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When you shoot a grizzly bear – unsuccessfully

Mountain Tales: First-hand stories of life in Tehachapi

The incident occurred on March 15, 1870, in the mountains of Kern County where John W. Searles was on a general hunt with companions. He heard a California Grizzly bear and was seeking to locate it when the beast reared up, its nose not two feet away.

Searles could not back away because of the dense brush. He pointed his gun toward the bear's jaw and fired. The bear pitched to its forefeet, gasping and pawing at its eyes where the flame of the cartridge had burned the hair – but it was not seriously hurt. Three times Searles tried to fire, but the misfit cartridges failed him. The bear rose, open-mouthed, and the hunter jammed the rifle into its jaws. The animal brushed it aside, felled the man and proceeded to maul him. Searles eventually rolled over. His coat was all in a hump on his back, and the bear bit into that once and then went away.

Searles was as near dead as ever a live man was, but part of his discomfort saved him. It was turning cold rapidly – the end of a late winter day in the mountains – and the wet clothing began to freeze, and this sealed up the torn blood vessels. Then, with his lower jaw dangling about his throat in shreds and his left arm useless, in frightful pain Searles walked and crawled to his horse, mounted, and rode four miles to camp.

Three days later he was in the Los Angeles Hospital, and after surgery was up in three weeks. While he was in the hospital a surgeon proposed drilling into his undamaged upper teeth to provide anchorage for his lower jaw. The "invalid" kicked the surgeon halfway across the hospital room! Later, the old Spencer rifle dented by the grizzly's teeth and a two-ounce bottle with 22 fragments of teeth and bone from his facial wounds became Searles' chief treasures.

Under his beard the jawbones seemed half missing, to the touch, and he could not turn his head readily. Yet this indomitable hunter and explorer, for whom Searles Lake [or lake bed] is named, was later superintendent and chief owner of the San Bernardino Borax Mining Company works. He survived for 27 years after the bear attack, dying on Oct. 8, 1897, at age 69.

A later story is that of a man in Kern County during 1896 who shot and injured a grizzly. The grizzly bit the man, and a second adult bear made a snap at his ribs and bit his coat. Her teeth set off a box of matches in one pocket. The man fainted, and when he came to a few minutes later the bears were leaving. He was one of the last persons injured in California by a grizzly.

– Dr. Tracy Storer in California Grizzly