Out of the Office: Bear encounters bring the noise

The woods are getting a bit louder these days.

With the uptick in bear encounters this summer in Alaska, the trails and backcountry wonderlands are becoming a place to fear, not fawn over. In my 21 years of living in the Last Frontier, I cannot recall such a fast start to the summer in regard to bear encounters. There have been previous years when it seems humans can’t help but run into the big, furry beasts, but when a death is reported in the news, the problem takes on a whole new importance.

Welcome the mad hatters, the increasing number of hikers and runners that travel through the woods with the volume of a police car. More so than normal this summer I find myself hiking up a mountain clapping my hands and hooting and hollering like “Nature Boy” Ric Flair on a bender.

The reason for the relentless noise is simply to prevent bear encounters, but it comes with consequences, chief of those being the embarrassment one gets when other hikers round a bend with confused glances. Sorry sir, just playing it safe.

While it is true that I’ve never carried any sort of bear deterrent into the woods — that list includes bear spray and firearms — it is also important to know that I grew up in a high-energy household. Two younger siblings, several dogs, one ADHD child (myself) and a fast-talking mother will provide enough banter to keep any and all wildlife away.

In fact, my sister once posed a quintessential question to our mother, “How in the world did you manage to keep up with three high-energy kids as a single mom?” Her response, “It wasn’t whether I could keep up with you, it was about you keeping up with me!”

Growing up, athletic ability was on display in the Klecka household. My sisters both excelled at soccer, and all three of us packed our autumns with cross-country running and our winters with nordic skiing.

So, when the sports season took a break, we were out conquering the backwoods of Southcentral Alaska. Crow Pass has never seen a noisier bunch of hooligans, I’m certain.

At age 8, I remember walking out of a little known cabin in the woods of Eagle River valley on a still summer evening, only to see the retreating bums of three black bears — a momma bear and two cubs. One of the cubs dashed up a birch tree and remained up there, suspended 20 feet in the air, for over 10 minutes.

Luckily, the few instances I have encountered bears in the wilderness have resulted in the same scenario; the beasts run off before I can even determine my own next move. I don’t know if that makes me lucky, or just supremely talented at preventing any deadly meetings by making noise.

That is the reason why I’ve never felt the need to carry firearms or bear spray on my person when enjoying the natural beauty Alaska has to offer. Of course, in times when I travel alone, such as my Mount Marathon training runs up Skyline, I make sure to make all the noise I can. Hear me roar, for I am … scared?

My lack of protection on hikes also leads me to feel a bit emasculated when I pass by a gun-toting adventurer. Imagine walking down a street filled with citizens wearing gas masks, while you are left to wonder what sort of deadly toxin is about to infiltrate your being. Should I be worried?

This summer, two deaths have been reported by bears, both coming in a span of a day. It began with 16-year-old Patrick Cooper, a youth runner at the annual Bird Ridge mountain race along Turnagain Arm. Cooper reportedly texted a family member after the bear gave chase, and was later found badly injured on the side of the trail, approximately 500 feet off the route. Cooper later succumbed to his injuries.

While the first death took me by surprise, especially considering the volume of racers that compete in the popular mountain run, the second one shook me to the core.

I had knew Erin Johnson, the young biologist who was taking field samples near the Pogo Mine in interior Alaska when a predatory bear attacked her and her coworker. Johnson, 27, was a fellow teammate of mine on the Chugiak High School cross-country ski team over a decade ago, and she was just as her family and the local news described her — a beautiful, genuine, kind, outdoorsy wanderer.

The loss of a person within my friend circles has forced me rethink my methods of bear prevention. I still have yet to use true bear protection, other than the use of my hands and lungs, but the thought of having a trusty can of mace has crept increasingly closer to reality.

Since the two deaths, the furry creatures haven’t let up, either. A bear poked its head through the bedroom window of an Anchorage boy, and another tangled with a particularly messy camper in Anchorage over the July Fourth holiday.

If bears aren’t scared to saunter through the urban expanse of Anchorage, they ought to be puffing their chests out wandering through the woods of the Kenai Peninsula. Expect to hear more yelling, hollering, cat-calling and clapping from this hiker.

Reach Clarion reporter Joey Klecka at joseph.klecka@peninsulaclarion.com.

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