MARION – Few appreciate the aptness of the taxonomic name of the grizzly bear — Ursus arctos horribilus — more than Marion resident Ed Wiseman.
Though it has been 34 years since he killed Colorado’s last “horrible northern bear” in hand-to-hand combat — a feat so incomprehensible that state and federal agents required a seven-month investigation and two passed lie detector tests to believe it — Wiseman still vividly remembers the piercing teeth, crushing weight, fearsome strength and powerful stench of the grizzly that nearly killed him near the Continental Divide on Sept. 23, 1979.
It was the last day of the archery elk season, and Wiseman, then a 46-year-old full-time outfitter, was guiding a Kansas flatlander, 25-year-old Mike Niederee, on a hunt above 11,000 feet in in the South San Juan Wilderness not far north of the Colorado-New Mexico border.
The horrifying subsequent events have been chronicled in a recently published book, “Grizzly Attack in Colorado,” by longtime Wiseman friend Deb Carpenter-Nolting,
Around 5 p.m., not long after Wiseman and his client split up to increase their chances of finding an elk, Wiseman said he heard a noise, looked up and saw the bear 30 yards away in full charge.
He had just time enough to holler, “No!” before the bear sacked him like a 400-pound linebacker on a 190-pound quarterback.
“The next thing I knew she was on top of me, chewing on my lower right leg and right shoulder,” Wiseman recalled during a recent interview.
After his initial possum-playing posture proved ineffective and it appeared the bear would soon kill him, Wiseman said he grabbed one of his spilled arrows from the ground and jammed it into the right side of the bear’s neck with such force that the arrow’s metal tip bent and its aluminum shaft broke in two.
With a stream of bear blood the thickness of his thumb gushing into his own face, Wiseman said he jammed the half arrow back into the bear beneath her right armpit.
The soon-to-be-dead bear walked off about 25 yards, lay down and put her head on her front paws, Wiseman said.
Wiseman said a later necropsy determined that his first stab severed the bear’s jugular vein, and the second pierced her heart – either of which or both in concert could have proved fatal.
Though the bear had almost miraculously been vanquished, survival remained far from assured for the gravely injured Wiseman, who was 14 miles from civilization and with darkness closing in.
Getting Wiseman off the mountain took heroic efforts from several people as well as, in the words of the book’s author, the oversight of “guardian angels.”
Wiseman’s client, who was a stranger to the wilderness area, rode a horse seven miles in the dark to Wiseman’s base camp, basically giving the horse rein and letting it lead the way. The camp cook then rode a horse another seven miles to the nearest motor vehicle, which took the cook another 10 miles to the nearest telephone, with which the cook called the county sheriff, who arranged for an Army helicopter to pick up Wiseman the following morning.
Meanwhile, as Wiseman lapsed in and out of consciousness during the 15-degree night, his clients — Niederee and his dad, Dr. W. L. Niederee — rode back into the wilderness to bring him aid and comfort.
What could possibly go wrong with that plan?
For starters, they wandered for hours in the darkness looking for the right trail before Mike Niederee found it and finally reached the injured guide. He started a fire for warmth and carried creek water in a leaky flashlight to slake the dehydrated Wiseman’s thirst.
Doc Niederee, led by a disoriented intern guide, took hours longer to reach Wiseman, and when he finally did, at 5:30 a.m., he arrived without medical supplies — lost on the back of a horse that slid down a cliff and later had to be euthanized.
The doctor treated Wiseman for shock, and his son stoked the fire as they waited for the helicopter to arrive. When it did, at 7 a.m., the copilot threw up at the sight of Wiseman’s blood-caked face and hideous leg and shoulder wounds.
Wiseman said his core body temperature had fallen to 90 degrees when he was loaded on the chopper for the 30-minute ride to a hospital in Alamosa. He spent 31 days convalescing from numerous tooth puncture wounds, widespread infection and a lower leg bone splintered into nine pieces.
“Even when I was alone up there in the dark and freezing, I never had the thought that I wouldn’t make it,” Wiseman said. “I just kind of little bitted it through the night, taking it a few minutes at a time, believing that help was on the way.”
The recovery of the bear by the Colorado Division of Wildlife involved a pair of helicopter crashes as well as the putrescence of a carcass that spent too many days in the September sun.
One of the most stunning aspects of the recovery occurred when guide Dick Baumfauk, the first to find the bear after Wiseman’s rescue, tracked it by following a massive blood trail — blood he presumed to have been made by the bear but suddenly realized consisted of the blood of his friend, spilled as he walked away from the battleground.
Four days into Wiseman’s hospital stay, after the bear had been confirmed to be a grizzly, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service official read him his Miranda rights.
Wiseman said he expected an inquest, given that the grizzly was listed as an endangered species in Colorado, where one had not been seen since 1951, when a trapper killed what officials presumed to be the state’s last grizzly.
“I thought it was totally a formality, but it turned into a lengthy investigation. They said the autopsy showed evidence of a third arrow wound and accused us of shooting the bear and provoking the attack,” Wiseman said.
The investigation continued for nearly seven months until both Mike Niedersee and Wiseman passed polygraph tests.
The hide and skull of the bear – a 20-year-old female weighing more than 400 pounds – is part of the collection at the Denver Museum of Natural History.
Deb Carpenter-Nolting, whose dad and Wiseman were college friends, said she researched and wrote a first draft of the book not long after the 1979 attack but could not find a publisher.
The story languished until last year, when she and Wiseman decided to publish it themselves.
Though many Coloradans discounted Wiseman’s account of the event, “He’s as straight an arrow as you’d ever want to meet,” she said.
When Wiseman regained his health, he went back to the mountains and continued guiding and outfitting for another 20 years before he and his wife Judy moved to Iowa in 2001.
The man who killed Colorado’s last grizzly in hand-to-hand combat and lived to tell about is now 80 years old and working full time in the outdoor department at the Wal-Mart store in Marion.
Copies of the 184-page book, at $15 each, can be ordered by emailing email@example.com or calling 319-377-4607.