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 Alaska.org, 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).”