The other day I mentioned via Twitter that I’d once chased a bear away with a shovel. Alpinist Magazine (@AlpinistMag) retweeted my comment with the addition, “some things just sound 907. ‘I chased a bear with a ____’ is one of them.” Can’t argue with that.
So today was a seriously 907 day all the way around.
I woke in a state of anxiety, having committed myself to leading a mountain rescue training but regretting doing so once I’d learned that Alyeska Resort had 40″ of new snow on top. In a fit of denial, I packed two pairs of skis and boots and all my ski gear on top of my mountain rescue stuff just in case my search and rescue compatriots solved my dastardly training scenario quickly enough for me to dart down and get some turns, but I knew deep down it wasn’t going to happen for me this day. A patroller friend comforted me with, “It won’t be powder anyway,” which I thought was a nice thing to say but really didn’t make me feel better, because IT DIDN’T MATTER. Forty inches of snow in May and I wanted to ski it.
But a commitment is a commitment so I resigned myself to a day of SAR shenanigans. My angelic sense of martyrdom was rewarded with the news that the mountain wasn’t going to open for the day because of avalanche conditions (it appears to still be snowing down there), and I could turn all of my attention to the training for the day.
With the help of a truly selfless team member who agreed to sit in the woods half the day and even bring his kids to add extra difficulty, I’d set up a lost person scenario to test out my team’s ability to interview witnesses, provide containment at trailheads, and conduct a ground search. My team member, Herman, took his kids out into the woods to play “lost” and pretend they had missed the turn back to the parking lot. They were to stay put for a few hours, respond to whistles blown by searchers and, if found, Herman was to pretend he had a head injury and needed to be carried out by the search team. I gave the searchers some vague information about the “lost hikers” and let things play out.
The first part of the day went fairly brilliantly. The search managers fell for my ruse and sent most teams north instead of south, where Herman was, though the incident commander did in fact muse over whether a hiker could have missed the turn to the parking lot. I figured I’d let them all dangle for a while and set off with my own superhero searcher, Geardog, to give him a chance to make a “find” and to warm up from standing in the cold parking lot all morning. I’d asked a team member to toss a backpack into the woods for search dogs to find so I figured I’d give Geardog first dibs.
We found the backpack in short order and Geardog was so stoked to get a play reward that I decided to continue on down the trail and “find” Herman before consigning Geardog back to the car for the day. I had a good idea where Herman was and I knew Geardog could use more exercise, and I could make the find and get back to base quickly to move the scenario along. We hiked the trail to the turnaround point (the place I knew Herman didn’t pass) and climbed the hillside to get a better position for Geardog to scent our subjects. I had only bushwhacked a few dozen yards before I stepped into a fresh pile of bear dookie, reminding me that since I’d only intended to go a few hundred yards down the trail to find the pack, I hadn’t brought my own pack to which my bear spray was safely tied. I radioed base to tell them to look out for bears, and adopted a more “heads-up” stance as Geardog and I continued searching.
We found Herman without incident, chatted for a minute, then I headed back to base. As the day moved along, a few long-distance bear sightings were called in, one from a team on the next mountain over who could see a large brown bear making its way up the drainage. Must have been a cool sight.
Eventually Herman was found and all the ground teams converged on his location for some action. I wanted to get back out to do something so I went along, too, and soon enough we were packaging Herman up like a burrito to be carried out in a litter. We have a lot of medical types on our team and I’m not one of them, so I ended up entertaining Herman’s two ridiculously adorable daughters while the rest of the team worked. We were up on a hillside above Turnagain Arm and the Seward Highway, so we enjoyed a great view while we played (I figured those kids deserved a little play after sitting in the woods for three hours).
As the team worked to package our “patient,” I noticed a commotion below, down by the highway. Cars were quickly filling the pullout below our position, with drivers jockeying for space, slamming on the brakes, and otherwise making a mess of things. I observed a few drivers darting from their cars and racing towards the turnout, and quickly surmised that there was an animal there that people wanted to see. Soon enough horns were blaring and I witnessed a few close calls as the highway jammed up with stopped cars. Now, tourists get all excited about mountain goats and sheep, and they almost explode with rapture when they see a moose, but this was something else, I could tell. I suspected that there was a bear there and the passers-by were stopping to gawk. Watching the picture takers dart directly towards whatever it was they were staring at didn’t make me feel any better. Whatever the animal was, it was bound to feel pressured and to retreat up into the woods. Concerned that we’d be in its path, I radioed base but they couldn’t see what was happening.
After 30 minutes or so, the cars dispersed, which meant that their hapless photo subject had also dispersed. The search team had packaged up Herman and had a lowering system rigged for the litter when I saw it – a large, glossy, fat, highly agitated brown bear, cresting the rise below us and staking out a spot about thirty feet from the trail we planned to use to evacuate our subject. We were treated to an amazing sight; the huge bear silhouetted against the waters of Turnagain Arm, standing on a cliff edge overlooking the highway. Had a motorist happened to have looked up, they would have seen a once in a lifetime scene. We were thrilled, too, but the bear’s behavior gave us pause. The bear paced, snapping its jaws and darting around; generally looking like a bear we didn’t want to be near. We made the decision to end the scenario and unpackage Herman, though I did get a little laugh out of the fact that after I pointed out the bear, I looked over my shoulder to see most of the team right behind me looking at the bear, having raced over leaving burrito-ed Herman to fend for himself (almost – one stalwart individual stayed with him).
We watched for a while as the bear restlessly roamed, generally parallelling our path to the parking lot. Absolutely no one had a camera, which is why there are no pictures to go with this post. We debated whether to go or to wait, when one sharp thinker suggested we take the other route, away from the bear, then descend to the road and walk back that way, eliminating the chance of running into our agitated ursus horribilis. I radioed base to tell them they should expect a bear in their parking lot soon, and we departed in an orderly line for the highway.
Sure enough, the bear did in fact make tracks for our base/parking lot, which added a level of difficulty to our scenario that I hadn’t anticipated. From where we stood on the road, we could see the turnoff for the parking lot but not any of the happenings therein. I took a stance on the other side of the highway so I at least had radio comms to pass information to my team, and I saw car after car after car turning into the parking lot to get a look. The last straw was seeing a taxi turn in. As we waited, we found a half-opened can of salmon in the pullout, which is likely what drew the bear down to the highway. Later, the ranger told me that they had had consistent problems with this type of “baiting” recently. Look, I know Alaska is cool and you all want to see it, but it’s not a zoo and it ain’t Disneyland so a) don’t litter and b) don’t be a damn idiot and try to attract bears to the highway for easier tourist viewing. There are so many ways that that little can of salmon could have gotten people killed today.
Base kept telling us to stay where we were, and evidently this was because the sight-seers followed the bear, annoying it further and resulting in a few people being charged as they tried to approach the irritated animal to snap pictures. Base called for ranger backup and started ferrying cars to our location rather than risk having us walk into a volatile bear encounter. By shouting and blowing our whistles, we tried to stop hikers from blithely continuing along the trail, and they very nearly didn’t listen to us as they carried on with their two dogs running ahead of them, no bear spray in sight. Luckily they changed their minds and turned around – base told me over the radio that any hikers coming down the trail would make that bear feel “very trapped.” Our people were safe in their cars, but no one wants to helplessly witness a bear mauling, even if the maulee somewhat deserves it.
I was shuttled to the parking lot to pick up my truck, and the bear was still just a couple dozen feet away, fretting and panting right on the main trail we’d hiked to go find Herman. The ranger had cleared out most of the looky-loos but a few aspiring photographers remained, stalking the bear from the false safety zone in between the cars. Not wanting any part of that, we moved our vehicles down the road and debriefed there. We were all safe, sound, and unhurt even in the face of the unexpected, so a successful day it was.
But it wasn’t over yet, at least for me. I’d asked the other dog handlers to help out by bringing articles for me to hide for the dogs, and one of the articles was the backpack I’d set out to find with Geardog so many hours before. I’d left it in place in case another dog handler wanted a find. Unfortunately, it was a nice pack full of quality gear kindly loaned by one of the searchers’ husbands – it wouldn’t do to leave it out. As the instigator of the training and the only one with a clear idea of where the pack was, I agreed to hike in with the pack’s owner to retrieve it. It was a bit of a nerve wracker, hiking up a trail that a pissed-off grizzly had been occupying just moments earlier. Not only did I have my bear spray out, I had it unlocked and ready to fire. Thankfully, though, we retrieved the backpack without incident.
All in all I’d say it was a good day’s work. I didn’t miss out on any skiing, I did my duty to SAR team and community, and I didn’t get mauled by or even scared by a bear. Geardog got to work and we all had a fun day outside with our friends. We got to see a beautiful animal up close and personal from a rare angle, and we know for sure that winter’s over because the bears are awake and alert. And that’s 907.