A state fisheries biologist who fell victim to an unusual bear attack near Hidden Creek on the east end of Skilak Lake in mid-June says he doesn’t want to talk about what happened because of fears of “Monday-morning quarterbacking.”
During a brief, Monday conversation, Kyle Shedd said that he would only discuss the attack with “Stephen Herrero.” A professor emeritus of ecology at the University of Calgary (Canada), Herrero is North America’s best-known authority on bear attacks.
He authored the popular book “Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance” in 1985. The book has been revised and updated since and is now in its third edition.
Shedd’s concerns about Monday-morning quarterbacking are legitimate enough. The human behaviors in almost every bear attack in the 49th state get second-guessed.
How Shedd thought Herrero was going to find him for an interview is, however, unclear given that Shedd asked co-workers at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to hide his identity and the state agency complied.
The Alaska Department of Public Safety, however, produced his name in response to a public records request. The names of people who call for rescues in the state are a matter of public record, and Shedd and his wife, Rachel, were the subjects of a June 12, satellite call for help.
A few details
Despite Shedd’s refusal to be interviewed, he did shed some light on some of the issues surrounding the attack during a telephone conversation largely devoted to complaints that bear attacks are sensationalized by the media and his stated belief that it was unfair to identify him.
He said his “friends” at the Anchorage Daily News had agreed to protect his “privacy.”
(Editor’s note: The editor of this website believes public records are public records. Journalists selectively deciding who warrants privacy is a very slippery slope with a bad tendency to end up treating those a publication favors differently from those a publication dislikes.)
With all of that said, Shedd did reveal some details on what has been described as a “see-through tent,” he and wife were sleeping in near the mouth of Hidden Creek when their midnight bear encounter began.
See-through tents are reportedly a “hot new trend.” But there are legitimate questions to be asked as whether bears can see them and what happens if they can’t.
A state wildlife biologist who investigated the attack on the Shedds said it came after they were woken by a noise outside their tent and sat up. The bear then charged.
Someone sitting up in an basically invisible tent could come as a surprise to a bear walking nearby, and bears generally do not like surprises, especially grizzly bear sows with cubs.
In a study of British Columbia bear attacks from 1960 to 1997, Herrero and colleague Andrew Higgins reported “the adult female cohort (of grizzlies) was responsible for 79 percent (22 of 28) of the incidents where the age and sex class of the bear were known.”
The study added that “in 23 of 37 (62 percent) incidents involving grizzly bears, where the bear’s motivation could be inferred, the motivation was ‘startled’. In 76 percent (16 of 21) of these incidents where the bear’s motivation was ‘startled,’ the initial encounter distance was less than 50 meters,” approximately 150 feet.
A thin, nylon shield?
Tents do not offer bunker-like protection against bears, but the Herrero-Higgins study reported that only “eight percent of grizzly
bear-inflicted injuries (4 of 49) occurred while the person was in camp.”
Still there have been tent campers killed and others mauled in Alaska, and earlier this month a bicyclist tent camping in Montana was pulled out of her tent by a grizzly and killed.
The latter incident, however, appears to have involved food. The Associated Press (AP) reported the bear had ventured into the tiny town of Ovando looking for food. It raided a chicken coop and visited a campground where 65-year-old Leah Davis Logan was camped with friends.
After the bear wandered away from the campground, the cyclists “removed food from their tents, stored it and went back to sleep,” the AP reported.
It’s unclear whether that food is what attracted the bear into the campground, but the animal was clearly looking for food in the town. It was eventually killed after it returned to the chicken coop.
Food attractants do not appear to have been involved in the Hidden Creek attack that took place in an informal campground just up from the shore of Skilak Lake in an area regularly frequented by bears – both black and brown (grizzlies).
It is not known what species attacked the Shedds, but the attack is more consistent with the behavior of brown bears than black bears. The Herrero-Higgins study recorded no black bear attacks in camps.
How bears perceive see-through tents has not been studied, but the animals would appear unlikely to be psychologically discouraged by something hard to see. A see-through tent is close to sleeping without a tent, and Be Bear Aware specifically warns against that.
Shedd, however, said hat he wasn’t sleeping in a wholly see-through tent. He described it as a mesh tent with a partial, “umbrella-like” fly that covered a good part of the mesh, but did not extend to the ground.
He did say it was possible a bear could have seen into the tent.
How a bear would perceive sudden movement in a tent like this is impossible to know, but grizzly bears do not like surprises, and any sort of objects suddenly popping up from the forest floor would likely come as a surprise to a bear.
This bear, luckily for the Shedds, was not predatory. It attacked them and promptly left.
Shedd was back at work on Monday.
He said he doesn’t blame the bear for what happened in the belief that “we were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The Shedds were reported to have with them a pressurized can of pepper spray invented to repel attacking bears, but they never got a chance to use it.
Shedd cut off the conversation before he could be asked about what happened with the spray, but both the Shedd attack and a subsequent attack a couple weeks later along the Kenai River not far from Hidden Lake illustrate an important point about weapons for defense against bears – whether they are spray or a firearm.
They must be at readily at hand if a bear attacks. Montanan Jason Umbriaco, the man involved in the Kenai attack, was also reported to have spray, but never got a chance to use it.
Campers in bear country would be well-advised to keep the canister easily within reach and give some thought as to what they would do if a bear showed up in the night. It might be advisable to grab the spray before sitting up, especially if in a see-through tent.
And hikers in areas thick with bear sign – the kind of area in which Umbriaco was hiking although he apparently did not recognize obvious bear scat – are best advised to carry the spray in hand or at least in some sort of easily accessed holster.
Anna ‘Marika’ Powers, a guide leading a group of tourists on a hike in Southeast Alaska in 2016, was seriously injured by a bear that attacked before she had time to get her spray out of a holster fastened to her backpack, shoulder strap.
She was luckily saved by an assistant guide who rushed to her aid and pepper sprayed the bear. The spray drove it off.
Kim Woodman who was attacked by a bear on the southside of Kachemak Bay that same year barely had time to draw a 10mm handgun from his pocket before a charging grizzly was on him.
His last shot was fired at such close range that Woodman, who was backing up and falling as he shot, believes his foot took one of the rounds because he instinctively put it up at the last moment to fend off the bear.
An Alaska State Park ranger who went back to investigate the shooting found Woodman’s sunglasses two feet from the bear’s carcass.
“It all happened so fast,” Woodman said afterward.
That is usually the case, which it is why it is advisable to keep weapons handy and engage in some serious thought about what you would do if a bear shows up in order to train yourself to react in time.