I like to hike alone. I relish the serenity and grandeur of the forest, meandering and dawdling, following hiking trails or exploring wildlife paths. I traipse through the spruce and hemlock-laden forest of the Tongass National Forest not thinking much about bears. Juneau is surrounded by prime black bear habitat and bear sightings are common even downtown. The borough of Juneau has about 3 black bears per square mile. *
Trained by the National Forest Service to read and respond to bear behavior, and having experienced bear encounters where the bears flee, I don’t think much about encountering bears. In fact, I am often lazy about carrying spray.
I was enjoying a recent hike over the Moraine Ecology Trail in the Mendenhall Recreation Area when I came to a shrub-obscured fork in the trail. As I am about to turn left, a rush of disturbed vegetation and a flash of brown movement snags my attention. Whatever it is, it’s fleeing quickly. A bear? A dog? A deer? Seems too small for a bear. I stop to give the mysterious creature a chance to retreat. The air still, the phantom gone, I move into the intersection and turn left.
OH SHIT! Frozen in place, 15 feet away is a black bear sow starring me down, standing her ground, her three cubs scampering for safety. The 150-200 pound protective momma is looking me straight in the eye, warning me not to come any closer. She steps toward me, not overly aggressive by bear standards, but enough to trigger my flight or fight response. She is so close I read her yellow ear tag, “103”. My heart rate rocketing, my neck hairs tingling, I chant “Hey bear, I’m here, you’re there, I’m leaving, it’s OK,” while slowly raising my arms and stepping backwards. After what seems longer than it really is, the agitated sow turns away and lumbers down the trail to wrangle her three yearling cubs. My life no longer in danger, I regain my composure and think “how cool” then turn right on the trail, away from the bears. After a few yards, I glance back.
“Oh Shit”, Momma, with her triplets in tow, is heading toward me. Again, I step back off the trail, way back, while they swagger by. The cubs curiously check me out, but Mom never glances my way. I cautiously watch the furry family amble down the trail then duck into the trees. Once again regaining my composure, I think, “how cool,” and head in the opposite direction the bears are seemingly headed.
YIKES! Tumbling out of the tree cover 30 yards ahead of me are the three cubs. But, where is mom? Beside me, next to me? My neck hairs tingling , I can’t resist snagging a few photos of the cubs rough housing on the trail, like Larry, Curly and Moe. Spotting me, one cub stands up to get a better look before they dart into the tree cover. Again I think, “how cool,” and head down the trail while listening and looking for the sow. No sign of her or the cubs.
When I arrive at Steep Creek, I find the black bear family grazing contentedly on meadow grass. This time, however all is cool for I am standing on a bear viewing platform, 6 feet above the bears.
I few days after my bear encounter, the Forest Service closes the nearby East Glacier Trail after several hikers and mountain bikers report a sow, with three cubs, making threatening gestures, including clacking her jaws. It was 103.
According to an article in the May 13 edition of the Juneau Empire, John Neary, director of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitors Center, stated he was hopeful residents would obey the closure and give the bears the space they need. “‘Otherwise,'” Neary said, “‘the bear is going to get shot.”
UPDATE: as of May 19, the East Glacier Trail is still closed and there have been no negative encounters with 103.
Lesson learned: Carry bear spray.
Text & Photos by Aleta Walther © 2015
Naturalist, Outdoor Excursion Guide, CIG, CTA, ATG
* About Bears, The Natural History of Juneau Bears and Their Relationships With People, Discovery Foundation, Richard Carstensen.