Eagle River hikers weigh risks after deadly bear attack

The Parks Department closed the South Fork Trail in Eagle River for a few weeks, but reopened it in late July. (Photo by Emily Russell/Alaska Public Media)

The Parks Department closed the South Fork Trail in Eagle River for a few weeks, but reopened it in late July. (Photo by Emily Russell/Alaska Public Media)

If you live in Alaska, you live in bear country. The worst could happen even while the risk of a bear encounter or attack is low.

Since last summer, there have been three bear-related deaths, with the latest earlier this summer in Eagle River.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game set traps and killed three bears, but still haven’t found the bear responsible for the June 18 attack.

Hikers aren’t deterred from hitting the trails. On a recent afternoon, Loni Quinn was out with her dad, Mike Quinn, and friend, Dustin Miller.

“It’s beautiful, it’s sunny, it’s green,” Loni Quinn said.

Quinn grew up in Eagle River and knows the trails.

She didn’t second guess going out alone in late June.

“He was over there, I right here,” Quinn said, pointing just across the valley.

That’s where Michael Soltis went missing Monday, June 18.

Soltis’s body was found two days later and a member of the search party looking for him was mauled by the same bear.

Deadly bear attacks are considered rare in Alaska, happening once every three to four years.

But just last year there were two– one outside Anchorage and the other in the Interior.

It’s possible the number of human-bear encounters are up, retired wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott said, but there are also just more humans here.

“Fifty years ago, who was jogging in the woods? Who was riding bikes in the woods? Basically nobody,” Sinnott said. “We have two or three or four times more people in Anchorage — there’s way more people in the woods.”

Those people can leave scraps of food on the trails or unattended in campgrounds, which means bears get more habituated.

Just weeks after the last death here, these woods are packed with people.

It’s no surprise why. The trail starts out in a forest of bright white birch and dark green spruce. It climbs along a clear, cold stream perfect for cooling off on a hot day.

Sarah Smith has a colorful sleeve of tattoos up her right arm and a can of bear spray strapped to her hips.

“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when you’re going to have a (bear) encounter,” Smith said.

Smith is camping overnight with her friend, Seth Ransom, and their two dogs.

“Sarah’s got the bear spray, I’ve got a .44 (pistol),” Ransom said.

The two have talked about what they’ll do if they see a bear.

“We’re going to get together, see if we can get the dogs with us,” Ransom said. “We’ll have the (bear) spray first, firearm second. Hopefully we never have to use it.”

Ransom actually trains people for a living on how to stay safe in the backcountry.

He tells clients that having too many bear deterrents can be a bad thing.

“If you have an air horn, you have a firearm, you have a whistle, you have bear spray — in the moment you’re not going to know which one to go for,” Ransom said.

Dustin Miller shows off the slug from his 12-gauge shotgun he hikes with. (Photo by Emily Russell/Alaska Public Media)

Dustin Miller shows off the slug from his 12-gauge shotgun he hikes with. (Photo by Emily Russell/Alaska Public Media)

On the trail this day, some people had bells on their dogs’ collars, others had guns strapped to their chest or slung over their shoulders.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s guide to staying safe in bear country focuses on bear spray and firearms as the top deterrents.

Hikers say mostly they’re not afraid, despite the hype of bear stories on social media and the recent death in this valley.

“I really just think you have to keep perspective,” Loni Quinn said. “Otherwise, I would just have fear and paranoia.”

Quinn has only seen five or six bears in the more than hundreds of hikes she’s gone on.

“That’s the way I rationalize it,” Quinn said. “Because I love being outside and I love hiking and I don’t want to give up what I love so much just because I’m afraid of running into something that probably doesn’t want anything to do with me anyway.”

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