Hikers charged by brown bear sow on Ridge Trail

A sow keeps an eye on her two cubs while they eat in interior Alaska in late June, 2017. (NPS Photo/Emily Mesner)

Three hikers charged in a surprise attack by a brown bear sow with cub in tow on Ridge Trail escaped life threatening injuries, thanks to bear spray and a helicopter rescue, but the incident now has area residents on alert.

The hikers were ascending one of the peaks along Ridge Trail between Power Creek and Crater Lake trails on Saturday, June 9, when they heard something crashing through the scrubby spruce and hemlock trees through the vegetation toward them, said Alicia King, public affairs/partnership staff officer for Chugach National Forest. “It became quickly apparent that it was a brown bear. The animal was exhibiting stress behavior and vocalizations and immediately charged the group.”

The sow knocked one of the hikers to the ground and a second hiker suffered injuries while seeking cover, King said.  None of them were bitten or scratched.

“Bear spray was used and proved effective in deterring the bear and stopping the incident,” she added. “It was because of that bear spray that they’re still around. That whole situation could have been a lot worse,” said Alaska Wildlife Trooper Sgt. Robin Morrisett.

“The one person who got knocked over by the bear, that person did what they were supposed to,” Morrisett said, curling up into the fetal position and covering their neck and head.

Due to their injuries and uncertain if the bears were still in the area, they called for help rather than walk out.

Alaska Wildlife Troopers and the Cordova Police Department initiated a search and rescue, supported by the U.S. Coast Guard crew out of Air Station Kodiak, forward deployed to Cordova. Subsequently the three hikers were airlifted off of the trail and taken to the Cordova Community Medical Center for further treatment of their injuries.

U.S. Forest Service Officer Andy Morse also assisted in the rescue.

“We were really happy to have him along for his local knowledge,” said Lt. Jane Peña, whose rescue crew included Lt. Jack Shadwick, James Rizer, and Bobby Burke.

Cordova has seen warm, sunny days the past few weeks, making everyone in the area eager to get out on the trails and enjoy the weather, bears included.

Numerous brown and black bear sightings have been shared on social media and by word of mouth the past few weeks.

Videos and photographs of brown and black bears are frequenting Facebook and Snapchat as people share their experiences.

Bears have been spotted along Lake Avenue, near mile six of the Copper River Highway, out Whitshed and near the Powder House.

Six mile resident Ken Roemhildt has had a young brown bear in his yard daily since the night of June 7, and twice the bear has charged Roemhildt.

The bear has been on his porch and in his backyard, and refusing to leave despite shouting and yelling at him.

“He just wasn’t responding like a normal bear and running. He was just kinda sauntering around like he owned the world,” Roemhildt said.  “He’s dangerous in my opinion because he’s not afraid of anything.”

“There’s no fish around, there’s no berries around yet. I’m sure they’re hungry,” he said.

Roemhildt said that he and his wife have been diligent in checking the perimeter of their property before they leave the house, especially when their granddaughter is dropped off.

“We’re hoping that he’ll find that there’s no food over here and go somewhere else,” he said.

What now?

Morrisett notes that people have the right to save their property from problematic bears, but that it is also possible and proven that humans can coexist with bears.

We’re sharing this world with the bears. We live right in their backyard. We live on the hillside. That’s the beauty of living in Alaska,” he said. “You have to realize that…if it’s bear season, you might have a bear in your yard.”

Some bear deterrents include taking trash to the dump, storing dog food properly, removing outside bird feeders and take precautions.

“If I see an attractant, I will write a ticket,” Morrisett said. “I’m sure people don’t want a $300 ticket.”

Still, if life or property are at risk, people are allowed to use lethal force against the bear, he said.

“Once you do take out a bear like that, notify the troopers or police department,” he said.

The person who killed the bear is then responsible for submitting a written report with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game within 15 days of the incident and must salvage the skull and hide, to be given to ADF&G.

Gun safety is just as important, especially within city limits.

“You’re responsible for that bullet and proper gun safety,” Morrisett said. “If a person is going to shoot a bear make sure that they have a gun that is appropriate for taking out the bear and that they know how to use the gun.”

When using bear spray, to be most effective, the high-power pepper spray should hit the bear’s eyes and nostrils, King said.

Also while hiking in the Chugach National Forest, be aware of surroundings, look for signs of bear activity such as tracks, scat, and bear beds, and make yourself known by being loud, she added.

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Emily Mesner is a staff reporter and photographer for The Cordova Times. Reach her at emesner@thecordovatimes.com. Emily graduated from Central Michigan University, earning a degree in photojournalism with a cultural competency certificate. She first visited Alaska in 2016, working as a media intern for the National Park Service in Kotzebue and Denali National Park and Preserve, and has been coming back ever since. To see more photos, follow @thecordovatimes and @emilymesnerphoto on Instagram.