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
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.
According to Joyce’s narrative, Al awakened her at about 4 a.m. and whispered that a bear might be in camp. Almost immediately afterward, from her position and with the aid of moonlight, Joyce saw the silhouette of a brown bear move only inches from her — and then it smashed through the plastic and logs.
Al grabbed his rifle, but the impact of the attacking bear caused the firearm to fly from his grip. The bear stood on its hind feet momentarily — “For a fraction of a second the bear appeared confused,” Joyce wrote — and then it dropped toward her.
Attempting to save his wife, Al acted without hesitation, grabbing the bear’s head with his left hand and slugging it with his right. The bear reacted by chomping on Al’s left forearm and standing again, thus yanking Al from his sleeping bag and hurling him into the air.
After that, it was all flurry and fury, as the animal tore up Al’s right side and bit into his skull. It lifted Al by his head and ran with him, shaking him as it moved until a piece of Al’s scalp tore loose, causing the bear to lose its grip.
Sensing his one chance to escape death, Al collapsed to the ground, stomach down, and played dead.
Then, despite being cuffed and gashed and bitten, Al remained still … and the bear finally gave up and shambled away, heading for a small lake near the camp.
Back in the demolished shelter, Joyce strained to see her husband. She had heard the bear depart, but she couldn’t tell if Al was still alive. Suddenly, though, Al was running toward her, his blood seemingly everywhere and his clothing tattered. He informed her that he was hurt badly but was going to live, and then urged her to find the rifle.
They spent the next three hours nervously tending to Al’s wounds, listening and watching for the bear to return, and waiting for daylight. At about 7 a.m., carrying their firearms and emergency gear, they started down the trail. Al set the pace, and Joyce said she struggled to keep up with him. They made the return trip two hours faster than they had originally hiked in.
Upon carefully unraveling the bandages covering Al’s skull, doctors at the new Central Peninsula General Hospital discovered the missing swatch of scalp and asked whether the Thompsons had saved it. They hadn’t, but Joyce later helicoptered back into their camp with a small contingent of troopers, and they were able to locate the scalp.
The hospital’s lone surgeon, who had been enjoying a Sunday of fishing when Al was brought in, had doffed his hip boots, scrubbed his hands, and gotten busy with his scalpel and sutures.
Despite these efforts, the scalp failed to reattach successfully, and skin grafts were necessary later to cover Al’s skull. Through physical rehabilitation, he was able to regain most of the use of his left arm and hand, and he retained his game warden job until he retired in 1985. Joyce and Al now live in Michigan, the state from which they originated before moving to Alaska.
As for the bear, no clear answer is available. Another hunter was attacked in the same area a few weeks later. According to Joyce, he scared the bear away, but it stalked him and charged again. This time, he wounded the bear with a rifle shot, and the animal disappeared.
Sometime later, Al returned to the scene with other officers, determined to destroy the bear, but they never found it. Al said that he believed the animal may have wandered off and died of its wounds.
Some scars heal. Some never do.