You get thousands of people foot packing through the Alaskan wilderness, in prime grizzly bear habitat, and the odds are not in your favor.
The odds conspired this past Saturday night, when a group of NOLS students were attacked by a grizzly near Talkeetna, Alaska. According to reports, the group of seven teens were on their “final” expedition (meaning traveling without instructor) at the end of a three week wilderness backpack. In the narrow confines of a brush choked creek bed, the group couldn’t see much around them and had to resort, as is commonly done, to trying to warn off any bears by making as much noise as possible. They surprised a grizzly bear; it attacked their group. Two were severely injured, all survived. Rescue was instigated by their emergency beacon, and done that night.
Traveling in larger groups and making plenty of noise is the foundation of safe backpacking in grizzly habitat. If the bears know you’re coming they tend to leave. And they don’t like attacking groups of four or more people.
By using such travel techniques, NOLS has an impressive record of running safe courses in the AK wilderness. They’ve been running their groups for about 40 years, with upwards of 10,000 participants. In all that time, they claim to have not had one bear attack (though one has to guess they’ve had their share of close encounters.)
Being attacked by a wild animal is said to be one of the most frightening things a human being can experience. The thought of it is repulsive but at the same time perversely fascinating. Thus, when something like this happens the news media piles all over it — and the bloggers of course!
But beyond mere exploitative blogging, I’m thinking a couple of things.
Mainly, I hope NOLS deals with this elegantly and they’re able to maneuver against any forces that would dilute or even curtail their Alaskan operations. As Craig Medred so rightly points out in his report, other things in Alaska kill or injure a lot more people than bears do, e.g., ATV and snowmobile accidents in 2009 killed 20 individuals.
One has to wonder, however, if there is not some way to make bear country travel even safer than the NOLS methods. Weapons are the first thing that come to mind. Yet this event is a perfect example of why weapons, bear spray or guns, are questionable as a solution.
These types of attacks occur when the bear is very close before it becomes aware you’re there, sometimes within feet, and attacks because it’s confused or you’re in its threat zone (where the animals instincts require that it defend rather than run). When the animal is that close and attacks quickly, and you’re in a group, you simply don’t have time to reach for pepper spray or a gun and do anything effective. More, you get your finger on the trigger of a gun with other people around, a bear attacks you — that’s the kind of situation where someone gets accidentally shot (and probably killed, because if you do have a bear gun it’s going to be a serious canon, designed to destroy).
Hair splitting and Tuesday quarterbacking aside, main thing is that if NOLS or others are hiking in dense brush where grizzly bears live, at certain (albeit rare) times they’re simply going to create bear situations where there is no solution. If those situations are worth the value that thousands of people get out of experiencing such places, then things like NOLS backpacking courses will continue. As they probably should.
But anything can be improved. It’ll be interesting to see what changes NOLS makes in their bear safety procedures, if any.
Any of you guys have any close encounters of the ursine kind?
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.