A grizzly bear dragged a woman out of her tent Thursday and mauled her in a remote corner of Gates of the Arctic National Park in far north Alaska, according to the National Park Service.
The woman was saved by companions camped with her in the seldom-visited Okokmilaga River drainage in the Brooks Range. Park Service spokesman John Quinley said they shouted at the bear and used pepper spray to drive it off.
The woman, who has yet to be identified, was seriously injured, Quinley said, but her injuries were not life threatening. She was evacuated to Coldfoot, a remote truck stop along the desolate Dalton Highway between Fairbanks and Prudhoe Bay.
An Alyeska Pipeline Services Co. helicopter, normally used to monitor the oil pipeline, was expected to pick her up there and ferry her to a hospital in Fairbanks, Quinley said.
The area in which the attack happened is remote even by Alaska standards, he added.
"It's a pretty rarely used area,'' Quinley said. "We're talking maybe once per year."
Gates of the Arctic park superintendent Greg Dudgeon has ordered the area temporarily closed, but that is more a formality than anything else.
"We don't think we're displacing anybody," Quinley said. "This group was scheduled to come out today, and Coyote Air knew of no one going in."
Coyote Air is a Coldfoot-based air taxi servicing Gates of the Arctic and the Brooks Range. The area has seen an upward blip in the growth of tourism in recent years as debate over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has sparked interest in the Porcupine and Arctic caribou herds.
The refuge and the park are split by the pipeline corridor. Quinley did not know if the woman was with a guided group, but she was a member of a seven-person party.
They were camped and asleep when the bear arrived in camp. It apparently first entered a "food tent," Quinley said.
"It destroyed a water jug," he said, and tried to get into the group's food, but couldn't.
"It was in bear barrels,'' Quinley said. The Park Service requires those to be used by backpackers in Denali National Park and suggests their use elsewhere to try to keep bears from becoming habituated to human food.
In this case, Quinley said, it appears that when the bear couldn't break into the bear barrels it decided to see what it could find in the next tent and attacked the woman inside. Her screaming apparently awoke others.
Park personnel had yet to interview the woman or those with her.
But early reports were that the bear was an adolescent grizzly.
Such bears will often approach to investigate the relatively few humans who visit the remote wilderness of the Brooks Range on the very northern edge of Alaska, but attacks are rare.
Quinley said the last he could remember was a fatal attack along the Noatak River more than 10 years ago. In that case, two men hiked into willows thick with bear sign. One stumbled onto a bear, which then attacked. He died. His partner, however, escaped.
Bears attacks in camps have happened in the past, however. Three years ago, Anchorage attorney Richard Huffman and his wife, Katherine, a retired teacher, were attacked in their tent and killed by a grizzly along the Hula Hula River in ANWR. The Hula Hula is about 200 miles to the east of the Okokmilaga. Both rivers are 900 to 1,000 miles north of Anchorage and 500 to 600 miles north of Fairbanks.
The community nearest the attack is Anaktuvuk Pass, a village of about 250 inland Inupiat who survive by trapping and hunting caribou. The area is so far from anything that even the Park Service finds access difficult.
"We've got a helicopter scheduled so we can go to the campsite (today)," Quinley said.
He was hopeful the weather would permit that, though rangers were reportedly skeptical they would find much at the campsite.
"We're not really sure it's worth going in,'' Quinley said. Rangers doubted the bear would still be in the area.
"It got scared off," Quinley said, "and it didn't come back."
Given the huge home ranges of Brooks Range bears, the animal could be 50 miles or more from the campsite in a day's time. And even if rangers fly back to the area and do manage to spot a bear, there's really no way of telling if it was the bear involved in the attack.
"Who knows what bear you're even looking at,'' Quinley said.
Find Craig Medred online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.
By CRAIG MEDRED