Death stalks Alaska

black bear

An Alaska black bear/Alaska Department of Fish and Game

A sunny weekend at the start of June left three dead after tragic encounters with nature on the edge of Alaska civilization. It was a reminder that America’s last great wilderness is both beautiful and dangerous.

The bodies of Anchorage fishermen Benjamin Jimenez, 53, and Ferdinand Salvador, died when the boat they were aboard sank outside of the end-of-the-road community of Seward about 128 miles south of the state’s largest city on Saturday afternoon, according to Alaska State Troopers.

The U.S. Coast Guard reported other boaters found their bodies floating in the Gulf of Alaska. Two other fishermen with Jimenez and Salvador made it to a beach and were rescued, the agency reported. Their names were not available.

Less than 24 hours after that tragedy, a 16-year-old competitor in the Robert Spurr Memorial Hill Climb at Bird Ridge was chased by bear and either killed by it or died in a fall. Details were unclear. Various Anchorage media were reporting the youth was the victim of a fatal mauling.

Chugach State Park rangers shot and wounded what was described as a lone, 250-pound black bear encountered near the young man’s body, but there were also reports of a grizzly bear and another black bear with cubs in the area that surrounds the Bird Ridge Trail on its climb from the Seward Highway to a turnaround at about 3,400 feet.

A search for the wounded bear was underway Sunday afternoon.

The search for the 16-year-old runner began after the young man phoned his brother to report he was being chased by a bear, according to park rangers. The young man’s body was later found off the ridge trail in an area so rugged the Alaska Air National Guard was called in with a helicopter to get him.

Fatal black bear attacks are rare and usually happen in remote areas. The Bird Trail is a popular, heavily used hiking route about 26 miles east of downtown Anchorage.

The last fatal black bear attack in Alaska was in June 2013 when Fairbanks resident Robert Weaver, 64, was attacked outside a remote cabin on George Lake near Delta Junction in the state’s Interior.

Wildlife officials later said he appeared to be the rare victim of a predatory black bear attack.

A 2011 study by Canadian Stephen Herrero, one of North America’s top authorities on bear attacks, concluded that nearly all fatal black bears attacks in the past century have involved male bears preying on humans in wilderness areas.

Herrero documented 63 deaths in North America in 110 years from 1900 to 2009. He found black bear sows with cubs – unlike grizzly bear sows with cubs – virtually never attacked people. But he warned of lone, male bears.

“Most fatal black bear attacks were predatory and all fatal attacks were carried out by a single bear,” Herrero wrote. “With training, people can learn to recognize the behaviour of a bear that is considering them as prey and deter an attack by taking aggressive action such as fighting back.”

But fighting back when confronted by a bear is easier to say than to do.

The latest attack is likely to re-open an Alaska debate about running in the wilderness. Both Herrero and Rick Sinnott, the former Anchorage-area wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of  Fish and Game, have raised concerns about running in bear country.

“I always tell people trail running’s dangerous,” Sinnott told the Los Angeles Times in 1995 after popular Anchorage runners Marcie Trent, 77, and her son, Larry Waldron, 45, were killed by a bear on the McHugh Creek Trail only about 10 miles west of the site of the last fatality.

Trent and Waldron were on a fairly steep, uphill section of the trail and thus most likely hiking when they stumbled upon a grizzly bear defending a moose it had killed. Grizzly bears are far more aggressive and powerful than black bears.

Anchorage does, however,  have some history of problems with runners and bears. A young California woman was seriously mauled by a grizzly while jogging on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson three years ago.  An Anchorage woman was hospitalized after running into a grizzly in the city’s Far North Bicentennial Park in August 2008.

And there have been other cases of runners either injured or chased by bears.

Runners counter that wilderness races such as the Crow Pass Crossing have been going on for three decades now with dozens, if not hundreds, of encounters between bears and runners without any serious problems.

And what exactly happened in the latest incident – the second attack involving a bear in less than a week – has yet to be determined. State wildlife biologists are still investigating a Wednesday bear attack that left two young adults and a teenager injured near the Eagle River suburb just north of Anchorage.

In that case, four hikers on a trail along the river stumbled into a grizzly bear sow with cubs of the year. Grizzlies with young cubs often attack when surprised by humans at close range.










6 replies »

  1. The 1995 mauling on McHugh Creek Trail didn’t happen on a steep section. It was along a relatively long and flat stretch. And no one knows whether Mr. Waldron was running or walking because he was separated from his companions when the bear attacked. Both adults killed in that incident were well-known trail runners.

    • it was long. i guess it depends on how we define steep. it certainly wasn’t Flattop steep. but i wouldn’t describe it as “relatively flat.” it was uphill. i went and ran it shortly after. i was a decent runner in those days (2:58 marathoner). i could jog it. Marcie wouldn’t have been running. you might be right about Larry. we’ll never know. i couldn’t run it now, and i’m younger than Marcie was and still run. i agree they both were well-known trail runners. but does walking/jogging/running really matter in the Trent/Waldron case? they stumbled onto a grizzly bear on kill. is there any reason to believe the risks are less if you walk into such a kill instead of jog into it? i guess you could argue they might have had a better chance of detecting the kill before getting into the danger zone, but that’s pure speculation. if they’re talking away like many regular hikers, they could walk into the situation clueless. i’ve watched yacking hikers walk past a bear within 15 feet not knowing it was there. a grizzly on a kill might just sit there and let them pass. then again, it might not. flip a coin. i zoomed past with 25 feet of a grizzly on the carcass of an adult moose last year while on my mountain bike last year and never knew it was there. it didn’t stick it’s alder through the alders into the grass opening that would have made me readily visible, or if it did, i didn’t notice. it did stick its head out later to confront one of the neighbor’s dogs when she went by, but it didn’t leave the kill. maybe it was her pack of dogs. maybe she was just lucky. i’m beginning to think plain, old luck has more to do with a lot of these attacks than anything else.

  2. The Bird Ridge runner story is sad for the impact and loss of this young man for his brother and family and the running community and Anchorage in general. The debate continues. For hikers, not runners, choices of ways to protect and hopefully prevent a mauling is clear though those that urge a bear hunt seldom seem to encourage safety precautions short of carrying a gun.

    • This was not a mauling! Why do the other main stream media, state law enforcement, state park officials and those overseeing the race continue to refer to this incident as a mauling. It is not. Rare as it may be, it is obvious to those knowledgeable about bears and Alaska wilderness that immediate, initial information indicated this was predatory behavior on the part of the bear. It is a disservice to the public to downplay this attack as “just rare.” People need to know information so they can make informed choices in the wilderness. Black Bears are often classified as omnivores, but in fact are predators – they are major predators of newborn/young moose calves. And there are several recent (last couple decades) examples of Black Bears preying on humans in North America – rare or uncommon – Pick a word. Then there are Grizzly/Brown Bears, which are not known to prey on humans, but have on occasion. Two summers ago a woman was terribly mauled by a Brown Bear sow with cubs in the same community, within rifle shot of where this incident occurred. Marcie Trent was killed by a Brown Bear on a Turnagain Arm south facing slope above McHugh Creek. Hello! This is Alaska! Alaska is mostly wilderness. As a 30+ year resident of Girdwood, I as others who reside along Turnagain Arm regularly have numerous bear sitings and encounters on the south facing slopes and trails along Turnagain Arm – both species of bears are into new growth vegetation on south facing slopes in late Spring/early summer after emerging from hibernation, following new vegetative growth up elevation as temperatures rise. I have personally seen just shy of a dozen bears of both species feeding peacefully within hundreds of yards of each other in small areas of succulent new growth just above the Seward Hwy – resulting in particularly short term dense concentrations of bears. Individuals I know who regularly hike and/or run the trails see bears almost every time they are out. This is not cause for bearanoia or hyperbole and scare tactics. But entering wilderness requires being KNOWLEDGEABLE about wilderness and wildlife, being situationally aware, carrying communication devices, deterrents (firearm and/or bear spray), and knowing how to use them. This is common sense. Music ear plugs do not belong in the wilderness. If one carries a cell phone, water bottle or fanny back, there is absolutely no reason not to at a minimum carry bear spray. Again, common sense based on knowledge. This is a horrible tragedy. Just horrible. As a long time resident of the Southcentral Alaska community, and parent who’s children contantly recreate in wilderness and backcountry, I feel the horror this family and their friends must be going through. In closing, it is my strong opinion, that at a minimum, young people should not participate in organized wilderness events without adult supervision at regular checkpoints, who possess and are trained in the use of deterrents and communication devices (radios/cell phones). Politically correct doesn’t work when our young children are involved. Managers of state and federal recreation areas have an obligation to require SIMPLE common sense rules for organized wilderness youth events. Overbearing bureaucratic oversight and adult coddling don’t apply here. Just common sense based on knowledge. Have fun, be prepared, be situationally aware and use your head!

      • sense is not common, Larry. other than that, i agree with most of your post. there have been 63 predatory fatalities in 100 years. everyone can form their own opinion on whether that is rare or not. and as it turns out this was a predatory attack.

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