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Anchorage cyclists get too close for comfort to brown bears

Jerzy Shedlock
A group of about 30 Anchorage bicyclists, many of them youngsters, got a scare when they came face to face with multiple brown bears on two trails in Bicentennial Park recently. The group escaped the encounters unscathed, but the danger remains. ADF&G photo

A group of about 30 Anchorage bicyclists, members of mountain biking program Mighty Bikes for kids 8 to 18, had a mighty scare when they came face to face with multiple brown bears on two trails in Bicentennial Park on Thursday evening. The group of youngsters on two-wheels, accompanied by Mighty Bikes coaches and parents, escaped the dangerous encounters unscathed.

Two separate groups ran into the bears on a couple of aptly named trails: Black Bear Trail and Brown Bear Trail. Mighty Bikes has been riding Bicentennial’s trails for 14 years, and the recent bear encounters are the first of their kind, for the program, said organizer and coach Janice Tower.

“We’ve seen bears from a distance, but we’ve never had this kind of activity so close and all at once,” Tower said.

She felt obligated to get the word out about the bears hanging around the trails. She ran into some troubles, like a lack of urgency from public safety with regards to the bears’ presence. From what members told Tower, there were six to seven bears spotted. That’s six to seven more than most Alaskans would like to face down, but whether or not there are more large beasts in the area, the answer is an unequivocal “maybe.” It may just be that more people are using the popular trail system, expanded in recent years, and are encountering the same number of bears. One thing is for certain, as urban as many Alaskans believe Anchorage to be, it’s still bear country.

Final ride of the season

It was Mighty Bikes members' final ride of the season, and the group began its climb up Anchorage’s Hillside at Robert Service High School. Thirty bicyclists split into three groups and headed out.

A few miles and a handful trailheads later, one group found itself on Black Bear Trail, where the riders met two brown bears, larger cousins of trail’s namesake. The brown bears were using the trail, as is common when king salmon swim upstream in Campbell Creek, whose south fork cuts through Bicentennial next to Rover’s Run trail.

Meanwhile, another group sped down Brown Bear Trail; the kids were making a lot of noise, partially with bear bells, Tower said. Mighty Bikes teaches its students bear country etiquette, and instructors carry bear spray.

A second and third group failed to scare a sow and two cubs away. They hightailed it back to Gasline trail, to an open area to gain their bearings and conduct a headcount.

“All of the groups got out of there as quickly as they could,” Tower said. “All the coaches were equipped with bear spray, and they had them in hand and were prepared to use it, so the response was very good. The kids were very calm, evidently.”

Out of harm’s way, the groups felt confident they had lost the bears. Tower said strength in numbers was the group’s mindset. But the sow, a protective mother, was following the group to its rendezvous point.

Twenty backyard bears

Bear encounters in Bicentennial Park are commonplace. Campbell Creek is one of the most productive salmon spawning streams in the Anchorage bowl. And salmon are a critical food source for brown bears who make their way to the park from as far away as Knik River and Bird Creek from June to October, Alaska’s short summer.

Rover’s Run, a portion of which runs parallel to Black Bear Trail, is currently a hotspot for bears, either grizzly or black. Officials in Anchorage are advising people to avoid what Travel & Leisure magazine called the world’s fifth scariest hike.

Sean Farley, a wildlife physiologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, conducted a study two years ago that examined bears’ diets. As part of the study, Fish and Game collared a number of bears to track their movements through the park.

Farley also collected bear fur left scattered down the park’s streams. His colleague at the U.S. Geological Survey determined the genotypes on all the samples to come up with a minimum number of bears in Bicentennial. The minimum was 20.

There are more bears than Anchorage residents take into account, Farley said. Running into a bear is a not a proper metric for figuring out how many bears there are, he said. “In the past we’ve had at least 20. Maybe there’s more using that area, but I have no indication that tells me there are more or less. It’s just a normal year.”

Campbell Creek gets a healthy dose of three different salmon species -- silvers, kings and reds -- during Anchorage’s summer months. After the Mighty Bikes bear encounter, another Fish and Game biologist told Tower the kings were plentiful this year. That could perhaps mean more bears, but the beastly migration occurs every year, Farley said.

“When the fish aren’t there, the bears wearing the collars are further away from the streams,” he said. “As the season progresses and fish start showing up, the daily average distance to a stream becomes less and less and less.”

Farley added that there are more users, more bike trails than in the past -- the one-mile Brown Bear Trail was completed in 2005. The Municipality of Anchorage has been examining the park’s needs for years, as the more than 100 miles of multi-use trails accommodate over one million visitors every year. With increases in trail use, “trail-user conflicts” continue to increase, according to the municipality.

A menacing sow

The final act in the Mighty Bikes bear encounter saga happened as the group met up in an open area on Gasline Trail.

Coaches and parents counted the kids. Everything seemed fine, but then the sow came out of the woods. Although group was large, the bear refused to back down. The kids, the youngest being eight, acted accordingly -- calm but worried, Tower said. One little girl who had just visited Denali National Park raised her arms in an effort to appear big.

The sow continued to act “menacingly” toward the group, so given their first opportunity, the cyclists biked back to Service High School, all unscathed.

Following the incident, Tower and others felt inclined to report the bear encounter. They were at a loss about how to warn people of the bears in the park. Alaska State Troopers told Tower there was little they could do unless someone had been mauled.

Anchorage Parks and Recreation eventually posted a warning for trail users on Facebook on Friday: “Brown bear sow with cubs seen on the evening of August 1, 2013, at the intersection of Brown Bear and Gasline trails. Sow followed a group of bikers and exhibited aggressive behavior. High numbers of bears are using this area because of salmon in Campbell Creek. Please avoid this area or proceed at your own risk.”

Tower said she almost posted signs around the trails herself. She also commented on the Facebook post, adding the sightings’ two trail locations.

But education rather than signage and reporting is more important, Farley argued. It’s simply bear country, he said. Those bears have likely moved on from those trails. But that doesn’t mean they’re not around. Humans prefer established paths over bush-whacking, and bears are the same, he said.

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com