Cordova Chronicles: It’s been a very ‘beary’ summer

Just how many bears are we dealing with?

A large black bear named Suzie honking a WWII Mile 13 military truck horn to ask for more food. Cordova Historical Society photo

Thanks to a lack of berries, it’s been a very “beary” summer indeed.

Not a day goes by without an encounter with bears within the confines of our fair city, and it is safe to say that such incidents are ironically far more common than “out the road,” where we expect and are prepared for them.

Sharing bear stories over coffee or Facebook is part of the daily routine, and hardly anyone even bothers reporting sightings to authorities anymore, particular if the bears are black.

Some of the encounters have been quite entertaining. A fisherman’s wife sits down to have her morning coffee at the kitchen counter and looks out to see a large black bear standing on the deck, paws against a large picture window, longing for a mocha too.

What does she do? Frantically call her husband, of course.

“Honey, there’s a big bear leaning against the picture window! What do I do?”

Her husband just happens across Prince William Sound at Main Bay.

Reply: “Gee, sweetie, I don’t know. Maybe call the police?”

A parishioner is headed to church carrying a hot dish for a potluck to follow morning services. He is charged by a bear and falls down backwards. Luckily his dog shows up to chase the bear away. Even more luckily, the dish remains intact.

Perhaps, it was because of the hot pads he was using to carry it. They had black bears in the design.

An avid daily hiker who likes to park her car and go for nice long walks has discovered the need to carry an air horn and/or bear spray on such forays. She has also polished off her “thumbing for a ride” skills, after repeatedly finding herself cut off from her vehicle by bears when returning. Bear Uber, anyone?

Ah, grin and bear it?

Hmm.

Historically, it is hard to say if Cordova has ever had a bear problem quite like this.

Folks at ADF&G and the USFS both agree this has been a very unusual summer for bears. Trash about the city has been fingered as the culprit for attracting all these hungry bruins.

Up until this year, it was mainly dogs, or crows getting into people’s garbage; and the fish cleaning station, which turned out to be a regular bear delicatessen, was a marvelous spot to see eagles in countless numbers.

It is noteworthy that nowhere in literature about the construction of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway was there any mention of bear problems, and rest assured that railroad builders were not too concerned about where they dumped their leftovers.

It is safe to assume that if there was a bear problem, it was handled very quickly.

The Cordova Historical Society has monthly programs describing significant past events, and one centers on the construction of the Mile 13 Airport just prior to and during the early stages of WWII. The most popular photos are not of heavy equipment in action, but of a large black bear sitting at the wheel of a truck, honking the horn for more food.

The bear was so popular it even had a name. Suzie lived a good, well-fed life, and even slept at the foot of one of the cook’s bed, until she made the fatal mistake of going into the officer’s barracks and eating some of the candy that had been sent to an officer from his folks down south. Rank has its privileges, and the major with a sweet tooth was a sharpshooter.

Speaking of shooting, back in the ’70s, Cordova operated an open landfill right across Odiak Slough at what is now a popular campground on Whitshed Road. When the west wind blew, aromatic smoke wafted over the city, and one would think bears would be crawling all over the place. But they weren’t. Instead, the landfill was a popular place for driving out at night, turning on car headlights, and blazing away with shotguns – at rats.

We have come a long way in terms of handling of garbage, although “out of sight, out of mind” comes to mind, if you listen to stories about brown bears at the Mile 17 Landfill.

But back to the present. And next year. So far, in this Year of the Bear, at least 15 bruins have been killed; five by authorities. That means the rest were dispatched by private residents. That may seem like a lot, but bear sightings continue at a record pace.

Part of the problem is knowing the problem. Just how many bears are we dealing with? How many sightings are the same bear, now patrolling an established area?

Someone suggested marking the bears with paint ball guns, but that was dismissed, saying the colors wouldn’t last. How about trapping or darting the bears, and clipping a different colored tag on their ear? Every time a bear is seen, report it by color to ADF&G. Pretty soon every bear in town will be known by its hue, and there would also be some idea of the size of the problem.  Something should be done with continual repeat offenders.

Many good things could come as a result of this bear/berry crisis, including:

  1. Centralized bins for trash, which would be bear-proof, and in the long run reduce the cost of collecting trash from private residences.
  2. A new and improved fish cleaning station, which is one of the best and most popular facilities operated by the City Parks and Recreation Department.

Suggestions:

  1. Move it to the broad turnout 500 yards further out Orca Road, to create more parking plus provide access to deep water.
  2. Double or triple its size.
  3. Build it out over the water, where the tide rips by, and extend the disposal chutes so they reach into the water at all stages of the tide.
  4. Make the water hoses in the station long enough so users can wash down the area and also spray-down the chute so that fish remains will slide into the water.
  5. Have a large bear-proof container nearby for other trash.

Finally, address the biggest concern everyone I have talked to has – safety.

Neither ADF&G or USFS personnel could answer the question most on our minds: What is going to happen next year? Are these same bears, now conditioned to dining on tasty trash, going to be back, while incidentally bigger, stronger and less intimidated by humans?

Weather experts are predicting another mild winter, which means possible twins and triplets joining the bruin ranks next year. We have all come to regard black bears as less threatening, yet if you want to rethink that idea, Google “Brown chases black bear up tree,” a rather frightening clip of a “brown” bear sow with cubs attacking a black bear.

Not only will the speed of the incident causes chills, consider this: local bear expert Milo Burcham of the USFS suspects the “brown” bear, based on the way it went roaring up the tree, was in fact, a dark-hued blackie. Yikes.

My biggest fear is some little child, while out playing, walking around the corner of a house, and stumbling into a sow with cubs. Turning to run would be the natural reaction, and guess what the bear will instinctively do.

This Year of the Bear has affected our lifestyles and created constant concerns for safety, from playgrounds, decks, docks and backyards to even garages and doorways. The city of Cordova occupies roughly 27 square miles; a circle with a radius out to the current end of the Copper River Highway at 34 Mile includes 3,600 square miles. We’re living in 1 percent of this area.  That’s worth another “hmmm.”

Bears and berries. While they hibernate, and we eat scant jars of jam, we also need to make some decisions.

Hope is not a strategy. And ignored behavior becomes accepted behavior.

I’m betting the bears will be back next year. And they will know their way around the neighborhood, which they have come to regard as theirs.

Is it?

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Dick Shellhorn, author, reporter, ref and grandpa, can be reached at shorn@gci.net. Shellhorn was born and raised in Cordova, Alaska, and has lived there his entire life. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 40 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and third place in 2017.