Hiker scares off three bears

Posted: Monday, June 02, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) About a mile north of McHugh Creek, still within scent of families barbecuing at one of the most popular highway waysides in Alaska, Jim Leslie believes he had a near-death encounter with three bears.

''I've never been so scared in my life,'' he said.

Though the three black bears never got closer to Leslie than about 100 feet, he said their behavior gave him the clear impression he was being stalked. Black bears have been known to do that, though those have almost always been lone bears.

What troubled Leslie about these bears was that they didn't do what bears are supposed to do when they encounter people: flee in fear.

Leslie, who works at Providence Heart Center in Anchorage, had known every other bear he'd met in his years in Alaska to do exactly that.

''I've run across bears before,'' Leslie said, ''although usually it's just one bear.

''These were not scared of me one bit. I thought I was going to be dinner.''

Chugach State Park superintendent Jerry Lewanski, who lives in a home above Turnagain Arm Trail, thinks these might be the same three bears he has shooed out of his yard several times. The bears are somewhat habituated to humans, he said, but appear to pose no threat.

But one never knows.

Go a few miles east of where Leslie met the three black bears, and you're at the site of one of the deadliest and best-known bear attacks in state history.

In May 1995, nationally recognized senior runner Marcie Trent, 77; her locally well-known marathoning son Larry Waldron, 45; and Trent's grandson Art Abel, then 14, were jogging and hiking up the McHugh Creek Trail toward McHugh Lake when they stumbled into a brown bear on a moose kill.

The bear attacked. Trent and Waldron were killed. Abel survived by climbing a tree.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game later launched a hunt for the bear but found no sign of it.

Chugach State Park closed the McHugh Creek Trail for several weeks after the attack, but eventually fears began to subside and the trail was reopened. Over time, use returned to normal, but the history of what happened along the trail has long made hikers in the area edgy.

The out-of-character behavior by all three bears bothered him.

''The bears made no sounds and kept slowly closing the distance without taking their eyes off me,'' he said. '' I knew I was a dead man at that point.''

So he called the Anchorage Police Department on his cell phone. In his right hand he held a .44 Magnum.

Police Department spokeswoman Anita Shell said the department really has no procedure to deal with calls like this. But police did dispatch patrol cars to McHugh Creek, and Leslie said dispatchers told him to keep talking to them.

''Hold on a minute,'' Leslie told them at one point. ''I'm going to fire a warning shot.''

The first warning shot sent one bear scurrying several feet up a tree, Leslie said, but the others appeared unfazed. They just kept watching him.

''There were not scared of me one bit,'' he said. ''I had the wind at my back. I was making all kinds of noise. They knew it was me. I thought I was going to be dinner.''

The bear that had gone up the tree climbed down. Then all three started advancing on Leslie again.

''They didn't make a sound,'' he said. ''They just started walking right at me. There was no huffing, no snapping of jaws, no bluff charges. They just kept walking at me, and I kept slowly backing down the trail.''

When the bears got inside of 100 feet, Leslie fired another warning shot with his handgun. This time, within seconds they disappeared into the forest.

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