Seward, Alaska: My near-miss bear encounter

Brown bear, Lake Clark National Park, Alaska (Source: National Park Service)
“Cheri!  Get inside!”

I was at work, walking from one building to the next, when I heard Dave, Facilities Manager, clapping his hands and yelling at me from across the parking lot.  How weird, I thought.

I work at a nursing home that consists of four small resident buildings we call lodges. They sit in a row, at the base of Mt. Benson, and behind them is a densely forested wilderness.  In the spring, Dale watched as a moose cow and her tiny calf emerged from the woods.  They walked across the parking lot before disappearing into the trees again.  A few weeks ago, bear scat was found in the woods behind the lodges, prompting maintenance to clear a wide swath of brush that might conceal wildlife.

It was this area, and me, that now had Dave’s attention.  His next words were, “There’s a bear!”

Alaska’s bears

Alaska is home to all three North American bear species—polar, black, and brown (also called grizzly¹).  Alaska’s populations of both black and brown bears are robust.  Scientists estimate that around 32,000 brown and 100,000 black bears inhabit the state, and the Kenai Peninsula, where Dale and I live, can support up to 582 brown bears, while the black bear population is much larger.

It took me a split second to absorb what Dave was telling me—that one of these bears was nearby—but I quickly realized that I needed to get indoors and dashed to the nearest building, which luckily was only a few yards away.

“The bears have gone crazy”

It’s been an active year for bears.  The worst part is the attacks.  Within the span of 48 terrible hours in June, two people, including a teenager finishing a trail race and a young biologist working in the interior, were killed by predatory black bears.  Several other nonfatal encounters have occurred this year as well.

People are on edge.  It’s not just the attacks, which are frightening but also rare.  Bears just seem to be everywhere.  Seward Facebook posts read like a police blotter, except it’s for misbehaving bears rather than people.  They’re invading chicken coops, getting into storage bins, and nosing around in pick-up beds.  They’re cutting through backyards next to children’s play equipment:

This picture gives me chills. (Photo courtesy of Seward residents Kristina and Jake Collins)

Home owners find the evidence—paw prints the size of plates, scat, disturbed garbage, missing chickens.  And sometimes they actually capture photos of the culprits.  Seward resident Monty Fisher posted pictures of this young brown bear, which was checking out the contents of his truck:

 

 

 

 

Sometimes bears are spotted carrying prey: one woman chased a bear out of her chicken coop, but not before it snagged a chicken, and she watched it flee with the victim in its mouth.  Another person saw a brown bear crossing a creek with a kicking baby moose in its jaws.

Some bear encounters are surreal.  They’ve been spotted on golf courses and shopping in liquor stores.  In Anchorage, a boy was rudely awakened when a bear crashed through a window and into his room.  Just as quickly, the bear scrambled out and disappeared.  The news headline read, “Mom, Dad, there’s a bear in my room.”

Across the state, bears have been shot and killed by homeowners because they got too close for comfort or were acting aggressive.

Some are insisting that the bears have gone crazy.  As this is our first summer here, I have nothing to go by, but initially I dismissed these statements.  C’mon, y’all; we’re in Alaska.  I figured people start making these claims every year right about the time the bears wake up.  But when you hear enough times, from long-time Alaskans, that this amount of bear activity is unusual, and when one passes within yards of you at your place of work, you start to pay attention.

My bear

The maintenance team made sure that everyone was secure and then used an airhorn to scare the bear away.  As they blew the horn, they heard a loud crashing in the bushes.  The bear ran away.

After he was long gone and everything secured, Dave and some of my other co-workers filled me in on what happened.

The managers had been in a meeting in the office building, which sits just down the hill from the lodges.  The conference room has a great view of the property, and Dave happened to look out as I was walking from one lodge to the next—parallel to a brown bear.  As I walked in one direction, the bear lumbered the opposite way, maybe 50-60 feet away from me.  He was using the path behind the lodges that maintenance had cleared just weeks earlier.  When Dave saw the bear and I, we were even with one another.  If I had just looked left, I might’ve seen something similar to this:

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Dave jumped to his feet, sending his chair crashing behind him, and dashed out of the room while simultaneously calling out instructions to the others. “Call the lodges!  Tell everyone to stay inside!”  And then he was out the front door and in the parking lot, yelling at me to get to safety.

My bear was, according to Dave, an enormous brown male.  “He was big,” Dave said delicately, as if I might freak out at the knowledge that I had unwittingly passed so close to such a creature.

Dave suspects that the path behind work might be part of this big guy’s territory.  Bears will make long loops around their terrain, so he might be back again in four or five days time.  If that’s the case, he’s just doing a walk through and probably not causing trouble.  But if he returns sooner than that, he may be up to no good.

I made so many mistakes

After I entered the building safely, the lodge’s staff and I went from window to window trying to catch a glimpse of the bear.  A nurse, Bridget, had been outside at the same time as me.  Like me, she’s from the Southern U.S., and neither of us has had much exposure to brown bears, so we were royally pissed that we didn’t lay eyes on it.  That was the main focus of our conversation.

Once I was back in my office, however, my thoughts started to race, and I realized that I had been within yards of a bear and, unfortunately, had done everything wrong.

First, I wasn’t paying attention.  I was planning my next therapy session instead of watching the tree line.  Even though I’d tried to make a habit of being alert to my surroundings, complacency had recently set in.  I’m at work.  It’s the middle of the day.  People go back and forth all the time.  I’d stopped paying attention.

And because I wasn’t paying attention, I had no idea where the bear was.  He might’ve been right behind me.  Or I could’ve done something to startle him.  Bears don’t like surprises.  Maybe he would’ve run; maybe he would’ve charged.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to find out.

Also, I ran.  Maybe in this specific instance I did the right thing, since I was close to an entrance, but as a general rule, you don’t run from a bear.  It makes you look like prey, and a bear’s instinct is to chase prey.

Finally, I missed a great opportunity to see a bear.  Dammit.

I don’t want to be afraid of bears

There are plenty of reasons to fear bears.  They’re enormous.  They weigh hundreds of pounds.  Brown bears have claws up to four inches long.  They’re freakin’ fast; they can run up to 35 miles an hour.²   And they’ve been known, on occasion, to eat humans.

Examining a grizzly bear pelt at Denali National Park

So it’s both natural and sane to have some fear of bears, and if you’re not at least a little afraid of them, then you probably shouldn’t be going into their territory.

But fear also tends to blow things out of proportion.

It tells a person that because a bear can eat you, that it’s most likely going to eat you.  But not only did my bear not eat me, he didn’t show the slightest interest in me.  Everything was A-OK.

Yes, I lost sleep that night over the what-ifs, and fear roiled my stomach when I thought of the hike we had planned for the weekend, on a beautiful trail right through bear country.

But then I reminded myself that the odds of seeing, much less being attacked by, a bear are very, very low.

I have to trust the numbers.

Know your numbers

Hundreds of thousands³ of bears roam across much of North America, even in densely populated places such as New Jersey.  They often use the same woods, trails, and resources that humans do.  And in Anchorage, the largest city in Alaska, anywhere from 300-400 bears live alongside 300,000+ people.

Four brown bears filmed via remote camera in 2010 using a trail in Far North Bicentennial Park, one of Anchorage’s popular city parks.  Bears fitted with collars have been found to roam and sleep along many Anchorage trails, and people frequently walk or bike past them without ever knowing it. We did a bit of hiking in this park a few weeks ago, and bears were foremost in our minds, but the most we saw was scat and large bowls in the grass where something big had rested.  (Photo source: ADN/Alaska Department of Fish and Game)

 

We move amongst bears all the time, and they move among us. The vast majority of the time, they retreat without us ever knowing they were there.  Thousands of human-bear interactions occur every year, and the percentage of times that they end in a human death are almost nil.

It’s worth quoting some statistics:
  • Driving, not hiking in bear country, is the most dangerous thing most of  us do every day.  In 2016 alone, as many as 40,000 people died and millions more were injured in car accidents.  As residents of Seward, our only connection to the rest of the state is along a dangerous stretch of 2-lane highway.  It’s especially perilous during the summer tourist season, when people stop in the middle of the road to get pictures of belugas and other wildlife.  We should be way more concerned about making it to Anchorage in one piece than about bears.
  • Lots of things are more likely to kill us than grizzlies, including ladders, meteorites, carnival rides, and lightning.
  • A variety of other creatures are more deadly than bears, including deer, dogs, bees, and cows.
The number of people who have been hurt or killed by bears is very, very low:
  • In Yellowstone National Park, one of the most-visited parks in the country, the odds of being attacked by a grizzly are approximately 1 in 2.7 million.   From 1980-2015, only 34 grizzly attacks occurred here (an average of one per year).  And between the years of 1872 (when the park opened) and 2015, only eight people were killed by Yellowstone grizzlies.  Visitors have a higher chance of dying from burns sustained from falling in a thermal pool than they do of being killed by a bear.
  • In Alaska, there were 207 bear attacks across a 35-year period (1980-2015).  Of those, 18 were deadly.  15 people were killed by brown bears, and the other three attacks were by black bears.  Black bear attacks are so rare that, before the two fatal encounters in June, only six people in Alaska had been killed since 1880.  They’re so unusual that a bear expert described them as “really odd.”

Conclusion

So as statistics demonstrate, it’s generally safe to live, camp, and hike in bear country. The odds are high that I’ll never have another close-up bear encounter; in fact, I’ve met longtime Alaskans who’ve only ever seen a few bears.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take precautions, and in an upcoming post I’ll offer some of the tips we’ve learned for safely recreating in bear country.

My near-miss experience was a good reminder that just because something can go wrong doesn’t mean it’s going to.  Disaster could’ve played out in so many different ways…but it didn’t.  In fact, I did everything wrong and yet still nothing happened.  The bear did what it was supposed to do; it ignored me.  Two days later, Dale and I went on a hike.  Yes, there had been a recent bear sighting…

 

…but we took comfort in the odds, enjoyed a gorgeous 11-mile hike, and made it back to the car without incident!


About the photos taken by my fellow Sewardites

I’ve seen some crazy photos posted by locals on Facebook.  I reached out to a few of them and asked them if I could use their photos, and they were nice enough to agree.

Kristina and Jake Collins captured the photo of the bear walking through their yard and next to their children’s play equipment.  They saw it four days in a row, including one time when it was chasing a tiny baby moose.  “We thought we were going to see a National Geographic episode in our yard!” Jake told me via Facebook.

Monty Fisher, who’s lived in Alaska for 40 years, took the pictures of the nosy bear in his driveway.  Right after he took the pictures above, the bear climbed up his steps.  Monty banged on the door.  Instead of running off, which is what normally happens, this bear moved faster and pushed on the door with its head.  “Never have seen anything like that before in my 40 years in AK,” he said via Facebook.  This bear has been seen several times in the neighborhood.  “I find they tend revisit about every 2 to 3 days.”

My thanks to Monty, Jake, and Kristina for letting me use their amazing pictures.

Notes:

¹ What’s the difference between a grizzly and a brown bear?

Grizzly bears (U. a. horribilis) are a subspecies of brown bear (Ursas arctos), so, basically, all grizzly bears are brown bears, but not all brown bears are grizzlies.  The term grizzly usually applies to inland bears while brown  refers to coastal bears.  Learn more at the North American Bear Center and Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

² To put a bear’s speed into perspective, the fastest time that world record holder and “fastest man alive” Usain Bolt ever ran was was 27.8 mph.

³ Of North America’s three bear species, black bears are by far the most common; an estimated 600,000-800,000 are found throughout Alaska and Canada and in much of the Lower 48.  As many as 40 U.S. states have black bear populations:

Range of the American black bear (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Brown bears are restricted to Alaska, Canada and the mainland states of Washington, Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho.  And polar bears, of course, are found only in the Arctic.