John Barrus could hear the echo of a gun shot from the distant woods.
He didn't think much of it as he and his wife were helping the cook at their campsite. Barrus, who has been operating the Flying H Ranch in northwestern Wyoming for
the last 35 years, had just sent out some of his hunting guides into the Shoshone National Forest.
Moments later on this September morning, Barrus heard another gun shot. He began to wonder - especially since it was archery season.
Little did he know - less than a mile away - that Steve Byrum of Horace, N.D., was in trouble on only his second day of his new job as a hunting guide.
A grizzly bear was attacking Byrum and his hunting partner, 58-year-old Dave Hambelton, who owns a beauty college in Redding, Calif. This is their story, which they say has changed their lives forever.
"You just thank the Lord that you made it through it," said the 48-year-old Byrum, a parts salesman for Wallwork Truck Center in Fargo.
'We thought it was an elk'
For the last four years, Byrum has hunted elk in this area. It's a primitive area southwest of Cody, where a seven-hour horseback ride along the Shoshone River takes hunters into the Washakie Wilderness Area and to the Flying H Ranch.
"You kind of go back in time," Byrum said.
For this 10-day hunt, Byrum was going to officially guide for the first time. He knew the area like the back of his hand, which helped him bowhunt two elk during his previous three trips.
The Flying H Ranch crew set up camp in a grassy meadow. On Thursday, Sept. 17, as Byrum and Hambelton sipped on their morning coffee, they had no idea they were about to embark on an experience they would never forget.
They walked nearly a half-mile to the edge of the timber. After walking another 200 yards, they heard a movement to their left.
"We thought it was an elk," Byrum said.
Byrum instructed Hambelton to move to an opening 35 yards ahead, so he could get a clear shot. After 10 minutes of cow calling, there was no elk.
That's when Hambelton squatted down to go to the bathroom. That's when a grizzly bear appeared 60 yards in front of him.
"Bear, bear, bear," Hambelton yelled - a common technique used to scare grizzlies away.
As Byrum ran up to Hambelton, the grizzly ran off into the woods. Startled, they waited a few minutes before hiking onward to their left - away from where the bear had disappeared.
As they walked, Hambelton noticed an elk leg lying on the ground. At the time, he didn't think much of it.
About 40 yards later, they heard the cracking of wood. Again, they thought it was an elk. Again, they would be wrong.
'He came charging'
This time, the wood kept cracking. About the time they realized it was another bear, a 600-pound, 7-foot tall brown grizzly came charging through the trees less than 15 yards away.
"His head must have been this big," Byrum said, stretching his hands as wide as beach ball. "His eyes were looking right at us. He came charging.
"I saw his paws and legs come charging over a 6½-foot tall pine tree like the tree wasn't even there."
That's when Byrum and Hambelton both felt the action turn into slow motion.
Byrum started to pull his .44 Magnum pistol out of his holster. After bumping into Byrum, Hambelton dove to the ground and curled into a ball, with his backpack facing the bear.
"I just gritted my teeth expecting the bear to bite me," Hambelton said.
With the bear closing to within six feet, Byrum fired a shot into the bear's neck.
"I kept telling myself, don't shoot in the head," said Byrum, fearful that a bullet to the head would glance off the bear's skull.
As the pistol fired, Byrum tripped over a tree stump behind him. With Byrum on his back, the bear fell in front of his hunting boots.
"I thought, 'Oh no, this is going to be bad,'" said Byrum, who could see smoke coming out of the bear's fur where he had shot him.
The bear was growling, biting at the wound. Only a few feet away, Hambelton felt helpless knowing his bow laying the ground would do no good.
"Shoot it, shoot it, shoot it," Hambelton yelled.
Byrum started yelling too - not knowing if it was fear or adrenalin that sparked his outburst. He said he felt like a screaming soldier on the front line facing fire attack.
"Things weren't happening fast enough," Byrum said. "I had to pull the hammer back on the pistol, but all of that seemed like it was taking too long. I knew if I didn't shoot fast, it was going to be bad."
With the bear chewing on its wound, the other side of its neck was exposed. That's where Byrum shot the second bullet.
Suddenly, as if a nightmare finally ended, the bear got up and took off running into the thick woods.
"The hand of God was touching that bear, because we were had," Hambelton said.
Put into a bad spot
Byrum and Hambelton made it back to camp. As soon as they opened the flap of the cooks' tent, Barrus knew instantly something went wrong.
"They were white as ghosts," Barrus said.
"I still had the pistol in my hand and didn't even realize it," Byrum said. "I couldn't hold a cup of coffee without shaking for five hours. I just felt like crying."
Barrus quickly dug out his satellite phone to call game warden in Cody. The next day, Tim Fagan arrived on horseback.
Even though grizzly bears were taken off the endangered species list last year, Fagan still conducted an investigation. As game warden for the last 30 years, Fagan remembers a time when people would kill grizzlies and never report it.
"It was the old shoot, shovel and shut up mentality," Fagan said. "I think they were afraid they would be put away in federal prison. I think hunters realize now we are compassionate. We don't want bears to get hurt, but things can happen."
Byrum and fellow guide Joey Jerome took Fagnan to the site of the bear attack - which Byrum marked with red fluroscent tape. They saw Hambelton's bear pepper spray and Byrum's camouflaged baseball cap lying on the ground.
About 20 steps into the brush and trees, they discovered an elk carcass.
"The bear was being a bear, defending its food source," Fagnan said. "Bears aren't really attacking you, they are defending something. Those two hunters were just put in a bad spot in a hurry."
Byrum, Jerome and Fagnan followed the bear's blood trail for nearly 2½ hours. They never found the bear. Fagnan figures it was mortally wounded.
As for Byrum and Hambelton, they went out hunting again the next day.
"It's like riding a bike," Hambelton. "If you fall off, you've got to get up and do it again."
While they were bugling for elk, they couldn't believe their eyes when they spotted another grizzly about 60 yards away.
"This can't be happening again," Byrum thought as he was prepared to pull his pistol again.
They yelled and waved their arms. The bear stopped, looked and walked away.
"I've never seen a grizzly in the previous three years I was in that area," Hambelton said. "Now, I see three in two days."
Byrum and Hambelton admit they are much more alert when they go hunting now - especially in bear country where at any time they could walk into that situation.
Hambelton is thankful that he can still be with his wife and four sons, often reflecting on the bear attack.
"The time I recognized it was a bear to the time I looked up at Steve, so many thoughts went through my head about my family and what effect this could have had on them," Hambelton said. "All I know is I'm glad I was with Steve. A lot of people would have froze in that situation."
Byrum went back to the same camp last October with his wife Diane. He heard branches cracking again - a sound he says will be engrained in his mind forever.
"I always think what would have happened if I missed the bear or hit it in a different spot," Byrum said. "I had always thought it would be cool to see a bear. This was a little more than I bargained for."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549
Bear attack Kevin Schnepf 20071118