You could sense it might go bad as soon as you heard they had packed rain ponchos instead of a tent for a two-to-three-day camping trip. Juan Duran -- a soldier from Houston, Texas, now stationed on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson -- might have made it over Crow Pass solo, but his wife Cindy and younger sister Dafne -- the other members of the party -- had never camped before.
The Crow Pass Trail is approximately 26 miles long with a 3,500-foot gain in elevation approaching from the Eagle River side. No one insisted on bringing a tent or mosquito netting, even though this has been one of the worst years for mosquitoes in a long time. None of them expected to run into a bear. The bears are what finally triggered the 911 call.
Doing it 'Army style'
Three days earlier Duran and his companions had left the Eagle River Nature Center, heading toward Girdwood. Other than several remote cabins and yurts, there are no facilities along the trail. Not even a phone booth. I mention phone booths because cell phone reception is almost nonexistent in the mountainous terrain. Hikers should be prepared to get themselves out of a variety of exigencies.
The hikers made it about halfway, fording Eagle River, by the second night. Then their water purifier broke. Duran also packed some iodine tincture for treating water, but that didn't seem to be a popular solution.
They started the long climb to the pass the next morning, meeting several runners and hikers who told them there was no water available in the pass, getting over it was going to be a grunt, and wondering why they had started from the more difficult side. According to Dafne, they were exhausted, mentally and physically. Instead of pressing on over Crow Pass -- the slightly shorter but steeper choice -- they performed an about-face, crossed Eagle River again and headed back the way they had come, spending their third night near Twin Falls.
Duran said his wife and sister had told him they wanted a genuine "Alaska experience." Duran didn't bring a tent because he wanted to demonstrate how to do it "Army style." He used one poncho for a ground cloth and suspended the other from trees. It rained the first night, but not hard. Duran said the mosquitoes weren't numerous at night, but the hikers eventually ran out of repellent trying to stave off the persistent pests.
A bear stands her ground
The next morning, not far from Dishwater Creek, the trio encountered three black bears. The first report was that it was a sow with cubs and the hikers had been charged. Black bear charges are as rare as hens' teeth, but first responders weren't on scene, so who knew? It was a 911 call.
Based on Duran's description later, the small bear was probably a yearling. It bolted up a tree. The mid-sized bear hightailed it into the woods. The largest bear stood up. This is not an aggressive posture; it merely means the bear was trying to get a better look. However, the hikers interpreted the move as aggression. Duran shot his Springfield XD handgun into the river to scare the bear. He later admitted he liked bears and didn't want to hurt this one, but he was also unwilling to shoot towards the bear in case other hikers were on the trail behind it. They then "power walked," in Dafne's words, about 100 yards back the way they had come. None of the bears followed them.
Turning bears into muggers
They hid behind a large boulder and called 911. The police dispatcher told them an officer was on the way and suggested they drop their packs to distract the bears with food.
Bad advice. Handing a bear your food turns it into a large, hairy mugger. They quickly learn that ambling towards people can earn them a reward. Authorities are often forced to shoot these bears because with each successful mugging they grow bolder.
After some debate, Duran threw the most attractive food, their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, into the river and dropped the packs with the rest of their food about 10 yards from the rock, in the bears' direction. Fortunately, none of the bears took the bait.
After 20 minutes, the hikers made another attempt to pass the obstinate bear, but it was lingering on the trail. When it saw them, the bear snarled and slapped the ground with its paws, bounding several steps towards the hikers. This is the classic signal whereby a black bear tells you you're too close. Vocalizing and hopping are not aggressive, they are defensive behaviors. The proper response is to back off, give the bear some room, and go about your business.
The hikers spent about 90 minutes behind the boulder, making several additional attempts to ascertain whether the bear was still on the trail.
Meanwhile, the police officer didn't make it past the nature center. Instead, a dispatcher called Keith Wilson, an off-duty park ranger. Wilson rustled up a four-wheeler and met up with Jessy Coltrane, the Anchorage area wildlife biologist, who was also called by dispatchers to deal with the situation. They headed down the trail not knowing exactly where the hikers were or which direction they were headed. Despite repeated attempts, no one was able to contact the hiker's cell phone for better information on their whereabouts or to determine their status.
Eventually, as they anticipated, Wilson and Coltrane encountered someone who had seen the hapless bunch. Gavin Kentch and a friend were "slow running/fast walking" the trail from the Girdwood end. They were making good time, crossing Crow Pass and covering the distance it took the three hikers 1-1/2 days to walk in less than six hours.
Rescued by runners
They had found the hikers huddled behind the large boulder. The runners volunteered to walk out with them, but after a mile without seeing bears, they resumed running. Everyone was doing fine, they reported. Coltrane and Wilson had already devoted four hours on an unnecessary rescue attempt, so they turned the four-wheeler around.
The hikers had no previous experience on the Crow Pass Trail. None of them expected to see a bear. All three were woefully ill-equipped to deal with bears in every way imaginable.
Later, Duran told Coltrane, "When we do maneuvers and we run into a bear, we all just yell and they run away." Exactly. That's one of the ways to minimize bear encounters: travel in groups and make noise. You don't need to be accompanied by a platoon of soldiers, however. Three knowledgeable hikers could have easily taken charge of the situation.
There seems to be two schools of thought when unprepared people encounter a black bear. One hypothesis is that all bears should run away from a human. The other hypothesis holds that all bears want to kill you. The reality is somewhere in between, although seeing the bear run over the mountain is far more likely than experiencing any kind of aggressive behavior. These hikers seemed to initially believe Hypothesis 1 would carry the day. When all the bears didn't run, the hikers downshifted to Hypothesis 2.
Never cry wolf
It's likely that the biggest bear was a sow and the smaller bears were her yearling cubs. Black bears, unlike grizzly bears, are no more dangerous with cubs than without. When threatened, the cubs run away or climb a tree and the sow typically backs off. She may huff and thump the ground with her forepaws if you get too close, but a serious charge is almost unheard of.
A .40 caliber handgun is not a reliable weapon for stopping a charging bear. The hikers didn't carry bear spray, which can be very useful in bear encounters, especially if the person carrying the gun doesn't want to hurt a bear. Bear spray hurts -- it stings eyes and the moist tissue in noses and throats -- but it isn't a permanent injury. In many cases, bear spray has proved more useful than a firearm.
The hikers made many mistakes, any one of which might have triggered an avalanche of troubles that could have resulted in a real emergency. But the final mistake they made was calling 911. They were not in any imminent danger, and they would have realized that if they had taken the time to be more prepared. By calling the universal emergency telephone number they "cried wolf," expecting officials to bail them out of a situation that happens a dozen or more times a day in the Anchorage area: the simple, although admittedly astonishing act of encountering a black bear on its own terms.
The Fish and Game website provides abundant advice on how to avoid problems with black bears and grizzlies. No one will be forced to join a hiking club or learn a secret handshake.
Duran may suffer some good-natured ribbing from members of his unit when they learn about his experience. We don't need to be too hard on him and his companions. It's likely that they've learned some lessons -- the hard way -- about venturing into the backcountry. I admire them for attempting to do it "Alaska style." Some people would have called 911 long before they encountered the bears. But I hope others can learn a lesson from their experience as well.
Patrolling the backcountry "Alaska style" means you don't call 911 until you are surrounded and taking heavy casualties.
Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org