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Robert F. Jones
March 18, 1985
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March 18, 1985

Terror In The Wilderness


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Whenever I run," says a woman who does so every day, "I'm always looking over my shoulder. Not just in the city, where there could be a threat in every doorway, but out in the country, too. I think every woman who runs by herself is a little afraid she's going to get grabbed."

Last summer it happened to Kari Swenson.

She was running on a logging road in southwestern Montana's Madison Range, not far from the Big Sky resort complex. Nearby loomed the Spanish Peaks, a brooding, 78,000-acre reach of roadless mountains, then designated by the government as a "primitive area." (Now it is a "wilderness area.")

Swenson, 23, a tall, slender woman with waist-length auburn hair braided and bouncing to her stride, was running on the Jack Creek Road near Ulerys Lake in hopes of seeing a grizzly bear. She had graduated that spring from Montana State University with a degree in microbiology, and had plans for attending veterinary school somewhere down the line, probably at Colorado State. She was working as a waitress at the Lone Mountain Ranch, just downhill from Big Sky.

The previous winter Swenson had emerged, suddenly and dramatically, as America's best female biathlete, with promise of becoming a superstar in the grueling sport that combines Nordic skiing with marksmanship. At the March world biathlon championships in Chamonix, France—the first world meet ever for women—she placed fifth overall in the women's 10-km final; it was not just the best finish for an American last year, but the best ever for a U.S. biathlete of either sex in 26 years of international biathlon competition. The job at Lone Mountain gave her access to hundreds of miles of excellent running trails for summer workouts.

Bob Schaap, 45, the ranch's co-owner and a vigorous outdoorsman, had seen the bear the day before while he was hiking around 11,166-foot Lone Mountain to the Diamond J. Ranch near Ennis. When he reported the sighting back at the ranch, Swenson's blue eyes lit up. "I've never seen a grizzly in the wild," she told Schaap's wife, Vivian. "I'd die to see one."

Swenson is forbidden by court order to discuss the details of the horrors that followed, pending a trial, now set for May 6, of two men who have pleaded not guilty to all charges, including murder and kidnapping. But from interviews with lawmen, friends, co-workers and her mother shortly after the incident, it seems to have gone like this:

Swenson left the ranch after lunch on July 15, heading up to the logging road Schaap had hiked the previous day. As she neared the area where the bear had been feeding, she saw two sleeping bags spread out on the trail ahead of her. Were some hikers lost? Or in trouble? Two men appeared. They were unshaven, carrying rifles (though it was not the hunting season) and wearing grimy, smoke-reeking clothes. Their broad-brimmed Western hats were so impregnated with grease—a fortuitous method of waterproofing—that at first they looked as if they were made of leather. Swenson's instinct was to keep on running. She had no doubts that she could outstrip them, but even a world-class athlete can't outrun a bullet. So she stayed and talked. As Bob Schaap is fond of saying, "Kari is a people person."

Montana law-enforcement officials later tentatively identified the men as Don Nichols, 53, and his son Dan, 19, a pair of self-styled "mountain men" who had spent a good part of the previous 12 summers in the Spanish Peaks wilderness, living off the land. That year they had "wintered over" in temperatures that ranged to 40° below. The men allegedly told Swenson they wanted her to come along with them and be the younger man's "mountain bride." As lawmen later pieced it together, the young man probably was growing bored with the mountain life, and perhaps his father felt that by getting him a woman he could persuade him to stay. "People who know them continually talk about the love this man has for his son," says Gallatin County sheriff John Onstad. "I'd liken it to a sow grizzly and her cub. He couldn't stand the thought of the boy leaving."

Whatever the motive, allegedly the two men lashed Swenson wrist to wrist with the young man and took off uphill toward a hidden camp they had prepared well off the trail. The Spanish Peaks are set off from the rest of the Madison Range by a drainage known as Jack Creek. South of it the country is wild and rugged enough for most tastes. North of Jack Creek you're back in the 19th century—mountain-man country with a vengeance. That's probably where they were headed.

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