Ranger gains up-close and personal insights into black bear behavior

Posted: Thursday, August 17, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- With the black bear circling just a few feet away, Carlin Kaufman thought about what it must feel like to be a moose or caribou.

''I was thinking, 'This is going to hurt so bad when he eats me,''' said Kaufman, a backcountry ranger at Denali National Park and Preserve who escaped injury after she slapped the bear in the head and stuck her radio in the bear's face with the squelch turned all the way up, chasing the animal away.

It ended a frightening and bizarre 20-minute standoff with the brazen bear, where Kaufman envisioned being killed and eaten.

''It was absolutely petrifying,'' said the 21-year-old, second-year ranger from Vermont.

The encounter, which occurred Aug. 8, prompted park officials to close the 2 1/2-mile McKinley Bar Trail near Wonder Lake, as well as some nearby backcountry use areas, while they unsuccessfully searched for the animal.

The area since has been reopened for day use although park rangers are advising hikers to travel in groups.

Bear management technician Ed Vorisek said park rangers haven't seen any sign of the bear since the encounter. It's likely the bear was stalking her, he said.

''It's unusual for it to be doing that with a person, but it is common for black bears to do that with prey,'' Vorisek said. ''I think it was a situation where this bear saw a solo individual hiking and approached to test the situation to see if it could deal with it.''

Kaufman was on a day-hike patrol when she thought she heard something behind her. She turned around twice to find nothing in sight, but the third time she looked she found herself staring into the eyes of a ''pretty big'' black bear.

''He was like two feet away,'' Kaufman said. ''I don't know how long he had been following me but he was right on top of me.

''I just started screaming. I picked up some rocks and threw them at him. I missed him with the first rock and hit him in the head with the second.''

The bear backed away a few feet and started circling, Kaufman said. She screamed obscenities and continued throwing rocks at the animal, which she estimated was only two feet away. After 10 minutes, the bear hadn't moved.

''It wasn't deterring him. I didn't know what to do. No one ever tells you what to do with black bears; they tell you about grizzlies.''

As a backcountry ranger, part of Kaufman's job is to instruct hikers how to handle bear encounters, but she never imagined she would be the one using those same tactics to fend off the black bear that was stalking her.

Kaufman ran for a stand of trees about 30 yards away, ''thinking I could get a tree between the two of us,'' she said.

''I ran 20 yards before I realized it was a mistake. He was galloping after me.''

Kaufman retreated to the gravel bar so she would at least have some rocks to throw. She could hear the bear crashing through trees behind her as she ran back to the gravel bar.

She stopped when she came to a small willow patch about three feet in diameter and the bear began circling her again while she threw rocks at it. The bear continued advancing until it was within arm's length.

''I just reached out and smacked him with my hand on the head,'' she said.

The surprised bear backed away a few yards, said Kaufman, who continued screaming obscenities and throwing rocks. After reading a book about black bear behavior recently, Kaufman said she knew the bear was stalking her.

''I knew I was prey to this bear and that just freaked me out. When my voice would falter or get softer he would get closer. When I averted my eyes from him he would get closer. The minute you started acting weak he picked right up on it.

''I knew I wanted to be aggressive back toward it.''

Kaufman finally reached into her pack and pulled out a two-way radio she was carrying.

''I got the radio antennae on and cranked up the squelch as high as I could. That just bugged him out.''

The bear ran about 30 yards and stopped. Afraid to run or even back away, Kaufman remained where she was for another five minutes before beginning a slow retreat.

''I sat there for a while, screaming. Then I started backing up real slow. I walked backwards for a while.''

Kaufman didn't realize she was only a few minutes from the trail, so she bushwhacked through 2 1/2 miles of woods to reach the Denali Park Road, all the while fearing the bear would reappear.

A few minutes later, a tour bus came by and picked Kaufman up. She sat in the back of the bus, shivering, until she reached park headquarters, where she filed a report with park rangers.

Vorisek applauded Kaufman for her cool behavior and using the radio to scare the bear away.

''She handled it in the best way possible,'' he said. ''You need to be aggressive with a curious black bear.

''Once you try everything you know and it doesn't work, then you have to start improvising, which she did,'' Vorisek said, referring to her use of the radio.

While Denali is famous for its grizzly bears, Vorisek said there are plenty of black bears in that western section of the park.

''This is the time of year you're going to start running into them a lot more because they're running around looking for berries,'' he said.

Kaufman's last day of work as a ranger is Aug. 25 and then she'll return to the University of Vermont, where she is majoring in ecology and wildlife biology. She'll go back to school with a field experience her classmates may find hard to believe.

''I definitely got an insight into the psychology of black bears,'' she said.

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