Denali musher finds late-season bear tracks on the trail

Posted: Friday, November 24, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- As soon as Denali Park musher Bruce Lee saw the bear tracks in the middle of the trail, he knew they were fresh.

So did the 10 dogs that were towing the sled he was driving.

''Their heads were all up and they sped up like they do whenever they run into something fresh on the trail,'' said Lee, a household name when it comes to long-distance mushing in Alaska.

Lee admitted images of fellow musher Sepp Hermann popped into his head when he saw the tracks. It was almost exactly two years ago -- Nov. 11, 1998 -- that a grizzly bear attacked a team driven by Hermann on a trail near Wiseman, in the Brooks Range about 200 miles north of Fairbanks.

The bear, which biologists later determined was starving, charged and killed eight of the nine dogs in Hermann's team, forcing the musher to abandon the dogs to save his life.

Last week's incident was enough to shake up Lee, a top competitor in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race and winner of the 1998 Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.

''I'm not going back out there for a while,'' Lee said. ''There's only one reason bears are out at this time of year and that's because they're hungry.''

Lee and his handler, Kelly Mass, were training dogs on Denali Park Road in Denali National Park and Preserve when they saw bear tracks leaving at about Mile 6 of the 92-mile road.

There was a fresh dusting of snow on the road and the wind had done nothing to obscure the tracks, a sure sign they weren't very old.

''It had been out there this morning because all the other tracks had been blown away by wind,'' said Lee, an experienced outdoorsman and hunter. ''My guess was that bear had been on the trail less than an hour before we got there.''

They followed the tracks for about seven miles to the point where they came onto the road.

''It had come up on the park road at Savage River campground at Mile 12 or 13 and walked down the trail toward park headquarters,'' said Lee. ''It was only three miles from park headquarters when it turned off the road.''

When he first saw the tracks, ''I became very aware of my surroundings,'' said Lee.

Judging from the size of the tracks, Lee said it was ''definitely an adult'' bear.

When Lee and Mass stopped for a break to turn their teams around at Savage River, they formed a game plan in the event they did see the bear on the return trip out of the park.

''We just came up with a plan of what to do if we saw it,'' Lee said. ''We were just going to turn around and go the opposite way. If there was a confrontation, we were going to turn the dogs loose. That way, at the most the bear would get one dog instead of a whole team.''

Fortunately, the trip out of the park was uneventful with no bear sightings or new tracks.

Lee has been training on the park road since 1977 and said he has never seen bear tracks this late in the season.

''Occasionally people do spot bears in October after the moose rut but this is mid-November,'' Lee said

They weren't the first bear tracks he has seen on the trail this year, either, although they definitely were the freshest and biggest. Most of the time, the tracks simply cross the road, not follow it for miles.

''I've been training for about three weeks now and I would say once a week I've seen fresh bear tracks on the road,'' Lee said. ''But this one was just walking back and forth on the road.''

Park wildlife biologist Pat Owen said it's rare for bears to still be out searching for food. But he said it wasn't unheard of, especially because it was a poor berry year in much of the Alaska Range.

''We've had bears go into the den at the end of December,'' she said. ''It's not a regular occurrence, but it happens.

''We usually feel pretty confident everybody is tucked into their dens by the first week of November,'' Owen said.

Male grizzlies are the last bears to go into dens and Owen suspects the tracks Lee saw belonged to a male.

It may well have been the same bear biologist Kahlil Wilson saw last week from a plane when he and other biologists were conducting moose surveys.

''We saw a bear on a moose kill not too far from (Savage River) bridge, maybe two or three miles away,'' Wilson said. ''There's probably a good chance it was the same bear.''

November's unseasonably warm weather also might have had something to do with it. Below-zero temperatures have been rare in the park so far this fall and Denali Park has been experiencing spring-like temperatures much of the month. High temperatures were in the 30s during the past week.

''Maybe they just aren't ready to go in yet,'' Owen said. ''The weather's mild and we don't have much snow, so they're still able to eat.

''I'm sure if there are places that had berries they can find 'em,'' she said. ''Who knows what happened during the moose rut? Maybe there are some weak and tired bulls out there that are easy pickings.''

The park's district ranger, Tom Habecker, posted a ''grizzly alert'



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