The big, brown bears of coastal Alaska have yet to enter hibernation, but already the 49th state appears to have tied the previous annual record for bear maulings.
A Thursday attack in the coastal community of Seward brought to nine the number of people known to have been injured by grizzlies this year. The previous high was nine in 2008.
No one died that year. The situation has been similar so far this year, although several people have been seriously injured.
The state maintains no official data base on Alaska bear attacks. National Park Service biologist Tom Smith kept one while working in Alaska in the 1990s and early 2000s , but he left Alaska for a job as professor at Brigham Young University in Utah a decade ago.
Larry Kanuit, an author of Alaska bear tales, has kept track of maulings for decades, but he admits his data is incomplete. He and other sources, however, do agree on a record high of nine in 2008.
The worst bad year before
That was the year the Washington Post sent a reporter north to Alaska to investigate attacks and headlined the subsequent story “Bear Attacks Hit Record High in Alaska.”
“At least eight Alaskans have been battered by bears this year, with three maulings in five days in early August,” the Post’s Karl Vick wrote. “And though no human fatalities have been recorded, the summer of the bear is testing Alaskans’ carefully calibrated relationship with wildlife.”
One more mauling came after Vick left the state. The 2008 attacks started with the near-deadly mauling of teenager Petra Davis during an all-night bike race just after summer solstice in Anchorage and ended with a Kodiak Island attack on 31-year-old Matthew Sutton near the end of October.
The attacks this year started earlier, and there’s no guarantee they are over yet. In years past, late-season deer hunters on Kodiak have regularly become victims. A brown bear on Kodiak killed Anchorage deer hunter Ned Rasmussen in 1999. Another Kodiak bear almost killed Anchorage hunter Scott Oberlitner in 2010. And in 2014, a 65-year-old deer hunter from Sitka was mauled by a brown bear on Kodiak.
Hunters in peril
Statistically, hunters appear at the greatest risk from bears because they spend large amounts of time sneaking around in the wilderness. That ups the chance of a surprise encounter with a grizzly, and though most grizzlies surprised at close range flee, there is no guarantee.
“In 88 percent of grizzly bear inflicted injuries, the victim was actively hunting, hiking or working,” Canadian biologists Stephen Herrero and Andrew Higgins observed after studying decades of data on bear maulings in British Columbia. “Hunting was the activity most commonly associated with grizzly bear attacks.”
Alaska bear attack injuries began this year with a hunter being mauled along the Denali Highway about 210 miles north of Anchorage. Seventy-seven-year-old Glenn Bohn from Wasilla was bear hunting with his son, an Alaska big-game guide, along the still winter-closed route when they were surprised by a bear. It knocked Bohn down and nearly ripped his face off before his son was able to shoot and kill it.
For those who truly want to see the horrific sort of damage bears can do there are before and after photos of Bohn here on the website 24hourcampfire.com. They are not for the young or the faint of heart.
Only days after the attack on Bohn, 35-year-old Forest Wagner, a wilderness education professor at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau, was attacked while leading a group of students on an outing near Haines at the very north end of the Panhandle. He was on the slopes of 6,405-foot Mount Emmerich when he apparently skied too near a sow with a cub and she attacked.
Both Bohm and Wagner were seriously injured and spent days in the hospital and weeks in recovery. The bear that attacked Wagner was never found.
The next to be attacked was a black bear hunter near Yakutat. Twenty-nine-year-old Kenneth Steck from Anchorage was camped with friends along Disenchantment Bay and went to get water only to be jumped by a grizzly. Friends found him with the bear still attacking and drove it off. Steck was taken to Yakutat, a small coastal community, and from there medevaced to Anchorage where he spent four days in the hospital.
As with Bohm and Wagner, his physical recovery took some time.
Less serious attacks
Denali National Park hiker Phil Buchanan was luckier than those before when in June he ran into a sow with a cub in that 6-million-acre park about 225 miles north of Alaska’s largest city. National Park Service rangers said the off-duty bus driver out for a wilderness adventure heard a cub shriek only to see a sow charge.
Buchanan stood his ground. The sow knocked him over. Once down, he curled up into a fetal position and waited for the attack to end. The sow bit him in the left calf and either bit or clawed him below the rib cage before deciding she’d neutralized the threat and moved off with her cub. Buchanan’s injuries were relatively minor.
So, too, those of 28-year-old Fangyuan Zhou from Anchorage who was attacked by a problematic, juvenile grizzly bear just days after Buchanan was bit. Zhou and two friends with her made the mistake of hitting the ground and playing dead after the young bear challenged them along a trail near the Savage River.
That encouraged it to approach. It then bit Zhou, which caused her friends to jump up and start throwing rocks which drove off the bear. Park rangers eventually killed the bear in the name of public safety, but not after spending considerable time trying to educate Park visitors in how to deal with juvenile grizzly bears.
Bear attack cluster
By August, the situation in Denali, arguably Alaska’s best known national park, had quieted down, but the bears in the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest of Southeast Alaska were just starting to act up. In the space of two months, five bear attacks happened there in an area about the size of the city of Phoenix.
All of the attacks involved surprise encounters with brown bears at close range. Most of the bears were thought to be sows with cubs. There was speculation that a weak run of salmon to the region this year might have left the bears on edge.
Two attacks ended with the bears shot dead, and the people shaken but OK. The other three incidents, however, left people injured, two seriously.
The first was former Alaskan Anna “Marika” Powers, a guide for UnCruise Adventures who now calls Hawaii home. She was guiding a large group of tourists from a company cruiseship along the Sitkoh Creek Trail on Chichagof Island north of Sitka when they surprised a sow with a cub.
According to her boss, the 41-year-old Powers threw up her hands and “said ‘backup” to the more than 20 clients in line on the trail behind her. They were retreating as the sow charged and mauled Powers badly. She was saved by another guide who rushed forward from the tail end of the string of clients to pepper spray the bear and force it to treat.
Powers had to be air evacuated first to Sitka and then to the Harborview Medical Center in Seattle where she was in serious condition for days, but she, too, is now recovering.
Hunters again victims
Only about a month after the attack on Powers came another mauling about 20 miles to the east on the Admiralty Island. This one happened at night and left the client of an Alaska big game guide injured.
Guide LaVern Beier of Juneau and client Douglas Adkins from Kentucky were returning to their boat from a futile day of bear hunting on the island known as “The Fortress of the Bears” when they stumbled into a bruin in the dark. It is not know if it was a sow or a boar.
The bear charged into the beams of the headlamps the men were wearing and kept coming. It took the bear but seconds to make a mess of Adkins before it disappeared back into the dark. Beier got his client to the boat and called the Coast Guard, which sent a helicopter to medevac Adkins to Juneau.
Only days later, another hunter – this one out for Sitka blacktail deer – was mauled just across Stephens Passage from Admiralty once again on the island of Chichagof. Thirty-year-old Josh Dybdahl from Hoonah and hunting buddy Anthony Lindoff from the state capital city of Juneau stumbled into a sow with two cubs.
Lindoff saw the bear first, but unfortunately had his rifle slung over his backpack. He scrambled to get out of the way of the charging sow. Dybdahl, seeing what was happening, tried to step into position to shoot, but as he did so he moved toward the sow’s cubs. She wheeled, knocked him down and bit into him.
Lindoff then managed to get his gun free and shot the bear as she was letting go of Dybdhal’s leg to grab him by the head. The bear died. The two hunters managed to get a connection by cell phone to Hoonah, and a Coast Guard helicopter was soon on the way to snatch Dybdahl out of the forest and haul him to the Juneau hospital.
Dangerous dog walk
The ninth mauling came this week in Seward where local wrestling coach Ron Hemstock went to check on his airplane at the local airport on Thursday and let the family dog, Dax, stretch his legs. Hemstock’s wife, Jill, said Friday that she is a little relieved that she didn’t go along as she often does.
The area around the little-used Seward airport provides one of the largest, open fields near the city at the head of Resurrection Bay about 125 miles south of Anchorage. Many Seward residents let their dogs out to run there.
Dax, a husky mix, apparently encountered a sow with two cubs in the predawn darkness, because when he came running back to Hemstock he had a sow in tow, Jill said. The bear abandoned the Dax chase and flattened Hemstock, who suffered significant injuries to his back, shoulder and neck.
He was able to call for help on a cell phone and medics took him to the local hospital. He tried to tough it out and stay in Seward to set up for a Friday wrestling tournament at the Seward High School, but doctors ordered him flown to Anchorage for more tests on his neck and shoulder. He didn’t stay there long. Badly battered, he was stitched up and back in Seward for the Friday wrestling match.
But Seward residents were a little on edge with Halloween approaching and kids expected to be out trick-or-treating. The sow that attacked Hemstock was the second to act out aggressively in the area in just a matter of days.
Another was shot and killed along with its cubs after it began chasing residents of a subdivision just north of the city, tearing up off-road vehicles, and brazenly breaking into sheds, chicken coops and small out buildings looking for food.