When Matthew Churchman woke up on a recent Sunday morning, at first the only thing growling was his stomach. Coffee and a cold breakfast took care of that. Camp, nestled in a 300-yard-long, cottonwood-and-willow stretch of river bottom, was in the process of being broken down. Skies were overcast—perfect conditions for a morning of trout fishing and a leisurely row to the take-out. Wife Laura and daughter Ella were helping pack up. And the only sense of urgency he felt after strong black coffee was taking a leak. So he wandered off into the willows. That’s when he saw the bear before it saw him.
Grizzly bear numbers are on the rise in the northern Rockies. Jamie Jonkel is a bear specialist for Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks. He followed in his father Charles’s footsteps, and so has a lifetime of bear encounters and stories from which he can assess the current situation. “There are more bears here than we’ve had in quite a while,” Jonkel says. “The Montana depicted in A River Runs Through It, where flyfishing is this day-dreamy, contemplative pastime, was the result of those guys’ fathers shooting out all the bears, and ruining a lot of their habitat. But it’s not like that anymore.”
Churchman can attest to that. He’s the shop manager for Blackfoot River Outfitters, based in Missoula. That fateful Sunday, he and his family had joined a weekend jaunt on a favorite Rocky Mountain river with B.R.O. owners John Herzer and Terri Raugland, and one other couple. Breakfast was over, people were packing up. It was quiet. Raugland wandered over to put her waders on next to her and Herzer’s tent. “I saw something out of the corner of my eye, and when I looked up, saw it was a grizzly,” says Raugland. “It seemed to not see me, and seemed to be on its way through camp.” So, loud enough for others to hear, but fortunately not loud enough to startle the grizz, she shouted, “Bear!” Herzer is an avid bow-hunter, and after what came next, paced off the distance to where his wife stood. “She was 25 yards from me, and the first bear that passed was 17 yards from her,” he says. But that grizz wasn’t alone.
“What I heard,” says Herzer, “was ‘Bear,’ and then a half second later, ‘BEAR!’” he recalls. Herzer later paced just 12 yards between Churchman and his grizzly. “She hadn’t seen me,” Churchman says, “or smelled me.” Churchman instinctively swiped at his hip for his canister of bear spray, but it was stashed in a gear pile to be loaded onto the rafts. Regardless, with his bear headed into camp rather than away, Churchman felt a warning to others was vital. “I remember thinking, ‘how loud I say this is going to be very meaningful,’” recalls Churchman. He said it in a way that clearly alerted his family and friends—but also the grizz. “She turned her head toward me and went ‘Wuufff’,” recalls Churchman. “The rest happened so fast I honestly don’t remember. I have no recollection of it covering the ground between us or hitting me. It was this whirling, incredible force. Like I was suddenly inside this big, hairy, brown washing machine.” What may well have saved his life was the presence of mind to roll over on his stomach and protect his head with hands and arms.
Herzer’s impression was that he was witnessing a murder. “It was like watching someone get hit by a car at 25 or 30 miles an hour,” Herzer says of the impact of the bear with a 12-yard running start. “And then she was on him in this vicious, terrifying manner. The bear’s shaking him, claws in and out, in and out. And I’m going, ‘fuck, she’s going to kill him.’”
With only seconds to react, Herzer quickly figured he didn’t have time to rummage for one of the seven canisters of bear spray they had with them. So he went kamikaze, sprinting toward what seemed to be certain doom. First he took a couple seconds to trip on a willow branch and fall flat on his face. Then he got up and resumed running at the bear, screaming, arms waving, armed with nothing but a human version of a bluff charge. “The thing snaps its head up at me as I’m coming, and I remember thinking, ‘okay, time to share the pain,’” says Herzer. “But what am I going to do when I get there? Kick it? Punch it in the jaw? I think I had settled on jumping on its back. At least that might get it off my friend.” Closing to within five or six yards, the bear decided flight was a better option than fight, did a Tasmanian Devil-style series of lightning-quick three-sixties, and fled the scene. Herzer takes no credit for the bear’s retreat. “I was hoping Terri would be right behind me with the bear spray,” he says.
“It’s not a hero thing,” Raugland interjects. “It was something you do when you see friends and family in immediate danger. All I could see was my husband running toward a bear, and then I was running after him.” The screams were primal, she recalls. “We’ve had close calls in the outdoors before, with mountain lions, with freaky whitewater,” she says. “But this was pure survival adrenalin.”
With the bear gone, and Herzer possessed of maximum trepidation, he immediately set about assessing Churchman’s condition. “I honestly thought his spine was crushed and he was going to be dead. And I remember thinking, ‘how am I going to face his wife and daughter?’ From what I saw, there was no way he survived this.”
Herzer put his hand on Churchman’s back, and was elated to feel him breathing. Analyzing the neck and head, he found them, at least from his view, to be mostly intact. But blood was pooling beneath his face, still plastered in the mud, filling up a muddy depression at an alarming rate. “I’m looking for more blood and guts, listening for maybe the hiss of a collapsed lung, and preparing myself for a good look at him, thinking he’s not gonna have an eye, he’s not gonna have a cheek,” says Herzer
Churchman didn’t want to roll over. The bear had gashed his stomach, and he insisted he shouldn’t rotate to his backside, thinking his guts would spill out. Alas, the abdominal wounds cut into subcutaneous fat, but the plumbing beyond there was left whole. Herzer was so relieved his friend was alive that he almost didn’t know what to do next. “I kind of checked out,” Herzer recalls. So did Churchman. He watched the circle of faces above him react to what he was feeling—which was the onset of dangerous shock symptoms.
Meanwhile, Herzer began getting a boat ready to row like mad to the takeout, lining it with pads and sleeping bags. “That was when our friend Lisa came over,” Herzer says. “She said, ‘I don’t think this is our call. He could have internal injuries; he could go into shock. We have to try to get a cell signal.’” Hustling to the top of the tallest knob near camp, Herzer’s phone miraculously showed a couple bars. After an impressively efficient chat with the 911 dispatcher, a helicopter was deployed, along with wardens from three different directions. The chopper landed on a gravel bar, and far sooner than Churchman could’ve gotten there in the bottom of a chilly boat, he was in the emergency room. “The fentanyl drip was nice,” he cracks.
Apparently possessing the recuperative powers of an octopus, Churchman was recovering at home in Missoula 24 hours later. The ensuing days have afforded ample opportunity to hear his friends’ and his own version of the story, filling in details, and, more recently, assessing what went well, and what could have been done better. Churchman knows he was lucky to be traveling in a group that had impressive backcountry experience, a first-aid kit that probably seems like overkill to the uninitiated, and a friend who was perfectly willing to lay down his own life to save someone else’s. He’s also grateful that his wife and daughter were largely kept out of the mayhem. Neither witnessed the beat-down. As for learning from the incident: not having bear spray at the ready tops the list. If he’d had his canister on his hip, he knows he would have had time to deploy it. “I hunt in grizzly country, I’ve been trained on how to handle a bear encounter, and you know, I just missed keeping it on.” Never again, he says.
The blazing speed of the incident was bewildering for everyone. It wasn’t clear for some time afterward that there were two bears. Initially, Raugland thought she’d steered the bear she had seen toward Churchman. “And I didn’t even know until most of the way through the attack that Matthew was under that bear,” Raugland says. “I thought it had one of the dogs, or a deer.”
The setting also presented some unusual opportunities for a surprise encounter. The remoteness of the location, the shape of the narrow river-bottom set in an otherwise open plain, and the direction of the wind, which made it possible for humans and bears to not detect one another until it was too late. The ambush-like nature of the event is a sign that the bears weren’t drawn to the spot by camp smells. But the unique geography of the location where Churchman was thrashed shouldn’t offer much solace any any angler in grizzly country.
“I think this attack could have happened along any river in Montana,” says Herzer. “How many thousands of times has a drift boat set anchor and a fisherman quickly hopped out, and wandered ten or twelve feet into the brush to take a leak? That thick brush is grizzly territory.”
So is much of the rest of the northern Rockies. Last summer, a new study published in Scientific Reports found a global increase in the number of grizzly attacks. While bear encounters are still rare—and grizzly conflicts in the Yellowstone Ecosystem were down overall in 2019—the study tallied a growing number of worldwide attacks by brown bears from 2000-2015. Of the 183 reported attacks in North America, 51 were in Alaska, and 34 occurred in either Wyoming or Montana. That total doesn’t include two of the more recent and notable attacks in the Lower 48: the fatal mauling in September 2018 of hunting guide Mark Uptain in Wyoming’s Teton Wilderness; and the 2016 death of Brad Treat, who rounded a blind corner while mountain biking in Montana’s Flathead National Forest and collided with the big male grizzly that killed him.
Jamie Jonkel, the legacy Montana bear biologist, points out that large predators near trout-filled streams of the northern Rockies are not only increasing in number, but behaving in ways that indicate increasing habituation to human presence. “It’s kind of like humans walking through a pasture stepping in cowshit,” says Jonkel. “You’re alarmed by the first few dozen patties. But after a while you just figure, wherever you step, there’s gonna be one under your boot.”
Grizzlies and lions increasingly don’t mind stepping where humans have left a mark, large or small. Jonkel emphasizes that every angler in bear country should carry—and be ready to deploy—bear spray. Ultimately, there may be another defense just as important, hints Jonkel: Ease off the all-consuming focus on trout. “When you get out of the car, stringing up your rod or whatever, try to cultivate a heightened state of awareness,” he advises. “We were all kind of in la-la-land when we first started hiking around Montana, grooving on all the beauty and not much more. But we’ve brought back some large-predator habitat. That means humans are going to have to behave more like our ancestors did for much of our species’ existence—being highly aware of their surroundings.”
“Don’t be complacent, be hyper-vigilant,” says Herzer. “We don’t want any of our friends, family, or clients becoming a statistic.”
It’s a practice Matthew Churchman is already putting into place. In late June, on a float of the Blackfoot close to town, he carried bear spray. He caught fish. But he also caught a constant glimpse of where bears might find a day-bed. He’s channeling any grizzly-induced PTSD into achieving the higher consciousness Jonkel describes. It’s a skill he already had as a fisherman. “The top fish of the grizzly trip was mine,” he says, in a way that slightly goads Herzer, who seems a little chagrined. The subtle exchange makes it clear neither of them intends to do any less of the thing they love the most. They’ll simply endeavor to do it better