By Jenny Neyman
The details of a bear attack Sunday afternoon on the Kasilof beach were about as ripe for tragedy as they come.
A family with three of their kids — one just a baby in a backpack — unarmed, out for a walk along the shore. An adult sow brown bear, seemingly “deranged,” acting erratically and aggressively, not responding to attempts to haze it away.
The family is caught in the open sand, with no cover or protection, no chance of making it back to their vehicle, no one around to help and nothing with which to defend themselves but a bird-spotting scope and tripod.
And yet, the encounter ended about as well as it possibly could, the only casualties being the tripod, one of the baby’s mittens and the bear, which was shot and killed by Alaska State Troopers.
“After it was all done my overwhelming sentiment that I was left with was I just felt grateful. It could have ended so many different ways and, really, no one was hurt. It never laid a paw on any of my family and I didn’t get torn up so I just felt really grateful,” said Toby Burke, of Kenai.
Burke, 48, a wildlife biologist with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, was at the Kasilof River at about 3 p.m. Sunday with his wife, Laura, their 11-year-old daughter, Grace, 8-year-old son, Damien, and 7-month-old baby girl, Camille, snoozing in a pack on Laura’s back.
“So, little people,” Burke said, from his office Monday. Then a pause. “Little people.”
“We were not armed. We just came out on the beach to recreate. We didn’t have bear spray, we didn’t have any firearms with us,” he said. “We weren’t even that far from our vehicle, and it’s a fairly high-use area. And even the day we picked to go there, it was windy and cool but it was still sunny and people were coming out to walk their dogs. It just, I guess, caught us by surprise.”
The Burkes are avid birders and were at the north beach of the river to conduct a shorebird survey in the estuary. With binoculars and a heavy-duty spotting scope and tripod, they spotted some yellowlegs, black-bellied plovers and ducks at a distance. They’d arrived a little early for the tide to be fully in, though, so decided to walk down along the shore toward the river mouth to kill some time.
They cleared the dunes and were heading south down onto the sand, but stopped when they spotted a brown bear ahead, about 400 meters away.
“We just stopped in our tracks and said, ‘Oh. We’re not going to be going down there,’” Burke said.
They saw no one else in the vicinity, though they had noticed vehicles of two other parties walking north along the beach. Just then a dune buggy came zipping along. Burke tried to get the driver’s attention to indicate the presence of the bear, but he’s not sure if the driver noticed as he headed toward the bear.
“It was like a homemade dune buggy, really loud, so we thought, ‘OK, this guy is going to drive it into the next county. At least into the flats away from the beach area,’” Burke said.
Sure enough, the bear retreated into the dunes. The buggy stopped at the river mouth, then turned and zipped back the way it had come.
As the Burkes watched, the bear re-appeared.
“The bear in the dunes was acting really erratic. Like it was deranged. It would run out on the beach and back into the dunes. It looked like a very unhealthy bear, not just its appearance, but its behavior. I’ve had experience with bears with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. And I even said to my wife, ‘That looks like a candidate to be destroyed or shot,’” Burke said.
They lost sight of it in the dunes. Then it reappeared about 300 feet away, near a chain-link fence that denotes private property.
“It was just walking. I thought, ‘This bear’s a little curious but not showing any particular interest in us.’ But it was getting closer so we thought, ‘We need to get out of here.’ But again it disappeared and we couldn’t see it,” Burke said.
They were about to head for their van when, “All of a sudden it popped up behind us in the dunes and was right there — 50 or 60 feet from us,” he said.
The bear had circled back behind them, and this time is it was more than curious. The Burkes grouped together and tried to haze the bear away, waving their arms, clapping their hands and shouting.
“It didn’t leave. It decided to charge into us. Then I just told my family to get behind me and I was using my scope and tripod to try and fend it off,” he said.