No bears were in evidence on Saturday when Mark Price from Seward returned to the scene of his frightening, early October grizzly encounter, and this time he had the comfort of a .375 H&H caliber rifle in his hands.
It didn’t matter. He was still uneasy.
“I will never be comfortable on that trail again,” he said.
The trail is the Resurrection River Trail only about five miles north of the community at the head of Resurrection Bay, about 128 miles south of Anchorage. From where the trail leaves the Exit Glacier Road guiding tourists into Kenai Fjords National Park, it follows the river into the heart of Kenai Peninsula brown bear habitat.
The trail is attractive, and the first several miles smooth enough for mountain bike. By Alaska standards, it is heavily used in the summer. But most of the tourists had gone and use had fallen off by the time Price encountered the bears that rocked him to the core on Oct. 4.
“I thought today was the day I was going to die,” he posted on the Seward, AK Bear & Wildlife Report Facebook page just after his encounter with a family of three grizzlies. “One charged, and I had to discharge pepper spray at about 10 feet. Happens so fast. Seemed like I took forever to get that white (safety) clip off. My last trip up that trail for the year.”
Resurrection River hosts runs of pink, chum, sockeye and Chinook of salmon, a significant return of coho salmon, and plenty of bears. Had reality TV star Bear Grylls really gone out and stolen a salmon from a bear to feed President Barrack Obama as claimed on the president’s 2015 visit to Exit Glacier – a fake news story the mainstream media ate up – this would have been the place to go to get the fish.
For better or worse, the Chugach National Forest trail along the river – like so many trails in Alaska – follows the bottom land that forms a natural travel route through the mountains for both humans and wildlife.
“Salmon congregate in Resurrection River and some of its tributaries,” notes a watershed assessment conducted by the U.S. Forest Service.. “(Bear) encounters may occur at salmon streams or along trails resulting in injury to humans and injury or death to brown bears.”
No humans are known to have died in bear attacks in the Seward area in recent times, but just to the north of the Resurrection River Pass in the drainage of the Kenai River, two people have been killed by grizzlies since 1998 and several more have been badly injured both there and in the Seward area.
Just last fall, Seward teacher Ron Hemstock let his dog out to run while checking on his airplane at the local airport. The dog brought back a grizzly. Hemstock didn’t have bear spray with him. He was seriously mauled.
Those who live in the Seward area know the risk. But most consider it small and don’t worry about it much. Price confessed that he might have grown a little too complacent.
“The day I went up there it was lightly raining,” he texted. “(I was) just taking the dog for a little walk.”
About a mile and a quarter up the well-used trail, he came to a bridge over a salmon-filled tributary creek that drains into the Resurrection.
“In the bears’ defense,” he posted on Facebook, “they were on the creek and probably didn’t hear me coming. I’m sure they were as surprised as me. I usually let out a yell when I come up to that creek. Today I didn’t.”
Surprising grizzly bears is never a good thing, but Price, fortunately, had a can of Counter Assault Bear Repellent with him, and he had it in the right place:
“I had my bear spray in a holster in my hand,” he texted. “(I) got my finger in the ring and fumbled a little getting the (safety) clip off. By the time I got it off, she was coming up the left side of the bridge and onto it. I sprayed her on the bridge. She was turning a little as the spray got to her, so I kind of am wondering if she was bluffing. But who knows.”
There is no way to know for certain when a grizzly is bluffing until it is on you. Then it becomes clear that it is not, and the survival options narrow to curl and cover your neck with yours fingers or fight with whatever weapon you have at hand.
The efficacy of capsaicin (red pepper) fueled bear repellents is debated, but the bear-deterrent in a can has several things going for it:
- It’s lighter and easier to carry than a firearm with no danger of fatal results from accidental firings.
- It has now demonstrated its effectiveness in hundreds of bear attacks.
- And there is no need for marksmanship.
Just point, thumb the trigger, and spray as you would with a fire extinguisher, which is just what Price did when he realized he wasn’t going to be able to wave the sow off.
“You have to step up on that bridge,” he said. “(I) got up on bridge and was about in the middle when I saw her; could see two more bear behind her. She was probably about 25 yards away coming straight at me looking up. I was on the bridge which was about 8 feet high. She ran under the bridge, and I lost sight of her. I…threw my arms up and yelled but she ignored that.”
Price knew then he was in trouble and fumbled to get the safety on the bear spray off. It seemed to take forever. He thought the bear was almost on him when he finally sprayed her, but he later discovered she wasn’t as close as he had thought.
“Today I measured it,” he texted. “It was somewhere between 18 to 22 feet. She turned and ran up the trail (after being sprayed). I could see one of the assumed cubs coming up onto the trail. I watched her maybe 20 seconds or so and turned around and got out of there. The charge couldn’t have lasted much more than 10 to 15 seconds.”
Everything happened so fast and yet seemed to take forever and when it was done Price was left dazed and confused as is normal after these sort of bear charges.
“It was like, ‘Did that really just happen?'” he said.
It did, and it made him thankful he carries his bear spray in his hand.
In 2011, four students on a National Outdoor Leadership School hike in the Talkeetna Mountains north of Anchorage were injured, two of them seriously, when attacked by a grizzly while their bear spray was in their backpacks.
NOLS now requires students to carry the spray in hand. The organization did an exhaustive investigation of the Talkeetna attack, and reported none of the students ever managed to get a can of spray out of their backpacks.
“‘Student 2’ carried his bear spray readily accessible in an outer, mesh pocket on the side of his backpack, but tossed his pack without ever getting the spray out,” AlaskaDispatch.com reported after that attack. “‘Student 4’ had bear spray in the top pocket of the backpack he tossed aside so he could run faster when fleeing the bear. ‘Student 7,’ who was part of a retreat up a slope on the north side of the draw, left his bear spray in the top pocket of his pack.”
Their bear spray failed to work because they were never able to use it. There was a lesson there for everyone. Price is lucky to be one of those who learned.