Bear attacks teen bike racer

June 30, 2008 

A teenage girl riding in an all-night mountain bike race was badly injured early Sunday morning when a bear attacked her on a trail in Far North Bicentennial Park.

Police officers with shotguns escorted medics into dark woods to retrieve the girl, who underwent surgery at Providence Alaska Medical Center. The girl is expected to survive, Anchorage Fire Department spokeswoman Cleo Hill said.

Authorities wouldn't identify the girl and wouldn't discuss the nature of her injuries except to say they were extensive.

"One of the EMS supervisors on the scene said that in his 24 years of doing this, these were the most extensively traumatic injuries he'd seen," Hill said.

The bear is believed to be a grizzly, state biologist Rick Sinnott said. It's possible it's the same sow who charged a pair of joggers two weekends ago on a nearby trail, he said.

Peter Basinger, a cyclist competing in the race, encountered the injured girl on a trail called Rover's Run shortly after the attack happened around 1:30 a.m.

The trail parallels the south fork of Campbell Creek, a stream stocked with salmon by the state and fished frequently by grizzlies.

The girl mumbled the word "bear" but was unable to say more, Basinger said.

Basinger waited with the girl for about 25 minutes until medics arrived.

Emergency responders had to hike about half a mile from the South Bivouac trailhead off Campbell Airstrip Road to reach the girl, Hill said. They carried her on a stretcher across the same route to reach an ambulance waiting on the road.

TICKING 'TIME BOMB'

Matt Novakovich of Anchorage, who routinely rides and races bicycles in the park, thinks it was merely a matter of time before someone had a bear encounter in that part of the park.

"That area's getting more and more dangerous with the bears," he said. "It's frustrating, because at what point are they going to thin them out? It's like a hidden time bomb in the forest. It kind of scares me."

The girl was among about 60 participants in a 24-hour race sponsored by the Arctic Bicycle Club. The race began at noon Saturday and was to end at noon Sunday, but organizers canceled it after the attack.

"We're all shattered," said race director Greg Matyas, a longtime Anchorage skier and bicyclist.

A prerace safety meeting specifically mentioned bears and moose, he said.

"The first rule was no headphones, and the reason for that was (to be able to listen for) the bear and the moose," Matyas said.

The girl's bike was equipped with bear bells, he said, and she had two lights -- one on her helmet, another on her bike.

The 24-hour race is usually held at Kincaid Park but was moved to the Hillside this year because of construction at Kincaid, Matyas said. It was held on an 8.6-mile loop.

The victim had just come off the Gasline Trail north of Hilltop ski area and was entering Rover's Run when the bear attacked.

The bear ripped off the girl's helmet and flung it in the woods, Basinger said. Sinnott said it was pocked with the bear's teeth marks. Hill said it probably saved the girl from further injury.

Bears frequently walk on Rover's Run, Sinnott said. Most likely, Sinnott said, this bear was fishing for salmon in the creek and might not have heard the cyclist coming due to noise from the creek and from strong winds roaring through the forest.

Warning signs are posted in the area, although the city has not officially closed the trails. Sinnott said he'll talk to city parks officials today about closing the trails, although a true closure is impractical.

"Any trail head will get you in there and there's, what, 20-plus trail heads?" he said. "I would certainly recommend not riding a bike or running on those trails."

RECREATION GOES ON

Signs posted at trail heads two weeks ago warned users of bear activity. On June 14, a sow with two cubs charged a pair of joggers on the Double Bubble trail, which is near Rover's Run but doesn't parallel the creek.

On Sunday, Sinnott updated those warnings with news of the mauling.

Even so, dozens of bikers and hikers used the trails, fully aware of the overnight attack.

"It's not going to stop me from going out of the house and enjoying the short summer," said Rada Nordstrand, who was out for a bike ride with a friend. "But I'm thinking we should buy some bear spray."

Hendrik Van Hemert and Connor McCoy knew about the attack before they left the Hilltop parking lot for a bike ride up Prospect Heights.

"I thought a lot about the young woman as I was riding," Van Hemert said. "When I was out there it was easy to see exactly the balance between risk and enjoyment anyone who (goes) outdoors must face. There is an artificial sense of safety when you are doing something you not only love but have done countless times before.

"There are hundreds of mountain bikers in Anchorage that could have found themselves in the exact same position."

Sinnott said it's not unheard of for a bear to charge someone moving by on a bicycle. In fact, the motion combined with surprise could trigger what was an "unintentionally provoked" attack, he said.

Sinnott said he didn't arrive in time to see the victim before she was taken to the hospital, but he learned from emergency responders that the bear bit her on the head, torso and thigh. She also had a "sucking chest wound" caused by a puncture to the lung cavity, he said.

It was close to 3 a.m. when Sinnott and two police officers emerged from the spooky near-solstice night to the South Bivouac Trailhead parking lot on Campbell Airstrip Road. Sinnott carried a 12-gauge shotgun.


Find Beth Bragg online at adn.com/contact/bbragg or call 257-4309.

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