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Bear attacks bicyclist on Anchorage trail

Megan Holland
Fish and Game spokesman Rick Sinnott wants to close Rover's Run again.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News
Bicycle commuter Sean Berkey, 45, was attacked by a brown bear near the intersection of the Gasline Trail and Rover's Run by a bridge over South Fork Campbell Creek on Tuesday morning in Far North Bicentennial Park.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News

An Anchorage man commuting to work on his bicycle was attacked by a brown bear in Far North Bicentennial Park on Tuesday morning.

Sean Berkey, 45, was clawed and possibly bitten but was not severely injured by the bear, which was likely protecting its cub, according to the state Department of Fish and Game.

He was able to bike about three miles to the Alaska Native Medical Center on Tudor Road for treatment, said Fish and Game spokesman Rick Sinnott.

The attack occurred on Rover's Run, a two-mile stretch of trail along the South Fork Campbell Creek that has become a source of tension between state biologists and the city, which manages the park. The state wants it shut down for the summer, but the city has resisted.

"It's up to the people who use these areas to use good judgment," said Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan. "We don't close down our facilities because we happen to live in an area that has some potential dangers."

Berkey was on his regular commute through the park from his Hillside home to the medical center, where he is a pediatric pharmacist, when the attack happened at 5:30 a.m. beside the creek. The site was about 100 yards from where a severe bear mauling of a teenage bicyclist occurred in 2008.

The bear, the cub and Berkey encountered one other unexpectedly and very quickly, Sinnott said. "It sounds like it was a classic brown bear defensive attack."

The bicyclist was speeding along the trail, turned a corner and spotted the bear on the path less than 20 yards away, Sinnott said. Berkey braked quickly and tried to put his bicycle between him and bear, but she still got to him.

"She saw him coming right at her and attacked him," Sinnott said.

The bear tore Berkey's ear and clawed at him, causing puncture wounds to his calf. "She slapped him several times, maybe bit him, kind of rolled him around a little bit," Sinnott said.

The bear backed off and Berkey waited a moment, then lifted his head to see if she was still there. She was. She became agitated again and Berkey put his head down again and played dead again, Sinnott said. He then waited several minutes before getting on his bike, making sure the bear was gone.

"He did everything he was supposed to do right," Sinnott said of Berkey, who tried to cover himself and play dead.

Berkey could not be reached.

Sinnott said Fish and Game has no plans to go after the bear because it was not acting aggressively.

Sinnott said he is examining Berkey's bike, clothes, backpack and helmet, hoping to find a bear hair sample to get a genetic identification on the bear if it shows up again.

CONTROVERSIAL TRAIL

Rover's Run has been the subject of many back and forth conversations between state biologists and the park's city managers, Sinnott said. Fish and Game this winter advised the city to close the trail during the summer, Sinnott said.

But Sullivan doesn't want to. If a person drowns in a lake, the lake doesn't get shut down, he said. If a person slips on a mountain, the mountain doesn't get shut down, he said. "We live in an area with great recreational opportunities but also each of those opportunities has an inherent danger in it."

"In our environment, you go prepared. If you don't go prepared, you have to look at yourself a little bit as part of the problem," Sullivan said.

Rover's Run was a game trail 20 years ago before skiers turned it into a recreational trail, Sinnott said. It has long been a place where bears come down from the mountains and congregate for salmon heading up stream to spawn, he said.

In recent years, it has become popular with mountain bikers -- and that, Sinnott said, is a problem. Bikers coming around the trails in the winding woods can be traveling at good speed, easily startling a bear.

In 2008, 15-year-old Petra Davis was participating in a 24-hour bike race when she surprised a brown bear. She survived a severe mauling.

This is the first brown bear reported in Bicentennial Park this year, Sinnott said. She might be new to the park, having just come in from adjacent Chugach State Park looking for salmon, he said.

Sows with cubs are typically the most dangerous, he said.

After Tuesday's attack, Sinnott again said he strongly recommended shutting down Rover's Run again, but Sullivan had city workers post warning signs instead. They urge caution.

The federal Bureau of Land Management, which manages Campbell Tract in the park, including a sliver of Rover's Run, said it too was putting up warning signs. The park is some of the most beautiful wild land within the city and is enjoyed by many, said spokesman Douglas Ballou. "We don't want to discourage people from enjoying outdoor Alaska experiences," he said. "We want to encourage people to become educated to the wonders and dangers."

It has been a relatively slow year for bear sightings in Anchorage, Sinnott said. Most of the reports have been black bears, he said. But the brown bears, a little more shy, are definitely here. He estimates a few dozen roam Far North Bicentennial Park.

Sullivan said he would probably be armed if he was on Rover's Run. Asked what kind of gun he would carry, he said, "A big one."

Find Megan Holland online at adn.com/contact/mholland or call 257-4343.


By MEGAN HOLLAND
mholland@adn.com