After more than five decades in Alaska with a fair share of that time spent in the wilderness, Anchorage's Tom Corbin expected the last place a bear would give him a scare would be on the ski trails of Alaska's largest city.
Then again, the one-time top-10 finisher in the now-fabled Crow Pass Crossing wilderness footrace probably never thought the scare would come from a "black" bear that wasn't a "black bear," either.
Welcome to the Big Wild Life, as the Anchorage Convention & Visitors Bureau promotes it.
On Thursday, Corbin was speedwalking with ski poles on the Besh Loop near Service High School on the Anchorage Hillside. This is something the 66-year-old former competitive athlete does to stay in shape.
The wide, open and generally smooth trails of Hillside Park, originally designed for Nordic skate skiing, are great for walking in summer. The trails roll up and down through the Chugach Mountain foothills, and the city seems far away. The din of urbanization disappears, replaced by chirping birds and chattering squirrels. The air smells like spruce.
Aside from other runners, walkers or the occasional mountain biker speeding around the trails, there aren't many people at midday.
It was at about 2 p.m., Corbin said, "I heard something large in behind (the) brush at five yards, and then a very large black bear came crashing out with eyes fixed on me. Like car wrecks, things went into slow motion.
"I carry bear spray on my right hip and frequently practice drawing for muscle memory."
He did not draw it. He's unsure exactly why that is. Maybe there was some reaction to that initial thought of "black bear." Runners in Alaska come to think of black bears as animals they can handle with a stick or some rocks.
It is not uncommon for a significant number of the runners in the Crow Pass Crossing to run into black bears during the late July running of that race in Chugach State Park.
"Usually, they just seem like overgrown dogs," Corbin said.
The bear on the Besh Loop most decidedly did not look like an overgrown dog.
"This one had a head that seemed like a brown," he said. "This was the biggest black bear I have ever met."
And that's because it wasn't a member of the species Ursus Americanus, the common black bear, but a member of the species Ursus arctos horribilis, a species so-named for the havoc it can wreak. What Corbin had encountered was a black-colored grizzly -- or brown bear, as grizzlies are sometimes called in the 49th state.
Brown or black bear?
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game sometimes lumps the names together as the brown/grizzly bear or uses the descriptions brown and grizzly interchangeably. This presents a problem for the layman trying to identify bears, given that some grizzlies are black.
The black-color phase is fairly common on the Kenai Peninsula, according to state biologists who've studied bears in that region. And there is now at least one black-colored grizzly that has been seen regularly in various places across the Anchorage Hillside in recent weeks.
It is important for people to recognize the difference between the bears because they behave differently.
Black bears are generally placid animals that rarely attack people in Alaska, but when they do, the attacks are often predatory. This is why the National Park Service specifically advises against playing dead if you are attacked by a black bear.
Grizzlies are different. They are on the one hand more volatile, but it is often possible to survive by playing dead.
There are usually several grizzly attacks in Alaska every summer. A runner at Joint Base Elemendorf-Richardson on the outskirts of Anchorage became the first to be attacked this year. She played dead, survived and is now recovering from being mauled in late May.
Most victims of bear attacks survive, and most bear encounters -- even with grizzlies -- end without an attack. Mainly, they’re just terrifying.
"Even with all my bear encounters, the one today seemed surreal," Corbin said. "I'm still kind of stunned. I have never seen a black with a head that BIG. It was either the biggest black ever, or a brown that is actually black."
After he was emailed a photo of the black grizzly on the Hillside, Corbin reported a couple days later that it "looked just like this one. Notice how black this one is ... this was the blackest one ever.
"From what happened, I must have surprised it sleeping right by the trail in the middle of the day. Big crash, then it came and stopped. Could have been all over just like that. (It) just exploded out of the brush."
So what did Corbin do?
"I just looked right at it as it came and kept walking," he said. "It charged up to within a little over an arm's length and then actually stopped. All the while I just kept moving at the same pace, purposely and looking as confident as I could right at it. Unbelievably, it stayed put as I continued on.
'Good day for an ol' cripple'
"And, no, I am not feeling cocky, just lucky. As they say in tiger country, 'You don't get away...they just let you get away.’
"Sometimes we panic; sometimes we don't. Today was a good day for an ol' cripple."
Staring down bears is generally not recommended, but Corbin noted he was wearing dark sunglasses and the bear might not have been able to tell where he was looking. And though the general advice from experts on dealing with bears in close encounters is to stop and stand your ground, Corbin may have escaped unharmed by simply doing the predictable.
As Alaska Fish and Game notes in its information on bear safety, "Bears Don't Like Surprises!", Corbin's walking past a bear might have been a pretty normal thing for a bear used to living in and around Anchorage. When Fish and Game biologist Sean Farley studied grizzly bears in the Anchorage area he found they regularly spent time resting near local trails.
Still, the suggested advice if you meet a bear in the city -- be it black, brown or a black brown -- is this:
"Talk to the bear in a normal voice. Wave your arms. Help the bear recognize you ... It may come closer or stand on its hind legs to get a better look or smell. A standing bear is usually curious, not threatening. You may try to back away slowly diagonally, but if the bear follows, stop and hold your ground.
"Don't run. You can't outrun a bear. They have been clocked at speeds up to 35 mph, and like dogs, they will chase fleeing animals. Bears often make bluff charges, sometimes to within 10 feet of their adversary, without making contact. Continue waving your arms and talking to the bear. If the bear gets too close, raise your voice and be more aggressive."
And if you are carrying bear spray, it’s always a good idea to get ready to use it. Had Corbin been carrying spray in his hand here -- it can be carried like a baton when hiking or running -- he might have had enough time to use it. And at the end of the day, using bear spray is not only good for people, it’s good for the bears.
It teaches them that if they wake up because of the sound of a human coming on a trail, it is a good idea to head away from the trail instead of on to it. That could save the life of a bear, a number of which are shot by Fish and Game in Anchorage every year because they become too accustomed to being around people and are judged threats to public safety.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com