An Outdoor View: Biking in bear country

Posted: Friday, August 13, 2010

On Monday evening of this week, a woman friend was telling me that recent bear sightings along Robinson Loop in Sterling had made her leery of riding her bicycle in that area. The following morning, while riding my bike on Greatland Street in Sterling, a brown bear with a cub walked out of the roadside brush about 50 yards ahead of me.

For maybe two heartbeats, we looked at each other. Then, without loss of face on either side, we all forthwith departed the scene along the paths whence we had come.

Events such as this give you pause to wonder. What if I had left home three or four seconds earlier?

We live in bear country, and this was yet another reminder.

There's something about bikes and bears. Anchorage teen Petra Davis was brutally reminded that she lives in bear country while on a bike race in June 2008. Having just entered Rover's Run trail in Anchorage's Bicentennial Park, the 15-year-old was attacked and badly mauled by a bear. It was the first mauling inside the state's largest city, and it sent a chill through trail users.

No one is certain why Davis was attacked. The incident happened in semi-darkness, at about 1 a.m. It was a windy night, so the breeze in the leaves might've drowned out what little sound she was making. She was traveling fast, making it even more difficult for the bear to hear her and get out of the way. The consensus among after-game quarterbacks was that she surprised the bear, possibly a sow with cubs, and it attacked. In other words, it was just doing what bears do, defending itself or its cubs.

Much the same thing happened in June of this year. Sean Berkey, a pharmacist at the Alaska Native Medical Center, surprised a sow bear with a cub while riding his bike to work on Rover's Run trail. The bear attacked and mauled him. Berkey escaped serious injury.

What are the odds of having such a close encounter with a bear that it feels threatened and attacks?

If you're walking with a noisy group, the odds are slim. If you're walking alone in the dark, they're better. And if you race a bike down a narrow trail through brush beside a salmon stream in the dark, odds are even better.

Due to a number of recent sightings of sow bears with cubs in Anchorage's Bicentennial Park, Anchorage officials have recommended that cyclists and other trail users avoid Rover's Run under all circumstances and use other trails. The Parks and Recreation Department issued the following tips:

Buddy up. You are safer in a group.

Make noise. This will prevent you from surprising a bear.

Use your senses to stay aware. No headphones!

Carry bear spray. Have it accessible and know how to use it.

Don't feed bears. Handle food, fish and attractants responsibly.

Slow down. High speed equals high risk in bear habitat.

Leash your pets. Off-leash pets can bring bears back to you.

Never run from a bear!

If you're in Sterling and see a geezer bicyclist who is singing, riding slowly and carrying a canister of bear spray in his water-bottle holder, that would be me.

Les Palmer lives in Sterling.

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