The date was August 25, 2005 and John and Jenna Otter, 43-year-old father and 18 year old daughter, were out for a hike in Montana’s Glacier National Park. The two were 90 minutes into a six-hour hike when they came around a corner and ran smack dab into hell.
A 350 pound grizzly bear was five feet away with two of her cubs. The bear and Johan Otter were kindred spirits, both taken by surprise, both wanting nothing more than to protect their own.
Johan put himself between the bear and Jenna, and it was on. “The bear bit down on my left thigh and wasn’t about to let go,” Otter remembers. “It wasn’t very pleasant.”
Otter remembers being shaken around like a rag doll. The only escape from the dental floss thin trail was a cliff with a sheer drop off.
Options? He didn’t have many.
The bear was inflicting major damage, breaking seven vertebrae in Otter’s neck and back, one in five places. His right eye socket was crushed and he had numerous puncture wounds plus three broken ribs. His scalp was torn nearly completely off and he was on his way to losing 50% of his blood. “If I stayed there, I was going to die,” he remembers.
To stay alive and to keep the bear away from Jenna, he dove 25 feet off the cliff while grabbing the bear by the throat. The two landed amidst the hard scrabble and continued their battle. Otter seized a rock and repeatedly beat the bear in the head. He knew he was in bad shape when he could actually feel the bear’s teeth going into his skull. The two tumbled another 50 feet down the side of the mountain.
The bear finally left him and when Jenna finally saw her dad again, he was coated with blood.
It took two hours from the time of the attack for the rangers to get there and four more hours for a helicopter to arrive. By that time, the paramedics could barely find his pulse.
They strapped Johan Otter down and, with him dangling 30-40 feet below the chopper, flew him out.
Being a physical therapist, he avoided having his spine fused and instead sported a halo for three months. “The minute they told me I had a broken neck, I told them no fusion,” he says. “It took eight hours of surgery just to clean me up.”
Johan Otter is a long-time marathon runner. His first was the inaugural Rock ‘N’ Roll Marathon in San Diego and his personal best is 3:14:05.
He knows that the fitness that he accumulated from running saved his life. Ten months after the attack, Otter ran 3:39 and in early June, at the age of 55, he finished his 20th consecutive Rock ‘N’ Roll Marathon in San Diego in 4:02:52
The question had to be asked. Does he harbor any anger towards the bear?
No way. He totally understands. “She did exactly what she was supposed to do,” he insists. “She was protecting her family.”
Just like Johan Otter.