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How to avoid an Alaska bear attack

Craig Medred
File photo: A sign warns campers of bear activity at the Eklutna Lake campground in Chugach State Park. June 14, 2013 Loren Holmes photo

Alaska’s first bear mauling of the year came just about on time, and since it involved a runner, prepare for the usual collection of experts to warn against running in the wilds.

Never mind that the first Alaskans often ran in the wilderness and survived, or that the data on bear maulings indicates that hunting -- not running -- is the most dangerous thing you can do in the woods.

Hunters sneak around in brush and forest. Sometimes they sneak up on bears. Surprise encounters with grizzly bears at close range are always dangerous. Take it from someone who shot a grizzly off his leg.

Yes, I was hunting at the time, which greatly increased the odds of a close-up encounter with a bear. It also meant I had a weapon with which to defend myself.

These days, the Anchorage area has a booming grizzly population. Typically, I meet bears while carrying only a container of bear spray. It's lighter and easier to pack than a firearm when running or mountain biking around the edges of the city.

Mountain biking is another thing some of those bear "experts'' frown upon.

Some would seem to prefer everyone stay home and only visit the wilds on supervised outings. But if you think staying in the city or only using "developed'' Anchorage recreation areas is safe, think again.

Hillside Park has been the site of several maulings, and it's only on a matter of time before one happens at Kincaid Park. Grizzlies are less common at Kincaid, which abuts Ted Stevens International Airport, than at Hillside, which abuts Chugach State Park, but they do show up there.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Sean Farley, working on a contract with the U.S. military in 2008, tracked radio-collared grizzlies all over Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, throughout Chugach State Park, and into all parts of Anchorage proper. The bears appear to use some popular greenbelts as travel corridors.

Think you're safe running or riding your bike on the nice, paved trail along Campbell Creek? Think again.

So what can you do?

Well, you could stay in the house. Or you could simply recognize that bear attacks, even in Anchorage, are rare and the victims usually survive. I'm a testament to that.

And then you could become bear aware:

•  Take the ear buds out of your ears when you're on the trails so you can hear.

•  Pay attention to the woods around you. The best way to avoid a bear attack is to spot the bear before it spots you and detour around it.

•  Learn what bear sign looks like. Bears crap in the woods. If there's a lot of it around, you may have entered an area with bears. That should heighten your awareness.

•  Make noise. The bears aren't looking for trouble. The one that attacked on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson this weekend appears to have been a sow grizzly with cubs doing what sow grizzlies do when surprised -- neutralize the threat. Noise warns these bears people are coming and gives them a chance to get out of the way.

•  Recreate in groups. Bear attacks on groups of people are extremely rare.

•  Carry bear spray and know how to use it. It's been proven effective, and it works well if you're attacked by a vicious dog, too.

Personally, I've only had two grizzly bear encounters so far this spring. In both cases, the bears took off over the mountains before we even got close. Last year was more interesting.

There was the day the dog and I jogged into a bear huffing and stomping its feet in the alders, though I never saw it. We detoured out of there nervously, went up an old road, emerged onto a more-heavily traveled gravel road, and looked downhill to see a grizzly sow and cub walk out of the brush.

We backed up the road to a vantage point and watched them cross the road and disappear up a ridge. We waited awhile and started toward home only to walk smack into a juvenile grizzly out on his own.

He backed us up the road for half a mile. He'd approach. I'd yell and wave my arms. He'd stop, swing his head from side-to-side, and I'd try to take a couple steps back to increase the separation distance. His response was to follow.

This went on for quite some time. I thought about pepper spraying him, but with so many bears in the area I wanted to save the pepper spray in case there was a real need. So we danced until he finally did get bored.

This is how most bear encounters in Alaska eventually end. The bear goes one way. The human or humans go the other. No one is harmed.

Not that grizzlies are to be taken lightly. One ridge over from where I live, a grizzly bear in 1995 killed 77-year-old Marcie Trent, one of Alaska's best known runners, and her son-in-law, 45-year-old Larry Waldron. They were on a hike on a trail that runs from the McHugh Creek picnic area just outside of Anchorage to McHugh Lake when they stumbled into a grizzly on a moose kill.

That is the most dangerous kind of encounter. Bears will aggressively defend their food source. This one attacked and killed both Waldron and Trent. Trent's grandson, Art Abel, was lucky to survive by climbing a tree.

This attack might have turned out differently if Waldron or Trent had carried bear spray, but practically nobody did that in the mid-1990s. Counter Assault, though available at some stores at the time, didn't become the first bear spray to win approval of the Environmental Protection Agency until 1998.

That and other brands are readily available now. If you hike, run, bike or otherwise get out in Alaska, it might be a good idea to get a can.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.