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‘It could have been my life’: Bear injures two people near Isabella; victim recounts attack

Lisa Kaczke

Hours after a bear knocked him to the ground Tuesday in Lake County, Daniel Boedeker was still trying to piece together his memories of the attack. It all happened in a blur, he said — leaving him with six punctures and tears in his right arm where the bear grabbed him.

“It was kind of an ordeal. I got my arm ripped up pretty good,” said the Winton man, a contractor who had been building a garage at the time of the attack.

Boedeker was one of two men injured by the female bear in separate incidents Tuesday a short distance apart at McDougal Lake, west of Isabella. None of the injuries were life-threatening, authorities said; the bear was tracked and killed a short time later.

A black bear attack on a human at any time of year is unusual — but they’re particularly rare in winter, when the bears should be in hibernation. Sean Williams, a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources conservation officer who patrols the woods and waters near Ely, said he was as surprised as anyone when a 911 dispatcher put the call out Tuesday morning.

“You hear about it occasionally. There was one hit by a car by Hibbing a couple weeks ago. But it’s pretty unusual to have a bear out of the den this time of year,” Williams said, noting another conservation officer wondered aloud on the radio, “are they sure it was a bear?”

It was.

Boedeker, 58, and Gary Jerich, 54, are building contractors out of Ely, hired to build a garage at a cabin on McDougal Lake, not far from Minnesota Highway 1. They were siding the garage on Tuesday morning, and Boedeker was in the garage cutting the siding when he saw the bear. They had the saws running and never heard the bear coming, he said.

“I turned around and that bear was right there and he was going after my partner. I tried to protect my partner and grabbed the nearest thing, which was a level, and I swung it at him. The bear left him after tearing the front of his shirt off and it knocked me to the ground. And that’s when it went after me,” Boedeker told the News Tribune on Tuesday night.

It was over in a matter of minutes, he said. What took place is a bit of a blur and both he and Jerich can only remember parts of the incident, he said.

He called 911 and met the ambulance halfway between McDougal Lake and Ely, to be transported to Ely Bloomenson Community Hospital.

“It could have been my life; it was that serious. I’ve never had a bear on top of me before,” he said.

DNR conservation officers and Lake County Sheriff's Office deputies responded to the call just before 11 a.m. Tuesday. When Williams and Lake County Sheriff’s Deputy Mike McGregor responded, they tracked the bear about 250 yards through the deeper-than-expected snow “in some places up to our knees,” Williams said. They found the bear curled up in a ball. They had already made the decision to kill the bear if they found it, due to its aggressive behavior.

“We saw it at about 30 yards and got to within 20 yards before it noticed us, and then we dispatched it,” Williams said. It was just after noon.

Williams later estimated the bear, a sow, weighed about 150 pounds.

As the officers backtracked along the bear’s route they came upon another cabin on the lake and discovered another victim who hadn’t yet reported that he, too, had been bitten by the bear.

“The bear went after his dog so he went after the bear,” Williams said.

Lake County Sheriff Carey Johnson reported that the 68-year-old man, identified as Bill Vagts, jumped on the bear and that the bear then turned and bit Vagts in the abdomen before leaving the yard.

Vagts suffered puncture wounds and also was taken to the Ely hospital, said Capt. Tom Provost, regional DNR conservation officer supervisor. Provost told WDIO-TV that the dog was expected to survive.

Williams said there was no obvious sign why the bear was awake and aggressive when it should have been quietly hibernating.

“We tracked it back about three-quarters of a mile to where it came out of some really thick stuff. It had been up and moving quite a while,” he said.

Provost said veterinarians or biologists will inspect the bear carcass.

“We may send it to the University” of Minnesota for a necropsy “or have our bear experts do it here in Grand Rapids,” he said. “They may look at its fat reserves or for anything else that might be wrong with it. ... We really don't know if this bear woke up mad (Tuesday) or was maybe out on the prowl for a few days.”

The DNR estimates there are about 12,000 to 15,000 bears in Minnesota, mostly in the northern half of the state.

Black bear attacks on humans are very rare anywhere in the world, including Minnesota. And because black bears here usually enter hibernation in late October, spending the winter in a mostly sleepy state and not venturing outside, they are seldom seen during winter months. Bears usually spend winter in some sort of den, piles of leaves or under uprooted trees — sometimes under cabins, too — and live off their fat reserves until spring.

There have been few reports of black bear attacks in winter months anywhere, but a few have occured in recent years in summer months in Minnesota.

In June 2013, a 72-year-old rural McGregor woman was bitten and clawed by a sow bear in the woman's yard just outside her lake home. The bear was later killed when it charged at a state conservation officer about 200 yards from where the first attack occurred. The woman spent one night in the Aitkin hospital and was treated for bite and claw wounds to her left arm, side, right arm and right leg.

In July 2005, a bear attacked a Holyoke woman on her property south of Duluth. She received several puncture wounds and had to be treated for possible rabies.

In September 2003, a Grand Marais-area woman was bitten by a black bear in the woman’s attached garage at her home on Devil Track Lake.

John Myers of the News Tribune and Adelle Whitefoot of the Lake County News-Chronicle contributed to this report.

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