Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Bear Surprise

Last weekend a female grizzly attacked a group of seven young people while they were ascending a creek near Chulitna in southcentral Alaska.  The teens were part of a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) survival class, and, as if to demonstrate their proficiency in the lessons taught over the past weeks, they survived.

Bears attack at least one group of hikers, hunters, fishermen, or backpackers every summer in our state.  It’s always creepy to read about these incidents and the stories’ details stay with me much longer than those relating far more common forms of injury or death (car accidents on the Seward Highway, for example).  There’s something truly awful about the idea of another living creature goring me, chewing my shoulders and neck, and maybe eating my organs.  It’s the stuff of horror movies.  And I hate horror movies.
Fast flowing streams mute the sound of a hiker's
attempts to alert bears to their presence.

Of course, attacks on recreationists rarely occur as part of a bear’s hunt for dinner.  I’ve attended a surfeit of bear safety talks at national parks and national forests, I have read the Alaska Department of Fish & Game brochures, and I’ll risk the assumption that the NOLS students got the same bear safety instruction I’ve received.  The central message of all these programs, the accepted wisdom, the coin of common sense is that bears attack people because the bear is surprised or threatened—not because it wants to eat you.

The NOLS story from last weekend seems to present evidence to support this premise.  According to the Anchorage Daily News (7/26/11), the youths were wading up the creek bed on Saturday evening.  Thick tangles of alder and willow obscured the views of the nearby mountains and the gray noise of water rushing downhill muffled all other natural sounds.  It was late in the evening.  Perhaps the classmates were tired of carrying heavy packs across the slippery streambed and stumbling over smooth river rocks that rolled underfoot.   They rounded a brushy bend in the creek and there was the bear.  At that moment, the bear was probably involved in her normal mid-summer routine, prowling for rodents or squirrels or moose calves, digging roots out of the ground, grooming herself, roaming the immense Chulitna countryside.  She couldn’t hear the weary teenagers’ bear bells or hoots sent out to warn her and other bears of their presence.  They took her by surprise and she reacted badly, mauling the object moving at her – the first kid in line.

It so happened that a couple of hours before the Chulitna bear attacked the NOLS group, my husband and I were bush-whacking up a similar creek in the Little Tonsina drainage near the Richardson Highway.  The creek drowned out our voices and we were distracted by the terrain, slick rocks, and brush barricades.  Like the students, my husband and I both had bear spray and I wore mine on my hip.  As we always do when traveling in the backcountry, we tried to project our voices far enough to float around the next bend, into the ears of the bears we know inhabit this country.  Lucky for us, we didn’t see any bears that day, just a washed out track on a sandbar and desiccated scat from much earlier in the season.  We made it out of our creek with scratches on our arms and legs inflicted by angry branches instead of an angry bear.  Then, we spent a restful night snug in our tent instead of fearing for the life of a fellow traveler with a punctured lung, listening in fright for crackling twigs that could signal the return of the attacker, and praying that a rescue helicopter would show soon enough.

Little Tonsina drainage and
Ernestine Mountain
When I go into the backcountry, adherence to safety tips taught in bear class is just enough to make me feel like I’ve stacked the deck in my favor.  Time, however, reminds me that traveling on foot into the wild outdoors may include random encounters with its inhabitants, including bears.  If I’m fortunate, my encounters will take place at a distance, maybe from a high ridge in wide open terrain, where I can quietly observe the giant going about its bearish tasks calmly.

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