horribly wrong.
Fortunately for Thompson, as he waited for Joyce to catch up to him, a vehicle drove up the graveled road and the driver, who knew Thompson, spotted him and she stopped. By the time Joyce emerged from the Funny River Horse Trail, Al was asking the driver to head on in to Soldotna, to notify the Alaska State Troopers and the hospital, and to have an ambulance sent his way.
Twenty minutes later, an emergency crew was loading Thompson into an ambulance, and the media storm cranked up shortly thereafter. Articles appeared locally in the Cheechako News and the Peninsula Clarion, but also in the Anchorage Daily News and Anchorage Times, before the story began to receive national attention — and, according to Joyce, to distort the facts.
In order to set the record straight, she wrote her own personal account, entitled “Wilderness Nightmare,” and, after having that account included in a 1973 issue of Alaska Magazine, she later handed it over to Anchorage high school teacher, Larry Kaniut, who was compiling a book of Alaska bear stories. That book, “Alaska Bear Tales,” went public in May 1983 and is now in its 19th printing.
According to Joyce’s narrative, she and Al had planned a 10-day, late-season hunt for a trophy bull moose in the high bench lands near the headwaters of the Funny River near the base of the Kenai Mountains. Although Al was hoping to kill his bull with a bow and arrow, he had also packed a .30-06 rifle and a .44-caliber Magnum, the first to use in case he couldn’t maneuver close enough with his bow after several attempts, and the second to use in case of bear problems.
After eight and a half hours, the Thompsons reached their intended campsite, where they fashioned a comfortable shelter from Visqueen, logs and branches, gathered firewood and tinder to cook and to ward off the cool of the season, and then promptly turned in for the night.
After seeing only small bulls on their first day of hunting, they spotted two large bulls the next time out. Unfortunately, Al couldn’t get close enough for a sure shot with his bow, so they decided to try again the following morning. They whiled away the evening at camp and then climbed into their sleeping bags, determined to have better luck the next day.
As they had done on previous nights, they slept armed. Al kept the top of his sleeping bag unzipped so that his arm could easily reach out to grab either the rifle or the pistol. The attack, when it came, however, was so sudden and so violent that he had no chance to use either gun.