Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part story about a brown bear attack on hunter Hank Knackstedt near the Kenai River in 1952. Last week’s story, in addition to describing the attack, provided some of Knackstedt’s history and details of his friendship with his hunting partner, Waldo Coyle. This week focuses on the rescue. Next week will examine the aftermath of the attack. Read previous stories online at http://www.redoubtreporter.wordpress.com.
By Clark Fair
“I lay unconscious in a pool of blood with my left eye gone and the left side of my face and head a gory mess. Part of my skull had been bitten or clawed away, exposing brain tissue to the open air. There was a hell of a big hole in the back of my neck, and my rifle had been tossed 30 feet in the brush.”
When Hank Knackstedt awoke after being mauled by a sow brown bear protecting her twin cubs, he found himself face down on ground wet with his own blood and the previous days’ rain. On his back was his old wooden packboard — minus “a few healthy bites” — which may have saved his life after he was battered about the head and neck, knocked out and left for dead.
Knackstedt, who had gone hunting alone near Mile 17 of the Kenai River after refusing to wait any longer for his tardy hunting partner, Waldo Coyle, awoke without a concrete sense of the amount of time passed or the location of his attacker.
He tried to lie still and listen, but his injuries made both movement and the lack of movement excruciating.
“Try as I might, it was impossible for me to feign death,” Knackstedt related in Jim Woodworth’s 1958 book, “The Kodiak Bear.” “I was breathing heavily and shaking, (and) my body was racked with pain. In desperation I had to move, and if she were still around — well, the sooner the better. I didn’t much care one way or the other.”
Eventually, Knackstedt determined that the bears had departed, and he decided he must find his rifle and try to signal for help. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service plane, performing a moose count, flew directly overhead, but those aboard missed the hunter lying in plain view in the little grassy clearing where he’d been attacked.
Grimly, then, he began to crawl and drag himself around until he was able to locate his 30-caliber Springfield, and he chambered and fired a few evenly spaced rounds in the hope that they would be taken as signals, and not mistaken for the shots of another hunter. As he awaited a response, Knackstedt passed out a second time.
When he reawakened, he fired his remaining rounds and hoped for the best.
This time, luck was on his side.
Coyle was in the woods nearby and heard the shots. He fired a volley in return and began moving toward the sound.
For Knackstedt, Coyle’s arrival probably seemed like both a blessing and a curse. Knackstedt certainly wanted to live and knew he needed help, but he probably would have been happier to see almost any person other than his friend, with whom he had a rather contentious relationship.
Later, in fact, Knackstedt would partly blame Coyle’s lateness for what had happened, while Coyle, in turn, would constantly remind Knackstedt that he had saved his life.
According to Knackstedt’s son, Henry, many years later — after Hank had passed away — Coyle brought Henry into his home to tell him his version of the events that day. “Waldo wanted to talk to me about the past,” Henry said. “He wanted to tell what really happened with my dad. He knew that I’d probably got some wrong information, and he wanted to set the record straight.”
Henry said he was skeptical at first because of Waldo and Hank’s argumentative past, but he said that Waldo got so choked up as he narrated that in the end Henry believed everything he told him.
“He finds my dad, and my dad was a mess — blood all over the place. A mess. His eye was kind of hanging out — it’s just tore up. And he got my dad up — he was real weak — and my dad didn’t want any help. ‘I’ll find my own way!’ My dad started going off in the wrong direction. ‘No, you need to go this way!’ He kept redirecting Dad to try to get back. The direction to go was toward the Kenai River to get in a boat. He needed to get to Kenai.”
It was difficult, but the lean, shorter Coyle managed to steer the taller, stockier Knackstedt through the woods, and then down a steep wooded bank to the river. There, they began to slowly motor downstream. By the time they had traveled nearly three miles — to the bend where Big Eddy is located — Coyle decided that they needed to rest. He pulled the boat into slack water, and that is when they caught their first big break.
On the high bank above them they spotted a group of soldiers, who had driven in a bus down the graveled Spur Highway to the river either from an Anchorage base or from Wildwood Station to go fishing.
“And there was a bunch of medics on board,” Henry said.
The medics immediately went into triage mode. They patched up Knackstedt as well as they could and realized that he needed help far beyond the emergency care they could supply along the river bank. They loaded Knackstedt into their vehicle and rumbled straight for the Kenai Airport.
Lying on a gurney at the airport was Soldotna’s Marge Mullen, who was 32 years old at the time and pregnant with (and four days from delivering) her youngest child, Mary. She was about to be loaded onto a waiting airplane when Knackstedt was brought in, all bloody and being carried by a group of GIs. She insisted that Knackstedt be attended to first.
Minutes later, the plane was winging toward Anchorage, where an ambulance was waiting to carry Knackstedt to Providence Hospital — his second trip to a hospital for a serious injury in only eight years.
On Sept. 17, 1944, Technician 5th Grade Hank Knackstedt of the 67th Armored Regiment, 2nd Armored Division of the U.S. Army, had been shot in the upper-right chest while fighting against Nazi forces in Holland. He had been evacuated from the battle scene to the 111th General Hospital near Cirencester, England, about 90 miles northwest of London, and he was awarded a Purple Heart 10 days later.
This time, however, Knackstedt’s condition was much more dire.
In the days to follow, he would undergo numerous examinations and procedures, racking up more air miles and some huge medical bills. He would go from a locally known bachelor and commercial fisherman to a nationally known “Bear Battler,” photographed in his bandages by The Associated Press.
And his plight would attract unexpected attention from someone thousands of miles away.