Grizzly-sized tale intrigues audiences around the world
Last week, Richard “Tim” Jessee told an almost unbelievable story to friends and locals at the Polar Café about his harrowing encounter with a grizzly that supposedly sank his ATV and stalked him for days.
In an interview with The Nome Nugget last week, he went into detail reporting that a grizzly bear pounced on him while he was riding his ATV across Big Four Creek in early July, near the Casadepaga River, by his cabin. The ATV, the trailer he was towing, and his phone sank to the bottom of the creek, he said. He was able to fire a shot at the bear, which gave him enough time to flee to safety in his cabin, where he painted ‘SOS HELP ME’ on the roof. A passing Coast Guard helicopter rescued him four days later and transported him to Nome, where he was taken to Norton Sound Regional hospital and released.
The story about the bear attack may be nothing more than a tall tale.
However, audiences around the world were entranced. The New York Times described it as an “ordeal that could pass as a sequel to ‘The Revenant,’” while The Guardian, a global investigative journalism organization, detailed the “viral online” story. Dozens of international news outlets began calling the Nugget, the only news organization that spoke with Jessee and other sources with first-hand knowledge. Tabloid newspapers, cable morning show producers and documentary film makers took keen interest in the story. They wanted to know who might have more information, or a way to get in touch with Jessee.
While the story went viral worldwide and more details came to light about the incident, some community members began to express concerns and doubt about the veracity of the tale.
The cabin Jessee took refuge in, as it turns out, was not his. It belonged to a fellow miner, though Jessee’s cabin sat only a few yards away.
“We went out there to the cabin, but we couldn’t find a bear track within 500 feet of the place, but it should have been all torn up, according to his story,” said one anonymous source known to the Nugget. “There’s no hair, no tracks, no scat, nothing.”
Heavy rainfall in the region throughout July created muddy conditions, meaning if a bear spent several days around the cabin, it would have left visible tracks. Also, the door to the cabin that the bear supposedly vandalized had been tampered with, the door knob appearing to have been knocked off by a hammer, the source said.
The source said their trip out to the cabin left them with more questions than answers.
When they got to the camp the ATV and trailer were out of the water. “He made a fool out of us,” they said. “We found out that his story didn’t match what we found.”
The Big Four Creek is around eight feet deep at the point where Jessee was purportedly trying to cross on his four-wheeler, they said. Another gold prospector familiar with the area says Jessee knew just how deep and unpassable the water was, and that they had pulled another ATV out of the water just two years before.
“The bear pushed on the bike [ATV], is what she did,” Jessee explained during a follow-up interview with the Nugget on Tuesday afternoon. “It pushed me into a hole of deep water. That’s pretty much what I remember. It was all so fast, the bear was mighty big, and I was in deep water trying not to drown.”
Jessee said the can-am winch on his four-wheeler still worked, and he was able to use it and some rope to get the ATV and trailer out of the water later.
The prospector said he’s never had an issue with bears around his cabin in the area.
Several miners came to the conclusion that Jessee had accidentally crashed his ATV and was embarrassed to admit to it. They suspect that there was never a bear involved.
“He had a legitimate reason for needing help, and the Coast Guard did a great job and they were right to rescue him, but why did he have to make all this other stuff up?” one wondered.
“He did need help, there’s no question about that,” another added.
“They can believe what they want,” Jessee told the Nugget. “I was there. I know what happened. I haven’t been that scared in a very, very long time.”
Other details Jessee provided, though, are dubious.
The sources said they couldn’t find any bear scratches or marks on the ATV but found a couple of grooves on the plywood covering of the trailer.
“You can ask anybody in Nome that’s looked at the pictures I have of the trailer,” they said. “The scratch marks on the trailer look like they were made with a screwdriver.”
Jessee initially told the Nugget the bear “rolled my bike and trailer over like it was a toy car,” but the ATV, while waterlogged, is relatively unscathed. The few marks on the trailer were located around the front and back edge and did not match typical bear scratches. The grooves in the wood were uneven in length and some would have required the bear to have only one claw.
“There’s just no way it was a bear,” the anonymous source said. Also, a cooler was sitting on the ATV with two pounds of bacon. “It was completely untouched,” the source said.
Jessee described the bear as aggressive and threatening, saying that it returned several times to stalk and harass him while he waited for rescue. An aggressive bear, though, would likely never pass up a treat of bacon. According to the National Park Service, ice chests and coolers, even when empty and certified bear resistant, can be tempting to a hungry animal.
While he was waiting for rescue, Jessee went back to the trailer to unpack some food.
“I didn’t touch any of the food that was in the cooler- bacon, hamburger, all kinds of stuff,” he said. “I didn’t want the smell of it to come out and attract the bear. I grabbed the dry food, repacked the trailer and left it there.”
The Coast Guard rescued Jessee on Friday, several days after the supposed grizzly attack.
“We didn’t get a lot of details from him at the time, just that he said he had a bear encounter,” explained LCDR Jared Carbajal, who was piloting the helicopter that spotted Jessee’s SOS message. “We really weren’t too concerned about the details —we just wanted to make sure we got him to care, because he definitely seemed to be in some sort of distress.”
A Coast Guard press release detailing the incident described Jessee as a “survivor of a bear attack.”
The Coast Guard crew delivered him to an ambulance in Nome, which took him to Norton Sound Health Regional hospital.
“We were told to get a man who had been mauled by a bear,” said Jim West Jr., the Nome Volunteer Fire and Ambulance chief. “He walked off the helicopter and walked into the ambulance. He had no animal bites and wasn’t bleeding.”
Danielle Rivet, a PhD candidate studying bears at the University of Saskatchewan, says it’s possible to walk away from a bear attack without lacerations.
“A predatory bear attack is incredibly rare,” she explained. “If it’s a defensive attack, the bear’s goal is just to neutralize whatever the threat is. They don’t necessarily have to make physical contact. They might make a lot of sounds at you or run at you, but they don’t have to necessarily have to come into contact with you. People do occasionally come out with lacerations on their face or on their body.”
Jessee told the Nugget the bear pounced on him, knocking him off his ATV, and then stalked him for several days.
“Bears are very smart, very curious, and they’re going to check things out,” Rivet said. “It’s not uncommon for bears to return to an area where they have encountered a threat previously, and if they feel that the threat is still there, they’ll keep coming back until they feel that that particular threat has been neutralized.”
Rivet said it’s possible a brown bear was simply defending its territory.
“It could be anything ranging from defense of cubs to defense of territory,” she said. “Perhaps there was a carcass nearby or a food source that was important to that particular bear. It could have been a young bear that has never really encountered people before … or an old or rooted bear that was hungry or particularly defensive of their food source.”
Jessee told the Nugget that his doctors recommended he stay off his feet for a while, and it might take some time for his bruises and leg injury to heal.
Grizzly bears, which can weigh upwards of 700 pounds and have long, sharp claws, have killed several individuals in the last year, including two men in Alaska. Most survivors have large lacerations or injuries, significantly worse than Jessee’s bruising and injured knee.
“He was okay, he seemed more shaken up than anything else,” said West. “If [his story] was false or not, I don’t know. We just took him at his word.”
Alaska State Trooper Sergeant Aileen Witrosky said the area is “a high bear area.”
“There’s usually a lot of bears in the area,” she said. “He came in and talked to us and told us about the bear, and we have a lot of bears on the Seward Peninsula anyway, so it made sense.”
When planning to leave areas with cell phone service, particularly in areas with dangerous wildlife, the Coast Guard pilot Carbajal recommends individuals carry satellite communication devices, and to tell friends and family when they leave and when they expect to return.
Several anonymous sources whose identities are known to the Nugget said they warned Jessee to not venture out by himself and worry now that he’s put others in danger. It takes about ten hours to reach the campsite. Those who travel there use the Nome-Council Highway, turn off the road near mile 46 and then travel on the Corduroy Road and on four-wheeler trails for another 30 miles across the tundra, involving several stream crossings over the Casadepaga River and other creeks. Rainy weather conditions make the trip even more treacherous.