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Fairbanks man fends off grizzly bear with fist

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Posted: Sunday, September 15, 2013 3:15 am | Updated: 9:11 am, Sun Sep 15, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — Punching isn’t a common defense against a bear, but it seems to have worked for a Fairbanks couple awakened by a grizzly at the Sourdough Campground on the Richardson Highway.

Jason Lauesen and Liz Pawelko were awakened about 6 a.m. on Labor Day by shaking and the entrance of a bear head, or maybe a paw, into Lauesen’s side of their tent.

“I was sort of half asleep, and at first, I thought, ‘Jeez, this is really tossing and turning.’ Then I realized what was going on so I sat up,” said Lauesen, a Daily News-Miner pressman.

“My first reaction was to punch, so I did.”

At the time, Lauesen didn’t have his glasses on, and doesn’t know what part of the bear he made contact with. But whatever part of the bear entered the tent shredded the  inflatable pad he was sleeping on. After the encounter, the couple found the jacket Lauesen had been using as a pillow soaked in bear saliva that reeked of fish, indicating the bear probably had its head in the tent.

The couple was returning from a trip to McCarthy in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and had arrived at the campsite late the night before. They didn’t cook at the car camping site or bring any food into the tent, a common cause of bear tent invasions, they said.

The couple estimated the entire bear incident lasted less than a minute. They described the bear as a relatively small bear, but definitely a grizzly.  

From her side of the tent, Pawelko said her response to the incident reminded her of a time she once flipped a boat on the Nenana River and had to react quickly.

“I remember I was just waking up and there was violent shaking,” she said.

“There was this downward pressure coming against me and my brain instantly went to: ‘Oh this is a bear attack. What do you do in a bear attack? You holler and you get your bear spray.’”

That’s what she did. The bear spray, which she shot at the bear after she left the tent, went into a headwind and wasn’t effective. But the bear, either from the yelling or the punch, retreated about 30 feet. It stayed about 30 feet away watching them until they got in their vehicle and drove toward it, she said.

Although having a bear invasion was an unpleasant surprise, they feel lucky because of the specific circumstances of the incident, Pawelko said. The bear happened to respond to the punch and the yells, and after it retreated, they were lucky because they were on a raised tent platform, which made them look taller. Most importantly, they had enough light to see what was going on.

“There’s a lot of providential things that happened,” she said. “I’m glad the bear waited until daylight.”

Contact staff writer Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter, @FDNMcrime.

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