New singletrack trails spell sudden encounters with bears

Last week the Municipality of Anchorage's planning director, Hal Hart, gave a thumb's up to several singletrack bike trails planned in Far North Bicentennial Park. The trails had received mixed reviews from two municipal advisory commissions.

Last April the Anchorage Parks and Recreation Commission approved an idea conceived by Singletrack Advocates, a local nonprofit, to build 6 to 8 miles of singletrack trails in the park. Construction was to start this summer.

Singletrack trails are skinny mountain bike trails, approximately the width of the bike. Anchorage has more than 76 miles of designated mountain bike trails, according to Singletrack Advocates' website. At least 24 miles have been designed specifically for singletrack users.

The sport is fast-growing and fast-paced. Most of the videos posted on the internet by singletrack enthusiasts demonstrate just how fast and precarious the sport can be. The president of Singletrack Advocates, Lee Bolling, described riding on a singletrack trail as "like having your own personal roller coaster."

[When cyclists collide with bears]

Much faster than traditional trail activities like hiking, running and horseback riding, navigating a singletrack trail offers the distinct possibility of running into something: a dirt berm, a tree or even a small bird that is unable to maneuver out of the way.

The risk is part of the thrill. I can't think of any other sport that could have coined the term "bark tattoo." 

I'm not kidding about bird strikes. In a video posted on Singletrack Advocates' website, the rider called it a "bird punch."

Dueling commissions

The Parks and Recreation Commission and municipal Department of Parks and Recreation are big fans of singletrack trails because the users are well organized and pay for the trails themselves.

It wasn't until after the parks and recreation commission had approved the idea that anyone thought to ask the Anchorage Watershed and Natural Resources Advisory Commission what it thought about the trail proposal. In this case, the meddlesome "anyone" was me. I'm a duly appointed member of the commission.

Both municipal commissions are composed of volunteers who are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the Assembly. Like many other public commissions, their job is to give free advice on issues within their areas of expertise.

The two commissions are aptly named, and they don't always see eye-to-eye on trail proposals. Whereas the parks and recreation commission tends to look at trails from a purely recreational perspective, the watershed and natural resources commission considers how a new or improved trail might affect interactions between trail users and wildlife. By wildlife, I mean primarily bears and moose.

After reviewing the proposal, the watershed and natural resources commissioners unanimously recommended against building two of the advanced downhill segments, those located closest to the South Fork of Campbell Creek. Singletrack Advocates revisited the plan and removed one.

I've investigated interactions between cyclists and bears, and it's not a pretty picture. Most bear-related injuries to cyclists have occurred in the past two decades. Although the odds of a cyclist being injured by a bear are very small, biking on singletrack trails appears to be riskier than hiking in bear country.

[Opinion: No more singletrack trails in parks, please]

Bikes vs. bears

Cyclists often ignore the recommendations of bear-safety experts to travel in a group and carry bear spray. Bikes also tend to "outrun" the sounds they make, which means a bear or moose has precious little time to react when a bicycle comes barreling around a corner or over a rise.

Some of the singletrack trails proposed in Bicentennial Park — those nearest the creek — are particularly troublesome. Their most attractive feature seems to be the opportunity to ride fast downhill through the woods. Unfortunately, the steep downhill runs would bisect the corridor used by local brown bears to move between Chugach State Park, where most den and raise their cubs, to the salmon spawning grounds in Bicentennial Park where the bears congregate to feed in late summer and fall.

Brown bears use the wooded corridor between Stuckagain Heights and Prospect Heights to avoid meeting humans. Imagine their surprise when they encounter new trails bristling with fast-moving recreationists right in their path. Bears don't like surprises.

This summer's fatal bear attacks in Alaska notwithstanding, black bears are not normally as dangerous as brown bears. However, my research suggests that bikers appear to be much more likely to be attacked by black bears than hikers. Fast-moving bikes may trigger a black bear's chase reflex. Because Anchorage has many more black bears than brown bears, this compounds the risk to cyclists.

There's also the possibility of literally running into a bear. I've found four instances in North America of cyclists running into bears while traveling at a high speed. It's the nature of the sport; bikers also run into hikers and other cyclists on singletrack trails. The trails are signed for one-way travel, which helps minimize collisions with humans, but not wildlife.

The odds of being injured riding fast on a singletrack trail are higher than the likelihood of encountering a bear. The point is not to protect cyclists from themselves. Instead, we hoped to protect bears from the inevitable knee-jerk calls for their eradication — in that park or in the municipality.

I once participated in a radio talk show where some guy called in to pose the universal solipsistic question, "What are bears good for?" He wholeheartedly believed that bears should be eliminated, period. Of course, the question couldn't be answered to his satisfaction.

Every time someone is attacked or injured by a bear in Alaska, the proportion of gun-toting hikers and bikers increases and, not surprisingly, the number of bears shot "in defense of life or property" — on trails or in towns — usually spikes.

[Mirror Lake singletrack provides new mountain-biking destination near Chugiak and Eagle River]

Warning signs?

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game wrote the municipality a letter in June noting that "the style of riding promoted by trails with limited sight lines, fast descents, and tight curves is counter to advice for traveling in bear habitat, particularly in areas with seasonal high bear densities." The letter, signed by Dave Battle, the Anchorage area biologist, and Sean Farley, the region's bear expert, advised that "increased trail density and use will increase the likelihood of bicyclist-bear encounters" in Bicentennial Park.

Moose also pose hazards to cyclists on mountain bike trails. After singletrack trails were built in Kincaid Park, a spate of moose attacks occurred. Singletrack Advocates and others now caution cyclists to avoid or be especially alert on those trails in early summer when moose calves are young and cows are particularly aggressive.

The watershed and natural resources commission noted its long-standing concern about singletrack trails in bear country; however, it didn't object to those proposed farthest from the creek.

Hart, the municipality's planning director, didn't accept the advice of the watershed and natural resources commission to forgo building singletrack trails in an area with seasonally high bear densities. Instead, in approving the trails, he noted "Alaskans live in bear country and with this recognition comes the individual responsibility to determine if the inherent risk is acceptable." He's asked Singletrack Advocates to "collaborate" with the parks department and state Department of Fish and Game "to develop and place appropriate signage."

Let's hope both bikers and bears take those signs seriously.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. Email, rickjsinnott@gmail.com

Rick Sinnott

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. Email him: rickjsinnott@gmail.com