Anchorage gun shop owner Niels Green found himself unarmed Thursday when a black bear confronted him at a distance of only a couple of feet on a footbridge near Seward, but he had a beach ball.
He’d scavenged it from a Resurrection Bay beach earlier in the day because the family dog – Hunter – enjoyed playing with it.
Green was carrying the ball along the Tonsina Trail at the Lowell Point State Recreation Site on the way back to the trailhead when his wife, Regina, screamed “bear” and Hunter went zooming past on the narrow, Tonsina Creek bridge.
Turning to see what all the commotion was about – and thinking Regina might be yelling the nickname of their friend and hiking companion Sarah Wallner – Green found himself nose to ball with a healthy-looking, adult black bear.
“It happened too quick to do anything,” he said.
The owner of Gun Runners in Midtown Anchorage, about 120 miles north of Seward, Neils was laughing about the encounter on Monday.
“It’s funny; a gun store owner without a gun,” he said.
But it wasn’t so funny last week.
Stand your ground
“Trust me. I wanted to run” from that bear, Niels confessed.
Running had worked for wife and Wallner, who had a bad experience with a bear a little over a decade ago.
“She was bit in the ass near the Eagle River Nature Center,” Niels said. The incident had become something of a joke among friends, leading to Wallner’s new nickname of “Bear.”
This time, she managed to escape the bruin. Both she and Regina jumped to safety to either side of the bridge as Hunter came roaring down the trail with the bear in hot pursuit.
But Neils was already on the bridge and caught between its stout rails.
“I turned around, and it was about two feet away,” he said. “He never looked at me.
“I just kept putting the ball in his face.”
Behind him, Regina and Wallner could only watch to see what happened next.
Niels took a step back. The bear followed.
He took another step back. The bear again followed.
Safely behind Neil, Hunter was barking up a storm. And his owner decided that continuing to back up probably wasn’t a good idea.
“I realized I couldn’t retreat,” Niels said. He started talking to the bear and telling it to go away, but the bear didn’t listen.
Fortunately, while he and the bear were locked in this standoff, Regina was digging a can of bear spray out of the backpack she’d carried and, in an act that can only be described as courageous, began creeping out along the bridge rail to reach Niels.
“It was a play-by-play deal like for about two minutes,” he said. “I kept putting the ball in his face. Then (Regina) came on the outside of the bridge with the bear spray. Her hand was trembling.”
When she closed to within reach of Niels, the couple’s conversation was short. Niels asked if the bear canister’s safety was off. Regina said, “Yes.” The pepper spray was passed from hand to hand and the bear was promptly doused.
The animal didn’t seem to take it too hard.
“I got half of his face, a little bit of an eye,” Niels said. “The bear walked away.”
Once off the bridge, it started grazing some grass along the creek
“It looked very healthy,” said Niels. “It was weird.”
State park officials have warned that a black bear has chased others along the Tonsina Trail. Whether it was the same bear the Greens encountered is unclear.
It is spring in Alaska; the bears are out; and dogs are a known issue. They can be a big asset or a big liability depending on the dog.
Well-known Canadian bear researcher Stephen Herrero and colleagues in a 2014 study cautioned that dogs might well spark attacks. After examining 92 attacks in North America between 2010 and 2014, they concluded that in the majority of cases it appeared loose-running dogs brought bears back to people.
The study found five cases where “dogs were likely responsible for inciting an attack, either by bringing a bear back to its owner (four cases) or barking, thus attracting the bear (1 case).”
On the other hand, there were 19 cases in which “dogs defending persons were successful in terminating the mauling.”
And Alaska is full of dog owners who claim they have a companion that has protected them by using its better ears and nose to warn of a bear they haven’t noticed or which has actually confronted a bear and driven it off, thus preventing a potential mauling.
There are some indications that in encounters with dogs and people, bears have a tendency to become preoccupied with the former.
“When dogs were involved, large carnivores usually focused their attention on the dog rather than on the person. However, in some instances, the human was attacked as a consequence of its proximity to the dog or because of its reaction towards the large carnivore,'” Spanish researcher Vincenzo Penteriani and a tglobal gang of colleagues reported in a 2016 study.
But the study also warned that “unleashed dogs can exacerbate the probability of a large carnivore attack (by big cats or bears) because a dog that runs away from a large carnivore towards the owner can trigger a dangerous situation when the carnivore chases it” as happened with Hunter.
“We now call him ‘Bear Bait Hunter,'” Niels said.
The Seward encounter is also a reminder to all in Alaska to turn up their bear awareness now that summer is here. There are one or two fatal maulings in the state almost every year.
Bear attacks remain rare. The National Park Service estimated grizzly bear attacks at one for every 2.7 million visits to Yellowstone National Park. That number has been widely cited to minimize human fears of attacks.
But the same study noted the odds for backcountry hikers fell to “on in 232,613 person travel days.” A travel day is one person hiking for one day. The more travel days you spend in bear country, the more the odds of a bad encounter increase.
Grizzlies are far more dangerous than black bears, but both have seriously injured and killed people in Alaska, a state where most everywhere can be considered equivalent to the Yellowstone backcountry.
It is a good idea to study up on bears in Alaska, and learn how to deal with them. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has a wealth of information available online.
A trio of hikers along Alaska’s Resurrection Bay experienced the down side of dogs in bear country this week, though their encounter with bruin ended without injury.
BEAR ON TONSINA
CHARGED The Dog onto the bridge with us. Not scared of people. Had to be bear maced in the face for it to leave. Just now. On the first bridge. W/ Sarah Wallner, Niels Green.