An idyllic hike along the Upper Kenai River Trail ended in a hasty retreat for a group of hikers who encountered a bear. The persistent predator followed them all the way back to their car at the base of the trail.
Soldotna man Robert Hughes said he fired several warning shots at the bear, but none produced a noticeable impact and the animal followed his family and a family friend for several minutes as they made their way back down the trail.
Hughes said he, his son Michael Hughes, and a friend climbed a ridge at about 5:30 p.m. on Sunday looking for Michael’s wallet, which had been lost earlier. The group left Hughes’ wife Geraldine Hughes at the bottom of the trail as they searched.
“It was kind of getting darker up there and we’d been up there for about 10 minutes, wandering around, and I kind of got that feeling that I was being watched. The hair on the back of my neck stood up,” he said. “I told the boys it was time to go.”
As the three turned to walk down the trail, Hughes said they kept hearing something moving in the branches and he told the boys to catch up with Geraldine at the bottom of the trail.
“I turned around and there was that bear, just kind of 30 yards from us,” he said. “I told the boys to hurry up and get down the hill and I turned back and it was probably 15 feet closer and a little bit behind a tree. All I could see was the back half. It was pretty good sized.”
Hughes said he wasn’t sure if it was a brown or black bear — though the group found a fresh brown bear track during their retreat.
He was armed but loath to shoot the animal.
He said he carries a .40 caliber gun “to make noise” and a .44 caliber magnum as a “last resort.”
“We generally carry a shotgun as well as a .44 but … we weren’t really thinking that we were going to see something,” he said.
After sending the boys away, Hughes said he shot a few rounds toward the bear.
“It just stopped and stood there,” he said. “I fired a few more rounds … checked to make sure the boys were down, changed my mag and put a fresh clip in. The boys were down the hill, so I started going down. I didn’t think much of it, I figured he’d stay up there.”
But, the bear persisted.
“I walked up the gravel bar and told my wife we needed to go. I didn’t tell the boys there was a bear up there,” he said. “We got up the first hill and there are some rocks you’ve got to climb up and over. We got to the top of the first pile and said, ‘We’ll rest here.’ My son’s friend said, ‘There’s something in the woods.’ You could hear it, but you couldn’t see it. We could see the little trees moving.”
Hughes said the family joked about a Pepe Le Pew bear — a persistently amorous Warner Brothers cartoon character — before they continued down the trail.
“We got down to where the alders grow kind of close in and there was one big brown bear track right in the middle of the trail. I’ve got a (size 14) boot and it was wider than my boot is long. You could see all of the claws and we king of ogled at that when the brush started making a bunch of noise probably 30 feet in. I was like, good grief. We continued along.”
He said the bear followed about 30 feet behind the group the whole way to the parking lot — though Hughes stopped and fired more rounds down the trail.
Hughes said he wasn’t surprised to encounter the bear. The unseasonably warm temperatures and available food may have drawn it out, he said. The family hikes that trail two or three times a month during the winter and had an encounter with an aggressive brown bear a few years ago, he said.
The family assumed that the bear was hungry — which is a reasonable assumption, said Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist Jeff Selinger.
“If you’ve slept, even for three months, you’d wake up and get your body up and running again and you’d probably be hungry,” he said.
While the vast majority of bears are likely still sleeping this time of year, Selinger said Fish and Game has gotten reports of bear sightings during every month of the year.
“Bears will come out of their dens for various reasons and some of them really don’t den a whole lot,” he said.
A bear that didn’t get enough to eat during the summer might be out during the winter because the animal needs a high fat reserve to make it through the denning period, Selinger said.
Likewise, a bear’s den could be disturbed by seismic activity or human activity around the den.
Steve Miller, deputy refuge manager at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, said the encounter was the earliest report of a bear sighting on a trail that refuge personnel had heard this year.
He said staff would post a notice at the start of the trail to let other hikers know that a bear had been spotted.
For the Hughes family, the encounter was startling in that the bear didn’t seem to be perturbed by the gunfire.
“That’s kind of worrying to me,” Hughes said. “If somebody goes up there and has a really good smelling sandwich or something — the bear might come take that sandwich.”
While the Kenai Peninsula hasn’t seen it’s typical rush of tourists yet, Hughes said he worried that most people weren’t going out bear-prepared during the late winter and early spring months.
“They’re not carrying their pepper spray, they’re not carrying a firearm and they’re hiking because they think it’s safe to go out right now,” he said. “People need to be aware of their surroundings.”
Hughes said the family made its way steadily down the trail to avoid escalating the situation.
“Bears get tired going up a hill and that first bit of trail is a lot of uphill. Plus, if you run from a hungry bear, if you run from any predator, it’s going to chase you. You don’t want to run, you just kind of back away slow and easy.”
While the encounter left the family wary, it won’t stop them from hiking in the future.
As for the missing wallet?
“It was in the truck,” Hughes said, with a laugh.