A man hiking on a popular Turnagain Arm trail near the Seward Highway killed a charging brown bear with a semi-automatic AK-74 rifle Sunday, prompting Chugach State Park rangers to close a section of the trail.
The hiker, who has not been identified by Alaska State Troopers, had set out from the Rainbow trail head at Milepost 108 of the highway Sunday morning, said Tom Crockett, a park ranger. He was near the first Turnagain Arm viewpoint, about a half-mile up the trail toward McHugh Creek, when he spotted the bear. It was on the edge of a birch and spruce forest with abundant blueberries and serviceberries.
“The bear presented its rear end to him,” Crockett said.
The man called, “Hey, bear,” hoping not to startle the animal, he said.
The bear turned and charged, the hiker later told rangers.
The man fired the AK-74 he was carrying, Crockett said. The bear stopped after the first volley of shots, and then charged again.
The man fired once more, Crockett said.
That time the bear folded into a ball, rolling and running downhill and thudding to a stop in a clump of birch trees about 100 yards from the trail.
“There it expired,” Crockett said.
The man called 911 and asked for help.
Crockett and an Alaska State Trooper who responded found the man in the same spot on the trail where he encountered the bear. He wasn’t willing to walk out alone.
“He told me he’s never been so scared in his life,” he said.
Crockett estimated the bear weighed 500 to 600 pounds. The animal bore marks of an eventful life: He had a “big hulking” scar running over the top of his head, likely from a tussle with another bear.
“It was sad to see him go because he was a beautiful specimen,” he said.
It’s not unusual for people recreating in the Chugach to arm themselves with guns for bear encounters, Crockett said. But the gun used in Sunday’s encounter isn’t a typical choice for bear defense.
The AK-74 rifle is an updated version of its cousin, the better-known AK-47 assault weapon. It fires a smaller caliber round than the AK-47 and remains popular in the countries of the former Soviet Union, where it was produced in the 1970s.
“Most people carry something larger caliber,” he said.
It’s legal to carry a gun in Chugach State Park, but guns can only be discharged in defense of life and property or legal hunting.
Crockett says he believes Sunday’s incident met the defense criteria.
The bear’s head and hide were removed and turned in to Alaska Department of Fish and Game for sealing and confiscation, said area wildlife biologist Jessy Coltrane. That’s legally required in incidents of defense of life and property.
The rest of the carcass is still at the spot where the bear was killed, Crockett said. It would have been impractical to remove because of the terrain.
“It’s a heck of a lot of bear to haul out,” he said.
Crockett said he has been fielding calls from residents of Rainbow Valley, who heard the semi-automatic gunfire coming from the trail. Some have raised concerns about the carcass remaining near the trail. Bears protecting a food cache like the carcass can be especially defensive and dangerous.
Bear sightings are reported each summer all over the Turnagain Arm trail.
Crockett said he’d heard a report of a sow and cubs a few miles away on a section of the trail near Windy Corner Monday.
People should hike in groups, make noise and be aware of their surroundings, Coltrane said. “Surprising a bear is usually the worst thing you can do.”
Bear spray can be an effective deterrent.
This is the second time a brown bear has been killed in defense of life and property in the Anchorage area this summer, Coltrane said. A brown bear was killed in Chugiak earlier.
The trail remained closed Monday afternoon. A yellow sign warning of hikers of the presence of a bear carcass was posted near the trail head.
The carcass near the trail will attract other bears, Crockett said.
“This guy is going to get recycled by nature,” he said.
People should stay away.
“My fingers are going to be crossed that a trail runner doesn’t just blow through the warning signs, thinking, 'Oh, it’ll be OK this time,’ ” he said.
Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at email@example.com or 257-4344.
By MICHELLE THERIAULT BOOTS