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.
He’s well aware of recommended procedures if unarmed when attacked by a bear — lie down, facing away from the bear with hands protecting the back of the neck and head. But that wasn’t an option for this scenario.
“People talk about playing dead, but this was not the proverbial play-dead situation,” Burke said. “This was one of those half-starved bears that was really erratic. It wasn’t a bear that had been surprised and just wanted to get out of the area. This was a bear that decided to come after us. The only alternative I had was to try to fend it off.”
He swung the tripod and spotting scope at the sow. She grabbed the scope in its mouth, then swatted it and snapped the scope off the tripod shaft.
“And then I just basically had this jagged shaft sticking out from the tripod that I kind of smacked the bear with in the face and mouth trying to fend it off,” he said.
“As far as trying to remember everything, with the adrenaline rush, I know I hit it in the face and body some, and I know it hit me in the side with its paw,” Burke said.
The bear knocked the tripod from his grip.
“And all I could use was my hands. I put my left arm out in front. I was just trying to stay between my family and the bear. It seemed to me more interested in them. I was just trying to stay in between them,” he said.
The bear clamped its mouth on Burke’s forearm, but he dressed in several thick layers for the cold and the teeth didn’t puncture his skin, nor did the claws from the paw swipe he took to his side do more than bruise and scratch.
Meanwhile, Laura and the kids stayed together and stayed behind him.
“They all did a good job. I think the kids were inclined to run, but they didn’t. I could see out of the corner of my eye that one of them looked like he was ready to go to a track meet and start sprinting. But they listened and didn’t run,” Burke said.
“Eventually” — in retrospect under a minute, but at the time an eternity — the sow broke off and headed toward the dunes, only to turn back again, and again.
“It would kind of bluff charge us like it was going to engage us again. After several times we were thinking, ‘Oh no, it’s coming back, it’s not done with us.’ Even about 200 meters away it looked like it was going to come right back for another round. Then it turned around and started to amble away from us. When it was about 300 meters we started to feel like we were in the clear,” Burke said.
“None of the kids even cried. My wife even said the baby was asleep on her back the whole time — never even woke up. I think they were pretty clearheaded. It was all kind of surreal. It wasn’t terror, it wasn’t any of that. I think everyone was like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening’ as the bear’s approaching. And not necessarily thinking things were going to end well,” Burke said. “Fortunately, our guardian angels were looking out for us that day,” he said.
The bear headed north, still acting erratically — attacking a fence and a post.
“It was attacking inanimate objects along the way. I think this was an old, sick bear,” Burke said.
They called 911, particularly concerned about the walkers to the north that would be headed back to their vehicles, toward the bear. Troopers arrived and headed up the beach. A short while later, safely back at their van, the Burkes heard gunshots. The two parties of walkers returned unharmed, followed by the troopers with the bear in the back of their vehicle. A trooper report later stated that the officers shot and killed the bear when it charged them.
Jeff Selinger, Kenai area wildlife technician with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said that there was another report of a brown bear behaving aggressively at about noon Sunday, but on the south beach of the river. A man out to fish for halibut from shore spotted a brown bear coming toward him. He got in his truck and the bear continued to approach.
“So he started to back out slowly and the bear charged and made contact with the truck and finally got turned around, and the bear kept pursuing him for a ways down the road, is how he put it. And it finally kind of pulled off,” Selinger said.
Without a DNA sample from the bear on the south beach, there’s no way to know for absolute certain if it was the same bear from the north bear attack, but there’s a very high likelihood it was, Selinger said. It would not be unusual for a bear to cross the river, and though problem bear activity is uncommon along that particular stretch of beach, it is not unusual for bears to be on Cook Inlet beaches.
“Bears like to roam beach lines because things push up in the surf in the tide, so it’s not uncommon at all for bears to patrol shorelines of the inlet,” Selinger said.
But this bear’s behavior was uncommon. The hide was not in good shape when Selinger examined it, but he said he found no sign of lactation, indicating the sow didn’t have a cub it was protecting.
Bears also can be aggressive when protecting a food cache. Selinger said his office was planning on getting down to the beach to look for a moose carcass or some such sustenance in the area, but when a bear does have a cache it is typically loath to leave it, certainly not to go so far away from food as the other side of a river.
“It’s hard to tell but the bear was obviously not feeding on a carcass when this incident occurred,” Selinger said.
Plus, if a carcass was nearby there likely would have been a telltale flock of birds — ravens, eagles, magpies or gray jays, for instance — attempting to pick at it. Avid birders like the Burkes would likely have noticed that sign.
Perhaps the bear was desperate for food. Though its musculature appeared to be in good condition and it still had fat reserves, Selinger said that it was an older sow and its teeth were worn down, which would make eating a challenge.
Though the attack might be nonsensical, Selinger commended the sensibility of the Burkes’ response.
“He did an outstanding job and so did his family staying as calm as you can be under those circumstances — not running, staying in a group. They followed all the correct procedures. They let the bear know that they were there prior to it attacking. They followed everything that they should do. He deserves to be commended for his actions,” Selinger said. “It’s not a fortunate thing that it happened at all, but if it was going to happen, to have an individual that behaved as well as he did I think really lessened the potential severity of this thing.”
Luckily, the incident ended as nothing more than a very serious reminder that bears are active and people should be alert.
“Being aware and being prepared to take the right actions if things go sideways on you. Don’t have tunnel vision where, if you’re going fishing, you’re only thinking about fishing. Be aware that you’re in bear country. Keep an eye out and be alert,” Selinger said.
Watch for bear sign. Listen for snorts and rustles in the brush, be alert for rotting odors or a gathering of carrion birds that might indicate a carcass — a potential bear food source — is nearby.
And at home, “Get all the attractants around your house taken care of, if they aren’t already,” Selinger said.
Handle garbage appropriately, take down birdfeeders, don’t leave pet food outside, make sure freezers are secured if they’re stored outside, plug in and test protective electric fencing with a volt meter to make sure it’s working properly, and report bear sightings — especially in and around neighborhoods and communities — to Fish and Game during business hours. Especially report any bear acting aggressively, to Fish and Game or troopers if it’s after hours.
Burke adds to always carry bear protection — something more substantive than a tripod and spotting scope.
“Even if you don’t feel like carrying a shotgun or rifle all the time, you can always slip bear spray into your pocket. I can tell you, with the timing and the way everything progressed, if we had had bear spray this would have been a lot different. It would have been better,” Burke said.
“This is a real first. I’ve had close encounters, but I’ll be honest with you, I’ve always been armed — either bear spray or guns. When myself or any of my colleagues are out in the field, we have our bear spray, we have our guns, we’re loaded for bear. This is the first time I’ve ever had one make contact with me,” Burke said.
His minimal scrapes and bruises will heal, his scope survived unharmed and his tripod is mostly fixable, “And our baby lost a mitten, and we never recovered that,” Burke said.
Even without a lasting visual reminder of the encounter, he’ll retain a visceral one to always be prepared, no matter how safe an outdoors outing might seem to be.
“We’ll be more conscientious about carrying our bear spray,” he said.