The odds of getting attacked by a bear are one in over two million. That’s why Sarah Wallner, who was mauled by a grizzly in 2007, could not believe her misfortune when she and two friends ended up in a standoff with a black bear at Tonsina Creek, near Seward, on Thursday.
“Oh, not again. This is not happening,” Wallner remembers thinking. “Like, this is not supposed to happen again.”
All three were OK, as was the bear, who just suffered from some mace in the face. But the hikers said for the about two minutes the standoff lasted, they weren’t so sure what was going to happen.
It wasn’t an isolated incident. Alaska State Parks Ranger Jack Ransom said his department got three separate reports Thursday and Friday about a large, aggressive black bear on the Tonsina Creek Trail.
Regina Green, Niels Green and Wallner, who have a cabin at Lowell Point, said they’ve heard of more bear encounters in that area in the last two years than ever before.
They’ve been hesitant about hiking there for that reason. But on Thursday, they decided to try the Tonsina Creek Trail anyway.
Regina said they were crossing the Tonsina Bridge on their way back when their dog came running toward them.
“I was turned back around and I heard this super loud thundering,” she said. “And I thought Niels was playing around.”
That’s when Wallner saw a black bear had followed the dog onto the bridge. She and Regina jumped away, to the other side of the railing. But Niels, who was standing in the middle of the bridge, was facing the other way and didn’t see it.
“And I’m like, ‘Niels! Bear!’” Regina said.
But ‘Bear’ has also been Wallner’s nickname, since she was attacked.
“So he was like, ‘What?’”
When Niels turned around, he was just two feet away from the bear. He had a beach ball he’d picked up on the beach and stuck it between him and the bear as a buffer.
Every time Niels tried to back away, the bear came closer. He thinks they stood like that for two minutes.
“And I was talking to it, going, ‘Bear, don’t try nothing, you need to go, bear,’” he said.
“And I thought in that situation I’d be more helpful, but I jumped away over the bridge,” Regina said. “And our bear spray was in the backpack in the side pocket.”
Regina grabbed the bear spray out of her backpack and handed it to Niels, who sprayed the bear.
“And then it just walked away,” Regina said. ‘But if we didn’t have the spray — it wasn’t leaving.”
Wallner said she wishes she and Regina had gotten big behind Niels.
“You know all of what you’re supposed to do but it’s very hard to do it in those moments,” she said.
They didn’t report it to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game but did immediately post about the incident in Seward community groups on Facebook to warn others who were thinking of hiking in the area.
Ransom, the park ranger, said he’s posted signs at the trailhead, and his department will consider closing the trail if the bear keeps bothering hikers. He said one couple reported being chased by the bear. Another group had to throw rocks at it to scare it away.
He said run-ins of that sort are not entirely rare for this time of year. Nick Fowler, area wildlife biologist for Fish & Game, said recreationists should be bear aware as bears start emerging from their dens.
“The best thing that we can do is to stop conflicts from happening in the first place,” he said. “And our best tool against that is to manage our attractants that are going to potentially bring bears into close proximity with people.”
He said that means securing trash and any other attractants. He also said people should make sure they have control of their pets.
“And that’s a concern for pet safety as well as animal safety,” he said. “We don’t want wildlife being attracted to an area because pets are off-leash and we also don’t want dogs chasing wildlife, as well.”
Wallner and the Greens said they recommend keeping dogs on leashes in the area because their dog seemed to bring the bear to them. They also said having bear spray is a lifesaver.
Though they’re physically fine, the three are a rattled after their run-in.
“So now we’re just sitting in front of the cabin painting rocks,” Regina said.
“’Cause we don’t want to go hiking today,” Wallner added. “We’re going to take up more kayaking this year.”
You can report wildlife encounters on the Fish & Game website or through the Soldotna office, at 907-262-9368.