UPDATED with victim’s names
With a badly mauled hiking guide in a Seattle hospital starting down a long road to recovery, a more complete picture is beginning to emerge of what at first appeared to be an unprecedented brown bear attack on a group of 24 hikers on a wilderness trail on Chichagof Island in Southeast Alaska.
New information indicates guide Anna “Marika” Powers and a handful of clients were far enough ahead of the group to be almost separate from it when they rounded a bend on the Sitkoh Creek Trail and walked into a brown bear sow with a cub on Thursday.
And the 41-year-old Powers, a former resident of Talkeetna and Seward who now calls Hawaii home, might actually have upped her risk of being mauled when her first action was to protect the clients she was guiding.
Upon seeing the bears, she immediately threw up her hands and “said, ‘backup,'” her employer Dan Blanchard, chief executive officer for UnCruise Adventures, said by telephone from Seattle Sunday.
The clients did as told. The bear groaned and then it charged.
It has been recommended practice for years in Alaska to put your hands up to make yourself look bigger around bears. Professor Tom Smith from Brigham Young University is now studying that tactic and beginning to have some doubts about it, but his research is not complete.
Smith, who has long experience with Alaska’s brown/grizzly bears, was, however, among those flummoxed by early reports the Chichagof bear had attacked a group of two guides and 22 clients.
“Neither Steve Herrero (the dean of bear attack investigators) nor myself know of any case in North America where two or more persons were confronted by an aggressive bear that the bear made contact,” Smith emailed Sunday.
“There have been many instances of larger groups being involved in bear attacks, but when you break it down, it always turns out that they were a) spread out (and therefore not a large group that actually faced the bear), or b) ran in all directions (like the NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership) group up by Talkeetna a few years ago,” Smith said.
“Bottom line: group size does matter… but only if the group of persons actually groups up.”
Safety in numbers
The tactic of bunching up to repel a bear was well demonstrated by a group of Denali National Park tourists who managed to chase off an aggressive grizzly earlier this summer.
Unfortunately, the group on Chichagof was not bunched up but scattered out along a coastal rainforest trail that climbs from tidewater to Sitkoh Lake. Blanchard said lead guide Powers and up to four other clients had opened up a gap on the rest of the group before they came around a bend along a trail lined with moss-covered stumps.
Ahead were the two bears
“She wasn’t directly between them” as previously reported, Blanchard said.
The bears were 10 to 20 feet further along the trail. Witness accounts vary, he added. Some people said 10 feet. Others estimated 15 to 20 feet. There were only a handful of people in line directly behind the Powers in position to see anything, and it was a very stressful situation.
Most of the group was stretched out for 150 to 200 feet back down the trail. Those at the front of the line do agree the guide stopped, threw up her hands and said “back up.”
There is some disagreement on what happened next, Blanchard said. Some believe the bear bluff charged, stopped, stood up, groaned and then attacked. Others think the bear simply stood up, as bears often do to get a better view, let out a large groan, dropped to its feet and immediately charged.
Blanchard said he’s increasingly leaning to the latter view given how fast things happened. The attacked started and was over in seconds. Blanchard has not been able to talk to the Powers yet, he said, but the clients closest to the attack have all been interviewed.
Complicating matters, he added, is that “I’m not sure they know for sure what a bluff charge is.”
About the bear’s groan there is no doubt. It was unmistakable.
“It was heard by the guide in the back,” Blanchard said. Twenty-six-year-old Michael Justa at the tail end of the string of 22 clients immediately and heroically rushed forward.
His brave action might have saved Powers’ life, said Blanchard, who admits to being impressed by the calm shown the new Alaskans who grew up in Albany, New York.
Justa arrived at the front of the line to find the bear on his coworker mauling her. He pepper sprayed it. The spray drove it off, but it ran into and injured him. The injuries were minor. Justa was later treated and released in Sitka.
Immediately after the attack, Justa started first aid on the victim and got on his radio to the UnCruise pocket cruiser standing just offshore. It radioed the U.S. Coast Guard for assistance.
The Coast Guard was soon on the scene with a rescue helicopter. It was able to lower a rescue swimmer into an opening in the spruce-evergreen forest about two and a half miles along the trail, and then hoist the injured guides into the helicopter for transport to the Coast Guard station in Sitka about 30 miles to the south. (Editor’s note: Angoon, the community mistakenly listed as the site of the accident in the linked video, is a community across Chatham Strait from where the actual attack took place.)
The seriously mauled guide, whose injuries reportedly include a broken femur, was stabilized at the Sitka hospital before being flown to Haborview Medical Center in Seattle. Blanchard was meeting Powers’s family there Sunday.
Unused bear spray
Both Powers at the front of the group and the Justa at the back were carrying bear-repelling pepper spray, contrary to earlier reports, Blanchard said. But Powers never had a chance to use hers. Blanchard said it appears to have stayed in a holster on the shoulder strap of her backpack, although she usually carried it in a holster on her hip.
There is no indication she ever got it in her hand, he said.
“This is something we’re changing our policy on,” he added. UnCruise is now telling its guides to carry the spray in their hand like a baton when leading hikes. Several other Southeast guide businesses, who received an email from UnCruise after the Thursday attack detailing what had happened, said they are also adopting that policy.
Blanchard said everyone at UnCruise is pulling for Powers, whose legs were badly torn up by the bear.
“Her pack probably saved her some additional injury,” he said.
Powers, who had gone through bear training, managed to roll onto her stomach during the attack and lace her fingers behind her neck to protect vital body parts. The pack contained a first aid kit and an emergency kit in heavy cases that probably helped protect the Powers when the bear tried to bite into the pack.
Powers is an old Alaska hand. Along with once living in Talkeetna, she worked for a time at Sunny Cove Sea Kayaking in Seward and spent a lot of time in the Alaska back country.
Blanchard said he’s been contemplating what could have been done differently during the Chichagof encounter, but can’t see much other than carrying the bear spray in hand where it is ready in the blink of an eye.
And in some ways he seems to be accepting that in Southeast Alaska, where the big islands are thick with big brown bears, something was inevitably going to happen.
“It’s been a lot of years of bear-free activities,” he said. “We do hundreds of hikes a week.”
And the company has been doing so for decades without incident.
The company traces its roots back to the late Chuck West, an Alaska tourism legend, who started Cruise West in 1973. By the 1990s, the company had expanded into markets all along the West Coast of North and Central America.
Cruise West sold its assets in 2010, and UnCruise picked up its Alaska operations. The company has had a good safety record. Larry West, a skipper for another small-boat tour company, said he worked for UnCruise in 2013 and found “their training is top shelf. They’ve been doing shore activities for a long, long time without a problem.
“Their guides get good pre-season training, and they’re taught how to explain to their guests (how to behave).”
He described them as “safety conscious,” and said “this (attack) is like one of those complete outliers.”
But in Alaska, outliers are sometimes almost the norm.