Alaska bear fears

crow pass

A runner on the Crow Pass Crossing/UAA photo, Mike Dineen

Two deaths in two days in two separate black bear attacks hundreds of miles apart in Alaska have left a lot of residents of the 49th state edgy and nervous about venturing into the woods.

On Friday, organizers of the state’s most popular wilderness foot race – the 24-mile Crow Pass Crossing – announced they were cancelling the July 22 event.  The race is sponsored by University of Alaska Anchorage. Race director Michael Friess, a long time runner and the school’s assistant athletic director, said a decision was made to step back and re-examine race communications and medical support.

Friess left no doubt the decision stemmed from the Monday death of 16-year-old Patrick “Jack” Cooper as he was descending Bird Ridge after the Robert Spurr Memorial Hill Climb on Sunday. Cooper was killed in an unprecedented attack by a predatory black bear only about 25 miles down the Seward Highway from Alaska’s largest city.

“It would be inappropriate to ignore it and just move on,” Friess said.

A wilderness race through Chugach State Park, the Crow Pass event has long been fraught with dangers. Over the more than three decades the race has run, there have been dozens – if not hundreds – of bear encounters, but never a serious problem.

The risks posed by falls, stinging wasps and a ford of glacial Eagle River have presented far bigger concerns for race officials.

Former race director Dr. Jay Caldwell said that for 21 years from the first race in 1983 through 2004 he lived in fear something bad would happen.

All kinds of risks

“It was the worst day of the year for me,” he said. “I was scared shitless until the last person came across the line.”

Caldwell was famous for trying to terrify people before the race to keep them from running, and he kept a few people out of the event because he questioned their qualifications to take care of themselves in the wilderness.

Always, he said, there was the worry some “nut job” lacking both fitness and skill would talk his or her way into the event, manage to make the one-hour cutoff at Crow Pass intended to stop the weakest runners before they got to deep into wild country on the way down Raven Creek to Eagle River.

Caldwell had nightmares about someone running out of gas 15 miles into the race and needing rescue.

“Bad things can happen there,” Caldwell said, “but there are a lot of things far more likely to happen than a bear attack.”

Former race winner Harlow Robinson said he remembers at least twice running into bears on the trail, but they were never a problem. They parted ways, and he kept going.

“I think we should wait awhile until emotions settle, and we can look at it objectively,” he said. “At some point we can’t let fear dictate policy decisions.”

But Robinson, who grew up in the wilderness in the shadow of Mount Denali, himself illustrated the fear rippling across the state.

Safety gear

Reached on a smart phone in his car as he headed north to the Kesugi Ridge Traverse and Half Traverse in Denali State Park about 165 miles north of Anchorage, he confessed, “I’m going to run with bear spray for the first time in my life.”

Red-pepper bear spray has in recent years come to be thought of as the bear-equivalent of a personal flotation device (PFD) for those on dry land in bear country, but questions were being raised about its effectiveness in the wake of a fatal bear attack in central Alaska on Tuesday.

Twenty-seven-year-old Erin Johnson from Anchorage and 38-year-old Ellen Trainor from Fairbanks were doing environmental studies for the remote Pogo Mine about 40 miles off the Alaska Highway near Delta Junction when they were attacked by a black bear.

The bear crept up on Trainor from behind, pounced, knocked her down and then went for Johnson, her employer said. Trainor was able to get out a canister of spray she had in a pouch on her belt and sprayed the bear, but she could not save Johnson, a young woman married only two weeks earlier.

The attack raised serious questions about the efficacy of pepper spray on black bear and with Johnson dead others were emerging to talk about failures they’d suffered when spraying the smallest of Alaska’s three bear species.

The spray has had few failures on grizzly bears, or what Alaskans just as often call browns. And Tom Smith, a Brigham Young University scientists who has been studying Alaska bears for decades, said he continues to recommend it.

Smith noted that the spray doesn’t necessarily discourage black bears that have targeted a human as prey, but it will deter them and buy the potential victim time.

Rob Foster,  a Canadian biologist, credited the spray with helping save his life even though it didn’t drive off the bear. Foster engaging in a harrowing, 45-minute, life-or-death dance with a black bear he sprayed four times and threatened with the spray at least another eight times.

The spray didn’t discourage what Foster called an obviously predatory bear, but every time Foster sprayed the bear in the face it backed off. Foster’s aggressive assaults on the bear in which he charged it yelling and threatening with the bear spray also played a big role in his survival.

Fighting back

Others in Alaska in the past have driven off similar bears by wielding tree branches as clubs or throwing rocks. Many long time Alaskans accept bears dangers as simply the way things are in the wild north.

“Life is a risk,” said Robinson.

But the state – and views – are rapidly changing. With the Cross Pass race already canceled, questions were being raised about a lot of other events during which runners have also encountered bears. They ranged from the Mayor’s Marathon in Anchorage itself to the Lost Lake Run in the Chugach National Forest to the Seward Mount Marathon in the city of the same name.

The Fourth of July Mount Marathon race up and down a mountain behind the city on the edge of Resurrection Bay is the oldest, most famous and most popular race in the state. Runner Micheal Lemaitre disappeared there in 2012. There was a lot of speculation later that a bear might have gotten him.

His body was never found.

Friess said university officials are going to sit down and see if they can’t come up with a safer way to run the Crow Pass Race. Organizers of other racers were saying much the same. But it’s impossible to run a wilderness race without risks.

“We’ve been lucky,” Freiss said, “but I think we’ve made our own luck. The last thing in the world I want is to see this race cancelled.”

He might have bad news coming from Smith, however. The scientist is just completing a new study of bear attacks in Alaska. As part of that study, he plotted the locations of  all of the attacks on a map.

“Eagle River,” he said Thursday night, “is ground zero for bear attacks in Alaska.”

The Crow Pass race ends at the Eagle River Nature Center. Over the years, there have been a lot of attacks near that visitor center in Chugach Park.










7 replies »

  1. I am sorry that the Crow Pass Race has been cancelled. The Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic has been run every summer since 1982 with little fanfare. The racers in this race are more vulnerable than any of the other races.
    One death and several serious accidents have occurred. I don’t think the race will be cancelled.
    A life lived without risk is a life unlived!. Erin Johnson would never have opted for a rocking chair.

    • Craig,
      Thanks for your informative article. You mentioned “pepper spray” as having minimal effect on Black Bears, especially in the recent death and mauling at Pogo. What about other bear sprays on the market? Any input from you or others is appreciated.

      Also you might consider editing your comment “smallest of Alaska’s two bears”. Two bears? I wondered if there are any experiences with bear spray on Polar bears, the third Alaska bear?


      • thanks. the dangers of working in a hurry. its fixed. i know better. the attempts on polar bears are limited, but have worked. there are some thoughts it has to do with how the bear is approaching you: charging with mouth and eyes wide open and nostrils flaring, or sneaking up with its head down, mouth closed, nose largely shut off and eyes squinched up. it’s an interesting theory. i should probably write more.

    • Dick: i couldn’t agree more. as someone with some bad experience with bears (i’d guess there are people reading this who don’t know i shot a grizzly off my leg), i’ve always considered bears low on the scale of risks which start with fast water (one can easily get washed into serious trouble), falls, exposure, snowmachine accidents, avalanches and or rock slides, and wasp stings. i fortunately seem immune to the latter, but have friends who’ve nearly died. those aware of their susceptibility consider their epi-pens a hell of a lot more important than bear spray. stings kill about 50 people in this country every year, and there have been years when Crow Pass was wasp hell.

  2. I am probably wrong in my assumption that ‘runners’ run it is in their nature so when confronted by a bear maybe they forget the basic tenant that you do not try and run from a bear. Having lived in the Alaskan wilderness for almost twenty years and encountering countless bears, (even unexpected meetings with a mom and her young), I have never been attacked. Was that luck or just standing ones ground and doing what I had learned over the years? Runners…make some noise while you run.

    • pete: some of it is luck. i was standing, confronting and talking to a pair of two-year-olds that had started following me through dense timber (not the first time i’ve been followed by bears) when mom ran over me, clawed me in the jaw, and grabbed my leg in her mouth. i’m sure there are some runners who’ve run from bears. those who run a lot in the wilderness know better than to do that, although i’m not that sure it makes any difference. the running concern is more with situational awareness. i don’t think there’s any doubt that the faster you’re moving through the country the less you see, hear and smell. most runners and bikers do try to make noise to clear the path so to speak, but that’s not always foolproof. Lord knows i’ve shot and killed more than a few wild animals that died primarily because they weren’t, for whatever reason, paying attention, the best examples being several fighting and tow breeding Sitka blacktail bucks. they were totally preoccupied. but i’ve also had close calls with grizzlies that were on kills that were clearly preoccupied with feeding, and most likely weren’t going to move even if they did hear or smell me coming. it’s interesting in reviewing the two Anchorage grizzly deaths – Larry Waldron and Marcie Trent. Larry, the fastest of three hikers, went past that bear on a moose kill without incident. it subsequently attacked Marcie. the 14-year-old with the two of them ran away when Marcie was attacked and caught up to Larry to tell him about what he believed to be a moose attack. Larry was killed when he came back to help Marcie. i’ve never thought about it until now, but there could also be an upside to moving through the country fast. i know i went past one bear kill (an adult moose) at a distance of 30 or 40 feet (i really should go up valley and measure) on my mountain bike and never noticed anything. the neighbor and her dogs discovered it later the same day when the bear popped his head out of the alders and gave her a bit of a fright, but he didn’t attack. i think the Kaerleian (sp.?) might have had something to do with that, and he was but one in a pack of four total, which is clearly going to make the bear want to stay on that kill and defend rather than attack and lose the kill. bears and people encounters are so damn complicated that there’s really no black or white right and wrong. it’s all a bunch of grays. and yes, unfortunately, luck plays a role.

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