Spring came late to the Interior of Alaska this year. George Lake just north of the Alaska Highway outside of the cluster of businesses where two of the state's main roads meet at Delta Junction was still iced over when a black bear showed up outside the cabin of Robert and Roberta Weaver, a couple from Fairbanks. Whether that had anything to do with the bear attack that left 64-year-old Robert dead, no one will ever know.
But there is this from Canadian scientist Stephen Herrero, possibly the continent's foremost authority on bear attacks, along with colleague Susan Fleck.
"Food stress was previously suggested as a contributing factor in a series of five black bear-inflicted injuries (including one fatal) in Alaska. However, if a relationship exists between food stress and black bear attacks, it is a complex one. . . . There have been many years of major food stress for black bears without human injury resulting."
Predatory black bears?
A bear-loving biologist from Outside who now summers in Alaska trying to get close to grizzly bears, Lynn Rogers has extensively studied black bears in Minnesota. But there is a difference between the black bears of Minnesota and those of Alaska, a key difference Herrero has noted.
Black bears that grow up around humans seldom turn predatory, he has noted. It is a different story for those removed from civilization.
Almost 30 years ago, Herrero theorized that some of the latter bears might actually view humans as potential prey. Since then, other predatory attacks have only served to strengthen that theory.
"Together these incidents confirm the somewhat controversial conclusion reached in 1985 that black bears can on rare occasions attempt to or even successfully prey on people,'' Herrero reported along with Fleck just four years ago. "This type of incident continues to cluster geographically in . . . rural and remote areas, suggesting that many potentially predacious black bears have had little exposure to human beings, hence little opportunity for bears showing this tendency to have been killed by man."
The empty Interior
George Lake would fit well Herrero's description of "rural and remote areas.'' Though the lake can be reached from the Alaska Highway, the journey -- at least in the ice-free season when the bears are out of hibernation – isn't easy. The only ways in are by floatplane or boat. The former is expensive. The latter requires launching a boat into the fast, glacially turbid Tanana River, running downstream to George Slough and then making a run of several miles up George Creek to the lake.
"It's an adrenalin-packed ride to navigate the river in a jet boat,'' according to some fishing guides who occasionally take tourist anglers to the lake for northern pike.
The trip is a lot easier in winter when you can roar almost due east from the highway to the lake on a snowmachine. That was possible well into May this year, but it is unclear when or how the Weavers arrived at the cabin they built on a buff along the lake more than a decade ago. They may have come in later by airboat.
"This summer (in the year 2000) we hauled something like 7,000 pounds of concrete and … steel with these boats without a problem,'' Weaver noted on a website documenting the beginning of cabin construction.
As Ron Stewart at Granite View Sports in Delta noted, an airboat can be run on ice -- even bad ice -- as well as on water. An Alaska State Trooper used one to reach the Weaver cabin, where Roberta was holed up, after Robert was attacked and killed. His wife phoned authorities to report he needed help. It took them hours to get there, and by then he was dead.
None of the few neighbors on the lake appear to have been in the area at the time. But George Lake is an empty place, even in busy times.
"There's probably 10 or 12 cabins there,'' Stewart said. One of them is owned by the state of Alaska.
"The George Lake (public use) cabin is located on the northeast shore of George Lake, a large -- six-plus square mile -- lake located across the Tanana River from the Alaska Highway, 37 miles south of Delta Junction,'' according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The cabin sits in a clearing hacked out of the thick, spruce-birch forest that dominates the area, and Fish and Game warns pike fishermen that it can be difficult to reach in summer:
"Access from breakup through freeze-up is by jet boat via the Tanana River and George Creek. George Creek is quite small, and low water in late-summer can make boating the river challenging or impossible."
The Weavers had the low-water problem solved with their airboats, which don't necessarily need water to run. A Fairbanks airboat owner who'd been drinking once famously drove his craft over a roadway from the downtown Chena River to a nearby strip joint.
A bear attacks
What happened outside the Weavers' cabin Thursday remains unclear. People in Delta who know the Weavers appear reluctant to talk about it.
"Let the troopers explain,'' Stewart said before hanging up the phone, apparently unaware troopers seldom make an effort to explain such things. Troopers at the scene of the Weaver attack did not return phone calls for this story. Reports on what happened have been carefully funneled through a spokesperson. This much is known:
• A bear mauling was reported at 6:45 a.m. June 6.
• Troopers from Fairbanks and Delta responded, the latter in an airboat and the former in a helicopter. They were joined by rescue specialists from nearby Eielson Air Force Base in a Pave Hawk helicopter.
• The Pave Hawk was first on scene just after 9 p.m. and found Robert dead and a woman in the Weaver cabin, which the bear had apparently tried to enter.
It was left to Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reporter Tim Mowry to first confirm the woman in the cabin was Roberta. The family has not talked about the tragic and horrible affair. And it has yet to be officially confirmed by authorities that the bear later killed outside the Weaver cabin by a trooper was the bear that killed Robert.
Black bear fatalities are rare in the 49th state. Grizzly bears, the far-more-powerful cousins of the black bear, are the animals that usually kill humans, but black-bear fatalites are not unknown. Prior to the deaths of Treadwell and Hugenard in 2003, the most infamous bear fatality in Alaska involved a black bear.
Thirty-three-year-old Darcy Staver and her husband, Army Capt. Michael Staver, were vacationing at a cabin off the Glenn Highway about 160 miles northeast of Anchorage near the community of Glennallen when they were confronted by a black bear in 1992. It broke a window to get into the cabin where they were staying and drove them out.
The couple sought safety on the roof. Michael fired several shots at the bear with a .22-caliber handgun to try to scare it away. It left. When it did, he jumped down from the roof and took off to get help. He took the gun to defend himself, thinking his wife would be safe on the roof. She wasn't. While he was gone, the bear climbed a spruce tree next to the cabin, got onto the roof and killed Darcy.
When Michael returned with help, she was on the ground dead with the bear trying to eat her. The animal was shot and killed.
When another bear -- this one a grizzly -- killed a 6-year-old boy on the other side of the state only two days later, Alaskans went a bit crazy and started shooting bears on sight. State wildlife authorities were moved to warn that dogs are more dangerous; they annually kill more Alaskans than bears.
Since then, it has largely been the policy of state wildlife biologists to try to put the danger of bear attack in perspective. As Cathy Harms, the agency's Interior spokeswoman, told Mowry, black bear maulings are "unusual but its not unprecedented."
Herrero and Fleck reported the most frequent site for bear attacks is Kluane National Park and Reserve in the Yukon Territory, Canada, just across the border from Alaska. And in Kluane the chances of being attacked by a bear are 1 per 317,700 visitors. The odds of being killed are a tiny fraction of that.
By way of comparison, according to the New York Times, the lifetime odds of being killed by:
• Fireworks are 1 in 340,733;
• Cold weather, 1 in 6,045;
• Motor vehicle accident, 1 in 84;
• Heart disease, 1 in 5.
Although the number of people killed annually by black bears is on the rise because the animals are now common across the country, fatal attacks in Alaska remain a once-every-couple-of-decades event. Before the death of Stavers 21 years ago, the last known fatal black bear mauling in Alaska was that of 51-year-old William Strandberg in August 1963, or 29 years earlier.
A member of a prominent Alaska mining family, Strandberg -- like Weaver -- was killed by a bear in a remote area of the Interior. He died about 160 miles west of Fairbanks. Weaver was killed about 130 miles southeast of the city.
The last black-bear death before Strandberg was 50-year-old Rudolph Gaier in November 1952. A trapper, his body was found in a remote cabin near Anchorage, then a much smaller Alaska community. The theory at the time was that the bear broke into the cabin and Strandberg died in an ensuing battle.
Most black bears are in hibernation by November. An attack so late in the year, wildlife biologists say, might indicate the bear had been unable to find enough food during the summer to put on the fat necessary to survive the winter. Likewise, Strandberg's death in 1963 was blamed on a scarcity of berries at the time by an Alaska biologist.
Does hunger make a difference? As Herrero noted, it is hard to say.
Fish and Game officials report the bear shot near the Weaver cabin east of Delta was not starving, but that doesn't mean it was not hungry. It was an older, adult male weighing about 230 pounds. It didn't appear to be suffering from any disease, although some tests remain to be completed. And though an appearance outside the Weaver cabin while troopers were investigating Robert's death might implicate it in the killing, a positive determination has yet to be made.
DNA samples have been taken, along with measurements of the bear's teeth patterns.
"Hopefully the evidence we collect will help determine if this particular bear was involved," Harms told the News-Miner. "(But) we're not going to be able to confirm this was the bear until results of the autopsy are done. The medical examiner will determine exactly what killed (Weaver). If an animal was involved, the medical examiner will collect samples of saliva, measurements of bites and that kind of information and we would compare what we collect(ed) to that."
The process could take days if not weeks.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com