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Guns don't prevent Alaska bear attacks

  • Author:
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published July 26, 2011

A group of students from the National Outdoor Leadership School are attacked by a grizzly bear and suddenly reporters across the country begin arm-chair quarterbacking:

USA Today: "There was no time to use spray and no one had a gun."

No one had a gun.

Associated Press: "Teen thought he would die in Alaska bear attack (No One Had a Gun)."

No one had a gun.

Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, N.Y.): "... None of the teens had guns."

No one had a gun, and a gun would have made all the difference, right?

Ned Rasmussen had a gun, and he knew very well how to use it. He shot a bear on Uganik Island near Kodiak in 1999, and then the bear killed him.

"On Wednesday, searchers also spotted a wounded bear," the Associated Press reported at the time. "(Phil) Brna, who saw it from a Coast Guard helicopter, said it had a gunshot wound and that its shoulder was bleeding. Searchers found Rasmussen's rifle on the ridge top. Bear hairs were stuck to the electrical tape on the end. About 50 yards away lay Rasmussen's hat and some blood. His body was found about a half mile away, at the bottom of a steep, grassy slope."

I did not know Rasmussen. I did know members of his hunting party. They were men who grew up around guns -- men who used guns for much of their youth and all of their adult lives. They were not teenagers from the city. They were men who handled a firearm as comfortably as most Americans handle a toothbrush. A gun was to them a tool, like an eating utensil.

I know guns this way, too.

A few weeks ago, a grizzly bear killed an adult cow moose in the middle of a trail just up the valley from where I live in Anchorage. I stumbled onto the bear's food cache while out for a run with the dog. We quickly beat it out of there. Over a food cache is the most dangerous place to meet a bear. Just one ridge over from this cache -- just over the ridge -- a grizzly bear defending another food cache killed two Anchorage residents in 1995.

I knew both of them. They were good people.

How to hunt an aggressive Alaska grizzly bear

So the day after finding this bear cache, I went back. I walked in there with a sawed off shotgun with an extended magazine stuffed with the most powerful slugs available. My goal was simple: I wanted to make sure the bears (it appeared to be a sow with cubs) had thoroughly cleaned up their kill so they wouldn't be hanging around on this trail through the tall grass.

If there was a lot of meat still there, well, then someone was going to have to move it to eliminate the danger.

Was walking into this situation alone dangerous? Absolutely. I wouldn't recommend anyone do it. But I have something of a hard-on for aggressive bears. We'll get to that in a minute.

But first let me note that I walked into this kill site, the dog by my side, ready for war. I know all about the warnings about bears and dogs, and how the dog might come running back to you with the bear chasing. Fine. In this case that would have meant a dead bear. I wasn't messing around here. I had the dog along because I wanted the capabilities of his senses. His ears and nose are the radar of the wild.

The dog was likely to tell me what, if anything, was there before I was able to see it. And I wanted that advantage. I was perfectly willing and ready to retreat if the bear was still there hanging around a pile of moose meat. But I was equally ready to kill with a weapon -- with which I am deadly efficient -- if it came to that.

This wasn't something new. I've chased bears off food caches in the past. And, so as to fully establish my bona fides, let me add that I've shot and killed two grizzly bears.

The first was wounded by a good friend then working for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. He'd meant to dispose of it as a "problem bear." His shooting was not good. The bear was injured, but not seriously. We went into the brush to get it. That wasn't much fun, but the bear made a fatal mistake. It crossed a small creek in front of us and exposed its flank. It wasn't in the open for long, but I shot it, and I killed it.

How to survive an Alaska sow grizzly bear attack

The second shooting wasn't quite so simple. It involved a sow grizzly and several cubs. I ran into them in thick spruce while moose hunting.

I had in my hands at the time a powerful handgun -- a .454 Casull -- which is what I used to hunt moose at that time. I saw the cubs before they saw me in the timber and I tried to ease on out of the situation. Unfortunately, they spotted me and decided to follow.

It was a bad move for all of us.

I heard mom coming through the forest before I saw her, or maybe I felt her in the ground shaking. Coastal brown bears, the grizzlies of Alaska's coasts, are big animals in the fall, often weighing 500 pounds or more. If you are unlucky enough to be charged by one, it almost feels like the ground is shaking beneath your feet. But maybe it's the sound of the paws even on the softest of turf. Now that I think about it, I'm not sure. I've been charged by probably a dozen bears, and it always felt like the ground was shaking.

I didn't want to shoot any of those bears. I didn't want to shoot this sow, but at about 10 feet -- way, way, way too close -- I tried.

I missed. I'd guess, in retrospect, I didn't lead her enough and shot right over her.

Until you've tried to shoot a charging grizzly, you'll never realize how fast they come. Biologist Will Troyer says he once chased one in a truck at 35 mph and couldn't catch it. Thirty-five miles per hour translates to about 50 feet per second. A blink of the eye takes almost half a second. So at this speed, a bear is covering about 25 feet every time you blink.

Yes, they come fast. Unbelievably fast. Incomprehensively fast unless you've been there.

I, unfortunately, have been there. I have had contact with a grizzly bear. When it hit me, it grabbed the scope of that Casull in its mouth. The scope still bears the teeth marks. The bear somehow then went over the top of me. I have a scar under my jaw from where a claw ripped into my flesh.

I don't really remember that. I certainly don't remember having the bear on top of me or its foot on my head. I am clueless as to how I hung onto the gun through all of this, but I did. The Casull was still in my right hand -- my shooting hand -- when I ended on the ground, on my rear, with the bear holding my right leg in its jaws. From that moment on, I remember the milliseconds it took to react as if they were spread over minutes.

I remember thinking, "OK, just don't shoot yourself in the foot.'' I remember pointing the gun at the top of the bear's head. I remember pulling the trigger. I remember the force of the bullet's impact knocking the bear smack-off my foot. I remember the bear trying to stand up and then falling over and rolling down hill.

I remember sitting up and the bears being all gone and then just doing what you need to do to get to medical help to survive.

That part was easy. Well, actually, it wasn't easy. There was a pretty long hike to a river that had to be crossed, but if you've spent your life dealing with the Alaska wilderness, and have endured some previous trauma, it was easy in the sense that I knew what I had to do to survive and knew that I could do it even if it was uncomfortable.

Why NOLS group in bear attack was better off without guns

All of which brings us back to the arm-chair quarterbacking about a grizzly that Saturday attacked a group of seven students from the National Outdoor Leadership school on a month-long backpacking trip in the Talkeetna Mountains.

They didn't have a gun.

And it is a good thing.

Why? Because none of them was likely trained to use one in this sort of life-and-death scenario. Because the downside of guns, particularly in the hands of the inexperienced, is an accidental shooting; something that happens too often in Alaska.

Because what happened in the Talkeetnas happened so fast none of the teenagers managed to pop off the bear spray they were carrying for bear protection. And probably most of all because guns can just as likely make the situation worse as make it better.

Once you start shooting at bears, you better damn well kill them because wounded bears are more dangerous animals than non-wounded bears. Just ask Southeast Alaska hunting guide Scott Newman. He went into the brush to dispatch a grizzly wounded by a client and ended up getting chewed on.

It's not the first time this has happened to an Alaska guide. There is a history of wounded grizzly bears carrying on an attack. The bear that attacked Rasmussen was clearly wounded before it killed him.

There is no account -- not one -- to date of a grizzly bear carrying on an attack after being pepper sprayed in the snout. Bear spray is not a cure-all. It drives bears away; it does not permanently eliminate them as a threat the way a properly placed bullet does. But bear spray doesn't make an attack worse, and it is most certainly free of the danger of guns. Getting doused with bear spray is pretty awful, but you will survive.

Bear spray won't kill you. A bullet might.

The NOLS students didn't have guns. Good. They shouldn't. The risks far outweigh the rewards, and in this case, it's all irrelevant anyway because things happened so fast nobody even used their bear spray.

There is no reason -- absolutely none -- to believe they would have been any quicker with a gun. Bear attacks happen so fast that for a gun to be of any use, you better have it in your hand. A handgun carried in a holster isn't going to help. Neither is a shotgun or rifle slung over your shoulder or maybe even tucked up under the crook of your arm.

No, for a gun to matter, you better be carrying it in a combat-ready position, and you better be ready for combat.

And with that said, enough with this Monday-morning "no one had a gun" nonsense.

Alaska Dispatch encourages a diversity of opinion and community perspectives. The opinions expressed herein are those of the contributor and are not necessarily endorsed or condoned by Alaska Dispatch. Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

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