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‘I could do a freeze frame and count his teeth’: A year after near-fatal bear mauling, Allen Minish revisits Glennallen attack site

On the one-year anniversary of the bear mauling that left him in an Anchorage hospital, Allen Minish is on a hunt to find where it all happened.
Published: May. 19, 2022 at 4:26 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Content warning: This story contains details some readers may find disturbing.

On the one-year anniversary of the bear mauling that left him in an Anchorage hospital, Allen Minish is on a hunt to find the precise place where it all happened.

Staring down a gravel roadway paralleling the Alyeska Pipeline in Glennallen, he looked toward where he left the woods where he nearly died in 2021. On this day, his fists are clenched, his stress level high.

“The PTSD on this was really severe on me,” he said, recalling the challenge of getting much sleep in the first few months after the attack. “I only slept three or four hours a night. Bear was always in my head.

“His name is Harvey,” he added. “That was part of the thing, is name him, to help. To help… get it.”

Minish, a military veteran who runs his own business, said he learned the basics of surveying when he first entered the service. He initially wanted to be a wildlife management major.

“I went to college,” he said, “and they go, ‘You’re going to be sitting in an office looking at paperwork and aerial photos. You’re not going to be in the woods chasing wildlife.’”

By the end of his time in the military, he was a trained flight engineer on a C-130 with the Alaska Air Guard, but would go on to become a licensed land surveyor, and later, a civil engineer.

“When I’m doing surveying,” he said, “I’m out in the woods, doing exactly what I want to do.”

On May 18, 2021, Alaska State Troopers responded to the site of an incident with a brown bear in the Gulkana area, in which a man who was surveying a parcel of land had been severely injured. That man was Minish.

[RELATED: Man who survived bear mauling near Gulkana details harrowing experience from hospital bed]

“I was working my way to the southwest corner of the lot — and to say how big this is, we’re talking 16 acres, so half, quarter-of-a-mile by quarter-of-a-mile type of thing,” he explained. “I was using my GPS to get back to the right spot, the next monument, to see where it was at. And that’s when it happened.”

Minish, proficient in using various global positioning systems for his daily work, had an exact location of the attack: his Garmin was set in “walk” mode, showing his exact path as he was moving from spot to spot. The device stopped right where he was attacked, helping guide him to that location.

His memory from that day is vivid, too, despite a fog from so much blood loss. Combining tech with his own skillset, he sought to return to the spot where he nearly lost his life exactly one year ago.

“Most people don’t want to be out here by themselves,” he said. “I do it; it’s my job. But people don’t want to come out of here for fun and walk through this stuff.”

On Wednesday morning, Minish and three friends moved from the gravel path – which starts near mile post 188 of the Glenn Highway — into the woods and toward the location of the attack. After a record snowfall in Glennallen this past winter, and a heavy rain the night before, much of the route was especially wet, with some spots presenting water past the knees.

“The ground is frozen only a couple inches down,” Minish said. “So the water, with all this hot weather, snow melting off, it’s just running.”

Through a bog and brush, sticks and shrubs, Minish carefully – but with clear determination – headed for his destination, and what he said was a chance to put a punctuation mark on the year-long journey since the mauling.

“This is where they threw my survey pole down at,” he pointed out, walking through patches of moss and reeds surrounded by water. “I remember throwing it down, and I saw the pond.”

Soon after, Minish was the first to come to a small opening surrounded by trees, where he slowed to a stop.

“There’s one piece that’s not making sense,” he said pensively. “I’m trying to figure that out…

“Yep, this is it,” he finally said, audibly confirming his own suspicions. Three pieces of alder had thrown him off; he had recalled what he thought was a set of three spruces instead. “I had stopped approximately right in this spot here, was looking at my GPS to see how far I needed to go to the next monument, and when I stopped here, it got real quiet.”

Not even a mile from the highway, Minish had found his mark, and with it, a second-by-second recollection of the attack that changed his life.

“He came at me right off the bat. Just, you know, we both looked at each other at the same time,” Minish said. The bear moved swiftly through bushes, only to be stabbed in the mouth by one of Minish’s surveying tools.

“He roared at me when I did that,” Minish recalled. “I rolled back; he got up on top of me. I grabbed his lower jaw, took the lower canine through my hand, and he didn’t — he couldn’t bite down.

“Just as he was getting ready to bite, I kept my eyes open,” he said, “which, if you’re in that position, don’t keep your eyes open. It’s a memory that you don’t want to have.”

That first bite, however, was only the start.

“Then the second bite, that’s when it all went red,” Minish said, “when all the blood started squirting around. He released me, I immediately turned, rolled, put my head down.

“I could do a freeze frame and count his teeth,” he added.

Among other injuries, the brown bear punctured a hole in his face, tore through his sinus cavity, and ripped of a large section of the skin on his skull. A scar in the shape of a ‘W’ is still visible, though he’s hidden it well underneath a baseball cap.

“He had crushed this part here,” pointing to the right side of his face. “This bone, whole cheek bone, sliced the cheek inside and out. The doctor had to cut into the upper part of the eye and into the cheek to try and move the bones back around to get them in place, then used some plates and I don’t know how many titanium screws to help hold my face back together again.

“We kept losing count at 100 stiches,” he said. “The nurse kept trying, she was doing it, but she kept losing count.”

As he spoke, Minish stood over a small hollow in which he tried to take cover last May. He said he didn’t know how long he was frozen there, in that spot, waiting for the bear to leave so he could muster up the energy to wrap his head in his own t-shirt to try and slow the bleeding. With so much blood, he said, he had trouble dialing 911, but eventually got through.

“I remember when I looked back, this whole area from basically right there to here, all this was filled with blood,” he said, pointing to his feet. “Right up to where you see the dark line there. All mine.”

Troopers and a pair of volunteer firefighters from out of Kenny Lake would meet him at his worst moment. They offered to try and carry him to safety; he declined. Somehow, under his own strength, he would walk — along a path similar to the one he took Wednesday — to get to the rest of the first responders who were waiting for him. Traipsing through trees, sticks, bushes and reeds surrounded by water, holding a bloodied hand to his head, he would meet medics and be taken to Anchorage for treatment at Providence Alaska Medical Center.

“I was thinking, ‘Do I have to drive the ambulance, too?’” he laughed. “It was basically pure willpower that made me live. The doctor even said it when I was on the table — he didn’t say it to me, he said it to the nurses – I was fighting to live.”

The adrenaline didn’t wear off, he said, until days later. Then, the next week, he returned to work, stepping back into the land of surveying just days after it nearly got him killed.

“I went right back into my combat zone basically,” Minish said. “I went right back to work, into the brush. Am I scared to death now? Didn’t used to be. I used to do this without thinking twice about it. Seriously. This is my living. I crawl through this all the time. Now I’m nervous as heck every time I do it.

“It’s made me rethink that,” he said. “I’m hoping at some point in time, I can be back in tune with being able to walk out here without being so nervous.”

Minish still struggles with both physical and mental side effects of the mauling. He’s had multiple surgeries, with the most recent taking place just six weeks ago. Another was right before Christmas Day last year.

The dizziness he constantly experienced early on has improved, he said, but vertigo still visits more often than he’d like. Because of nerve damage, he struggles to taste foods, and regularly experiences numbness and a throbbing on the side of his face. The stitches are gone, but titanium plates are still in place. He’s been sleeping more, but it isn’t always restful: often, he is woken by memories of the attack.

“If I sleep in, it’s usually the bear getting me out of bed,” he said. “You’re doing those daydreams, when you’re in and out and you’re talking, having conversations with people. And the conversations will be, ‘Tell me about your bear attack.’ And then, it’s time to get up.

“That’s the way it is with me pretty much now,” he said. “I’ve had some pretty dark times.”

Over time, though, he’s begun to heal. The hope is that revisiting the attack site might help in that process, and his progress.

“I said that before, that I would never come back to here again,” he said, “but during the treatment with the mental health people, I made the suggestion, you know, I think I’ll go back here on my anniversary.

“With the VA, most trauma is from battlefield conditions,” he continued. “They don’t have an opportunity to go back to the battlefield, or they don’t want to… For me, to come back here was something unique.”

After a bit of reflection, he’s ready to get moving again, down a path less traveled but familiar to him now. This time, however, he’s well on his way to a full recovery.

“You guys’ fun meters pegged?” he said. “Let’s go.”

Photojournalist Eric Sowl contributed to this report. For guidance on bear encounter response and reporting from the State of Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game, visit the ADF&G website.

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