Clam Gulch man spooks brown bear, cubs

Close call with angry sow not fatal thanks to luck and good Samaritan

Posted: Sunday, July 01, 2007

SOLDOTNA - In Alaska bears can be anywhere, as a Clam Gulch man found out when he was bitten on the hand last week.

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"I go out in the woods a lot, so I always expected if I got attacked by a bear it would be out there. I never imagined it would happen next to the highway," Tom Patmore said from his Central Peninsula Hospital room Thursday morning.

Just before noon Wednesday while walking to check his mail Patmore had an encounter with a large brown bear sow defending her two young cubs.

"I was just walking down Blueberry Road with my dog Harvey on a leash. We were heading to the (Clam Gulch) post office. We weren't even 50 yards from the (Sterling) highway," he said.

As Patmore was headed to the post office, three bears were walking through a section of thick brush near the gas line that runs parallel to the highway, perpendicular to Blueberry Avenue. They were on a direct collision course with him and his dog.

"If it had been 30 seconds sooner or later, it might not have even happened. It was just a case of being in the right place at the wrong time," said Jeff Selinger, area wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Upon seeing Patmore the sow's cubs became frightened and she became defensive.

"She ran straight at me and I knew it wasn't a bluff charge so I tried to punch her in the nose, but she bit down on my wrist and broke it," he said.

The bear also knocked Patmore over and scratched his chest, but he said he was lucky in that the attack happened so close to the highway that passing motorists could see the events unfolding. A good Samaritan pulled over within seconds to help him.

"A mother and daughter saw it and pulled in honking. The bears ran off and the woman threw the door open and told me and Harvey to get in quick," he said.

The women wrapped towels around the puncture wounds in his hand and called an ambulance for Patmore. At the hospital the prognosis wasn't good, but it was better that it could have been, considering the situation.

"The doctors took an X-ray and told me I had a fracture of the bones of the wrist, and that a couple of tendons had pulled away from the bone, but I feel pretty lucky. It could have been a lot worse," he said.

Larry Lewis, a wildlife technician at Fish and Game, said this incident was a textbook example of how a situation can turn bad when a bear is surprised.

"(Patmore) didn't do anything wrong. It was just bad timing, but this was at noon on a sunny day with traffic and people close by, so it really speaks to how bears can be anywhere and people should be aware of their surroundings at all times," Lewis said.

Bears can be anywhere, but they're not everywhere.

"There's not more bears this year. It just we're providing more information on them this year in an attempt to raise the public's awareness. But people shouldn't become paranoid. In regard to bears, reports, incidents - this is the same pattern we have seen for a number of years now," he said.

Selinger said that stories in the Peninsula Clarion highlighting bear activity illustrate how widespread the problem of people leaving out attractants is on the peninsula, as was the case this week in the areas off Gaswell Road, Echo Lake Road and Skyline Drive.

"It's the same old story there. People are leaving out garbage, dog food or having chickens not protected with electric fence, and it's bringing in bears," he said.

Several reports of a brown bear sow and her cubs have been made in these areas during June, but Lewis said some people still are not cleaning up there property properly.

"This has been going on for three weeks and I was just there last Friday and there was still garbage and dog food all around, so the bears are going house to house," he said.

Brown bears have been sighted in or near several other locations over the past week, according to Selinger. These areas include Pollard Loop in Kasilof, Ed's Kasilof Seafood, East Poppy Lane in Soldotna, the Irish Hill subdivision of Soldotna and the Kenai Municipal Airport and Kenai Animal Shelter. No problems have been reported, though.

Selinger said even the Russian River area has quieted down. The only call he responded to this week was of a brown bear hit by a car when it crossed the Sterling Highway west of Sportsman's Landing where the Kenai River comes close to the road.

"It was hit on Friday, the 22nd, and was tracked for several hundred yards, but we never caught up with it," Selinger said.

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