FAIRBANKS, Alaska — One minute, Rodd Moretz was high-fiving his 13-year-old son, Caleb, after shooting the biggest brown bear of his life.
The next minute, he was tumbling down the hillside with another giant brown bear, wondering if he was going to die and how things could have gone from so good to so bad so quickly.
The father and son duo from Fairbanks had lucked out and each drawn permits to hunt the world’s largest brown bears on Kodiak Island.
Just five days earlier, Caleb had shot a massive trophy brown bear. Just a few minutes earlier, on the next-to-last day of their hunt, Moretz had shot an even bigger brownie. Things couldn’t have gone much better.
At least until then.
“I remember looking right down at the bear, she was falling downhill away from me, and I was thinking, ‘I’m going to land right on top of her,’” Moretz said.
Caleb, meanwhile, was watching the whole thing play out from above. He, too, was trying to fathom what had just happened.
He and his father had been walking up a trail toward a giant brown bear that Moretz shot and killed near Sulua Bay on the southern end of Kodiak Island last weekend when they approached what looked to be a bear den cut into the bank. They had noticed fresh bear tracks on the trail and figured the tracks and the den belonged to the bear that Moretz had just shot. It had disappeared over a nearby ridge. Moretz, an experienced hunter, knew he had killed the bear.
“We thought the den was his,” Moretz said. “I was so sure I didn’t even take my rifle off my pack.”
He did, however, tell Caleb to get his gun ready “just in case.”
They had taken only a couple more steps down the trail and were about 10 feet from the den when they heard a bear inside.
“She was woofing and grunting,” Moretz said. “I said, ‘Get ready Caleb, there’s a bear coming out!”’
His adrenaline pumping, Caleb readied his .300- caliber Weatherby. A second later, the bear exploded from the den. Even though they knew it was coming, the sight and speed of the bear startled both father and son, causing them to instinctively step back. Caleb tripped on an alder and fell backward just as his father yelled, “Shoot!”
When no shot came, Moretz turned to see Caleb on the ground next to him. With the bear almost on him, Moretz took a step toward his son, grabbed the rifle from his hands and turned to shoot the bear.
But it was too late for that. The bear was too close. Moretz ducked his head just as the bear was about to hit him.
“She went right over me and bit me right on top of the head,” said Moretz, a 48-year-old civil engineer at the Bureau of Land Management in Fairbanks. “I think she only caught me with one tooth because I’ve only got one big cut from the back of my hair to the front.”
The bear hit him “like a freight train” and flipped him in the air, he said. Both man and beast rolled down the steep hillside. It was at that point Moretz thought he was going to land on top of the bear.
“She must have slammed on the brakes or something,” he said. “I went over her and landed flat on my back.”
He came to a stop in a thick patch of alders and rolled over in time to see the bear above him, heading back up the hill toward where Caleb, who now had no rifle, was standing the hillside.
Caleb, an eighth-grader at Randy Smith Middle School, is an experienced hunter in his own right even at the age of 13. He has killed seven bears, including two brown bears.
Still, he didn’t know what to think as he watched his father and the bear tumble about 50 feet down the hillside.
“As soon as I stood up, I saw them rolling down the hill,” he said. “The bear hit first and my dad rolled over it and stopped.”
The bear immediately turned and headed back up the hill toward Caleb, who could hear his father yelling, “it’s coming back up.” Making a split-second decision, Caleb took a few steps to his left and jumped down the steep hillside to where his father was crouching.
It was only then that Moretz realized his scalp had been ripped open. His head and face were covered with blood, making the injury look worse than it was.
“It happened so fast I didn’t even know for sure I was bit in the head,” Rod Moretz said. “I didn’t even think I was really wounded until I got to the bottom of the hill.”
Seeing all the blood, Caleb immediately wanted to go back to camp and call for help, but his father calmly convinced him otherwise.
“He said, ‘We’re going to go get my bear, go back to camp and call some people and ask them what to do,”’ Caleb said.
Doing so, however, required walking back up the hill and past the den where the bear that had just charged him had retreated.
They also had to find Moretz’s rifle, a .378-caliber Weatherby that had been stripped off his backpack as he tumbled down the hillside with the bear. They found the rifle about halfway up the slope and then side-hilled their way around the den to the ravine where the bear he had shot was lying.
With the dead bear only about 100 yards from the den, Caleb nervously stood watch as his father skinned as quickly as possible.
“We had the guns really close,” Caleb said. “I was freaking out.”
What usually is about a three-hour job took Moretz only about 30 minutes. Rather than skin out the feet and head as he normally would, Moretz simply cut them off in the skin and stuffed them all in his pack.
“I did a horrible job,” he said.
After they climbed down the hillside, Moretz skinned out the feet and head of the bear before continuing to their camp, which was about a mile away.
Back in camp, Caleb bandaged his father’s head and they used a satellite phone to call Moretz’s wife, Kristy, in Fairbanks at around 11:30 p.m.
After a few frantic minutes because of a bad connection, Moretz was able to convey what happened to Kristy, who then called family friend and veterinarian Scott Flamme for advice on how to treat Moretz’s head wound. She also called the air service in Kodiak that had flown the Moretzes to camp, explained what happened and requested an early pick-up.
A plane landed at around noon on Sunday.
When they arrived in Kodiak, Moretz went to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to have the two bear hides sealed before going to the hospital to get stitched up.
On Tuesday, just three days after the attack, there was hardly any sign that Moretz had been bitten by a bear. You couldn’t tell he had 50 stitches in his head.
Doctors didn’t need to shave his head or cut his hair to stitch him up, and he had no bandage covering the wound. You had to look closely at his scalp to even see the stitches.
Moretz believes, and state wildlife biologist Larry Van Daele in Kodiak agrees, that the bear who charged him was probably defending cubs in her den.
Van Daele told the Anchorage Daily News that mating season for bears on Kodiak Island is approaching and the bear that attacked Moretz was most likely was a sow. She may have confused Moretz with a hungry male brown bear that could prey on her cubs.
“The way she exploded out of the den, the way (Moretz) described it, suggests she was feeling very defensive,” Van Daele said.
Moretz said he and Caleb watched the male bear on the hillside for three hours before shooting it, and it wasn’t far from the den. It was the only bear they saw on that hillside in nine days, Moretz said.
“I assume he was there waiting to breed her or eat her cubs when they came out,” Moretz said. “She was definitely on alert. When we got too close, she came out. We just happened to be in the wrong spot.”