Photographer Jim Cole has spent years searching for grizzlies, and at times, he’s been surrounded by dozens of bears deep in the wilderness, yet has never felt threatened. Even after being mauled by a grizzly in 1993, Cole eagerly trekked annually into the bears’ habitat. But nothing could have prepared him for May 23, 2007, when he was attacked in Yellowstone by a mother grizzly who ripped off most of his face, blinded him in one eye and savaged him nearly to the point of death. In this excerpt from his book "Blindsided," he writes about the moments after the attack.
Not until I finally reached Trout Creek did I know that I could make it out. I still had a long way to go from that point. But once I got there, I knew what would happen. I was positively going to reach the park road. I had a vision of the culvert where Trout Creek ran under the road and flowed into the Yellowstone River. I would make for that culvert. In my mind’s eye, I developed tunnel vision. Survival was the only acceptable outcome.
Judy and John Taylor were casually driving north through Hayden Valley when, on a moment’s impulse, they decided to “pull off at the last second” at Trout Creek to view wildlife in Hayden Valley. They pulled to the roadside and were intently glassing with binoculars for bears when Judy first spotted me, probably close to a half mile away.
John noticed a “sling pack” on my hip and reasoned that I might be a research biologist carrying equipment to take samples. Judy thought I was wearing a facemask to protect my face; John would later call it a “neoprene camouflage face mask.” Later, he would share the chilling information that at least two coyotes had been circling me as I walked toward the road. The crafty canines obviously smelled my blood and were waiting for me to take a final fall before moving in. A healthy adult male human is too much for even a small pack of coyotes, but I was hardly healthy and if I’d gone down, they might have had one hell of a feast. Sorry to disappoint you, guys.
Judy told me later, “We’d see you, then you’d drop out of sight. It happened again, then again, and then again. We were still looking for animals when you got closer, limping or dragging a foot, basically walking along the creek. You seemed to be aimlessly wandering, not walking straight lines. We thought you might be handicapped or drunk.”
It turned out that my recollection, which is understandably fuzzy, was not entirely accurate. Early on in the hike I was fording the creek when I could to avoid the switchbacks but later it seems that I was following the winding course of the streambed as it switched back on itself. I’m sure I did this because descending and then climbing the banks of Trout Creek was simply too much for me, but following the creek’s loops at this point gave me the security of knowing that I was following the correct route near the finish line. It also added distance to my walk and wore me down, but that seemed to be the lesser of two evils. No doubt that meandering path, along with my unsteady and weakening legs, convinced Judy that perhaps I was either crazy or had been hitting the bottle in the backcountry.
John and Judy monitored my slow progress along the creek for 20 to 30 minutes before they realized something was seriously wrong. By this time, I could hear the cars passing on the road and I knew I was near to rescue. Today I would not be dying alone in the wilderness and being eaten by wolves. It was a good thing, because my strength was just about spent. I was on the south side of Trout Creek, close to the culvert where creek meets river, and about 50 yards from the road when John came out to get me.
“I saw him sitting on the bank about 50 yards from the road,” John says. “I just looked through my binoculars and realized his face was covered with blood.” John told me later that he knew right then that I had been mauled by a bear. He immediately came out to render assistance. My only memory of those last few seconds of my long journey to the road are John’s voice and seeing a hazy human figure that I hoped wasn’t a hallucination. I said to John, “Help, I got attacked by a bear.” As he said, “Yeah, I can see that,” I collapsed in his arms as he caught me. A feeling of safety and security came over me. I was utterly spent, but I had done my job. I had hiked into Hayden Valley at about 8:30 that morning. It was about 1:00 in the afternoon when I reached the road.
According to Judy, I was shivering; the temperature hovered around freezing and I had lost a lot of blood. “John carried and hand-dragged you over onto the embankment about twenty feet from the road,” she says. “You had no ear, no nose, no eye, no cheek. Everything was gone and hanging down. It reminded me of a Hollywood horror movie costume.”
“You were quite a sight to see,” says John. “I’ve thought about it a lot, but no nightmares. I could see the path of the claw marks from the base of the neck to the hairline right through the face, eyes, and nose: four claws. You didn’t have a face. You were a bloody mess.”
On April 25, 2008, I finally reconnected with the Taylors for the first time since they had rescued me from my lurching death march through Hayden Valley. It was an emotional time for all of us, revealing and valuable, because they filled in a lot of blanks for me ... and I filled in a few for them. Hearing each other’s voices and recounting the events together for the first time was an intense and humbling way to spend a Wednesday afternoon. It was refreshing to discover that I was rescued by folks who have a sound comfort level with grizzlies. Understandably, they were both initially a little more nervous about camping after seeing what happened to me, but ultimately their attitudes remain unchanged. They both agree with what John says: “If you’re careful, it’s OK to be in grizzly country.”
During our reunion, John also said, “I’m thankful I was there to help you and I’m glad you survived. This changes a person. We‘re proud of how we handled it. The angels were looking out for you.”
Excerpted from "Blindsided," by Jim Cole with Tim Vandehey. Copyright (c) 2010, reprinted with permission from St. Martin's Press.