The bears have taken back the valley. The sign is everywhere, and it is more than the scat proliferating on neighborhood trails, the bear sightings shared by neighbors, and the bear cache down by the creek which once contained the carcass of an adult cow.
Not much of the carcass is left now: the hide, the hoofs, the meatless lower legs, the backbone, the skull and jaw. The bear, a grizzly, camped on the kill for a week or so in the middle of a trail. Thankfully, it was a wet trail used almost solely in the winter by people on skis and snowshoes.
A neighbor and her dogs were first to spot the bear from a parallel trail when it stuck its head out of the brush surrounding its little hidey hole to peer at them. Its fidelity to the location for days made it obvious it was on a kill, but we waited a while before going in to get confirmation.
Almost everyone who uses the valley regularly remembers what happened one-ridge over in Chugach State Park nearly 21 years ago. Seventy-seven-year-old Marcie Trent, possibly the best known master’s run in Alaska at the time, and her son, 45-year-old Larry Waldron were jogging and hiking the McHugh Valley Trail with Trent’s 14-year-old grandson when they stumbled into a grizzly on a moose kill.
The bear attacked as they often do in these situations. Both Trent and Waldron were killed. The grandson, Art Able, ran back down the trail, climbed a tree and stayed there until some other hikers came along. He survived.
The bear disappeared. It abandoned the kill amid all the commotion that arose as the authorities swept in to recover the bodies and investigate the attack. Wildlife biologists concluded it was pretty much an exercise in futility to try to find the animal.
Dozens of grizzlies roam the half-million-acre wilderness park out the backdoor of Alaska’s largest city. The rare one that kills a couple of people looks no different from another minding its own business.
Most of the bears, most of the time, mind their own business, too. And the rare bear that attacks seldom kills. Three people have been mauled in Alaska already this year. No one has died.
None of this, however, does much to ease the fears of humans or the other animals that live with the bears.
The fearful and the clueless
Moose are skittish now. A month ago, they wouldn’t get out of the trail. They were a regular pain in the rear. Now they spend their time hiding in heavy cover. That’s a nice change for the few people still hiking.
Most of the humans, however, are gone from the trails. They’re staying safely home, or closer to it, until the salmon start running and the bears, which are now spending a fair amount of time hunting moose calves, go looking for an easier way to stock up on protein.
The few who venture back along the trails pretty much all know each other and bears, although there is now and then the oblivious newcomer one meets and tries to enlighten:
“Hi. How are you doing? Do you have bear spray with you?”
“Are there bears here?”
“A few. Did you see the fresh scat on the road?”
“No. What’s that?”
Some of these people never come back. Some move into the neighborhood and learn about life with nature. Some move in and decide that between the bears and the hurricane-force winds the Anchorage Hillside ought to have been classified uninhabitable. They move out, happy to sacrifice the reality of the city’s much ballyhooed “Big Wild Life” for the Big Not-quite-so-Wild Life down in the fully urbanized Bowl.
Sometimes it is easy to empathize with them, particularly the parents of small children. Twenty or thirty years ago, bear populations around the fringes of Anchorage were still depressed from decades of over hunting. As late as the 1990s a grizzly bear was a rare and welcome visitor, a sign that the wilderness remained close to the city.
Now the bears are regulars and not nearly so welcome. Being always alert to their presence just in case gets burdensome. It’s easy to understand the neighbors who abandon the valley trails in favor of roads with better sight lines because they just don’t like the stress of thinking about that odd and unusual close encounter.
And it is odd and unusual. Most of the time the bears are trying as hard as possible to avoid being seen by people as the people are trying not to see them. We’re both obviously pretty good at this.
When Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Sean Farley put radio-collars on 11 local grizzly bears back in the mid-2000s, he discovered they were often moving in and around people with hardly anyone noticing.
“They’re very secretive,” he told the Associated Press at the time. “They’re very good at hiding from us. They’re very good at avoiding people.”
That they are.
The 400- or 500-pound, dark brown grizzly that appeared to be stalking a moose calf the other night only 100 feet above the gated road above the house would never have been noticed if not for the moose.
She was in a clearing on the very edge of a popular grove facing into the wind with all the hair on her back and neck standing up. A pause on a hike along the road and a closer look revealed a newborn calf standing just behind her flank.
And then there was another movement. The eyes were drawn to a patch of dark brown sliding through the forest just up wind. It was pretty obvious what the moose was watching even before the big, block head of a grizzly popped into view between a couple of trees.
What happened next is unknown. It was emotionally easier to keep on going than to watch. It was emotionally easier to hope the cow moose had smelled the bear and slipped away into the brush with her calf before he found them.
Because the little guy wouldn’t have had a chance against the bear, and mom could have well gone down trying to defend her young. That could well have been what happened to the other moose eaten by what was likely this same bear, though the cache revealed no sign of a calf.
Still, for a grizzly, a days old calf is a delicacy. When the bear is done eating, there is about as much left of it as there is of your favorite dessert.
This is nature. It is ruthless and brutal. And being so close to it is what makes Anchorage the most unusual of U.S. cities. It is also what makes Anchorage, or at least this part of Anchorage, not for everyone.
Living with killing machines two or three times your size can get on your nerves.