By Tony Pannkuk
For The Chronicle
For one Rochester man, a Wyoming excursion to hunt mule deer turned into a close encounter with a charging grizzly bear.
Joel Swecker, 29, son of state Sen. Dan Swecker, was hunting out of Powell, Wyo., near the southern border of Montana in late October, with Brandon Betts and Isaac Garza, co-workers from West Thurston Fire Authority.
The three hunters would head out each morning before daylight in search of mule deer. On the fourth day of the hunt, Oct. 24, they chose to split up after hunting together for the past three days. Deer were plentiful as they saw around 35 deer per day while covering the mountainous region of the Shoshone National Forest, bordering Yellowstone National Park. However, all bucks spotted were either spikes or two points, and wanting to bag a bigger trophy, they chose not to shoot any of the smaller bucks.
The trio had seen several grizzlies, and ranch hands had warned them that the bears were hungry, as their food source was low at this time of year. After walking in several miles the hunters split up. Garza headed south to a ridge that went above where Swecker would be hunting. Betts went north following an old service road while Swecker went right up the middle following a trail that went straight up to a pass with rock cliffs on both sides.
The three hunters were in an area the local residents called Cap and Ball, which looked like a baseball field that ended with a 2,000-foot rock face several hundred yards farther up the draw.
The rock face, called “Wolverine Rock,” was located at the edge of the wilderness area.
Entering the Cap and Ball area, Swecker spotted three deer, including a buck, about 400 yards in front of him.
He spotted an old burnt out stump and a fallen old growth tree lying near the middle of the Cap and Ball field. Climbing onto the downed tree he took out his binoculars and started scanning for the deer. Through the lenses, the cliffs and mesas grew clearer, as he scanned the area for several minutes.
He put down his binoculars and as any hunter would do, he looked behind him. To his amazement he spotted a grizzly silently coming his way. At 70 feet away the bear had its head down and appeared to be making eye contact. Swecker noticed the grizzly had scar marks on its face and nose. Watching the grizzly, Swecker first thought the bear didn’t know he was there. With a strong breeze blowing to the grizzly, Swecker could see its nose working as it kept coming in his direction. Swecker brought up his 30-06 and found the monster in his scope. All he could see was a big patch of brown. At 50 feet away and still coming, Swecker knew he had to do something. He was now getting worried, so he made a swishing sound a couple of times to get the grizzly’s attention. He brought up his rifle, waving it in the air, and hollered “Hey, Hey” a couple of times. To Swecker’s utter disbelief, the bear made a woof sound and started sprinting towards him.
Within what seemed like seconds, the grizzly was only 20 feet away and had jumped over a log coming straight for Swecker. The grizzly was now at a full run.
Swecker had his rifle at his hip and wanted to scare it by shooting a warning shot. As he pulled the trigger, he knew it is illegal to shoot grizzlies in the lower 48 and was hoping the shot would scare the bear away.
At the shot, the grizzly gave a blood-curdling, screaming growl and stood up on its hind legs. Swecker saw the shot had inadvertently hit the grizzly in the chest and penetrating through the sternum to the belly.
The shot opened it up like a hunter preparing to take out the entrails.
Growling and with its massive jaws snapping, the grizzly started biting where the bullet had entered his body. To Swecker, it was like some macabre slow-motion movie.
At one point, the mad grizzly had hooked its intestines across its nose as it was biting at itself. The grizzly dropped on all fours, growling intensely and charged at Swecker again.
Eyes wide, Swecker shot from the hip again, this time missing the charging grizzly. At that point self-preservation took over, because Swecker does not remember ejecting the spent cartridge and sliding a new shell in the chamber.
With the grizzly now only 15 steps away, Swecker knew he had to make the next shot count or the grizzly would be on him in two or three seconds.
He knew he had only three shots loaded in his rifle and his last shot was in the chamber. Knowing the scope was useless, he looked down the barrel and pulled the trigger.
He hit the charging, wounded and crazed grizzly just above the right eye. The grizzly spun in a circle and dropped to the ground.
The extreme danger he had just encountered suddenly hit him, and he began shaking. His heart pounded and everything seemed to proceed in silence for several minutes.
He searched the dappled forest floor where the grizzly laid looking for any movement. His gaze locked on the downed beast that could have so easily taken his life instead of the other way around.
After getting his thoughts together, he called Betts and Garza on his portable radio. Both had heard his shots but assumed he was shooting at a mule deer.
There had been seven encounters with grizzlies in 2010 in Wyoming and Montana, causing the death of one hunter. After reaching the K Bar Z Ranch, Swecker called the game department, which sent out two game wardens who took the incident report and possession of the dead grizzly.
Montana Game Warden Chris Queen, one of the officers who had interviewed Swecker, told me that he forwarded the reports to federal authorities and no information about the incident could be released until the case is adjudicated.