How a man survived a bear attack during a morning walk in Seward

A man stands in the snow with ski poles, his dog nearby.
Ronn Hemstock, a retired wrestling coach in Seward, and his dog, Dax. (Ronn Hemstock)

Almost five years ago, Ronn Hemstock went for his regular 6 a.m. walk around the airport runway in Seward with his dog, Dax.

Hemstock said it was very dark, and it was the first really cold day of the year so he was bundled “to the gills.”

It wasn’t long until his morning stroll turned terrifying.

Hemstock recently spoke with Alaska Public Media’s Lori Townsend about his bear encounter.

Listen to this story:

[Read all of our recent stories about Alaska bear encounters here.]

The following transcript was lightly edited for length and clarity.

Ronn Hemstock: I just started walking my dog and I called my brother to tell him all the news: My daughter was getting married, and I was all excited. And I was telling him this fun story. And that was where it all kind of started.

Lori Townsend: How did you first realize that you were in trouble?

Hemstock: My dog. He came out of the dark, and ran right between my legs. And he had his hackles up and his ears down, his tail down and he was hauling the mail. And I knew something wasn’t right. And I had my head up like this, talking on the phone, and I just kind of looked over my shoulder, and the bear was maybe 20-25 meters behind me just barreling like a steamroller — half a ton of angry pot roast, you know. I didn’t have enough time to do anything but turn and get tackled.

[Ronn Hemstock is one of the many Alaskans who’ve responded to our call this summer for bear encounter stories this summer. Do you have one you’d like to share? We want to hear it.]

Townsend: How were you able to get help in that situation, as you just described it, where you had no chance to do anything but be attacked?

Hemstock: Well, I just kind of put up with the beating for a minute, minute and a half, something like that. And when she finally decided she was done with me, she dragged me off the runway and kind of buried me a little bit. And I thought, ‘Oh, great.’ Because that means she’s going to come back later, which gives me a time break. And when I opened my eyes, she had dragged me back to my phone. So the phone was within arm’s reach. So I was able to pull my phone in and call my wife and call 911 and get people launched.

And then it got scary. Up until then I hadn’t been scared, I was just of in the moment. But then just like the people who in sat that — what was it, the [USS Indianapolis], in WWII, where they talk about the sharks circling, waiting their turn. That’s how I felt. I was like, ‘She’s gonna come back.’ And she did. She came back once while I was on the phone 911. I heard her claws in the gravel as she walked around and sniffed a little bit. And then she disappeared. My dog came back and I felt pretty good about that. If he’ll sit next to me, then I’m probably pretty safe.

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Townsend: So you were on the phone with 911. And you heard the bear coming back …

Hemstock: And I couldn’t get the guy to go quiet. I had to stick the phone under my chest and lay back down on the ground and cover my head. I thought I was in for round two. But she just walked by and disappeared. And I didn’t know which way. And when the police showed up, Officer Woodard, what a guy, he got out and said it was so dark, he couldn’t see past the end of his barrel. And so he just stood astride me with a shotgun in his hand, back to the car, drove right over me. And, we just waited until the ambulance showed up.

Townsend: I can’t imagine being able to lay still like that after you’ve been attacked once, you hear the bear coming back. What was in your mind, if you can recall it, that you were able to keep yourself still? Because that fight-or-flight response is really strong.

Hemstock: Oh, it is. And I did the wrong thing, because I fled. But, you know, I was pretty beaten down by that point. And I just didn’t want a second run. And I figured that, it was yelling in the phone to my brother, and I think my voice antagonize the bear. The attack was much more vicious while I was screaming into the phone. But once the phone dropped, and I just covered up and went quiet, then she kind of let it go.

Townsend: Is there anything that you learned that you would do differently next time if something like this, hopefully doesn’t happen again?

Hemstock: I think being quiet. They always say, ‘Play dead.’ Well, I think that includes don’t vocalize. As much as you can, don’t vocalize. Because I think that just incites the bearer. And, truly, when I went quiet, truly quiet, she jumped on me, cracked a few ribs, dragged me off and that was the end of it. But up until then I’d been screaming into my phone and yelling when she was clawing and beating at me. And I think that was inciting more violence. So I would recommend biting your tongue and just trying as hard as you can not to make any noise.

Townsend: Easier said than done I’m sure. But beyond the wonderful fact that you live through the experience, there was also a bit of a humorous event that happened with the bear stepping on your back and acting sort of as a chiropractor?

Hemstock: Oh yeah, I had been teaching some wrestling moves in practice a week or so earlier and popped a rib out. And my chiropractor couldn’t get that thing to move. And I was just living in pain. But when the bear jumped on my back the first time, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah!’ And then the next time, she broke a few ribs that wasn’t so pleasant. But it felt a lot better after that.

Townsend: Oh my gosh, that is amazing that the bear put your rib back in place. Well, Ronn, thank you so much for sharing your story with us and glad to see you here in person and that you’re doing okay.

Hemstock: Oh yeah, I’m doing great and life’s just a lot happier since then too. When you think you’re not gonna have any more of it, you tend to appreciate it more when you get it back.

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Lori Townsend is the News Director for Alaska Public Media. She has worked in print and broadcast journalism for nearly 30 years. Radio brought her to Alaska, where she worked as a broadcast trainer for Native fellowship students at Koahnic Broadcasting before accepting a reporting/host position with APRN in 2003. APRN merged with Alaska Public Media a year later. Through her freelance work, she has produced news and feature stories nationally and internationally for Independent Native News, National Native News, NPR , Pacifica, Monitor Radio, Radio Netherlands and AIROS. Townsend is the recipient of numerous awards for her work from the Alaska Press Club, the Native American Journalists Association and a gold and a silver reel award from the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. 

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