AD Main Menu

Denali Park hiker's camera offers clues to bear attack

Lisa Demer

The grizzly bear that killed a lone backpacker Friday in Denali National Park appeared unaware a person was close for nearly the whole time the man was snapping pictures from maybe 40 yards away.

"Certainly too close," chief park ranger Pete Webster said Sunday.

Richard White, a 49-year-old from San Diego who relished hiking and camping alone in the wilderness, was attacked Friday afternoon next to the Toklat River, an area of prime bear habitat about three miles south of the park road.

He took 26 pictures of the bear with his digital camera over a span of 7 1/2 minutes, but the bear seemed to take notice of him only for the last few seconds, according to National Park Service officials who based their assessment on photo time stamps.

It was the first fatal bear mauling in Denali's recorded history, going back more than 90 years. Alaska Wildlife Troopers shot and killed the bear Saturday. Park officials say they are sure it was the one responsible because White's clothing and other material linking it to him was found during an examination of its stomach contents.

"We know for certain the bear we killed is the bear that killed the backpacker," Webster said. "I'm very confident no other bear is involved."

The backpacker's father, Byron White, told a San Diego newspaper that Richard traveled whenever he could take off from work and had been to Denali before. He had worked as a pharmacology director for San Diego's Ferring Pharmaceuticals until last year and was in the process of switching to a new company, Byron White told the U-T San Diego newspaper.

"He had a real zest for seeing the phenomena in the world and interacting with people all over the globe," Byron White said. "He also liked hiking alone in these remote places. He enjoyed being out in the wilderness."

White was married and had a young daughter, the newspaper said.

NO PEPPER SPRAY OR GUN

He had been in the Denali National Park and Preserve backcountry for three nights and had two more to go on his backcountry permit, park spokeswoman Kris Fister said. The Park Service wasn't immediately able to confirm that he had backpacked there before. Every year 1,500 to 1,700 backcountry permits are issued for Denali.

On the permit, he indicated he had more than 30 years experience backpacking. He didn't carry bear spray or a gun but did circle that he had a whistle, Webster said. Rangers recommend that backcountry hikers carry bear spray but it isn't required.

On Friday afternoon, White was hiking to a new camping spot in the Denali backcountry. He started shooting photos of a big, male grizzly at 12:58 p.m. Alaska time, Fister said.

"The majority of them were just regular snapshots of a bear foraging, either on vegetation or on berries," Webster said.

Rangers used satellite imagery to estimate that the bear was just over 40 yards away when White started taking pictures with his zoom lens. They haven't yet confirmed the distance with ground estimates or with tracks or other evidence from the scene.

White had taken mandatory "Bear Aware" training before getting his permit. Backcountry travelers are supposed to stay at least one-quarter mile from bears and to leave an area if they happen upon one. If the estimates are right, he was about ten times closer than he should have been.

He took the first bear shots with a wide angle. Then he zoomed in. The last five or so pictures, taken in a span of 13 seconds, are a bit different. The bear lifts its head up, looking away from the camera. Then the bear turns its attention to the photographer. It starts moving in White's direction.

"There were no shots indicative of a charge," Webster said. But the bear did appear agitated in the last couple of photographs, taken just after 1:06 p.m. It had "a definite, focused stare."

FIRST SHOTS MISS

Park officials are evaluating whether they can, and whether they should, release the photos to the public, Fister said.

Friday afternoon, three hikers on a day trip found White's backpack and evidence of a struggle, including blood and torn clothing. They returned to the Toklat River Rest Area and called park rangers about 5:30 p.m.

By 8:30 p.m. Friday, a helicopter had deposited rangers next to a gravel bar near the braided river's edges. As the helicopter hovered, a bear ran into the brush. Rangers spotted the body in a food cache site, where the bear had buried it, Fister said.

The bear began circling around the rangers. They fired two rifle shots but missed. With darkness closing in, and the bear guarding its cache, the situation had become too dangerous, Fister said. The rangers were able to get back on the helicopter and leave for the night. They returned on Saturday afternoon with wildlife troopers, Fister said. A trooper shot and killed the bear from the helicopter, Webster said.

It's uncertain whether there was one bear or two in the vicinity on Friday evening, Webster. On Saturday, they saw a total of four bears in an area of several miles around the body. But only one was sitting on its cache, the buried body. The bear had fed on the hiker, Fister said.

The bear was estimated at 600 pounds, big for Denali. It was a mature boar, at least 5 years old.

Rangers don't have any evidence that any other bears tried to feed on the hiker.

The park service has a bear-human conflict management plan that calls for destroying bears in situations where they become a threat to people. Sometimes bear attacks can be explained as natural acts: A bear surprised in thick brush. A sow defending her cubs. A bear guarding a dead moose calf cache. Often, a bear runs off after a mauling and there may be no reason to hunt it down or even a way to be sure the right one is found.

For unknown reasons, this bear turned predator, Webster said.

As a precaution, rangers have closed about an area of about 125 square miles around the kill site. They'll monitor the area for a couple of days to make sure no other bears appear to be unusually threatening.

Reach Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.


By LISA DEMER
Anchorage Daily News