LOVELL — Jeremy Dickson is known for his calm demeanor. Wife Carmen says he’s even analytical in his thought processes. Even after being mauled by a grizzly bear.
Dickson was one of a party of four hunting, fittingly, on Grizzly Ridge near Wapiti on the morning of Saturday, Oct. 2, when the bear came out of nowhere and attacked. He and his hunting partner killed the attacking bear, but only after the bear tore his thumb from his left hand.
But Dickson kept his composure, called for help and rode out to an awaiting air ambulance – almost as if it was no big deal.
Before the attack, it was a typical hunting morning for the experienced hunter and guide.
A 1995 graduate of Lovell High School who is well familiar with the Northwest Wyoming backcountry, Dickson wasn’t guiding that day. He was just hunting with friends. The group had shot an elk the day before, and Dickson knew to be wary in the area of the previous day’s kill.
Dickson said he almost always sees grizzlies when he hunts along the North Fork of the Shoshone River -- just not that close.
He and his hunting partner, a man named John, were even scanning for bears while hunting elk – just in case. It was just after dawn, around 7:30 a.m., and the foursome was hunting north of U.S. 14 just west of Wapiti about five miles up Grizzly Ridge.
“We’d left camp and were sitting on top of a hill,” Dickson said. “They were a ways away, probably a mile or a mile and a half. One of the other guys had shot an elk (the day before), and before we took off down there we told him, ‘Remember where that elk was down there, and pay attention for the bears.’ We knew there’d be one somewhere. (We knew to) pay attention, because we thought there’d be one around.”
Dickson and his partner walked off the hill from where they dismounted the horses, looking for elk.
“We walked probably 200 yards, roughly, and we stopped to look at the elk to make sure they were still there,” he said. “I pulled my glasses out (binoculars), and we were looking at ‘em. When we stopped, that’s when the bear came over the top of the ridge. We were probably 15 or 20 yards off the top of the ridge on the west side.
“She came over the top from the east side of the ridge about 15 to 20 yards away from us. We were looking at the elk, and she came from behind us. And when she got about three or four yards away from us, that’s when she started making some noise. It’s kind of crazy. It actually sounded like a pig, kind of a squeal, not as high (pitched), but that’s what it reminded me of, a pig.”
By then it was too late.
“That’s when she tackled me. I turned around, and she hit me from the side. I never even got all the way turned around,” Dickson said. The experienced hunter always carries a 10mm handgun in a holster across his chest, but before he could reach it, the bear knocked him down.
“When I fell down, my left arm came up, and that’s when she got a hold of my hand,” Dickson said. “I was on my right side with my left side up. The guy that was with me, when that bear was on top, that’s when he shot that bear. He was probably only 20 yards behind me.”
Fortunately, his friend’s aim was true, and he hit the grizzly with a .300 Winchester Magnum just behind the shoulder. The wounded bear then turned on John, which gave Dickson the time to get up, get his pistol out and shoot the bear with the 10mm. The bear dropped, and a couple more shots from the rifle made sure the bear was dead.
It was all over in less than two minutes.
About that time, Dickson realized his hand was severely injured, his left thumb essentially hanging by skin, having been torn from its socket.
“It was just hanging there,” he said, noting that, in the adrenaline rush, he didn’t even notice he was injured.
“I knew something was wrong, but we never looked at it,” Dickson said.
Asked what stands out from that frantic few minutes, he replied, “I don’t know. Nothing. It is what it is, and now we’ve gotta figure out what to do from here.”
“The way Jeremy’s brain works, he’s an assessor of the situation,” Carmen jumped in. “I can only imagine that, in that moment, he’s like, ‘OK, the bear is dead. Now we need to first aid it (the hand).’ And he knows first aid, so he went through the first aid process. And that’s where his brain was at. OK, that situation is handled. Now we need to handle this situation.”
“I never even got any pictures,” Dickson said. “I never took any pictures of my hand. We never took any pictures of the bear. Nothin’. I don’t have any pictures.”
“That’s really how his brain works,” Carmen said. “This is the situation. We need to handle this.”
The hunters radioed their comrades atop the ridge.
“I told ‘em we got hit by a grizzly bear, and you need to bring the horses off the hill down to us so we don’t have to walk up there,” Dickson said.
Dickson and his partner tied a tourniquet to stop the bleeding and covered the hand with a wool sock to keep it clean. The horses were brought, and the hunters rode to camp, then down the trail to the parking area near the North Fork Highway, where a helicopter was waiting.
“There were no broken bones,” Dickson said matter-of-factly. “(The bear) just pulled it off. I picked it back up and put it back on, I mean, held it up there, and we just tied a tourniquet around it to stop the bleeding. We pulled the wool sock over it basically like a glove to keep it from getting dirty.”
Walking to the top of the hill from where the grizzly attacked, Dickson called 911 to get a medical helicopter and was told it would be two or three hours, the closest available life flight having to come from Riverton. So after the horses were brought, he and two others rode down to the trailhead and met the chopper there.
“I didn’t have any shock or anything until I was almost to Billings in the helicopter,” he said. “That’s when my hand started to hurt a little bit.”
On the way to the trailhead, Jeremy was able to contact Carmen, and that’s where his Dickson sense of humor kicked in.
“Jeremy called me to tell me what’s going on, and then he called me when he was on his way out again, to let me know things are OK,” Carmen said. “At that point I’m trying to assess the situation in my brain from here. I’m like, ‘He’s telling me it’s just his thumb. What does that mean?’ “So finally I ask him, ‘So what does that mean, that it’s just your thumb?’ And he says to me, ‘Let’s just say it’s along for the ride.’ And that’s all I get, and I’m like, ‘You’re an idiot.’ And I told him that. Really? That’s what you tell your wife at home?” she said with a laugh.
One of the many miracles that took place that day, the Dicksons said, was that the on-call surgeon at the Billings Clinic, Dr. Barry Smith, is an orthopedic hand surgeon with experience with bear attacks. Smith performed the surgery, which apparently went well.
“When the surgeon came out and was telling me about it, he just said to pay attention that it doesn’t go white or cold. Those were the two things,” Carmen said. “So it’s not white, and it’s not cold. So we’re taking that as positive.”
Dickson is already back at work at the Simplot fertilizer plant in Powell. He spent just two nights in the hospital, coming home on Monday, Oct. 4, and he returned to work on Thursday, Oct. 7.
Asked how the thumb feels now, Dickson said it mostly feels normal but burns a little bit. Fortunately, he’s right-handed.
Until Dickson sees the doctor again, he won’t know what kind of use he’ll have with the thumb. On the day of the surgery, the couple was told there was an equal chance of losing the thumb or keeping it.
“He said, ‘Don’t get attached to it, but it could stay,’” Carmen said. “He has a sense of humor like my husband.”
Looking back at that day, Dickson said he believes the hunting party did everything they could.
“You’re always going to have ‘what ifs.’ What if I did this? What if I did that?” he said. “He followed all the rules he’s supposed to follow,” Carmen said. “He wasn’t by himself, he had his gun on him. He knew good first aid. He did everything he was supposed to. Sometimes things just happen, but when you’re doing everything you’re supposed to do, even bad situations don’t have to be terrible.
“Had he been unprepared or didn’t follow the safety rules that you should as a hunter, it could have been much, much worse. For me, that’s the big thing. He did what he was supposed to.”
Dickson said when investigating the incident, the Game and Fish found tracks from the bear on the other side of the hill, indicating that she had been following the hunters for a distance, “basically hunting us for a ways,” he said, adding, “It was on the other side of the hill. What are you going to do? You can’t see.”
Dickson pointed out that, with bears likely to be in the area, he and his partner had been careful to look for bears that morning, even turning to “glass” the area around them.
He added the bear could not have been seen by the other two hunters with the horses atop the ridge, the bear coming out of a different drainage to attack.
“I don’t think anybody could have seen it from anywhere, except for right there,” he said. “When we walked off that hill, we stopped for just a minute and glassed on that side of that drainage. It’s just a big burn down through there. We glassed that burn and never saw her…Instead, she came from behind us.”
The sow’s two cubs, less than a year old, were later euthanized because they were unlikely to survive the winter on their own.
So many things added up in the family’s favor, Carmen said: Finding cell service, being able to ride out, the first aid being effective, the hand not bleeding bad, the pain not being bad, the horses not acting up on the way down, a hand surgeon being on call. She said the series of events adding up in Jeremy’s favor was a miracle.
One thing that helped the Game and Fish investigate the incident was that Dickson had his hunting companion video the entire scene while awaiting the horses, and that helped the duo prove their story.
It could have been much worse, the Dickson said, and they are counting their blessings, knowing that, in many cases, things turn out much worse.
Dickson said he’s had no nightmares or flashbacks since the attack. He even has maintained his sense of humor about the incident.
“Yesterday, he calls me, and he says, ‘Do you know what’s really going to suck if I lose my thumb? I’ll only be able to hitchhike one way,’” Carmen said, shaking her head and noting that her husband finds the healing hand “uncomfortable.”
It seems like Jeremy Dickson is certainly moving forward with life and will no doubt soon be hunting again.