The bruins are coming! The bruins are coming!

Avoiding bear encounters takes serious attention

Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2001

A recent "Prairie Home Companion" radio show had a joke about the difference between black bear dung and brown bear dung: the black bear dung is small and contains berries; grizzly dung has lots of bells in it and smells like pepper spray.

Being mauled by a bear is no joke, says Glacier Station fire chief Max Mielke, who's been there.

On a cold windy Nov. 8, 1998, Mielke was hunting by himself on Admiralty Island, dragging a deer toward his cabin when he had three close encounters with a grizzly.

"I was dragging for bear, you might say," he jokes.

"I took a brief break in a meadow, and when I started dragging the deer down the hill, I had this instinct to look behind me. This bear was about 10 feet away and blurry looking, he was moving so fast. Down the hill we went. He was shaking me like a rag doll. It seemed like forever he had me," Mielke said.

The bear left. Mielke crawled toward his rifle.

"The bear came back and reared up to lunge. I had the rifle right under his chin and it didn't go off. Probably I still had the safety on, but I know I tried to fire. And he started chewing on the insides of my legs," he said.

"I think I rolled over on my stomach, and he started chewing on my butt."

The bear moved off again. As Mielke, then 45, struggled to his knees, the bear came again.

"I had a fire department pager in my pocket that I turned on. I think the bear heard something. Then he started chewing on my head."

Mielke became unconscious. About 20 minutes later, he woke up and tried to make it to his cabin, but could move only about 100 yards. He used his cell phone to call a fishing boat, which contacted a Ward Air plane, which found the meadow and circled within 10 minutes. A TEMSCO helicopter arrived in about 40 minutes, and dropped off two emergency medical technicians.

"They were good friends of mine. I think they dropped from 15 or 20 feet. They probably shouldn't have, but I was glad to see them," Mielke said.

Mielke spent eight days in the hospital. He had a broken rib and 49 puncture wounds - an estimated 12 bites. Because the bear had walked all over him, he was bruised from head to toe. His pancreas and his heart were bruised. For the first two months after he returned to firefighting, he worked half-days to allow his heart to heal.

"I have always been aware of bears. I never have liked them," Mielke said. "I think it's a great animal, but I have walked into a lot of them and often it's not a good situation," he said, recalling coming within five feet of a sow with two cubs. The sow didn't see him, and he retreated safely. Any encounter "scares the hell out of you, if nothing else," he added.

Based on his experience, Mielke has coined these rules of bear awareness for Southeast Alaska:

Never go alone anywhere in the woods or on a hiking trail.

Carry a high-powered pistol or rifle.

Always have a cell phone or VHF radio in your pocket - "not in your backpack, because my backpack was taken away from me by the bear."

Let friends or relatives know when you expect to return.

If with a group of hunters or fishermen, designate a radio channel for communications.

Be familiar with the terrain.

Since 1959, when Lee Hagmeier was mauled trout fishing at Montana Creek, no Juneau resident has ever been mauled within city limits, and the Assembly, the police force and local biologists hope to keep it that way.

The city estimates the Juneau Police Department responded to 1,000 bear calls last year, at a cost of about $100,000.

"There are higher and better uses of our police officers than responding to bear calls, especially the ones that are preventable," said Police Chief Mel Personett. "So if we can reduce the number of calls for public safety reasons, calls resulting from bears led into neighborhoods because of improperly stored trash or other attractants, we can use officer for more proactive things, such as speed enforcement and intoxicated drivers."

Ann Chandonnet can be reached at

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