Alaska NOLS Bear Attack

Post by blogger | July 26, 2011      

You get thousands of people foot packing through the Alaskan wilderness, in prime grizzly bear habitat, and the odds are not in your favor.

The odds conspired this past Saturday night, when a group of NOLS students were attacked by a grizzly near Talkeetna, Alaska. According to reports, the group of seven teens were on their “final” expedition (meaning traveling without instructor) at the end of a three week wilderness backpack. In the narrow confines of a brush choked creek bed, the group couldn’t see much around them and had to resort, as is commonly done, to trying to warn off any bears by making as much noise as possible. They surprised a grizzly bear; it attacked their group. Two were severely injured, all survived. Rescue was instigated by their emergency beacon, and done that night.

Full report here.

Traveling in larger groups and making plenty of noise is the foundation of safe backpacking in grizzly habitat. If the bears know you’re coming they tend to leave. And they don’t like attacking groups of four or more people.

By using such travel techniques, NOLS has an impressive record of running safe courses in the AK wilderness. They’ve been running their groups for about 40 years, with upwards of 10,000 participants. In all that time, they claim to have not had one bear attack (though one has to guess they’ve had their share of close encounters.)

Being attacked by a wild animal is said to be one of the most frightening things a human being can experience. The thought of it is repulsive but at the same time perversely fascinating. Thus, when something like this happens the news media piles all over it — and the bloggers of course!

But beyond mere exploitative blogging, I’m thinking a couple of things.

Mainly, I hope NOLS deals with this elegantly and they’re able to maneuver against any forces that would dilute or even curtail their Alaskan operations. As Craig Medred so rightly points out in his report, other things in Alaska kill or injure a lot more people than bears do, e.g., ATV and snowmobile accidents in 2009 killed 20 individuals.

One has to wonder, however, if there is not some way to make bear country travel even safer than the NOLS methods. Weapons are the first thing that come to mind. Yet this event is a perfect example of why weapons, bear spray or guns, are questionable as a solution.

These types of attacks occur when the bear is very close before it becomes aware you’re there, sometimes within feet, and attacks because it’s confused or you’re in its threat zone (where the animals instincts require that it defend rather than run). When the animal is that close and attacks quickly, and you’re in a group, you simply don’t have time to reach for pepper spray or a gun and do anything effective. More, you get your finger on the trigger of a gun with other people around, a bear attacks you — that’s the kind of situation where someone gets accidentally shot (and probably killed, because if you do have a bear gun it’s going to be a serious canon, designed to destroy).

Hair splitting and Tuesday quarterbacking aside, main thing is that if NOLS or others are hiking in dense brush where grizzly bears live, at certain (albeit rare) times they’re simply going to create bear situations where there is no solution. If those situations are worth the value that thousands of people get out of experiencing such places, then things like NOLS backpacking courses will continue. As they probably should.

But anything can be improved. It’ll be interesting to see what changes NOLS makes in their bear safety procedures, if any.

Any of you guys have any close encounters of the ursine kind?


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55 Responses to “Alaska NOLS Bear Attack”

  1. Jhaus July 26th, 2011 9:34 am

    A few years ago I was riding my bike on the Blue Ridge Parkway and nearly ran into a very surprised ~300 pound black bear that was crossing the road as I was coming around a corner on a fast downhill. I stopped probably about 20 feet away from it, although it seemed way closer at the time.

    There were a few tense moments, but thankfully it decided I was too big/unappetizing enough to try chewing on, and it scurried across the road into the bushes. One of the most thrilling moments of my life, for sure, though I’m really glad it decided on flight instead of fight.

  2. brian h July 26th, 2011 9:40 am

    We were hiking out of Slough Creek in Yellowstone one evening. We were distracted, tired, a little giddy from all the good fishing. There were active bear warnings in the area but you can only stay on “hyper alert” for so long. We jumped a mule deer at close range and it then dawned on us that we certainly weren’t making enough noise to alert a bear. Minutes later we topped a small rise and there he was, maybe 40 yards away. He gave us a short glance and went back to grazing or sniffing. We went the long way back to camp, our singing voices reflecting a somewhat nervous tension.

  3. Tuck July 26th, 2011 9:47 am

    I came across this a while ago (link to PDF):

    “Law enforcement agents for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have experience that supports this reality — based on their investigations of human-bear encounters since 1992, persons encountering grizzlies and defending themselves with firearms suffer injury about 50% of the time. During the same period, persons defending themselves with pepper spray escaped injury most of the time, and those that were injured experienced shorter duration attacks and less severe injuries. Canadian bear biologist Dr. Stephen Herrero reached similar conclusions based on his own research — a person’s chance of incurring serious injury from a charging grizzly doubles when bullets are fired versus when bear spray is used.”

    Counter-intuitive, but seems like a very reasonable precaution. spray.pdf

  4. D July 26th, 2011 9:52 am

    Had a few run in here in the Green River lakes area of Wyoming. My GF carries bear spray and so do I. BUT I ALSO CARRY a 44!!!! The last thing I want is to shot or kill a bear. However I will if it comes to it. You must be a very accurate shooter and practice under pressure, that’s why spray is better; you don’t need to be that accurate. It’s idiot proof. Bear spray is very effective and it will be my first option, but in the other hand I have my S&W 44. When I walk through dense brush I make a ton of noise and creep through like a swat team with spray and a gun at the ready. I have used the spray once and it worked just like it was supposed to. Other times I have fired a round when they got curious into the air and they turned and ran. They are more scared of humans then we seem to be of them. Just do your best to not surprise them, because I never hear of a bear “Hunting” or stalking a human. At the end of the day it’s the circle of life and a risk you take to go in the BC.

  5. D July 26th, 2011 9:53 am

    Tuck double down.

  6. Caleb Wray July 26th, 2011 10:09 am

    I grew up in big time bear country just outside of the Smokey’s. I probably had close to 20 encounters as I was growing up, including walking out of my parents house to go to school one spring morning. As far as the black bear goes, which is different in many ways to the Griz, the only time that I felt like I was more scared than the bear was when I walked through a poke berry patch right into a 200lbs black bear. We saw each other at about 10 feet of distance. The bear’s first reaction was to come at me. I stumbled got up and did exactly what you aren’t supposed to do, run! I was lucky.

    Bears have terrible eye sight and most times I have seen them before they have seen me. But once they get my scent they always wonder the other direction. This includes a giant grizzly that we encountered near Turtle Hill in Denali Nat’l park in 2000. I am sure that he smelled us but never saw us. The point being is that if you wonder around in a bear’s domain you are bound to startle one at close range eventually. Other than that, it would be pretty darn difficult to convince a bear to attack you if they have any other perceived option. I sure hope the media doesn’t blow this out of proportion. NOLS has better things to do.

  7. Matt Kinney July 26th, 2011 10:16 am

    My wife and I hike, backpack extensively in AK, including last weekend :-). This incident has our fullest attention. The Valdez area of PWSound has the densest population of black bears in the US. Since we cannot afford the luxury of an air drop everytime we want to go visit the alpine, peaks, etc, this leaves us quickly bushwhacking through bear country. We have only scared a bear away once and he was across a field along a stream choked with salmon. We are deliberate in everything about bears and it plays a critical factor in where we actually end up going for a weekend or a week. We do not carry guns (argue ad naseum :roll )preferring spray cans. It is wise to avoid salmon streams which means far fewer bears. Avoid camping overnight in bushes, favoring the open alpine at higher elevations is also a good thing. Bear proof food cannister……check.

    In regards to the NOLS incident some things stands out

    1.Walking along streams and making noise is useless. The sound of the water muffles voices, singing, yahoos, hooting, etc. Since the attack happened in the PM along a stream, it is likely they were tiring of making noise and fatigued after a long day being hyper-aware in bear country. It gets stressful knowing brown bears are lurking nearby with cubs or running away. You never see or hear them. You see scat and tracks all over the place. Its a wild feeling but frankly it is kinda scary even with a shotgun at your hip.
    Rivers and creeks can be nicer to travel compared to scrub willows, but you lose the most important tool in bear defense…. NOISE.

    2. The Chulitna River and drainages supports a salmon run along with some of the densest moose populations in the state, thus brown bears and cubs. NOLS should reevaluate bear densities along with salmon runs in areas they use for these camps as part of the criteria for camp site selections

    3. Their actions after the incident are truly heroic and NOLS should be commended for the excellent training they gave the teens in the weeks before.

    4. They triggered the SPOT, yet it took troopers (anyone?) nearly 5 hours to reach them from Talkeetna which was only 45 miles away. Anchorage is only about 1.5 hours by helo. This seems like to long so I would like to hear more about the rescue response before the trooper arrived. There may have been some confusion that delayed the initial response.

    NOLS propably does the same things that Tabitha and I do to keep safe in the woods from bears. Like avalanche avoidance, there are some very basic skills you need when traveling in bear country.

  8. Lou July 26th, 2011 10:24 am

    Not trying to be cynical, just realistic, and can say that since someone didn’t get killed this probably won’t get blown too out of proportion. Which is good.

  9. jj July 26th, 2011 10:41 am

    So I’m going to over analyze this
    If Dr. Herrero (the bear attack guru) ever decides to write another edition of his book, this attack will fit well in the preventable attacks chapters. First off, as a former NOLS student, NOLS keeps its reputation as the best outdoor school in the world for a reason. They are safe, they are prepared, simply put, every kid should do a NOLS course. But while I hope this doesn’t damage its reputation, I do hope they reevaluate how 16-17 age group courses are run in the Alaskan back country.
    Judging by what I’ve read from various sources so far…
    -The kids were without an instructor (it was their first time in AK)
    -The walked around the side of an outcrop without making noise
    -The seven of them were strung out, not in one group
    -Most importantly, the entire group only had 3 cans of bear spray, not one was discharged.
    -They ran when they were attacked.
    Simply put, they were too young and inexperienced to be alone. They were not making enough noise, and were not in a tight group (which isn’t their fault, it just might have helped prevent to attack). When the bear charged, they did what they weren’t supposed to do (run), and they weren’t given proper protection from the beginning. It sounds like a preventable attack, that hopefully doesn’t turn into a tragic one.

  10. Ryan July 26th, 2011 10:55 am

    Having taken a NOLS course in the Alaskan bush (spring 1997), I can say their training is outstanding when it comes to travel in bear country. Closest we came to bears was seeing the gigantic footprints left behind by a grizzly, way close enough for me! NOLS is a world class organization and I have no doubt they will handle this with grace and care.

  11. Lou July 26th, 2011 11:09 am

    jj, thanks for taking the leap, though we have to be careful how much we believe of what we read in the newspapers. I would say that I agree, if I had a group like that I’d have each person carry spray in holster and have practiced using it with target. Spray is really problematic, however.

    For example, in this situation it sounds like while the bear was attacking for a very short amount of time, other students were nearby, scared out of their wits, but could have perhaps if quick witted sprayed the bear as it was attacking. But, if they’d done that they not only would have sprayed the guys who were being attacked, but unless the wind is blowing away the spray gets blown perhaps at other students as well.

    You end up with at least several people blinded, in the midst of doing first aid or perhaps defending against attack. Nightmarish. In fact, if several students had deployed their spray from who knows what directions, there is a chance everyone could have been blinded. Then what? That sounds like something out of a horror movie.

    As with most things like this, the solution is of course prevention. Once an attack starts, a gun or spray is extremely difficult to use effectively.

    As for guns, I like them, own them, and would probably carry one in grizzly bear country along with my spray. But just imagine trying to use a gun after an attack begins. Pretty ridiculous, really. I mean, you’re going to shoot a bear that’s frantically attacking someone, moving all over the place, while the person wildly struggles to get away? And the gun is a powerful weapon with hollow point bullets that’ll kill a person basically no matter where on your body you hit them? I don’t think that’s very workable.

    I have heard of guns being used in open terrain when a bear looks like it’s intending to attack. But can you imagine trying to make that call when you’re not experienced with bear attacks? And who really is other than perhaps state troopers who are out there all the time, or perhaps hunters who deliberately put themselves in harms way.

    Back to guns, I’ve been told that the only really “safe” and effective bear gun is a slug loaded shotgun. Safer because long guns are much easier to control and hit what you intend, and effective because of its shear power. Still, wild animals such as bear won’t even feel it or slow down unless they are hit in a way that either breaks their shoulder, spine or pelvis, or receive a kill shot to the head or heart. Getting that done on a moving target, even one that’s close, requires hours and hours of training and is still iffy.

    Those of you who’ve done some shooting know what I mean. If you’ve never picked up a gun and fired it, divest yourself of the myth of “point and shoot.” There is a lot more to it than that.

  12. CC July 26th, 2011 11:36 am

    As a NOLS student doing a trip in the Talkeetnas, my group solo was one of the most amazing, yet totally stressful times of the trip. I was in a situation very similar to these students, and while we weren’t attacked, I have never felt so small nor weak in my entire life. At this point in time (80s) the small group solo trip was done in groups of 4-5 students. I am not sure if this still holds as there were seven? in this group , but the belief back then was that bears don’t attack groups larger than four. If you had four people, you might see a bear, have a close encounter, but they wouldn’t attack. So we stayed tight, were freaked out most of the time, and on several occasions came very close to bears, yet were never directly charged/attacked. This was the reality of the trip … and on numerous other trips in the wilderness up there I have had many close encounters as well, despite strictly following protocol … now I have never actually been attacked, and I do not know how my brain/instincts would fare then, and given the complexities that go on out there, it’s really impossible to know, even with tons of knowledge, experience, and pepper spray.

    That said, I think JJ brings up some good points, and while it’s really luxurious to look at these types of incidents and try and figure out what people did incorrectly so that others may learn, having been there and having been freaked out numerous times, yet fortunately never attacked, (especially since we have such a relatively small sample set), it’s really impossible to know if this was “improper” bear country practice, an outlier, or a combination of both. It’s the wilderness; you just never know. And that’s part of the point of being out there.

  13. Matt Kinney July 26th, 2011 11:42 am

    How can I get to my gun if my hands are all tangled up in those trekking poles louie recommended earlier this month? 😆

    I do carry a gun in Valdez to protect me from attacking bald eagles. I ‘ve clipped a few and they never bothered me again. 😉

  14. Glenn Sliva July 26th, 2011 11:58 am

    I have had several from charges to just checking us out. I have fished the rivers near Katmai NP and worked for an oil company north of Anchorage. I’ve had bears inside the camp foraging for food. You have no chance if attacked and no time to react in dense brush. My advice: lots of noise. In this case the river probably masked the sounds of the group. When crossing a dense but “loud” area we used to toot air horns. It ruins the wilderness but the bears knew we were there. This saved the bears life as well. The closest I’ve come to is almost stepping on one reentering the Alagnak river and a second time at Brooks Falls. Very close calls. Two feet max.

  15. wfinley July 26th, 2011 12:36 pm

    If you ask me they did everything right but something still went wrong. Carrying a gun would have probably only made matters worse, hiking next to a stream in dense brush is often the only route and having an adult along wouldn’t have changed the outcome at all. Sometimes things happen — kudus to a group of teenagers having the fortitude to stabilize the victim and call for help.

    I have a few bear stories but one stands out….

    We were slogging out of the Talkeetna mountains after spending 10 days skiing and climbing up on the Chickaloon glacier. It was our last day – and all we had for food was 15 Gu’s a-piece and had to ski 6 miles and hike 15 back to the airstrip. We had giant packs and sleds and after getting off the glacier we had to carry our skis and drag our sleds across the rock on the river bed. Around mile 15, hour 13 and maybe Gu #12 I came around a corner and I found myself staring at a grizzly bear munching on a caribou carcass. The bear was maybe 150′ away. I was so spaced out from carrying a big pack and traveling all day that all I did was come to a stop and drop my shoulders onto my ski poles to get some weight off my back. I then proceeded to just stare at the bear. The bear stopped munching and stared back at me. We stared at each other for what was probably a minute and it never registered to me that I was in a very precarious position. Anyways… the bear suddenly backed off and took off running. I then straightened out and started slogging again.

    A few minutes later my partner caught up to me and started ranting “WTF are you doing!!!! That was a @#%@#% GRIZZLY BEAR! @#%@#% WAKE UP!!!!!!!” I remember saying something like “Yeah whatever… he didn’t care about us”. My ski partner forced me to eat another Gu and then he screeched all verses of “THE BEAR WENT OVER THE MOUNTAIN” in a panicky voice for the remaining 3 hours of our slog back to the airstrip.

  16. Lou July 26th, 2011 12:59 pm

    Win, great story!

  17. brian h July 26th, 2011 1:09 pm

    One of the first things that crossed my mind (as a parent) was my doubts as to whether I’d want my 16 yr old in the AK bush without an EXPERIENCED adult(s). I acknowledge that NOLS has done their thing for a long time, but on the surface it seems risky.

  18. Kim July 26th, 2011 1:42 pm

    I live in bear country, and I teach bear safety and bear spray training. In some media reports the kids were apparently carrying bear spray.

    “you simply don’t have time to reach for pepper spray or a gun and do anything effective.”

    I disagree. I’ve had numerous close range encounters with grizzly and black bear (clearly you shouldn’t hike with me) and I carry my bear spray on my belt at the front of me. When I’m in thick bush, near water or high winds I make even more noise. In the incidents where I did run into a bear I have managed to pull my bear spray out immediately.

    The key here is to practice pulling it out, being aware of its location at all times and keeping it on your body, not in or on your pack. I also highly recommend taking an old can or getting inert from a bear spray distributor to practice. It will give you confidence in the product, and it will give you an idea of its range.

    In 72 cases of people using bear spray on a bear in Alaska, not one of them were seriously injured or had to go to hospital. I hope you consider carrying it and I hope NOLS is or will be training their students on its use in the future.

  19. mike marolt July 26th, 2011 2:06 pm

    Never had a bear attack, but i was coming off of a day of ice climbing about 10 years ago up at Cody Wyo and came across a herd of moose. A very large one started snorting and stammping the ground, then proceeded to circle us to behind where we came from, while the herd split the trail. It was almost like he was giving us a way out. We took it. But i guess moose are supper dangerous in this type of country even taking on trains when the snow is deep and the tracks are plowed… Funny thing was NO ONE in Cody believed that there was a bunch of moose up that valley. ha. I had only seen moose in AK so i had no idea what to do. Couldn’t believe how big they are…..

  20. Dan July 26th, 2011 3:48 pm

    Over the years I have spoken with AK busch pilots, hunters and Nat’l Park rangers (Jasper and Banff) about bear issues (Griz and black), as well as read Steven Herrero’s book. Plus, I have my own experiences…What I have learned is listed below, and who knows whether or not it is correct.

    1) Unless you are one very cool customer, good luck stoping a charging griz with a big handgun. Remember, you have to make a “hump” shot because the bear is coming no matter what. The spinal shot stops it.

    2) Many busch pilots carry a sawed off shotgun (or at least they did years ago) because a serious bear charge will be close range and the weapon fits easily in the cockpit, usually between the seats where it can be easily reached. The idea is that one blasts the charging bear with the shotgun and knocks it down, back or whatever. I certainly have no experience with this approach, just repeating what I have been told.

    3) Park Rangers in Jasper, Banff and Yellowstone use the pepper spray and swear by it. I spoke to a Jasper Ranger several years ago who had been charged several times (different bears over several years) and the pepper spray stopped the bears cold. A couple pilots have related similar stories to me. The pepper spray degrades over time. I buy a new can every year. Note that I do not think you can take a can of pepper spray on the plane, even in checked luggage.

    4) Noise: my experience in this area is that noise, while warning the bear of your impending approach, also makes them curious. So, like Daniel Boone and his contemporaries, as well as some modern folks who spend a lot of time in bear country, I do not make noise…I simply try to keep my head out of “where the sun don’t shine”. I make an exception to that “rule” when mtbing in bear country (Whistler and north for example). It is very easy to surprise a bear when one is ripping down a dirt road or single track, so, I make noise.

    Feeling tired, can’t deal with being hyper alert all day? Well, your life and possibly a bear’s life is at stake…suck it up and pay attention. Many of the readers of this blog are capable of remaining alert when on big walls, skiing big lines, skining in avy terrain, skiing in a busy lift area, driving in heavy, fast traffic, etc. I bet they could do so in the woods too.

    Bear story: Many years ago, 5 of us were taking a run at Waddington, camped on the glacier in a whiteout for 3 days (early August). While sitting around swilling coffee at about 9:00 A.M., a fair sized griz (he looked to be at least 10,000 pounds) walked straight through the middle of our camp. he/she did not even bother to look at us, just passing through. It reminded me of how I do not notice ants when on a hike, or whatever. We tried to follow him up the glacier (they can hike quite fast) but lost him in the fog.

    Sometimes, no matter how carefull, one gets nailed. BTW: according to Steven Herrero, black bears have stalked people. He tells some hair raising stories. If you have not read his book, it is a great read, even if you do not play in bear country.

  21. Lou July 26th, 2011 4:17 pm

    Kim, I carry bear spray in bear country and know it frequently does work. What I was writing about was the situation where you surprise a bear at very close range. The fact that these guys did not deploy their spray, after being trained to do so, indicates such extenuating circumstance.

    No wish to denigrate the usual proven effectiveness of spray!

  22. Lou July 26th, 2011 4:19 pm

    Speaking of moose, it is my understanding that they kill way more people than bears do, usually via automobile collisions but sometimes from kicking attacks.

  23. Glenn July 26th, 2011 4:37 pm

    Moose story. I was driving along a gravel road at about 20 mph and I looked out the window of the Ford Bronco and there was a bull moose running with me with no strain keeping up. I had to look up to see his body and I was in a high clearance 4wd.

    Second story. My daughter texted me after she arrived in Anchorage for her summer intern job with Chevron. Dad, I’ve been here 30 minutes and I’ve seen two moose.

    Third story: out on the ice north of Milne Point Alaska we saw a polar bear. As soon as he smelled us instead od running away he headed straight for us. I guess we were food. Of course we got out of there. Thank goodness for good ice roads.

  24. Scott Nelson July 26th, 2011 5:23 pm

    While trail running on Basalt Mtn (near Basalt, CO) a couple of years ago, I came around a corner right into the path of a mom and her two cubs (black bear probably). They immediately headed for some trees, I immediately turned around and ran back up the trail and waited them out. Wasn’t too worried, these were probably “Aspen” bears, so probably too lazy to chase me anyways.

    Seriously though, I do try to make more noise and my senses are a little more in tune with my surroundings when I’m out there. Probably should be carrying some pepper spray though. Although I never felt threatened by this encounter, things could have gone the wrong direction real quick I suppose.

  25. Alex July 26th, 2011 5:56 pm

    I worked as an instructor and outfitting manager for NOLS AK for four years (I do not work for the school anymore) and thus this hit close to home. NOLS runs one of, if not the tightest ships in the industry. Its pretty amazing that in decades of running NOLS courses out of the Alaska branch that there hasnt been one bear mauling. There have been close calls for sure, but no maulings. This sounds like an accident as the bear wasnt likely habituated or searching for food, etc…… sounds like it was surprised. Hats off to the students for what sounds like an excellent job dealing with the situation, its amazing to see students who in some cases havent camped before coming on their course become outdoor leaders in a relatively short period of time. By week three on their course, they are living breathing habits……….doing everything automatically that has been trained into them and/or learned through experience on the course. There is very little left to chance that is within the control of a the group, other than the normal uncontrollable variables like weather and bears, which is what you are there for in the first place. The entire premise is how to be in an uncontrollable place with risks and use the very best techniques and judgement to continually minimize your risk and ultimately have a fun time doing it. I will be interested to see what changes come about from the incident, if any. I googled and found an article about one of the teen students from California, it reported that 9 teens have been murdered in his hometown this summer alone.

    BEAR STORY: Chugach Mtns, April 2000: Climbing an unamed snow mound to ski it, turn to my right to see a massive Brown bear descending from a col across the valley down a 40-50 degree (no exageration) snow slope from between two peaks onto the glacier. The bear walked down-galcier a mile or so VERY quickly, directly into a steep cracked up icefall section of the galcier…..did not pause or slow down whatsoever and stomped right through the crevasses on its way down past our camp and down valley. I practically soiled my britches. The next day we followed its tracks down valley as it was our exit route and got particularly nervous as we got to tree line. At that point the waist deep isothermal snow, deadfall, and hundred pound packs distracted us. p.s. Careful not to overpack on a “fly-in, hike-out” trip!

  26. T felt July 26th, 2011 8:23 pm

    Alex Dunn ???

    Contact me as codyvet2002 using

    T felt
    Jim creek fisheries etc

  27. David July 26th, 2011 8:33 pm

    While hiking in bear country, carry your bearspray in your hand. On your belt or in a pocket, and it is at least two seconds away.

  28. Bar Barrique July 26th, 2011 10:09 pm

    I hike in grizzly country, and, have encountered a number of them. This is probably a worst case scenario; a grizzly surprised with a fresh kill by a noisy river. I am a believer in pepper spray, however, in a surprise encounter many folks are not going to react quickly. I remember an incident where a large silver back grizzly was chasing a friends dog towards us, and, I called out bear, pulled my pepper spray (at least it gave me something to do), my friend started to call his dog (concerned for it’s safety!). When the bear heard me, it looked up, and, surprised to see me, turned, and, ran. Another time we were hiking on a ridge on a windy day, when a grizzly appeared behind us, and, killed a small animal. Then a couple of ravens showed up, and, one distracted the bear while the other attempted to eat some of the kill. After a while we wanted to hike back down the ridge, so we decided to attract the attention of the bear by whistling. The bear heard the whistling, and, apparently assumed it was a marmot, so it ran towards us. We then stood up waving our arms, the bear saw us, and, turned into a valley (we were all carrying pepper spray).
    My condolences to those who were injured, the rewards of wilderness experience usually out weigh the hazards.

  29. tka July 27th, 2011 12:34 am

    major kudos to that NOLS group and to their leaders. as an instructor who’s led groups through those very mountains it can be very scary country walking those same rivers and paths on which fatalities have occurred. NOLS runs the tightest ship in the biz and accidents like that are inevitable….just as getting caught in an avy if bc skiing. as the research suggests, spray is more effective than firearms, but in those tight alders/willows anything is hard to get and could be ineffective. as for groups of 4 or more, this doesn’t change the stat if in fact one person was ahead of the group or they were stretched single file. The stat refers to a mass/blob/group of people. as for running away, I defend the actions of the group. if the bear is preoccupied with another person, they were right to move to a safe distance (if the brush was as thick as they say it was and as dense as I know it is, no one was ‘running away’). as for the time of day….it is not twilight or late at 8:30 here in AK this time of year….we still have 1.5hrs of sunlight left today as I write this at 9pm. as for all the skeptics out there of unsupervised teens in the woods with wild beasties all around……WWII, WWI, Vietnam…..happens all the time….

    as for my story….I was trapping wolves for my grad research. we set up a string of traps around a very marshy pond that was located about 1/8 mile from a rendezvous site that we thought might be visited by some pack members. when we were about 1/2 mile away, we heard this awful roar coming from opposite side of the marsh. We didn’t know what to think as we approached except that the roaring and commotion was increasing in intensity. As we crept around the marsh checking our traps, the roaring ceased as we got to about 100ft of the far side. As we approached our 2nd to last trap a female black bear charged suddenly from behind a large tree stopping about 20 ft away. “EASY BEAR” we both spoke as we backed away, continuing our way around the marsh. As we risked quick glances toward the bear we noticed the trap was missing and 8 ft up in the tree from which mama sprang was a cub stuck in the trap, hopelessly clawing its way to safety. Further up in the tree two more cubs watched the action as if sitting just behind the first base dugout. Mama seemed content to hold her ground at the base of tree. Approaching our final trap, now about 100ft away, we noticed a wolf, caught in out trap, cowering, hiding, pressing itself into the leaves as to meld into the earth to escape mama’s gaze. We scruffed the wolf, keeping one eye on mama bear, and stuffed the wolf into my backpack. We hiked the mile back to the truck, wolf in pack, and called for assistance with the bear. As we waited for backup, we processed the wolf and let it go. Two hours later, myself and 3 other guys armed with 1 tranquilizer gun, 2 shotguns (1 with slugs, 1 with cracker shells), and 1 big stick approached mama black. As we got closer to her, her bluff charges never ceased and got increasingly closer despite loud words, angry gestures, mean faces, a barrage of cracker slugs, all despite a persistent advance on our part. When we were about 20 ft away and convinced she wasn’t going to back off the tranquilizer gun was used. As soon as she felt that sting in her ass she promptly swung around and high tailed it only 25 yards before doing a face plant as sleepy time took hold. We pulled the cub from the tree, held it down as we opened the trap, and let it scramble happily up to join its siblings now enjoying a hot dog and nachos. After checking on mama bear, (’bout 250lbs), we gave her a reversal drug and left her in peace. We went home to change our britches and have a beer.

  30. Lou July 27th, 2011 7:06 am

    Craig Medred just published a great article about why those Alaskan teenagers were best not armed with guns. Also describes his own _rad_ encounters with bears, including shooting and killing two.,0

  31. Craig July 27th, 2011 7:44 am

    The scary thing I see is sometimes people carrying shotguns not powerful enough for bear protection. All the stats aside about guns not being as safe as spray, I still carry one sometimes for IN CAMP, where I am more likely to see a bear coming, rather than vice versa. The only safe set-up in my mind is a semi-auto (sometimes called autoloading) 12 Guage, loaded in the following order:
    – Cracker Shell
    – Non-Leathal Round (Rubber Slug, Bean Bag, whatever)
    – Fill the rest of the magazine with lethal slugs. You can usually get 3 of these in

    That way, you can scare off the bear with the cracker if he’s a long ways away, sting him if he keeps coming and if he really likes that steak you have on the fire, you could drop him. If he surprises you and you need a lethal round right away, just pull that trigger fast. The cracker shell and rubber slug will be gone as fast as you can pull twice, so no time lost really.

  32. Dan July 27th, 2011 8:11 am

    Great bear stories gentlemen. I guess the “rule of 6” may not apply to a sow with cubs.

    Rule of 6: Jasper/Banff Rangers will allow groups of 6 or more to enter some areas where griz are known to be hanging out because they have no record of an attack on a group that large (several years ago anyway). The larch forests above Moraine Lake are an example of where the “6” rule has been applied in the past. Possibly, the AK bears have not heard about this rule either.

  33. Jeff July 27th, 2011 9:13 am

    “making as much noise as possible” When was the last time a grizzly attacked a Jeep, ATV, snowmobile,Gilbert Gotfried or dirt bike?

  34. Halsted Morris July 27th, 2011 9:37 am
  35. Alex July 27th, 2011 10:25 am

    Thanks for the link Lou. Craig Medred’s articles on the subject in the Dispatch are spot on. Excellent reporting! A rarity anymore. p.s. You know why Alaskans dont mount a scope on their bear guns? It hurts alot less when the bear shoves it down your throat.

  36. Lou July 27th, 2011 10:29 am

    Alex, LOL.

    RE Craig Medred, he is sometimes controversial but when he gets on something he really covers it.

  37. Halsted Morris July 27th, 2011 8:54 pm

    As one friend commented in an e-mail he said:

    “well we can simply kill all the bears….just kidding…you go into the wild world you become part of the food chain..keep them home..let them get fat and play video games…..”

  38. Jason July 28th, 2011 12:35 pm

    I used to work on a project in Glacier NP baiting Grizzly bears. That was nerve racking as it got. We had that silly bear spray, since the Feds didn’t allow us to carry a gun unless we were Rangers. If you live in AK and spend time in the bush, bring a hang gun at least. A .44 or Judge or something to that effect. It’s you or the bear most likely. Don’t be ignorant of the 1000lb fact.

  39. RDE July 29th, 2011 8:16 pm

    I live in the Teton Valley along the road that leads to Targhee– not exactly wilderness. Last week a woman was riding her bike in a subdivision at the base of the next canyon when she looked over her shoulder and saw a Griz coming for her at full charge. Fortunately she was going downhill at good speed and managed to outrun it. Second potentially life threatening attack this month.

    Fact is that grizzly bear numbers in the Yellowstone ecosystem have expanded to the point where more and more bears are colonizing populated areas, with the inevitable result that two alpha predators will come into conflict and humans will not always be on the winning side. The problem I have with bear spray is that the canisters are not designed for very rapid deployment like a sidearm, but I haven’t reached the point where I want to carry a $1000 monster pistol or a sawed off shotgun every time I poke around in the woods.

    On a lighter note, years ago my girlfriend and I lived along the McKenzie River in Oregon. We had a favorite swimming spot far up in the mountains with a classic pool fed by a series of waterfalls. We had just arrived on a 100 degree afternoon and were sitting on a mossy rock bank thinking how good it was going to feel to jump into the water. A large black bear evidently had the same idea but he didn’t pause for a second as he emerged from the brush at the tail of the pool. As he swam directly toward us we momentarily froze, but at a distance of about 20 feet we both jumped up and started waving our arms and yelling. The sight of two naked white people emerging from his intended landing spot nearly gave him a heart attack. I still remember seeing the whites of his eyes get big for an instant before he executed a back flip that would have won an Olympic medal.

  40. Lou July 30th, 2011 6:20 am

    RDE , pretty good story!

    What occurs to me about all this stuff is that a lot of people seem to be working really hard to increase the population of alpha predators, this in areas that were doing just fine before in terms of ecology and game management.

    Various motivations for this, but much of it seems very idealistic. In my view, what’s going to happen eventually is that a bear is going to take out a child or a group of children. When that happens, I’d hope we see a more honest examination of what’s appropriate in terms of game management, and what type of animals we choose to have in the areas where we live. A choice was made about that many years ago when the wolf and bear population was reduced or extirpated. That was done for reasons, one of which is that bears are a hassle and dangerous. Now we want them back, for other reasons (one of which is the idealistic desire to create some sort of wilderness petting zoo).

    We’ll see which approach eventually prevails, but I suspect we’ll eventually choose to be a bit more selective about where manage wildlife to allow populations of animals such as grizzly.

    As for the constant drum beat about restoring various species, I say take it to the limit and clone the mammoth from DNA obtained from frozen remains, breed them, and populate our lands with millions the way it used to be. Sabertooth tigers would be good too, but probably harder to clone.

    In all seriousness, where does it end? Every biology books I’ve read says thousands of times more organisms than are presently living have become extinct over the ages.

  41. brian h July 31st, 2011 10:28 am

    I struggle with the idea (dream) of complete ecosystem restoration in the lower 48. We have changed this land to such a degree that full populations of large mammals would create havoc. I think given the prevailing policies of “hands off” the big predators will inevitably result in more conflicts. Hunting (which has become an outdated idea for many people) can be a tool to manage the animals that we share our crowded (or soon to be) wildlands with. Being around hunting all my life, I can tell you that the people that actively pursue bears and mountain lions are becoming fewer. Some of this has to do with our more “evolved” attitudes towards predators but as anyone who lives in mountain towns can see, we have a lot more bears these days.

  42. Lou July 31st, 2011 1:58 pm

    Brian, I’m actually with you in spirit to a great extent, being a lover of wild places and all. But for starters it’s just folly to try to make civilization and slackcountry into raw wilderness. Never happen.

    Above all, define “complete ecosystem.” That perhaps happens in snapshots, but over long amounts of time all ecosystems are subject to radical changes that involve pesky things like extinction, migration, ice ages, volcanic erruptions, changes in sea level, and on and on. I’m no wildlife biologist, but that’s just high school science class stuff.

  43. brian h July 31st, 2011 5:26 pm

    Lou, your right in the sense that a “complete” ecosystem is somewhat subjective(?). “Complete” as in year zero or year 1000 or what. I get your point. What I was alluding to was the somewhat crazy idea that large populations of alpha predators can be allowed to expand without more instances of “little Johnny gets attacked by a mountain lion while playing frisbee” being the (unintended) result. For the time being (and thankfully so) Alaska is mostly still rough and wild and I think most Alaskans want it that way. But from from Bozeman MT. to Boulder Co, this problem is going to become glaringly evident.

  44. Lou July 31st, 2011 7:18 pm

    What I don’t get, from a philosophical standpoint, is why not extend this to things like malaria mosquitoes? Or perhaps smallpox, isn’t it an endangered microbe? Seems like we’re playing favorites, which in my view makes the species restoration advocates intellectually dishonest. At least the folks who pushed the grez out of the lower 48 were honest. The said what they did and did what they said.

  45. Matt Kinney July 31st, 2011 7:44 pm

    Maybe a woman’s perspective is needed on the incident.


  46. brian h July 31st, 2011 7:58 pm

    Yeah, well, people relate to furry critters. They also look at the ruthless extermination policies that were the norm back then and are understandably appalled, regardless of whether or not they understand that their comfortable lives on the suburban front range wouldn’t be that way if they had to shoo a buffalo out of the flower garden. If you look at places like India and Africa, conservationists have a hell of a time convincing the locals that the tiger in the adjacent jungle patch should just be left alone or that the rampaging herd of elephants need to be allowed to trash the corn crop.

  47. t August 1st, 2011 9:00 am

    Glen…do you work on the slope?

  48. Chris August 1st, 2011 9:04 pm

    Most disturbing to me is that the media presents the Teens training and reponses as so admirable, when the reality is that the kids ALL RAN!

    —Any and all Bear Behavior publications will emphasize “Stand your ground” as the mantra. Running is the #1 worst thing to do. Ask any Alaskan. Running, scattering and not defending their comrades with bear spray is likely the primary reason this was as bad as it is. Four injuries could have been one, had the group not started running immediately.

    Why is the media ignoring the fact that the group scattered, and why has no one identified running as the most likely reason for the extent of the damage caused?

  49. Lou August 1st, 2011 9:23 pm

    Chris, yeah, and they got attacked in the first place! But to be fair, a bear attack like that is a fast nightmarish blur for all involved, so I doubt it could ever turn out “right.”

  50. Jonathan Shefftz August 2nd, 2011 1:38 pm

    “If you look at places like India […] conservationists have a hell of a time convincing the locals that […] the rampaging herd of elephants need to be allowed to trash the corn crop.”

  51. Lou August 2nd, 2011 2:12 pm


  52. brian h August 2nd, 2011 7:18 pm

    Jonathan- That story is pretty intense. Clash of cultures and the nobility of an ancient creature in his last moment. Thanks for throwing that on. And Lou, it’s faster.

  53. Lou August 2nd, 2011 7:56 pm

    Thanks for the feeback brian!

  54. Ian August 7th, 2011 9:45 pm

    I initially skipped this post because I saw no relavence to me in NZ (for a start we have no large wild animals). However on Sunday I was out skinning not far from home and came within about 30m of a dozen bison. OMG I was freaked. Fortunately it was a howling blizzard and they were more interested in sheltering from the storm than me and I managed to sneak away with photo in hand. They’d escaped from a neighbouring property where the owner does shooting safaris. Only for my sake I hope they’re back on the other side of the fence now.

  55. Lou August 8th, 2011 6:59 am


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