Kass Smiley was watering flowers near the intersection of I Street and West 13th Avenue in Anchorage's South Addition neighborhood around 11:30 a.m. Tuesday when a bear with dark brown fur raced by, headed north.
Not long after that, a woman started yelling, prompting Saxton Shearer to look out his office window. At first, he thought he saw two dogs galloping across the dandelion-spotted Delaney Park Strip. Wait. No. It was a dog chasing a bear. The animals sprinted toward H Street.
"I ran down the hall of the office, yelling at everybody in their cubicles," Shearer said. He wanted everyone else to see what he just had.
Soon after, a few blocks away, Dave Nicolai saw something out of the corner of his eye. At first, he also thought he had caught a glimpse of a loose dog. Then, he noticed the animal's brown-colored nub of a tail as it ran through the parking lot.
"I called out to my co-workers, 'Bear! Bear! Bear!'" Nicolai recounted. "Everyone popped up like gophers and looked out the window."
A small bear Downtown Anchorage Running through yards in trafficPosted by T. Frank Box on Tuesday, June 12, 2018
The elusive bear snaked through a busy downtown Anchorage. It stopped traffic. By then, a dog no longer pursued it. Down the street, Nicolai saw people gathering outside of the Robert B. Atwood Building, holding up cell phones to get a photo of the animal, like paparazzi. Meanwhile, a woman drove around South Addition, her car window rolled down, warning those she passed. "Ma'am, stay alert!" she called out. "There's a bear in the area."
Sure, moose amble around Anchorage's city center. But a bear? That's a bit more unusual for this part of town. In fact, Cory Stantorf, assistant Anchorage area wildlife biologist, called it "extremely rare."
"We've had a moose sit in our little rock garden we have out here," said Nicolai, who works near F Street and West Eighth Avenue. "But we've never seen any kind of bear — black bear or brown bear."
[Recalling Alaska's most notorious drunken moose, the street-smart Buzzwinkle]
Confusion also lingered Tuesday about what kind of bear people had actually spotted. It had brown-colored fur, but it also looked awfully small for a brown bear. In a Facebook message, Smiley wrote: "Looked like a black bear but it had dark brown fur." Nicolai thought it was a young brown bear, while Shearer described it as a small black bear.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game heard about a black bear. Police told the agency that the bear was near the Anchorage 5th Avenue Mall Tuesday afternoon, Stantorf said.
"When you hear the skybridge near J. C. Penney, you tend to take notice," Stantorf said. "Once the bear gets in there, it's a lot of noise, a lot of traffic, a lot of movement. Then they start running and not thinking."
Stantorf said the last time he remembered a bear stuck in downtown was in 2016. A black bear wandered around city streets, prompting a lockdown at Covenant House, a youth shelter. Police eventually closed several blocks as state biologists located and tranquilized the bear in Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery. They later released the animal outside of town.
[2 black bears killed in Eagle River after breaking into cars]
In 1991, a grizzly bear wound up in the area and didn't make it out alive. The bear had become a spectacle, with a growing crowd gathered around it, according to an Anchorage Daily News article from the time. Due to safety concerns, state biologists decided to shoot and kill the bear close to Chugach Optional Elementary School, just south of the Park Strip at West 12th Avenue and E Street.
On Tuesday afternoon, Stantorf and his colleague at Fish and Game drove through downtown in search of the running bear. They crisscrossed the area around the mall. They found no bear.
Based on photographs posted on social media, Stantorf said, the bear was a cinnamon phase black bear, which are unusual to see in Southcentral Alaska.
"It's just a different color variation of a black bear," Stantorf said. "They behave and act like the black bear people are used to seeing."
While Fish and Game long assumed some cinnamon phase black bears lived in the backcountry, Stantorf said, "this is the first year we've gotten multiple reports of different cinnamon bears" in Anchorage.
[Yawning and wandering: Black bear family spotted in Northeast Anchorage]
Without seeing the bear himself, Stantorf said, he didn't know if Fish and Game had gotten reports of that particular animal before.
He said it's likely the bear on Tuesday had followed a scent toward downtown and then realized it didn't like where it ended up.
"Most of the reports were of this bear running and trying to get out of there," he said.
By Tuesday evening, the whereabouts of the skittish bear that sprinted through downtown Anchorage remained unknown to Fish and Game. After the bear's brief, sunny afternoon in Alaska's big city, Stantorf hoped the bear had returned to the wilderness for good.
He also cautioned people: If you see a bear downtown or in your neighborhood, do not go near it. Take any photographs from afar.
"You cannot surround a bear," he said. "You always want to give it an exit."