Craig Lindstrom said he heard the bloodcurdling screams from his friend Brandon Johnson in the pre-dawn darkness Saturday morning and he knew exactly what was happening.“I knew the bear was killing him,’’ Lindstrom told the News Tribune. “He was about a quarter mile away and it was just awful. It went on and on, what seemed like forever… but it was probably about two or three minutes.”
The two men were part of a hunting party that was tracking a wounded bear that their hunting partner, Trevor Nowack , had shot with an arrow at sunset Friday in the remote woods of eastern Pine County, near Duxbury, about 18 miles east of Sandstone.
Nowack and his girlfriend decided to wait before tracking the arrowed bear, a common practice among archery hunters, to allow the animal to lie down and die instead of pushing it farther away. They didn’t wait until daylight because they were worried the bear meat would spoil in the unusually warm late September weather.
When they returned just after Midnight on Saturday morning, they brought Johnson and Lindstrom to help track the animal. Lindstrom was carrying a .45 caliber Glock handgun, but Nowack and Johnson carried only knives and headlamps.
“The bear had gone a lot farther than we expected… it crossed into this big beaver swamp area where we had to wade across… it was chest deep in spots,” Lindstrom said. “We are all experienced hunters. Brandon has shot several bears. Trevor is a great hunter. We thought from what we saw at the stand that it had been a good shot, only about 10 yards, and we’d find this bear pretty fast. But that didn’t happen.”
More than an hour into the search, Nowack and Johnson went beyond the swamp and yelled back to Johnson that they had jumped the bear. They thought it was heading away, but it turned and came back at Johnson, knocking him down and biting his arms, legs and face. All the while Johnson was fighting back, stabbing the bear multiple times in what eventually would be fatal blows to the bear’s head.
“The bear is on top of Brandon ripping him up and Trevor is watching all of this happening from maybe 10 yards away. When I found Trevor he told me Brandon was dead,’’ Lindstrom said.
When Lindstrom first saw Johnson, he also thought the end was likely near for his hunting buddy of 10 years.
“He was covered in blood. I had to wipe his face off to see that it was really him,’’ said Lindstrom, adding that some of his first aid training as a Chisago City, Minn. volunteer firefighter kicked-in. “I told him to breathe, I wanted to see if the bear had collapsed his lungs. He took a deep breath but he couldn’t open his eyes. He said he wasn’t going to make it and he was telling me to tell his family that he loved them.”
First Lindstrom handed Nowack the handgun – they still didn’t know where the bear was. Then Lindstrom put tourniquets on both of Johnson’s arms above the most severe bear wounds. He then used a ratchet strap to wrap around Johnson’s body “to keep his arms on his body.”
Then, Lindstrom convinced Johnson to stand up and start walking. And the three of them together walked for two hours back to where the bear had first been shot and where their ATV’s were parked.
“He must have fallen 100 times. Sometimes we only went three or four yards before he’d fall again. But he kept going. Trevor is a big guy and he helped so much. Brandon just willed himself to stay alive,’’ Lindstrom said.
At about 3 a.m. Lindstrom yelled through the woods to “call 911!” loud enough for Nowack and Johnson’s girlfriends, still waiting at the ATVs, to hear them. But the women had to ride more than two miles by ATV to get cell phone reception. The 911 call was received about 3:30 a.m., according to the Pine County Sheriff’s Office.
At around 5 a.m. the Duxbury first responders arrived and used a large ATV to transport Johnson down a rugged trail to a truck, which went down a remote forest road until they could transfer him to an ambulance, which traveled down a county road to the Duxbury General Store, where a helicopter was waiting to take him to North Memorial Hospital in the Twin Cities.
A hospital spokeswoman Monday said Johnson was in fair condition.
Lindstrom, of Stacy, Minn., said Johnson, 44, of North Branch, Minn., was back in surgery Monday when doctors repaired more wounds, including having a pin and plate put in his broken wrist.
“He has his arms and legs and hands, but they aren’t sure if he has nerve damage,” Lindstrom said. “But he’s in good spirits. He’s going to make it. He’ll be back in those same woods hunting again as soon as he can. I know I’m going to be back up in my bear stand on Friday. People may not understand that, but that’s what we live for.”
After driving to the hospital Saturday morning to make sure his buddy was going to make it, Lindstrom got back in his vehicle and drove back to the scene of the mauling, this time with a crew of 10 men. They found the bear just 50 yards from where Johnson had been mauled. It had died from the wounds Johnson inflicted.
“The bear was wounded and felt surrounded so it went into attack survival mode. That’s what happens,’’ Lindstrom said.
The bear was huge, field dressed at 448 pounds, which means its live weight was likely over 525 pounds. It’s now at a taxidermist where the hunting camp is paying to have it mounted. It took 10 men nearly two hours to drag the bear across the beaver swamp and out of the woods just before sunset on Saturday.
“We recovered the bear like all good hunters do. This (hunt) just tuned out a little different than all the other times,’’ Lindstrom said. “If I had to do it over again, we all would have been carrying side arms. But who knew this was going to happen? I still can’t believe it happened.”
Pine County Chief Deputy Rick Giese said Monday that the incident remains under investigation, noting deputies “still have to talk to several members of the hunting party. We’re still investigating this case.”