'Then the bear took down the lead guide': UnCruise owner tells the story behind bear mauling

Juneau guide Michael Justa uses bear spray to protect group, lead guide
The map shows where Thursday's bear mauling took place.

The brown bear mauling near Sitka last week that left two UnCruise Adventures guides injured took place in a matter of seconds, according to the CEO and owner of the small cruise line.

 

“I can’t express enough about how rapidly this happened,” Dan Blanchard said.

Blanchard has been able to piece together what happened last Thursday when two guides were mauled while leading a group of 22 guests on Sitkoh Lake Trail, based on interviews with five passengers who were on the hike, the boat’s emergency response crew and the least injured of the two guides.

“Some day we’ll be able to dissect this further when our (lead) guide is capable of sharing, but that’s not today,” Blanchard said. The guide has been recovering in a Seattle hospital since she was medevaced there Thursday night.

The hike on the remote U.S. Forest Service trail located on Chichagof Island about 35 miles northeast of Sitka was part of the normal eight-day, seven-night itinerary for the Wilderness Explorer. UnCruise has been guiding guests in the area since the early 2000s.

[Troopers: Bear mauls guides after group got close to cub]

The guides were mauled around 12:30 p.m. about two and a half miles into the 4.4-mile trail. The group, walking single file, were spread out over 150 to 200 feet along the dirt trail with one guide in front and one guide in the back.

Alaska State Troopers have identified the mauling victims as Anna Powers, 41, of Hawaii, and Michael Justa, 26, of Juneau. UnCruise is not confirming the names in an effort to protect the crew and their family members, Blanchard said. In an interview with the Empire, Blanchard only identified the lead guide as a woman who’s worked for UnCruise for three years and the rear guide as a man, who joined the company in April. The Empire reached out to Justa but didn’t receive a reply.

“There was a point in the trail where there was a group of about four or five that were fairly close to the lead guide and they rounded what we’d call a semi-blind corner,” Blanchard said.

On the left side of the trail, the lead guide immediately saw a bear, which was “some say six feet, some say 15 feet away.” A cub was on the right side of the trail.

“The lead guide says, ‘Woah,’ immediately puts her arms out to her side stretched out and she says, ‘Back,’” Blanchard said. “This was all very instantaneous.”

He said the guests who were immediately behind the guide had already started backing up when the sow attacked.

“Within seconds, the bear stood up, groaned so loud that every person in the group heard the groan, including the guide in the back, and charged at very short range,” Blanchard described.

“Then the bear took down the lead guide,” he said. “She never had the chance to use her bear spray.”

As soon as the rear guide heard the bear’s groan, he ran up to the front, un-holstering his bear spray.

“We believe it took him 15, maybe 20 seconds to get up to the front. When he gets there, the bear is already off the lead guide very close by. As soon as he was in sight of the bear, the bear charged him,” Blanchard said.

Blanchard said the guide started discharging his bear spray at about 20 feet away and estimates he used about half to two-thirds of his can as the bear was charging him.

“He said it was a direct hit into the eyes and mouth,” Blanchard said. “As he was spraying it, the bear reached down, grabbed his leg.”

The guide can’t remember if he fell down or if the bear knocked him down.

“He said, ‘All I remember is the bear got me in the knee, bit me and wandered off,’” Blanchard said.

“And that was the end of the bear encounter,” Blanchard continued. “All this probably didn’t last a minute.”

The rear guide did not see the lead guide get attacked. As soon as the bears left the area, he radioed the incident into the Wilderness Explorer captain and started administering First Aid to the lead guide. A doctor and a registered nurse, who were among the guests, also helped out as the group waited for the boat’s emergency response crew. None of the 22 guests on the hike were hurt.

Blanchard described the rear guide’s injury as “relatively minor” but wouldn’t say what kind of injuries the lead guide sustained. A U.S. Coast Guard press release said both guides “sustained multiple injuries and severe lacerations.”

It took about an hour for the boat’s five-person emergency response crew to get to the group. A Coast Guard helicopter arrived about 15 minutes later and hoisted the two guides from a clearing about 250 yards from where the mauling took place.

Anna Powers was taken to SEARHC’s Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital and was later medevaced to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. When she first arrived Thursday night, she was brought to the intensive care unit in serious condition. Harborview spokesperson Susan Gregg said Powers was moved out of ICU Sunday evening and has since remained at the hospital in satisfactory condition.

The rear guide was treated at Sitka Community Hospital and released that same evening. Blanchard said the guide is off work but has plans to return to UnCruise in about a week and a half.

The Wilderness Explorer continued on its normal itinerary and finished the trip in Sitka on Saturday morning where UnCruise had grief counselors available for the passengers and crew.

No silver bullet

Blanchard said every spring, UnCruise guides receive a suite of trainings, including wilderness first responder training, “extensive” bear country training and National Outdoor Leadership School training.

During outings, all guides carry bear spray, a GPS locator, multiple First Aid kits, a VHF radio and other supplies.

Blanchard said, in Thursday’s mauling, the rear guide did what he should’ve done.

“He just went into how he was trained and went into full response mode,” he said.

UnCruise’s safety committee met Tuesday to review the incident. The group will sort through initial findings and ultimately come out with a report on what happened and lessons learned, Blanchard said.

Before the full report, he said the company will give preliminary recommendations to vessels, like “when you don’t have good visibility or all of a sudden you come across a lot of bear sign, it’s appropriate to un-holster the bear spray and have it in your hand,” Blanchard said. “In this particular instance, I don’t even know if that would’ve made a difference.”

Blanchard called Thursday’s situation rare.

“I wish I could say there was some kind of silver bullet that could’ve prevented this, but we’re not seeing it. We’ve been doing this for 20 years and probably have upwards of 40 or 50 hikes that take place every week,” he said.

Despite the mauling, UnCruise is not considering adding firearms to its list of safety equipment in bear country.

“The reality is that bear spray was effective. We’ll have conjecture among ourselves and say, ‘Well, was it the bear spray, or was the bear done?’ No human being on earth will know the answer to that question,” Blanchard said. “The reality is the bear departed so we have to assume the bear spray worked.”

• Contact reporter Lisa Phu at 523-2246 or lisa.phu@juneauempire.com.

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