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Echoes of Treadwell from Colorado author hiking along Russian River

Craig Medred

A Colorado author, who describes himself as a former wilderness ranger and firefighter, is concerned about how people use the Russian River, one of Alaska’s most popular salmon-fishing streams.

"During my days of hiking throughout Southcentral Alaska,'' Kim Fenske writes for the Summit County Citizens Voice, "I observed both wildlife and visitors. I was bewildered by noisy groups bearing bells, beer, reels, pepper, tripods, ice chests, Dutch ovens, and guns. At my meet-ups, the people penetrating the wilds caused me far more trepidation than all of the other creatures in the forest."

And why exactly was Fenske concerned about these people?

Because apparently they were interfering with his stated goal "to find the coastal brown bears and live among them during the great salmon runs of summer.'' This is, of course, the very thing for which Californian Timothy Treadwell became semi-famous in 2001, when he landed a guest slot on "The Late Show with David Letterman'' as a bear whisperer. Treadwell was on TV to talk about living among Alaska grizzly bears on the Katmai coast of Southwest Alaska.

"Is it gonna happen that, that one day we read a news article about you being eaten by one of these bears,'' Letterman asked. "No,'' Treadwell replied.

Two years later, Treadwell became forever famous after being killed and largely eaten by grizzly bear along with companion Amie Huguenard. The two had lingered in Katmai National Park and Preserve into October, when bears on the verge of hibernation are not quite as tolerant of humans as in summer, when they are fat and well fed on salmon. Some later blamed their deaths on hyperphagia -- a period of compulsive consumption just before bears den for winter.

But the reality is no one really knows why they were killed. Most bears don't attack and kill humans, let alone eat them. However, the do sometimes attack. San Diego backpacker Richard White was killed and partially eaten by a grizzly in Denali National Park and Preserve just this August. Some have suggested that happened because he paused to photograph the bear, although there is no way of knowing whether that had anything to do with the attack.

Another Treadwell?

Bear attacks on humans are rare, and it is rare in the extreme for bears to go after people as if they were prey. Nonetheless, that is what happened with White, Treadwell and Huguenard. One of the great concerns of land managers in Alaska everywhere is that another Treadwell wannabe will visit their slice of the Alaska backcountry. Treadwell was what the Associated Press called "an amateur bear expert," which was one way of defining an unsuccessful California actor who spent 13 lucky summers hanging out with Alaska bears before he was killed.

After his death, Treadwell turned out to be a colorful character with a largely made-up past. No one has ever really determined why he spent all those years uncomfortable in a small tent on the remote Katmai coast trying to make friends with bears. He touched, petted and even kissed some. After his death, actual bear experts said it was probably a miracle he didn't get killed or seriously injured sooner.

Alaska grizzlies obviously hold some strange attraction for those living Outside. Fenske is clearly a fan, even though he apparently knows even less about bears than Treadwell did. Here is how he describes an encounter with a foreign camper near Lost Lake on the Kenai Peninsula:

Moose or bear scat?

"'Moose,' he said in the broken English of northern Europe, then pointed with his nose down toward a deep pile of warm, green scat after I scanned the sky for antlers.  I moved quietly back to my camp, without the disposition to reply with the correct identifier, 'Bear. Big bear.'"

The misidentification of moose poop as bear scat is such a common mistake in the 49th state the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has been moved to write about it in detail. In summer, when moose eat soft, green vegetation, they seldom produce the hard, lumpy moose nuggets with which the big animals are associated. Fresh grass and new-growth leaves, wrote the Fish and Game's Elizabeth Manning "are more digestible and contain more water. As a result, moose feces range from completely loose to a cow-patty look to large, lumpy turds."

They tend toward green, too, because moose eat greens. Bear scat on the Kenai in the summer tends toward black or dark brown, because the bears are eating primarily salmon and berries. The individual from "northern Europe'' likely had the identification right. That would not be surprising. Scandinavia, a region in Northern Europe, is full of moose, and someone from that area would likely recognize moose scat.

A one-time Forest Service ranger from Colorado, which has few moose, might not. But Fenske did find the bears he sought at the Russian River.

"Notes in the trailhead registry indicated that a female brown bear with two cubs bluff-charged several hikers within minutes of my passage,'' he wrote. "As I hiked along broken pathways beside steep banks (a description of the Russian River canyon), I found fresh grizzly scat and trees scratched with massive paws. When I found the sow leading her cubs downstream, I walked with them for more than a mile and watched them grazing, playing, and scavenging for salmon."

His post includes photos of a family of grizzly bears taken at what appears to be close range. Chugach National Forest officials, who manage the Russian River, specifically warn against approaching bears in order to obtain such photographs.

"We'd like to see people respecting wildlife,'' said Bobbi Jo Skibo, the Forest Service's multi-agency coordinator for Russian management. She noted the Russian has in recent years attracted increasing numbers of people looking to see bears, and it is causing some concern.

"We are looking at further education efforts,'' she said. "We really want it to be a safe experience.''

Fenske's bear photos appear to have been taken from one bank of the river directly across from where bears stood on the other. That is a distance of 50 to 60 feet. National Park Service officials earlier this year suggested White, the dead backpacker at Denali, was taking an extreme risk when he stopped to photograph a bear at 60 yards -- three times the distance.

Denali bears are inherently more aggressive than Russian River bears because they lack access to a bountiful supply of salmon. But Russian bears have been known to cause problems. The Russian campground was closed to tent camping in August because of fears an aggressive bear might attack someone in a tent there.

And bear authorities point out that just because a sow grizzly bluff charged someone one time doesn't mean all of her charges will be bluffs. The next charge could be for real, and when that happens the consequences can be horrific. A grizzly bear attacked angler Dan Bigley along the Russian River in 2003 and ripped off his face with its jaws. It was a miracle Bigley survived. He was, however, left blind.

Wes Perkins from Nome suffered a similar injury when a bear attacked him in the spring of 2011. Perkins was left with sight in one eye, but has had to undergo 26 surgeries as doctors continue efforts to repair his face and airway. It is attacks like those on Perkins and Bigley -- not to mention the deaths of others like White, Treadwell and Huguenard -- that lead Alaska bear authorities to advise people to give the animals a wide berth and not walk "with them for more than a mile.''

Advice from Alaska Fish and Game on "Living with Bears" can be found here. Fenske's story offered no hint on whether he plans to return to Alaska. 

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com