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.
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.