Grizzly Hell: USDA Worker Survives Epic Bear Attack
At the nauseating, audible crunch of bones breaking, 42 teeth of a grizzly bear’s jaws ground into Todd Orr’s body at 1,000 psi—enough pressure to crack a bowling ball. Pinned to the forest floor by 400 lb. of raw power and layered muscle, Orr felt scorching waves of pain surge through his nerves, shoot up his spinal column, and roar into his brain as the bear tore through flesh. Resisting the primal urge in every fiber of his being to scream and flail, Orr blanketed the agony with a phenomenal will to survive, and remained passive, listening to the macabre sounds of what should have been death.
Legendary. In the annals of survival history, Todd Orr’s account is incredible and magnified by a deuce: He skirted death in two separate grizzly bear attacks separated by mere minutes. Despite infinitesimally lean odds of emerging alive from multiple encounters, Orr staggered from the woods one hour after the attacks and recorded a surreal real-time video, and then drove an hour to a hospital to present his mangled body and half-scalped head to a bewildered medical crew. His chilling tale defies chance or coincidence, and touches a primitive chord. How deep will a man dig in order to stay alive, and how much pain will he endure? On Oct. 1, 2016, Orr answered the questions in harrowing detail.
Into the Woods
In the early hours of a fall Saturday in Bozeman, Mont., Orr, 50, arose from his bed at 4 a.m., bound for the wild, the same trip he’d made thousands of times across a lifetime spent outdoors. There was no moment of premonition; no odd itch of concern; and no portent to miss. He suited up in drab Carhartt pants and dark leather Alico hiking boots, donned a worn, navy blue baseball cap, grabbed a banana off the kitchen counter for breakfast, and exited his house—handgun in tow. Clockwork.
Waiting in the driver’s seat of a Toyota Tundra was an Osprey backpack lightly loaded with requisite gear: flashlight, duct tape, camera, GPS, lighter, Carson binoculars, Skyblade knife, fleece pullover and a Marmot rain jacket. An hour’s drive later, and still an hour before daylight, Orr pulled up to an empty trailhead parking lot, holstered a 10mm pistol, strapped a canister of UDAP bear spray to his chest, and began walking northeast with a dimmed headlamp to illuminate a dark trail, surrounded by some of the most breathtakingly beautiful terrain on the planet. He had no inkling of the hell to come.
Born to the woods, Orr grew up on a fish hatchery outside Ennis, Mont., at the foot of the Gravely Mountains, roughly an hour from Yellowstone National Park, and spent a childhood beside the Madison River—dirt-biking, fly fishing, hunting and roaming the woods. Orr trailed his father’s steps on countless backcountry elk hunts, soaking in the nuances of scouting and exploration, and by age 12, had a bull elk under his harvest belt. A classic adrenaline junkie, Orr began bow hunting big game at 14, but less than a decade later, a snowboarding accident left him with two dislocated shoulders and permanently ended his ability to effectively draw a bow. Frustrated, but hungry for a challenge above a traditional rifle, he took up pistol hunting in 1987, buying a Ruger Super Redhawk .44 magnum. (As of 2020, Orr has harvested almost 30 bull elk, a moose, and numerous whitetail deer and antelope with the Ruger.)
In 1990, following completion of a degree in fish and wildlife management at Montana State University, Orr began working with USDA-US Forest Service in the ecology group, marking timber sales. Since 2005, he has served as a trail construction engineer—designing, locating and surveying new trails in the Custer Gallatin National Forest. Orr is in his element at every opportunity, weather permitting, working alone outdoors 12-15 hours each day for eight months of the year. An outdoorsman’s version of a polymath, Orr is renowned for meticulous artisanship in knife making as the bi-vocational owner and craftsman of Skyblade Knives, and carries a heavy interest in wildlife photography, frequently stalking game with a camera lens. All said, his outdoor work schedule and personal time spent hunting and exploring in the woods are a ready-made recipe to jack up the odds of an encounter with Ursus arctos horribilis—the grizzly bear.
Darkness lifting and temperature warming to roughly 60 F, Orr stuck to the trail, with silent steps on moist, minimal foliage, further masked by the gurgle of a 1’-deep stream running a stone’s throw to his right. Orr’s intention was to cover as much ground as possible by daylight, and then climb up toward the timberline. At 5’8” and 170 lb., with a lifetime of hiking and exercise, Orr would be 5 miles deep and 9,000’ high in quick time.
Orr was on a scouting expedition for elk in the middle of bow season, several weeks prior to general rifle season, and hiking up Bear Creek in the majestic Madison Range—an 80-mile section of the Rockies running between West Yellowstone and Bozeman, shouldered west to east by the Madison and Gallatin rivers.
The rocky peaks of the area reach over 10,000’ in elevation and the lower hills are covered with dense forests of fir and pine hiding green, aspen meadows and crystal-clear springs. It’s a hiker’s, hunter’s or photographer’s dream world, but the beauty hides the mercurial side of Mother Nature, and fortune can change on a dime.
All things considered, Orr’s best chance to spot an elk would be just after sunrise, and if all went according to plan, he would finish the day with 20 miles on his boots, and possibly a camera full of photos. In addition, elk scat, tracks and rubs would reveal whether there was a strong number of bull elk in the area, and worthy of a hunt a few weeks later.
Continuing on the path, Orr frequently paused to offer vocal warnings: “I hollered out regularly to let any bears ahead know I was coming up the trail, giving them time to fade into the brush and avoid an encounter,” he explains.
An hour into the trek, just after daylight, the faint trail opened onto a long and narrow grassy meadow beside the stream, tucked between a low, brushy ridge to Orr’s left and the rise of a steep, timbered mountain on the far side of the stream. The post-dawn air was crisp and cool, moving up the valley on a slight breeze behind Orr and carrying his scent across the meadow.
Eighty yards ahead, at the far end of the meadow, a large sow grizzly bear was walking just in front of two cubs, moving down the faint trail toward Orr. Sows typically become pregnant once every three years, and cubs stay with sows for roughly two to three years after birth. Orr had chanced upon a mature female, likely close to 400 lb., with a potential lifespan of 20-plus years. In a suspended moment of time, the hump-shouldered sow and Orr spotted one another in the same instant, as both bear and man froze in motion. The sow turned west and ran over the low ridge—cubs on her heels.
“I watched and waited a minute or two,” Orr recalls, “before deciding she was long gone over the ridge, and I headed up the trail to the east, opposite of her direction. I assumed she was not fond of human contact and I would not see her again.”
Within two-dozen more steps on the trail, he heard a soft rustle of foliage and the slight snap of a branch over his left shoulder, and turned to see the sow. She had left her cubs and circled Orr, caught his wind, and was coming off the ridge, barreling through brush, grass and scattered trees at full speed, ears back and body low to the ground. In a blur, Orr was 40 yards away from an apex predator capable of covering roughly 15 yards per second—a 400 lb. wrecking ball of heavy bone and inordinate layers of muscle charging at 30 miles per hour.
Freight Trains and Water Balloons
Prior to 2016, Orr had seen hundreds of bears while hunting or working in the woods, and encountered several in close proximity on multiple occasions. At first blush, he assumed the charging sow would check up: “Most bears are usually just curious, and charges or attacks are very rare. In all the years I’ve spent in the woods, I’ve only had two bears that bluffed a charge, and none had attacked until 2016.”
Tucked into a chest holster on his left side, Orr carried a Rock Island Armory 10mm 1911 pistol, kitted with a Burris 2-7x32mm scope on a self-designed mount. The pistol was not Orr’s standard hunting choice, and he’d brought it on the off-chance an opportunity to harvest a wolf developed during the scout. The 10mm was relatively bulky with a 6” barrel, secured by a snap strap, and not conducive to quick-draw, lightweight bear protection.
With less than three seconds to spare, Orr instinctively reached for the 9 oz. can of bear spray strapped to the right side of his chest. “For the last 25 years, I only had the protection of bear spray while working at the Forest Service. I was not allowed to carry a firearm, so all my training, practice and thoughts were of bear spray and proper use.”
Still expecting a bluff charge, Orr removed the safety clip and raised the canister as the sow closed the gap. “I had practiced dozens of times for this moment, and hundreds of times in my head,” he says. Orr gave the sow a full blast of spray, turned his body sideways and went to ground for protection as the bear slammed into his body. Freight train through a water balloon.
Face in the dirt, hands clasped around the back of his head and forearms draped over his face and neck, legs drawn underneath, he was a toy in the possession of a capricious beast packing astounding physical prowess from head to tail: curved claws up to 5” in length, massive front paws sometimes 9”-plus wide and hind paws often over 1’ in length, a superb sense of smell far surpassing even bloodhounds, eyesight equivalent to humans, and a bite packing 1,000 psi, all wrapped in a physical package of outrageous core strength.
“As I hit the ground, she was immediately standing upon me with her front paws, and repeatedly bit my right arm and shoulder a half dozen times, before coughing and wheezing from the bear spray, and disappearing just as quickly,” Orr says.
In a blink, the sow was gone, and Orr rolled over to scan an empty meadow cloaked in bizarre serenity. All still. In a few, short seconds, the sow had delivered five to six quick bites along his right arm, and then sank 42 teeth deep into the top of his right shoulder. Orr was bleeding heavily, but had sustained a series of puncture wounds with no arterial or organ damage. At this point, Orr’s survival was a given—provided he could get out of the woods.
Rising to his feet, Orr hit the trail at a fast pace, bear spray in hand, heading for the safety of the truck. Adrenaline pumping, nerves frayed, he cast his eyes in wide sweeps, unable to hear much beyond his immediate surroundings due to the flowing creek. At that precise point in time, Orr believed he was heading toward his truck and safety, but what he didn’t know, and couldn’t know, was suited for fiction. After the initial attack, the sow hit the ridge and exited downward, while Orr hopped the trail to reverse course. Translation: Bear and man were set to cross paths again at the tip of a rough “V” pattern.
The lower 48 states house a total population of just 1,800 grizzly bears, according to US Fish & Wildlife. Incredibly, and against all probability, Orr was set to encounter the same bear twice in the span of minutes. Already in extreme need of medical attention and stitching, Orr was about to bounce from fryer to fire. Comparatively stated, the first attack was a scrape; the second attack was hell.
In 1823, Hugh Glass endured the most famous grizzly bear attack in U.S. history, after stumbling upon a sow and two cubs in North Dakota. After a savage attack in which the mountain man was “tore nearly all to peases,” Glass survived a prolonged encounter, only to be abandoned by his comrades under the assumption of his impending death. A living corpse, Glass traveled 350 solo miles to safety to punctuate an astounding survival tale. His story was given silver screen treatment in 2015, and the trapper-mountain man was portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, a 2015 movie featuring the most stirring portrayal of a grizzly bear attack ever set to film.
Maybe Orr was born 200 years late. Whether planned, or random, as Orr believes, the second sow attack echoed elements of the primal rage displayed in the Glass account. With almost five minutes elapsed since the first attack, Orr made 800 yards of edgy progress on the downward path when he heard the clear crack of a branch over the din of running creek water. Peering over his left shoulder, he caught the blur of the sow in full stride 15’ to his flank, and felt a near-instant blow across his back that sent him sprawling 10’ forward; no time for spray, pistol or flight.
In physical form, it was the same sow from the first attack, but in demeanor she carried an entirely ramped up state of ferocity. Hovering atop Orr, she bit down on his left forearm, tearing away two tendons, ripping muscle and breaking the ulna. Orr groaned and instinctively drew his arm in, but his movement further enraged and excited the sow. “I remember the pain from her first bite into my left arm, and the sound of the bone breaking,” he describes. “I pulled my arm away and made an audible sound, which triggered the bear into a frenzied attack, biting, clawing, shaking and tossing me.”
Essentially, the bear was rag-dolling Orr, and he immediately recognized cruel necessity: Eat pain until the fury ebbs. “She would bite into me, pick me up with her mouth, and shake me back and forth until I was flung to the side into the dirt. The adrenaline and the will to survive took over and I blocked out all the pain after the first bite, and focused on staying quiet and still, while she continued to chew on me.”
At all times a single bite or swipe from death, Orr was stomped, picked up, thrown, dragged, clawed, and bitten by the sow over several minutes, yet he maintained his faculties and clung to a sole shred of hope: Take the punishment, emit no sound, show no resistance, and stay as close to the fetal position as possible.
After enduring body slams and inordinate shaking, along with 30 bites across his back, sides and arms, Orr went partially blind, his eyes filling with blood from a deep 5” claw gash above his right ear that split open his scalp. “There was no chance of fighting back against a beast like this. A grizzly can kill an elk or bison, and one wrong bite or swipe of her claws could crush my neck or skull, or rip me open to bleed out. A bear’s claws are very sharp when they emerge from the den in the spring. They are dulled, roughed and chipped over the summer and fall as they dig for food, but with the immense power behind them, the claws are still plenty sharp to rip most any animal to pieces.”
As the assault unfolded, an ironic fate was a razor’s edge from fruition: A man fortunate enough to survive one grizzly bear attack was fated to die minutes later from another, at the teeth and claws of the same bear. It was a dark, cruel humor, but Orr was having no part. His mind was hyper-focused on a single all-consuming target: life. “I don’t believe I ever felt fear or thought of death or family. I was too focused on survival and not moving or making a sound. Each time she would toss or roll me, I would instantly roll back to the face-down position to protect my vitals.”
Standing over Orr, probably convinced he was dead or dying, the sow’s fury subsided and she ceased the extremes of the attack, biting into Orr’s side and releasing, inadvertently turning his body closer to hers, allowing Orr, at the edge of his peripheral, bloodied vision, to have a surreal moment of near eyeball-to-eyeball contact with one of the most fearsome predators in all of nature.
The sow then dug into Orr’s lower back with her front claws, and again, sensing no movement or reaction, delivered the most hair-raising chill of Orr’s life, lowering her head to his back and breathing onto his neck, taking deep inhalations of his skin. Alternating between quick bites to his shoulder and more breaths to his neck for roughly 30 seconds, she stopped cold, and Orr waited for the coup de grâce that never came. After an eternity of minutes, Orr was alone and the woods were still one more time, save the gurgle of the adjacent creek.
Uncertain whether the sow had truly departed, Orr stayed in a fetal ball for 30-40 seconds and then unfurled his limbs, wiped the blood from eyes, and surveyed the scene. His gear was tossed about, including the pistol, which had been ripped off his side and thrown 15’. He immediately grabbed the gun from the holster, pulled the hammer back, and collected his backpack and bear spray. With the pistol tucked into the crook of his damaged left arm, and the spray at the ready in this right hand, Orr took a last look around—and spotted the worn baseball cap, crumpled on the forest floor. He reached down, grabbed the favored hat, and began what he knew was at least an hour walk even without blood loss and trauma. Move. Move. Distance. Distance. He could afford no assumptions: The sow could return at any point along the path.
“I hiked out at a steady pace, but not hurried or running,” he describes. “I didn’t want to increase my heart rate and the bleeding. My left arm did hurt terribly after the attack was over and the adrenaline subsided. The torn tendons, muscles and nerves felt like my arm was being crushed in a vice. I don’t believe I was ever in shock during the hour hike out. I was thinking straight and stopped to assess the wounds and check my bleeding two or three times.”
At approximately 8 a.m., Orr spilled out of the Bear Creek woods—Lazarus of the outdoors. Although one other vehicle had pulled into the parking lot, Orr stood alone, but safe. “Within 15 minutes after the attack, I was sure the bear wasn’t going to track me down for a third attack, but with 3 miles of wilderness to go, the thought of encountering a different bear on the trail did cross my mind. I would have been nearly helpless at that point with all my wounds. At the parking lot, I felt 100% safe and knew my injuries were not life threatening.”
Concerned about the safety of other hunters, and considering the bear’s agitation, Orr pulled a notepad from his truck and attempted to pen a word of warning. No dice. “My arm was dripping blood all over the note, so I gave up on the idea.”
Dropping the note effort, he grabbed his smartphone and shot several selfie photos, including one of the most unique survival videos ever filmed (destined for viral status), and it was stark, direct testament to a man with gravel in his gut. He spoke calmly into the lens about the grizzly encounter, almost as if the near-death experience was standard fare. “Yeah, life sucks in bear country,” Orr plainly stated at the beginning of the clip.
Simply, the video must be seen to be believed. “I’ve always had a high pain tolerance and the drive to push myself to succeed or overcome most anything, both physically and mentally,” Orr says. “I took the photos and video with just a couple of good buddies in mind. I really didn’t know how Facebook worked, and never expected more than a dozen friends to even see it. I seriously didn’t know what a viral video was until about 24 hours after posting it.”
Video in the can, it was time to tend to his wounds. A 30-minute drive down a jeep trail and gravel road, followed by 15 minutes of highway to the hospital, still lay ahead. Bloodied and bruised, adrenaline gone and his wounds aching, Orr climbed into the Tundra, performed the ironic task of securing his seatbelt, and left the sow in her realm.
Mouthful of Rocks
In the hospital emergency room, two doctors, one on each side of Orr’s body, set to stitching his wounds in tandem. Eight hours later, he walked out of the hospital and went home. (However, his injuries required surgery the following day for the broken bone, severed nerves, shredded muscles, and severed tendons.)
Six weeks after the incident, Orr returned to the scene. “I went back to the attack site with a buddy and faced my fears, knowing my life was meant to be in woods. The will to survive is strong and it’s amazing what the human body can endure in a survival situation. The attack, as well as watching my father fight cancer for the last 10 years, also reminds me of the importance of enjoying those things in life that make us smile.”
Five months after the attacks, while in the woods at work for USFS following snowmelt, Orr spotted a sow grizzly and a single cub at distance. His composure was steady, but the October memories were close and the anxiety heavy on his shoulders. Today, he still hunts the Bear Creek area, but no longer ventures out in the dark, and prefers snow cover due to paw print warnings pressed into the powder.
Orr now carries a backup, compact .44 magnum Ruger on his hip, but has no illusions about the additional pistol, or the efficacy of any pistol in stopping a grizzly. “A shot can also be effective, but take in consideration that the odds of killing or stopping a charging bear in its tracks are slim. A glancing blow, a hit to an extremity, or even a clean miss is likely, especially in a stressful situation like 400 pounds of teeth and claws coming at you at 35 mph.”
“And don’t just assume a pissed-off, charging bear will feel any pain from your bullet and run away. I was being chewed on for 2 minutes and felt no pain after the first bite and adrenaline rush. And wild animals have a much higher pain tolerance.”
Roughly once a year, the angry sow returns—in Orr’s dreams, but he wakes each time before she attacks. “The incident is a reminder that our lives are fragile and the most unlikely events can happen to anyone. Every single day, something reminds me of that day I was attacked and it will forever be remembered.”
Indeed. In a humble manner, Orr downplays his actions on the morning of Oct. 1, 2016, but the depth of his mettle is betrayed by the video footage. Mouthful of rocks. The camera shows a man matter-of-factly describing two escapes from the brink of death—no hype, theater, or bravado.
Again, how deep will a man dig in order to stay alive, and how much pain will he endure? Ask Todd Orr.
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