Alaska's original grizzly-wrangling scientist dead at 89

Alaska's original grizzly bear wrangler -- the wildlife biologist who pioneered the live capture and tagging of Kodiak's famous brown bears -- died Sunday at his home in Cooper Landing on the Kenai Peninsula.

Over the years, biologist Will Troyer got up close and personal with more big bears than most people will ever see and lived unscathed to the ripe old age of 89. He died from complications related to surgery for colon cancer.

Until this summer, Troyer was among the fittest of octogenarians in the state, a man for whom it remained second nature to lace up boots and go for a long hike.

"I think this was the first fall he didn't go grouse hunting,'' said his son, Eric.

Wife LuRue, his companion of more than 50 years, said Monday that Will had been out picking blueberries just weeks ago when he came home to an empty house feeling ill. He called her Outside to say he was suffering serious gastrointestinal problems.

He was rushed to the hospital that night and was in surgery to have a tumor removed not long after.

"He was recovering from that quite nicely,'' she said, when he was hit by post-surgical ileus, which leaves the bowels paralyzed. Doctors investigating that problem found his colon was leaking from the earlier operation and rushed him back into surgery, LuRue said.

Will struggled. Time had finally caught up with one of the 49th state's true iron men.

"It was too much for his body to withstand,'' LuRue said. "He just faded very quickly.''

Cheating death

Cancer, the state's now No. 1 killer, finally claimed a man who'd cheated death at least three times before.

Once he went over a waterfall in a raft. Twice he went down in small planes. After one of the crashes, he had to be cut out of the wreckage.

"Three times in my life, I knew I was dead,'' he told a reporter in 2005. "I don't count the close calls I've had with bears.''

In 2005, Troyer published "Into Brown Bear Country,'' a book about his life with bears and one of several books he wrote over the years. It recounted some of the craziness of territorial Alaska.

Troyer was a 28-year-old newcomer to the north when the U.S. Department of the Interior named him to manage the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. His only real qualification was that he was one of the few college-trained wildlife professionals in the state at the time, and he had promised to go back to college to get his master's degree.

"I'd only been on one refuge in my life,'' he said.

On the Kodiak refuge, though, he made a big mark. The refuge was already famous for its oversized grizzly bears, but they had been little studied. Troyer changed all that beginning in 1955.

"That winter at our annual United States Fish and Wildlife Service meeting in Juneau, I announced my intent to capture Kodiak bears,'' he wrote in "Into Brown Bear Country.'' "The audience reacted with loud laughter.''

Young and determined -- some might say foolish -- Troyer was undeterred.

Early attempts at capturing bears did not go well. After luring one bear into a traditional culvert trap, Troyer and his assistants tried to subdue it with ether. What they discovered is that ether works better on people than bears.

"Unavoidably, we inhaled some of the fumes; if we weren't careful, we would be unconscious before the bear was. After we pumped ether steadily for 30 minutes, the brownie lay down and seemed subdued,'' Troyer remembered.

Troyer poked the bear with a stick. It didn't move. The culvert trap was opened.

"It was small,'' Troyer later wrote, "probably less than 300 pounds. I straddled the animal and placed over its head a bucket lined with ether-saturated cotton.''

The home-made gas mask was supposed to keep the bear unconscious while the men measured it and clipped on ear tags that would make future identification possible. But the mask didn't work so well.

"As the ether dissipated,'' Troyer wrote, "the bear attempted to stand upright before we had finished. I yelled for more ether as I struggled to remain astride the bear -- cowboy fashion -- while at the same time holding the bucket over its muzzle.''

Troyer eventually decided it best to jump off. The bear got up and staggered away. The biologists hadn't been able weigh it, but they did tag it. About 200 more bears would eventually be tagged, though the work just got crazier as Troyer and his gang tried to find a more efficient means of capture than the culvert trap.

Changing the plan

They eventually took to catching bears in leg-hold traps.

"The first few bears we captured (that way) were young subadults in the 200- to 350-pound range," he wrote. "We managed to lasso these animals, tie them down ... and anesthetize them by placing a bucket with ether over their heads. We barely avoided being bitten on two occasions, but we did successfully process several bears as well as gain confidence and experience."

That worked OK until they caught a cub. Troyer recalled he heard it bawling even before he got to the trap site on Salmon Creek. He sneaked in closer for a better look.

"I spotted a cub struggling in the trap as the sow and another cub milled around," he writes. "I could tell the sow was agitated. She was slobbering, snapping her jaws and constantly changing direction, on guard for any intruder. 'What are we going to do now?'" he wondered.

The sow determined that. She heard the men and went for them.

"We did not have time to think, only react," Troyer wrote. "Raising the rifle, I fired into a small stream directly in front of her, some 40 yards away. I did not wait to see her response, but whirled and ran for a cottonwood tree. Earl (Fleming) and Ken (Durley) were already climbing nearby trees. I grabbed for a branch, trying to propel myself up, but my feet repeatedly slid along the bark. ... Any second I expected to feel her bite into my leg."

She never did, returning instead to her cub.

The men were left shaken, but felt a responsibility to free the cub. They managed to drive off the sow, subdue the young bear, gather their data and release it.

"We were elated," Troyer wrote. "Luck and grit played a big part in our first successful efforts."

'He lived a pretty big life'

Eventually he'd come to look on those Kodiak years as just slightly crazy, though he confessed during that 2005 interview that he was more nervous guiding tourists around the coastal brown bears at Katmai National Park and Preserve than he'd ever been working around the animals on Kodiak.

The short stint as a bear-viewing guide came after he retired from the National Park Service, an Interior Department companion agency to Fish and Wildlife. Troyer first went to work for the agency at Katmai in 1974. He retired in 1981, but remained active writing, consulting and observing; always observing. His love for the sights and sounds of the natural world never waned.

"He lived a pretty big life,'' Eric said.

He spent the end of it in the log house he so loved above the Kenai River where the grizzlies still come to fish. His last night was given to listening to bird songs with Peninsula friends.

"We set the bed up by the window,'' LuRue said. The family -- LuRue, Eric and daughters Janice and Teresa -- stayed by his side until the end.

"We shed a lot of tears,'' LuRue said, "but it's been a life well lived.''

"I've been out mountain biking and running on the trails here (in Cooper Landing),'' Eric said Monday afternoon by phone as a warm, September sun smiled down on the Peninsula. "I get sad thinking he's gone for good, but then I think of what a long, good life he lived.''

And what a legacy he left.

As the one-time manager of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge -- then the "Kenai Moose Range'' -- Troyer helped put in a lot of the trails in the Cooper Landing area. Eric laughed at what the response would be today to a refuge manager spending his time out with a chainsaw cutting trails instead of pushing paper in an office.

The Big Wild Life is now something for Alaska advertising campaigns, but for Will Troyer, it was what he lived.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

Craig Medred

Craig Medred is a former writer for the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch and Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2015.