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Crouching in the dark with a steady rain pelting the tent over his head, Rob Holmes was fumbling with a flashlight when he felt something slapping lightly against his neck.

With a click, Holmes quickly realized what had happened in the last 30 seconds.

His blanket - "my best blanket" - was soaked with blood. As was his shirt.

And just as quickly, Holmes realized what was slapping his neck.

"My ear was bouncing off my neck," said the 24-year-old Ellensburg, Wash., man. "So I knew it was messed up, but I couldn't feel (the pain.)"

It was Monday morning around 4:30 a.m. at a campground near St. Regis that Holmes got the wakeup call of a lifetime.

A black bear, returning for more of the free food and garbage that careless campers had abandoned nearby, bit through Holmes' tent and mistook his head for a late-night snack.

Holmes, who was on a fly-fishing vacation with friend Brandon Hurst, didn't want to become its meal.

The friends had only a few hours' sleep when the bruin came calling at a primitive campground up Little Joe Road, two miles off Interstate 90. But that didn't stop Holmes from leaping up like a gymnast when "I felt something on my face."

Even before he knew he'd been injured, "I just jumped up and started yelling," said Holmes, whose vacation to Montana was cut short by a day. "I kept yelling and yelling and tried to get it further and further away."

The auto mechanic bolted out of the tent, and was yelling into the dark at an animal he couldn't see or identify. Was it a wolf? A bear?

Whatever it was, Holmes pumped up the volume coming from his newly bloodied head.

"I even started whistling," said Holmes in a phone interview. "I don't wanna brag about it, but I can whistle real loud."

After returning to the tent, Holmes was met by Hurst, who had awakened in the commotion but was still dazed and confused.

"My buddy thought I was having a nightmare," said Holmes, who like many Montanans considers fly-fishing a religion of sorts. "But I really wasn't scared. I was more confused."

That is, until he saw the blood and felt the light tapping of his dangling ear.

***

Holmes and Hurst left the Seattle area around 6:30 p.m. on Saturday.

Hurst, who has relatives in Superior, had suggested a three-day fly-fishing trip to western Montana. Holmes, who hadn't fished here much, gladly accepted. Both planned to stay through midday Tuesday.

Operating on little sleep, they fished and toured the towns of St. Regis and Superior on Sunday. That evening, they had a home-cooked meal, then drove up Little Joe Road and stopped "at the first campground we found" around midnight.

Exhausted, "we went right to bed," said Holmes. "We wanted to wake up and do some fly-fishing the next day. So we unloaded the tent, the cots and the sleeping bags, and that's it."

It was dark and raining. So neither of the friends could have known that just 40 yards away, some careless campers had abandoned their campsite, leaving behind garbage and open cans of food.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which investigated the incident, thinks it may have been a transient camp. FWP said the left-behind refuse attracted the attention of the black bear that bit Holmes.

That Holmes was exhausted that night probably didn't help, either.

"I was snoring," he said. "That might have kind of triggered him to take an interest in me."

Still, irresponsible campers make the outdoorsman angry.

"I hate dirty camps," he said. "I enjoy the woods so much, and they're the reason that roads get shut down. They were incredibly inconsiderate."

***

And "inconsiderate" had Holmes and Hurst racing down the road in their truck just minutes after the bruin bit through their tent.

Holmes was nursing his bloody ear as Hurst dialed 9-1-1.

Within minutes, they arrived at the Mineral Community Hospital in Superior, where doctors cleaned and dressed the wound, then directed the friends to Community Medical Center in Missoula.

There, doctors sewed back together Holmes' ear, which required 21 stitches.

"It was the bottom quarter of the ear," he said. "It was ripped straight back, and it was just dangling there."

Meanwhile, Hurst had called wildlife officials, who met the two at the hospital and asked them to return to the scene.

Holmes had other things on his mind.

"I wanted to go fly-fishing," he said. "But the rivers were kind of blown out anyway."

Back at the campground, FWP determined that the teeth marks on the left-behind trash and the wound that Holmes suffered were consistent with a bite from a black bear.

Holmes considers himself fortunate, in a way.

"If it had been a grizzly bear," he said, "it would have killed me."

***

Holmes and Hurst headed back to Seattle that afternoon.

Back at his home in Ellensburg, Holmes has been answering phone calls and nursing his sore head.

On Tuesday afternoon, he planned to put away the phone for one more afternoon of fly-fishing, making up for the time he lost in Montana - a state he will gladly return to and set up camp.

"Hey, 21 stitches, and we're back in business," he said. "I love it there."

There may be a few hard feelings for the messy campers, but none at all for the big animal that nearly took Holmes' ear. In fact, there's a lot of sympathy for the bear, which the FWP is still attempting to locate and will have to euthanize once it's found.

"The bear was just curious, and it's a bad deal that it's habituated, or whatever they call it," said Holmes. "That bear was just being a bear."

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

 

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