On Bears

Back when I worked as a tour guide, it was inevitable that I’d eventually be asked about the bears in the area. “Are there bears around here?” “Do the bears come into the village?”  In the wilderness, the large predator lingers in the forefront of almost everyone’s mind, some more so than others.  Stories throughout history of the bears power, prowess and destruction of human lives build the animal into a mythical like creature, bent on killing and destruction.  While not entirely true, there is an element of truth within it.  Bears have maimed, killed and destroyed human lives and property over the years.  But not at the rate most perceive.

The view of bears as killers isn’t only limited to those outside Alaska.  Despite the perception of its residents as tough and rugged outdoorsmen, most throughout Alaska hold just as strong a fear as those outside the state.  Tell almost anyone that you are planning to head off into the woods without a gun and you’ll be lectured about why you shouldn’t bring anything less for protection than a .50 caliber rifle with hand grenades and air support as backup.  Alaskans will tell of ginormous bears that refuse to go down after multiple shots.  Everyone seems to have a bear story.  But according to my neighbor Jack Reakoff, bears are easy to kill. “Shoot the bear right in the chest and puncture a hole through each lungs. In five seconds, the bear will drop on the ground. Deader than a hammer.”  In his 60 years of living in rural Alaska, he has encountered only three aggressive bears in over 400 encounters.  None of the three survived past their encounter.

There are an estimated 30,000 brown bears (or grizzlies) and over 100,000 black bears within Alaska.  Each year there are thousands of encounters between humans and bears throughout the state.  Most end without incident.  In most cases, when the bear realizes that one is a human, it takes off running through the forest, tundra, beach or whatever environment you are in.  But there are instances where the bear doesn’t run away.  An aggressive bear or one that has become habituated to human food can be predatory and more prone to charge and attack.  This past summer there were two deaths by bear attacks within the state, within the same week.  One at a mine near Delta Junction (southeast of Fairbanks) where a problem bear (one that had kept coming around) didn’t respond to deterrent measures and killed a woman.  Another was outside of Anchorage, where a bear killed a young teenager who was running on a trail on a local mountain.  With these attacks, bears seemed to be the topic of conversation throughout the state during this summer season and people were more wary than ever.  Not since 2013 had there been an attack ending in human death, when a photographer in Denali was killed by a bear.

Here in the Arctic, there is reason to fear bears less than most places.  For one, the population is not as large.  We are at the edge of black bear habitat, with the tree line ending approximately 50 miles north of Wiseman.  Both grizzlies and black bears are spread out over large areas as a result of low food diversity and availability.  Far from ocean sources, northern waters are not teeming in fish like their southern counterparts.  These bears have to forage for their food, digging for roots, grasses and berries throughout the region.

While it is extremely rare for bears to come into the community, there are still stories that make one wary.  During the 1990s, there was a former Wiseman resident who lived at Chandalar Lake, forty miles to the east.  One evening in December, he heard a commotion in his dog yard. Turning on an outdoor spotlight, he witnessed a bear wreaking havoc among the dogs within his yard.  He chased the bear away, but it eventually came back. The bear killed all the dogs save one that was deaf, who not hearing the commotion, had remained inside his house.

A few years later on, there was a similar incident. About five miles south of Wiseman, there is a hill that is locally called, Massacre Hill.  In the late 1990s, a musher was running his dog team from Wiseman to Coldfoot along the pipeline trail. On his return trip to Wiseman, the dogs stopped at the bottom of the hill, unwilling to move on.  Thinking they were tired or lazy, he urged them on and they climbed the hill.  Meanwhile, a grizzly stood at the top.  Upon seeing the first dogs rise above, he plowed forward killing dog after dog.  Without a gun, there was nothing the musher could do. He watched his dogs die, narrowly escaping with his own life, as evidenced by the bloody paw prints on the shoulders of his jacket.  All but one of the dogs died as a result of the encounter.

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It is thought that old grizzlies perish through starvation.  They are not able to accumulate enough fat to last them through the winter months. Instead, the stay out, roaming the country in search of food.  This is the type of bear that inspires fear in any outdoorsmen.  There is nothing good that can come from encountering a bear in the winter season.   Little to no food availability coupled with snow, ice and frigid temperatures make a hungry animal even more prone to aggression and attack.

Although mild, compared to the above stories, I’ve had my own close encounters with bears, both real and imagined. The animal has caused fear and racing thoughts over the years, but while still somewhat present, they have largely diminished with time and exposure.  On my first trip alone to the state, I had grand ambitions of hiking across the Brooks Range.  The trip was not successful due to many reasons, but fear of bears played a part.  The sole night I camped in the region I peered out from my tent at every sound, thinking a bear was lurking nearby.  Later that same summer, hearing a black bear wander close to my tent on the Colorado Trail drove me away before I had completed even half the route.

In August 2015, my first summer living in the Arctic, I was climbing the mountain that sits across the valley from Wiseman to the east, Michelle Mt. Upon gaining the ridge, I took a look around at what lay above and below, preparing to take a break.  The next thing I knew, at the rise about eighty yards distant there was a black bear running down the ridge towards me.  I stuck up my arms and yelled, “HEY BEAR! HEY BEAR!” On repeat.  The bear showed no indication of stopping and ran to a distance of about 10-15 feet.  What was likely a few seconds, felt like minutes as the bear and I stared into each other’s eyes.  To my relief, she decided to turn around and walked back up the mountain, pausing at intervals to look back, before continuing to the top of the rise to reconvene with her cub. (bear pictured in top photo)

All other bear sightings (about 38 in total) have been much less dramatic, with the bear either continuing what it was doing or running off in the other direction.  This past October, my neighbor Jordan and I went sheep hunting.  Although we didn’t spot any on the mountain we had climbed, we did come across a large grizzly located among the rocks in an alpine bowl.  I eased around the ridge above, positioning myself for a shot.  I fired twice before the grizzly moved, without injury.  I had fired from too far away, missed, and the grizzly continued into another drainage.  So began my hunt for bears over the next week. I scoured the local area, finding plenty of tracks, scat and diggings but no bears.   One morning I awoke to loud sniffing outside the front of the cabin. In a strange turn of events, it seemed the bear had come to me.  I chambered a round in my rifle and eased out a couple minutes later, with plenty of trepidation.  But found no bear.  Snow fell and temperatures dropped over the coming days, sending all but the oldest of bears to sleep for the winter and ending my chances of a successful hunt.

Despite the attacks and incidents over the years, people, including myself, will still travel into bear country.  Bears are something that draw people to this area, a testament that a region is a wilderness where man does not necessarily hold the top spot in the food chain.  The land and feelings when one is within it, takes on a different character with the animal’s presence. That being said, there are things to take away.  A greater awareness and education about bears can never hurt, neither can travelling with others or bringing bear spray.  There has never been a bear attack on a group containing four people or more. Ironically enough, I take bear spray much more often when I am with others, thinking that I have a responsibility to protect and defend.  It would take a tremendous effort to decimate the bear population within this state, but nonetheless, I hope that this iconic creature of Alaska is given a chance to exist, and that I continue to have opportunities to see both black and grizzly bears.  Summer only, though please.

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