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Man and his dog reunited after bear attack on Kenai Peninsula

Jason Umbriaco reunites with his best friend Buckley nearly two days after they were both attacked by a brown bear.
Published: Jun. 30, 2021 at 6:04 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Jason Umbriaco and his 14 week old border collie named Buckley were hiking on the Upper Kenai River trail near Skilak Lake Road in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge on Sunday, when they encountered a brown bear with two cubs. That was just the start for the two companions who are visiting from Montana.

Umbriaco was bitten twice by the sow. He said he had bear spray, but the attack happened so quick, he wasn’t able to use it.

“I didn’t even have time to analyze the situation at all,” he said.

While he was able to get back to his vehicle and call for emergency services, Buckley had run off and wasn’t reunited with his owner until nearly two days later.

“So then Buckley went forward, and then she (the bear) just charged at me and covered like 50 feet in like an instant,” Umbriaco said. “So then I held my arms up in sort of a defensive position and then she bit me on the forearm kind of up close to my elbow.”

He said the bear let go, and then he decided to jump into the Kenai River, which he was standing close to, in a panic.

“In almost any other circumstance and in probably this circumstance, it was a terrible option, but that was the one I had,” he said. “And then she reaches down and then bites me on the shoulder.”

After a second bite, he said the brown bear retreated with her cubs and walked up a hill. Somehow, he said he was able to walk back to his truck and call for help.

“I was concerned that if I don’t walk out right now, I don’t know if I’ll be able to,” Umbriaco said. “After the conflict, I was calling and calling for Buckley, and apparently he had just run off, you know. He was just terrified and had taken off.”

Umbriaco was taken to a hospital in Soldotna, where he met an employee named Bonnie Nichols, who’d heard about Buckley from a chaplain at the hospital. Nichols visited Umbriaco’s room with the chaplain and offered assistance.

“They both came up to my room, and they had heard that there was a dog missing, and they both appeared to be dog people,” said Umbriaco.

“I said ‘Listen, Alaskans love dogs, so if you can just text me a picture of your dog and a general location, I’ll put it out on Facebook and it’ll be shared,’” Nichols said. “And I didn’t mention that it was a patient or anything.”

She said her friend and colleague Camille Sorensen helped kick things off by sharing the post on multiple pages and groups, which worked out well for Umbriaco because he said he hardly ever uses social media. The same day Umbriaco was bitten, Nichols said a woman named Wendie Wilson was driving to Anchorage and made a stop in the area where Umbriaco was hiking when she came across a stray dog.

“She told me she was on her way back from Homer to Anchorage,” said Nichols.

Nichols said Wilson ended up taking Umbriaco’s dog to her home in Anchorage for the night, fed him, and gave him a warm place to stay. Umbriaco said Buckley normally wears a collar with identification, but said it came off during the conflict with the bear. However, when Wilson got on Facebook the next day, she came across a post from Nichols about Buckley.

“And she (Wilson) called me and said ‘I think I have the missing dog,’” Nichols said. “And so she texted me some pictures and then I showed them to Jason, and he said ‘Yeah, that’s him.’”

With Umbriaco being discharged from the hospital after spending a night there, he was driven back to his truck by Camille Sorensen’s son, Sorin. Meanwhile, Wilson drove Buckley back to Cooper Landing to reunite the man and his best friend. Umbriaco said they met at the Post Office in town.

“It was just a shock. I couldn’t believe it,” Umbriaco said. “I had kind of given up hope, and I was sort of making preparations inside to just move forward without him, and now it’s like I’m gonna have those times back of just joy, and peace.

Umbriaco said he’s grateful for the many strangers that stepped in to help him reunite with his dog. He said he’s been living with a traumatic brain injury since 2008, and that dogs he’s owned over the years have helped him get through difficult times and cope with the effects of his injury.

“And that’s why Buckley is just a big part of my life,” he said. “I made some bad choices going down that trail, so I’m just going to redouble being cautious, but the summer is moving forward. We’re still camping, we’re still hiking, and we’re just gonna go forward with a new understanding.”

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