Michelle Yeskie and her daughters are no strangers to the backcountry.
Colleen, 10, and Shannon, 9, have been hiking and backpack camping nearly as long as they’ve been walking.
But a hike last week in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, not far from the heart of Soldotna, was a completely new experience.
The Soldotna family was hiking Centennial Trail on Aug. 9 when they saw a black bear and cub.
“This is my first time ever getting that close to a bear,” Colleen said.
She’d seen them at a distance, of course, around the Kenai Peninsula and while traveling in Valdez. But this time she was so close that the bear touched her.
“I was actually walking like 20 feet ahead of my mom and my sister,”
Colleen said. “... Then (the bear) knocked me down and gave me four scratches on my bum.”
Colleen doesn’t remember every moment of the bear encounter. She fell asleep when the bear knocked her down, she said.
But Michelle remembers it too well.
“She was right ahead of me and she screamed,” Michelle said. She was scared. “Colleen’s underneath the bear and what do I do?”
Luckily, the bear backed up and Colleen was able to get up, Michelle said.
But Michelle still didn’t know what to do with the bear nearby. She wanted the girls out of harm’s way, so she told Shannon to run back the way they came. While Michelle tried to shoo the bear away, it came toward her again.
Unbeknownst to her, Shannon and Colleen didn’t plan to leave their mom. They got big and started making noise, staying just behind her the whole time.
Michelle said her daughters’ bravery impressed her.
“I was so proud of them both,” Michelle said.
Once the bear had turned away, Michelle realized her girls were still with her.
And then they remembered their bear safety lessons.
“911-SOS-Bear attack-help,” they yelled while hiking about an hour back to the refuge headquarters.
“And once in a while we’ll say black bear attack,” Colleen added.
The yelling was as much to stay loud and keep the bears at bay as to get help.
They reported the bear sighting and took Colleen to get checked out by emergency services, but the scratches were just a little bloody, not threatening to the 11-year-old.
“And now one of my favorite shirts is torn,” Colleen said.
The refuge responded by posting warnings in the area, said Andy Loranger, the refuge manager.
Now hikers are greeted by a handwritten sign noting that on the afternoon of Aug. 9, hikers encountered a bear.
Ripening berries and the turning season means that bears can be more prevalent than usual, Loranger said. There have been a few bear sightings reported on the refuge trails.
“This is a time of year when its not unusual to have increased bear activity,” he said.
The Yeskies don’t know what prompted the bear to run into Colleen.
Michelle said she thought the mother might have been trying to protect her own baby, an instinct she can identify with.
“There was a baby and the baby went shooting up the tree,” Michelle said.
They do know what they did wrong.
“Living up here, you should be prepared at all times,” Michelle said.
The Soldotna residents started camping in Wisconsin when the girls were toddlers. They’ve lived in Soldotna for a year, and lived in
Fairbanks briefly before — so they’re no strangers to Alaska wilderness, either.
When they go out in other backcountry areas, Michelle said they bring bear spray, a first aid kit and sometimes a gun.
When they saw a full parking lot at the refuge headquarters, they left it all in the car.
“I didn’t even think to grab the bear spray,” Michelle said.
And they forgot the two key rules of hiking in bear territory.
Colleen was running ahead, and they weren’t making noise.
If there’s one lesson to share from their experience, Michelle said she wants other families to remember how important it is to be loud all the time, not just most of it. And families should stick right together.
Loranger said those are the two main lessons the refuge wants people to know.
“Try to make sure that bears in the area are aware of your presence,” he said.
The scare doesn’t mean that the Yeskies won’t keep hiking at the refuge.
Colleen said she was in shock for much of the day, but now she’s ready to hike again. Someday it’ll be a good story, she and her mom said. In fact, later that week they could laugh about it.
“We’ll go back,” Michelle said.