Tree branches cracked on the far side of the stream, and the sound of swishing brush grew louder. The first thing I saw was a large brown head moving swiftly toward me, with two young cubs bouncing along behind. I clicked my rifle’s safety off and quickly dashed across the sandbar toward the other side of the stream in hopes of crawling up onto the bank. But the bank was too high. In chest-high water, I turned and made my stand as the bears drew nearer, some 20 yards away.
The late Charles Keim, a journalism professor at the University of Alaska – Fairbanks (UAF) (who was also a registered big game guide) told me long ago to always begin every story, article, column, just about anything written, with a bear charge.
What he really meant was to begin the exposition with action, a figurative bear charge, to draw readers into the story.
Over the course of my life, I have had a few encounters with bears, and the one described above is quite literal. It occurred in the summer of 1963 on the Alaska Peninsula during a salmon survey for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The stream was (and is today) a prime spawning area for sockeye salmon and consequently, prime habitat for bears.
I had broken away from the survey group to explore a side channel when I spotted the sow and two cubs in the middle of the stream, about 300 yards away. On previous surveys large grizzlies had run from me as if I were a monster. In retrospect, I think it had made me rather cavalier. The bears were fishing and hadn’t yet seen me. But instead of retreating downstream to re-join the group, I yelled and waved my arms at the bears; expecting to scare them away. I thought when they bolted into the woods to the left, the situation was over. But unbeknownst to me, the sow and her cubs made a sharp turn back toward me. Retreating to the stream’s bank, shivering, I nervously took the .338 magnum rifle off safety several times as the ursine trio scrambled across the far channel toward me. I was preparing to shoot when she suddenly stopped, turned around and fled back into the woods.
By that time I could see the others downstream, yelling and waving their arms. Soaked to the skin, I was slumped over on the sandbar, still shivering, when they reached me. “Why didn’t you shoot?” One of them asked me. I think I muttered something like “I don’t know. I thought I’d end up wounding her and making things worse.”
Entering bears’ kitchens: Counting salmon on their spawning grounds, whether on foot or from the air, was a valuable tool in fisheries management.
During the four summers I worked in the Chignik area and two summers on the south end of Kodiak Island near Frazer Lake, we hiked up several streams—some quite lengthy. It wasn’t uncommon to see between five and ten grizzlies on a single survey. They usually ran and avoided us, but young boars (2-4 years old) were quite unpredictable, sometimes showing off their bravado in the form of bluff charges.
On one survey of a Chignik Lake tributary, my partner was an Alaska Native (Aleut) who had much more experience with bears than me. I was standing behind a bush when a young bear began a charge. He yanked me over to his side and said, “Stay visible and look big!” The bear soon broke off the charge.
Using manual clickers, or “tallywackers,” we would often count fish in fives and tens when they were abundant. On aerial surveys, the managing biologist would generally count in hundreds. Surprisingly, the difference (error margin) between ground and aerial counts was quite close — about 3-4 percent.
On another survey, with the stream packed densely with sockeye salmon, we decided to move uphill and away from the stream for a better view. From that vantage point we spotted about 15 brownies—right in the area we would have been traveling!
Caution and awareness: In later years of hiking and climbing in Alaska, I would have other experiences – but not as serious as that first charge.
Hiking up Thunderbird Valley in Chugach State Park several years ago with my Standard poodle “Dieter,” I decided to move uphill to get away from the brush. Reaching the alpine tundra, where hiking was much easier, I spotted a grizzly sow and two cubs up-valley and very far away – at least 600 yards. I could have detoured lower in the valley toward the river but was tired of brush bashing. I yelled, hoping the bears would run off. Instead, she and her cubs began running directly toward me.
I had no bear spray – just a .20 gauge shotgun for bird hunting. “I can just stand here and wait for them to get here,” I thought, “or, I can head downhill and around the bluff out of sight.”
Sweating, with heart pounding, I grabbed my dog’s collar and tried to make him move faster as we scrambled down and around the bluff, out of sight. Then we quickly worked our way up-valley, opposite the bears’ direction. I kept looking over my shoulder, thinking she would pop over the bluff at my left in an intercept path. Luckily, the wind was in my favor, and I doubt the sow ever caught my scent. I didn’t see the bears after that.
On other outings, I would spot bears – both black and grizzly—without them seeing me. And I learned to be very cautious. I’m no bear expert by any means, but I do what the experts advise: I try to go in a group of two or more. I carry bear spray, make lots of noise; remain vigilant, looking around constantly for any signs of bear activity; assess whether the habitat I’m in has fish, berries, grass or other bear food sources; never use a campsite that is dirty (with spilled food) and never have food in my tent.
If I were proficient with a .44 magnum pistol, I would carry it. I have a short-barreled .12 gauge shotgun, but it weighs about eight lbs. and is quite unwieldy.
I’ve never used bear spray, but I soon plan to do some test deployments to boost my confidence.
The National Park Service estimates that your chances of being attacked by a bear in Yellowstone National Park, which is prime bear habitat similar to that in Alaska, are approximately 1 in 2.7 million.
Driving a car to a hiking site, for example, is significantly more dangerous than hiking in bear country.
But statistics provide little solace for the friends and family of someone killed by a bear, and they do little to settle our fears about bears in the wake of a deadly attack. Last summer Anchorage resident Erin Johnson was killed near Pogo Mine in the Interior, as well as Patrick Cooper on Bird Ridge during the annual mountain race. And most recently, we’ve learned about the tragic death of Michael Soltis in Eagle River’s South Fork Valley.
I know of a bear biologist who spent some 40 years tromping around Kodiak Island, most often without a gun; who never had problems with bears. Some of it boils down to pure luck, and I consider myself very lucky. It might bother some people, but I (and my hiking buddies) make a lot of noise; particularly in dense brush. Consequently, any wildlife we spot is usually at a distance.
I recently saw a bear at the south end of Eklutna Lake at about 600 yards. That’s the distance I prefer.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired Birchwood ABC Elementary school teacher.