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An AFSCME member survives a bear attack while on the job

Chichagof Island, Alaska. (Photo by Nick Bonzey)
An AFSCME member survives a bear attack while on the job
By Mila Myles ·
Tags: Our Stories

An AFSCME member in Sitka, Alaska, is on the mend after surviving a terrifying workplace hazard – a bear attack.  

Jess Coltharp and Anthony Walloch, fishery technicians for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) and members of ASEA (Alaska State Employees Association) /AFSCME Local 52, were finishing up their workday, surveying a remote stream on Aug. 19.

Joined by a volunteer named Ethan Christensen, the three men were counting salmon.

“We’re basically the boots on the ground for the people in the office to know how many fish are getting up and down the creeks,” Coltharp said.

Aaron Dupuis, an area manager for ADF&G, called the men the department’s “eyes and ears in the field during the salmon season.”

“We’ll send them out for a week at a time, and they’ll do anything [such as] checking our regulatory markers [and] moving them around. Those are important so commercial fisherman know where they can and cannot fish,” Dupuis said. “We have them … counting fish in the streams so then we know ... what’s going on with the salmon runs when we’re trying to decide on whether or not to open something [for fishing].”

Given that the region has a high density of brown bears and the area around Sitka is heavily forested, bear encounters are frequent. Coltharp and Walloch carry ADF&G-issued Remington shotguns for protection.

“We’d finished the survey, and we’d run into probably four or five bears on the way up,” Coltharp said, referring to Aug. 19. “It’s pretty common, especially in a lake stream. They don’t have quite as much real estate to fish like on the river. So, there’s a lot of them usually in high concentrations in those places.” 

Typically, bears leave humans alone. Yet what seemed like a routine day quickly morphed into a potential tragedy.

The three men were halfway back to their boat, following the river. They were moving quickly and laughing, with Coltharp walking about 20 feet ahead. He remembers turning his head to say something to the two behind him when he heard bushes start to break. Coltharp spun around, only to see a brown bear, coming at him full speed. 

“There wasn’t a lot of time to really react and get a shot off because the gun was slung over my shoulder,” said Coltharp. “And by the time I got it around, it was already right there in front of me. So, I definitely remember thinking, ‘Well, I’m not going to be able to shoot this thing, but Anthony should be able to right behind me, and I just got to get out of the way.’”

Coltharp jumped back and maneuvered his body just enough to protect his heart and lungs.

“When I did that, the bear just kind of clamped down across my upper knee area,” recalled Coltharp. “He was shaking me about there for maybe just a couple of seconds. I remember yelling, ‘Shoot it, shoot it, shoot it,’ as it’s thrashing me about. I remember hearing the gunshot and thinking, ‘Oh no, my foot’s about to get blown off.’ But I didn’t feel any pain, and the bear just released and fell over dead next to me.”

“As the bear was running at us, Jess tried to get his gun up, but … the bear was right there at him,” confirmed Walloch. “As he dove to the side, Ethan got out of the way. … The bear bit into Jess’s leg and was starting to shake. And that’s when I was able to get a clean shot. I shot the bear, it rolled off of Jess, and then I took two more shots at the bear, just to ensure that it wasn’t going to get back up.”

Walloch can still picture the bear running at them. “It was really low to the ground, and its paws are just digging at the dirt, just pushing right towards us. And all I could focus on was, I knew I had to get my gun up.”

The attack lasted less than a minute.

The men sat on the grass for a second, stunned by what happened, staring at each other. Then their adrenaline kicked in.

“That’s when I changed my focus onto Jess and making sure he was OK,” said Walloch, a certified EMT. “We took off his waders, and then that’s when I noticed the laceration in his left leg … and thankfully, it wasn’t gushing blood.”

While the attack could’ve been worse, the men still needed to get to safety as soon as possible. They messaged Dupuis, who arranged for a floatplane to pick up Coltharp where the men had dropped anchor. The only problem – the boat was still about half a mile down the river. Christensen ran ahead to get the raft and Walloch cleaned and bandaged Coltharp’s wound before he and Christensen paddled furiously to the plane. Coltharp was then flown to Mt. Edgecumbe Medical Center in Sitka. 

From the attack to the emergency room, the whole ordeal lasted a little more than two hours. But this happy ending was only possible thanks to years of training Coltharp and Walloch had undergone. 

Both men grew up hunting and fishing, cultivating love and respect for the outdoors. When they joined the ADF&G, they received more specific training – wilderness safety classes and firearms training.

“We also go out to the range pretty regularly during our time working just to make sure we can operate the gun effectively and safely and are proficient with it,” Walloch said.

“Numerous different types of training, as well as repetition of the same training, was pretty important in this situation,” said Coltharp. “It all happened too quickly to where I could not do anything about it. Sometimes that’s just how it is. But him [Walloch] being able to react quickly … was huge. And I think that he was able to do that so effectively because of all that training we’ve done.”

Walloch and Coltharp had the same advice for their fellow AFSCME members, especially those more accustomed to urban environments: Prepare for the worst, hope for the best. 

“If you’re going camping or hiking, have your safety gear with you,” said Walloch, who signed up for ASEA membership after the bear attack. “And if you have safety gear, know how to use it properly and practice with it. The more practice, the better, because when the time comes, it’ll just be muscle memory, and you’ll know what to do, and you won’t have to think twice about it.” 

“Being prepared for every situation is impossible,” said Coltharp. “But preparing as well as you can, for as many situations as you can, is necessary when you’re out there in the Alaska wilderness, or even the wilderness down in the lower 48.” 

Coltharp continues to heal well and, after some more physical therapy, looks forward to being back outdoors again soon, albeit with even more awareness than before.

“I don’t think procedural wise there was anything we could have done to prevent it from happening the way it did,” said Coltharp. “But I’ll just be a little more aware of what can happen.”

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