Bear grabs man asleep in his tent
RUSSIAN RIVER: Yelling rousted grizzly before it did serious damage.

By CRAIG MEDRED
Anchorage Daily News

(Published: July 30, 2006)

Wakened from sleep in a tent at the Russian River Campground early Saturday, Chicago tourist Daniel Kuczero didn't consider the possibility that a grizzly bear tugging at the nylon woke him.

He figured it had to be a dog he heard outside in the 4:30 a.m. stillness, witnesses say.

Then the animal collapsed the tent on him.

That, according to Russian River campground manager Butch Bishop and others, was the first indication Kuczero had that the animal probably wasn't a dog. Kuczero apparently decided the best thing to do was play dead.

He changed his mind when the bear grabbed his body -- still wrapped up in a sleeping bag inside the tent -- by the shoulder, in-law Rich Dunn said by telephone from Cooper Landing on the Kenai Peninsula on Saturday afternoon.

That was enough to start Kuczero screaming.

"When it bit him in the shoulder,'' Dunn said, "he yelled.''

The bear took off at the noise as relatives camped nearby in a motor home quickly came to Kuczero's aid. It was a scary moment for everyone as it happened, but Kuczero was doing better Saturday afternoon.

"He was laughing about it,'' Dunn said. "But at the time, he was pretty shook up.''

Dunn said he thinks the bear might have picked on Dunn's campsite because it was a "very small tent.''

Bishop said he isn't sure what to think.

Though the Russian River campground in the Chugach National Forest has a history of bears running in and around the campsites, this is the first time anyone can remember a bear actually going after a tent.

Other than the tent being conveniently located on the bluff just above the popular salmon stream, Bishop said, there was no reason for the bear to go to the campsite Kuczero used.

"The campsite, the picnic table, the tent -- everything was clean,'' Bishop said.

There have been problems with bears invading other campsites in the campground this year because of food left out, but that apparently was not the case here, Bishop said.

Luckily, he added, Kuczero -- who could not be reached -- suffered only minor injuries.

"(The bite) didn't break the skin,'' Bishop said.

The campground manager was happy about that.

"I've been through the Bigley thing,'' Bishop said.

Young angler Daniel Bigley nearly died along the Russian River in mid-July 2003. He was walking along a riverside trail on his way back from salmon fishing when an agitated bear knocked him down, grabbed him by the face and crushed his skull. Other anglers who came to his aid, coupled with the quick arrival of emergency medical technicians and a rescue helicopter from Anchorage, saved his life, but he was blinded.

Well aware of the Bigley story, Bishop could only say, "He (Kuczero) is so lucky."

U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Rebecca Talbott said that because of the attack, the agency has imposed a temporary ban on tent camping in the popular campground at Mile 52.6 Sterling Highway, about 105 road miles south of Anchorage. Only camping in recreational vehicles or trailers will be allowed, she said.

The agency is also instituting a night-time closure of riverside trails. There are fears that anglers using those trails to get to the late run of red salmon just beginning to return to the river could encounter a bear, as Bigley did.

A number of grizzly bears have been in the area much of the summer, including a couple of young bears whose mother was shot there last year. Those two bears subsequently took to wandering the riverbanks looking for salmon carcasses left by anglers. Over the course of the last two summers, they have lost nearly all fear of humans.

Bishop has had to chase the bears out of the campground regularly, and they have caused repeated problems for anglers on the river -- ripping into backpacks, stealing fish and otherwise targeting people for food.

Whether one of these bears was the one that pounced on Kuczero is unknown. Though Kuczero's nephew, who was in the nearby RV, saw the bear, he viewed it through a tinted window, Bishop said.

"The color of the bear is really unknown,'' Bishop said, and even its size is unclear.

Nobody in the campground -- other than those sharing Kuczero's campsite -- heard anything of the attack, which didn't create much noise except for the victim's yelling.

Bishop said he probably woke up more people with the noise of his diesel truck as he cruised the campground after the attack to look for the bear and make sure no one had left anything out that might attract bears.

He was hoping that state and federal wildlife officials might have a better idea of what happened after they got a good look at the scene.

"It flattened the tent,'' Bishop said. "We didn't touch it.''

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Outdoors editor Craig Medred can be reached at cmedred@adn.com.