Pepper spray ends bear attack


Brown/grizzly bear/National Park Service photo

A woman leading a hike along a salmon-filled stream in Southeast Alaska was mauled by a brown bear on Thursday, but saved by a fellow guide who used a can of pepper-spray repellent to get the animal off her, according to Alaska State Troopers.

Neither guide has been identified. Troopers said they were waiting until relatives had been notified of the attack by the oversized, Alaska-coast version of a grizzly bear.

The U.S. Coast Guard was called to rescue the victims after the Chigachof Island attack. They were picked up by helicopter and flown about 30 miles south to the hospital in Sitka. Their condition is not yet known, although the man’s injuries were reported to be minor.

“The first tour guide was up front,” Christopher Austin, a Coast Guard rescue swimmer told KTOO, the public radio station in Juneau. “She didn’t have any bear spray or protection from wildlife on her, but the guide that was in the back of the group did. And unfortunately there was about 20 people between them.

“When the attack happened, he ran up to the front. All the other people took off. He sprayed the bear as it was mauling the first victim and was able to get it off of her. There were some wounds inflicted on him that were rather minor. After that the bear took off.”

Both the guides and tourists were on a shore excursion off the “Wilderness Explorer,” a pocket cruise ship run by Seattle-based Unicruise Adventures. The 186-foot long vessel carries 72 passengers and promotes intimate adventures in Alaska, Costa Rica, the Galapagos and elsewhere.

Several of its summer excursions in Southeast feature visits to Chichagof, a bear-filled island just across Chatham Strait from the Admiralty Island National Monument, the Fortress of the Bears.

“With no binding agenda, today you’ll cruise the waterfall coast of Chichagof Island. Marvel at the grand scenery of Alaska’s wilderness as the crew expertly guides you through those ‘not in the guidebook’ places known only to the locals,” the company’s website says of the “Discoverers’ Glacier Country” cruise in August. “This evening, perhaps tucking away in a waterfall-laced fjord, there’ll be time for skiffing, beachcombing or treks ashore, and kayaking to look for sea otters and bears before calling it a day near Baranof Island.”

Baranof is a major island adjacent to Chichagof. On Chichagof, the U.S. Forest Service maintains a 4.4 mile trail along Sitkoh Creek from tidewater to a cabin on the lake above. The bear attack is reported to have happened on that trail when the guide got too close to a sow with cubs or came between them.

“Brown bear are very abundant by cabin and trail to Sitkoh Bay,” warns, one of the state’s top travel sites.

It is unclear why the guide leading the hike, and thus the one most likely to surprise a bear, was not carrying bear spray, a non-lethal weapon that has repeatedly proven its usefulness in Alaska.

“Two decades of bear spray use in Alaska confirm that it is an effective bear deterrent,” scientist Tom S. Smith wrote in a 2006 paper. “Findings by (Stephen) Herrero and (Andrew) Higgins (1998) regarding the efficacy of bear spray in Alaska from 1985 to 1995 were comparable to ours for the following decade.”

Smith analyzed 83 cases in which the pepper spray was involved.

“Of the 72 cases where persons sprayed bears to defend themselves, 50 (69 percent) involved brown bears, 20 (28 percent) black bears, and two (3 percent) polar bears. Red pepper spray stopped bears’ undesirable behavior 92 percent of the time when used on brown bears, 90 percent for black bears and 100 percent for polar bears.

“Of all persons carrying sprays, 98 percent were uninjured by bears in close-range encounters. All bear-inflicted injuries associated with defensive spraying involved brown bears and were relatively minor (i.e., no hospitalization required).”





11 replies »

  1. “Within seconds, the bear stood up, groaned so loud that every person in the group heard the groan, including the guide in the back, and charged at very short range,” Blanchard described.

    “Then the bear took down the lead guide,” he said. “She never had the chance to use her bear spray.”

    As soon as the rear guide heard the bear’s groan, he ran up to the front, un-holstering his bear spray.

    “We believe it took him 15, maybe 20 seconds to get up to the front. When he gets there, the bear is already off the lead guide very close by. As soon as he was in sight of the bear, the bear charged him,” Blanchard said.

    Blanchard said the guide started discharging his bear spray at about 20 feet away and estimates he used about half to two-thirds of his can as the bear was charging him.

    “He said it was a direct hit into the eyes and mouth,” Blanchard said. “As he was spraying it, the bear reached down, grabbed his leg.”

    The guide can’t remember if he fell down or if the bear knocked him down.

    “He said, ‘All I remember is the bear got me in the knee, bit me and wandered off,’” Blanchard said.”

  2. Hi Craig, just read this on a comment section concerning this story.

    “Too many stories like the following to believe the bear spray narrative: The bear spray was doubtless completely ineffective in the first video. The expert in the second video lit the crowd up a bit and was anything but effective. Heck the rock was as effective in the last video as the spray.”
    Also reading further about the Polarbear bear spray encounters- Sounds like guys were in their truck and sprayed some curious type bears. Not full on aggressive bears. Wouldn’t want to be making life and death decisions based on some of these studies. Maybe a can of spray in one hand and and a gun in the other? 😉

    • Oscar: that’s one totally dumbass video. the stuff does work. it’s proven very useful here. but if you can put together a crowd like the one in that video, you won’t need to use the spray. no bear is going to take on a mob of people like that.

      • The black bear seemed mildly curious, backed off after being sprayed but didn’t seem to be intimidated in the slightest. Not much of a confidence builder. Will carry in the future along with a gun with the hope that won’t have to use gun. Would be the most desirable option obviously.

      • Blanchard said the guide started discharging his bear spray at about 20 feet away and estimates he used about half to two-thirds of his can as the bear was charging him.
        “He said it was a direct hit into the eyes and mouth,” Blanchard said. “As he was spraying it, the bear reached down, grabbed his leg.”

    • Seems like it was effective in the first video. She sprayed it and the bear retreated. It just didn’t retreat far enough and then started chewing on her kayak, and no amount of yelling/pleading would make it stop. Maybe she should’ve sprayed it some more?

  3. I am a travel agent who had clients on this ship…luckily not on the specific hike. Craig, forist time I have come across your blog. Enjoy your knowledge and your way of explaining. Larry…very much enjoyed your back and forth comments. Thank you both

    • thanks, Linda. feel free to share with your friends and visit often. we’re trying to build something here. Alaska is a strange and interesting place, more interesting but not quite as strange as it seems when viewed through the distorted lenses of most of that Alaska “reality” TV. and please send more tourists. as the guides as UnCruise showed, Alaskans generally try to take very good care of them up to the point of, in this case, putting their own lives on the line.

  4. An excellent and thoughtful response, Craig! Un-Cruise has confirmed that the lead guide was indeed carrying bear spray, and that due to the proximity when guide and bear first became aware of each other, and that the bear made a split-second reversal of its initial bluff to jump on the guide. Like you, when I’m hiking (always, but especially alone) and any individual factor or combination of factors (terrain, surroundings, conditions and/or fresh signs) tell me that risk of surprising a bear is high, my bear spray is in my hand, uncocked and ready to fire. I recently explored a stream in one of Baranof Island’s Kelp Bay arms to determine its feasibility for guided activities. Salmon had not yet entered the system and I hiked around the estuary at low tide for a while before heading up the stream. Bear trails were evident everywhere and no shortage of bear scat, but none of it fresh; bear spray uncocked but still on my belt. As I turned upriver into the canyon from which the river enters the estuary, however, the margin of deep grass between forest and river narrowed to a steep bank about 20 feet wide and I saw fresh scat and tracks of both a sow and at least one cub. To make matters worse, a strong wind was blowing down the canyon directly in my face. Bear spray now in hand and I’m yelling “Hey bear!” every few seconds. I have since led some terrific hikes there, in the presence of that sow and her two cubs (who, as you describe in your reply to my note, characteristically cede the estuary to us and watch at the forest margin a couple hundred yards away until we leave). That stream has become a favorite among our fishing guides, too, who have very attentively supervised other bears and our fly-fishing guests further upstream without incident. Could an incident happen? Absolutely, in any given split-second! Which is why we never, ever let our guard down or assume safety in any given circumstance. But we’re not about staying home, and our guests are the richer for their experiences in Alaskan wilderness. Thanks, always, for sharing your perceptive, candid voice of Alaskan experience!

  5. Craig, I’ve followed your columns for years, have great respect for your journalism and very much enjoy your writing style. As a wilderness guide I appreciate some of the details you have presented that other media have overlooked, such as the fact that the lead guide in the Wilderness Explorer incident was not carrying bear spray. Knowing (per an email from Un-Cruise, for which I once worked) that the lead guide in this incident was a mere 7 feet or less from the sow when she first saw it and found herself between the sow and its cub, I’m doubtful she would have had a chance to deploy her bear spray, even if she’d had it on her and reasonably accessible. I also feel it’s unnecessarily hyperbolic and overstated for you to say 1) that the stream along which this group was hiking is “salmon-filled” and 2) that Chichagof Island is “bear-filled.”

    Sure, Southeast Alaska’s ABC islands are known for their high populations of brown bears, and yes, Sitkoh Creek is a spawning stream. Yet I hike with guests in wilderness on these islands every day for 16 weeks each summer, almost entirely on game trails, and while we rarely encounter bears while hiking, our fishing guides often find them close by when fishing where salmon are abundant. But Sitkoh Creek’s spawning runs of sea-run steelhead and sockeye salmon (the only large species that would be found over 2 miles from that stream’s mouth) are not currently in progress; the river is presently carrying the last of the chums and the pinks that have finally come in, both of which spawn well downstream of where the hiking party encountered the bears. (Guides and guests from the small ship Liseron fished among bears at the mouth of that very stream just over a week ago without incident.)

    My hunch — and I can only guess since I wasn’t present and we haven’t yet heard statements from those who were — is that wind (which the Coast Guard apparently reported at over 20 mph in the area around the time of the incident) and/or noise from the river may have prevented the bears from knowing that such a large group of people was approaching. So while I agree that the absence of bear spray in the lead guide’s possession is puzzling, given the bear’s proximity when she first encountered it I’m doubtful she could have deployed it. And I hope those among your readers who might relish spending guided time in our magnificent Southeast Alaska wilderness won’t be dissuaded from trusting companies like Un-Cruise that have many, many years of experience in bear country to safely give them an extraordinary experience because they fear they’ll encounter a bear behind every Sitka spruce tree. While these hikers may have had room for improvement in their approach and preparedness on Friday, this encounter sounds to me more like a tragic situation that only staying home might have prevented.

    • Larry: I used to live on a sailboat in Juneau in another life and was all over Southeast Alaska at that time. I did a lot of hiking off trail and on (including on this trail) on both Chichagof and Admiralty Islands. I saw a lot of bears and sometimes no bears. We did a cross-Admiralty canoe trip one year and didn’t see a single one, which actually surprised me. I met a few others off trail at a matter of a few feet. They ran. I never considered any of this hiking particularly dangerous. Some of the deadfall tangles left me more worried.

      But I was always extra alert in the vicinity of salmon streams during spawning season. Salmon streams concentrate bears. Just because most of the salmon are in the lower reaches doesn’t mean this concentration won’t spill over into areas above and around. A few miles travel is nothing to a brown bear. It is like you and or I walking around the block. And that is the reason I mentioned the salmon situation.

      Confounding the picture now is a report from a trooper out of Sitka saying the bear “bluff charged,” backed off, and then charged, and the company saying the person at the front of the line had bear spray, which is contrary to what the Coast Guard rescue swimmer who was the scene reported. It is unclear how to fit any of those pieces together.

      Personally, I regularly hike and sometimes run (don’t tell anyone) in a valley that regularly has brown bears. I carry my bear spray in my hand like a baton. I have no doubt I could get it fired off at 7 or 8 feet. If a bear bluff charged, providing even more time, I’m even more sure of that. I had a troublesome sub-adult within about 10 feet a few years ago and didn’t spray him (long and interesting story in and of itself) in large part because I had the can ready and was confident I could spray him if that became necessary.

      Noise from the river covering the sound of people could be an issue here. Wind is another matter. Bear attacks in strong winds appear rather rare in the data. My personal experience has been that bears seem more nervous in the wind, possibly because it stirs scent around and they’re not as confident their noses can tell them where threats are. I certainly share your view that it is unlikely this bear knew how many people were on the trail.

      But that just raises more questions: How far in front was the woman on the point? What did she do when she encountered the bear? What did she say? What did the rest of the group do? What sort of training did she have?

      I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the NOLS group that was attacked in the Talkeetna Mountains some years back. The kids involved there started running and chaos ensued. Several of them were injured, a couple seriously. I’d love to know more about what happened here.

      An attack on a group this size is unprecedented. I would be curious as to what sort of bear briefing Un-Cruise gives it clients. A group this size clustering might even have been able to back down an aggressive sow with cubs. I’ve seen that happen. Bears don’t like crowds. It seems to alter their flight or flee thinking heavily in the direction of the latter.

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