Just days after residents of a subdivision just outside of Seward, Alaska, came under fire for killing a grizzly bear and cubs that appeared a danger to people, the shop teacher from the local high school has been mauled by a bear.
Ronn Hemstock was out for an early morning dog walk near the city airport when the attack occurred. Co-workers say he suffered significant injuries.
The injuries to the 55-year-old teacher at first appeared treatable at the medical facility in Seward. This was posted to the Facebook page for Seward school athletics early in the day:
“Just a quick note to planet Seward: Mr. Hemstock was attacked by a bear this morning out by the airport. He is currently in the hospital here recovering and is stable. Please keep him in your thoughts as he is recovering and although the word he gave Mr. Walker this morning was that he was planning on being here for the wrestling tourney set up this afternoon, we are hoping he will stay and recover as needed. I know, who else besides Hemstock would get mauled by a bear and still try to come to work! He’s truly bad to the bone!!”
But shortly after that post went up, Hemstock was medevaced by helicopter from Seward to the Providence Medical Center in Anchorage. Friends said doctors are concerned about possible injuries to his neck.
On Thursday afternoon, a Providence spokesman reported Hemstock’s condition as “fair.”
The bear that attacked is believed to have been a grizzly or “brown bear” as Alaskans commonly refer to coastal grizzlies.
Seward Police Chief Tom Clemons said, “we think it was a sow with cubs. We’re not sure about the cubs.”
Grizzly sows with cubs are notoriously protective, but most people attacked by sows survive. The bears tend to neutralize the threat and then flee with their young.
The Seward airport was temporarily closed, although it is unclear whether the bears are still in the area.
“We’re asking people to stay away from the airport,” Clemons said; the state controls use of the facility. Clemons said he really has no idea of whether the bears are still in the area or whether there were any bear attractants that might keep them in the area.
“I’m not an expert on these things,” he said.
The attack happened only a few miles from where TV reality star Bear Grylss hiked with President Barack Obama late last summer before dining on a salmon the courageous Grylss claimed to have taken away from a Seward-area bruin.
Reporting on Obama’s Alaska adventure, The New York Times described the fish as “prechewed by a bear,” although it was actually bought from a fish processing company in Seward and vetted by the Secret Service before being fed the president. The Secret Service was, however, concerned about bears in the area where the President was to hike, and the Thursday attack illustrated why.
Reports of the early morning mauling first appeared on the Facebook page “Seward, AK Bear & Wildlife Report.” The page tracks wildlife sightings and problems in the small community at the head of Resurrection Bay about 125 miles south of Anchorage.
Shortly thereafter, the Seward City News reported the police department said a person believed to be walking their dogs at Seward Municipal Airport was mauled by a bear at 7 a.m. and taken to the Providence Seward Medical Center.
A grizzly bear sow with two cubs was spotted near the Seward landfill not long after the reported attack. The landfill is just to the north of the airport. The smells associated with dumps sometimes attract bears.
Both the landfill and the airport are also near Bear Creek, which gets a late run of salmon. Coho salmon continue to arrive in the creek into September, and bears could be there now looking for end-of-season salmon only to find the pickings poor. The return of coho to the creek has been weak this year.
The Alaska Dispatch News, quoting state Department of Transportation spokeswoman Shannon McCarthy, claimed Hemstock was jogging on the runway when attacked and suggested he might have been there illegally.
“McCarthy said the airport is surrounded by perimeter fences, all of which have signs telling people not to cross the active runway,” the ADN story said. “Anyone who accesses the airport without an aviation purpose should not be there.”
The airport is not surrounded by a perimeter fence. And Hemstock owns a single-engine Champion aircraft that he keeps tied down at the airport. He checks on it regularly, according to friends.
What exactly happened in the moments prior to the bear attack remains unclear.
This is a developing story.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story had Hemstock’s age wrong.