Anchorage girl recovering from bear mauling

City officials ask residents not to use trail near site of attack

Posted: Tuesday, July 01, 2008

ANCHORAGE - A 14-year-old girl mauled by a bear as she rode in a 24-hour mountain bike race was on a city trail known to be regularly patrolled by grizzlies.

Strong winds that made it hard to hear, the early hour and salmon in a nearby stream made the location even more dangerous.

"Even black bears have better sense than to walk that trail," said biologist Rick Sinnott of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. "They're as afraid of brown bears as we are."

City officials on Monday asked residents not to use the trail but said it would be impossible to enforce a closure because of its remote location.

Warning signs were posted at 20 trailheads that lead to the attack location. The signs urge people to find alternate routes, said Jeff Dillon, Anchorage's parks director.

The injured girl, whose name has not been released, suffered head, neck, leg and torso wounds, including damage to a lung, early Sunday morning. She underwent emergency surgery and was scheduled for more Monday, said Anchorage Fire Department spokeswoman Cleo Hill. Her parents have asked that no further information, including her name, be released.

The race was in Far North Bicentennial Park, which borders on the 773-square mile Chugach State Park. The race was moved from the city's west side because of construction. About 60 riders were entered, making circles on an 8.6-mile loop of trails.

The bear attacked the teenager in the 13th hour of the 24-hour mountain bike race. She was able to retrieve her cell phone from her pocket and call 911 at 1:40 a.m. Dispatchers heard someone with extreme difficulty breathing. The girl mumbled "bear" and the line went dead, Hill said.

Dispatchers called the number back. Another rider heard the phone ringing, stopped to investigate and spotted the teen off the trail.

The park contains salmon streams that attract both grizzlies and black bears. Anchorage residents accept and even embrace the chance to walk on trails at the front door of wild lands but are warned to take precautions that minimize a bear attack.

"Once the salmon are in, the bears are on it at all times," Sinnott said.

The teen had just turned onto a trail named Rover's Run. It parallels the south fork of Campbell Creek, which tumbles out of the Chugach Mountains, runs through the city and pours into Cook Inlet.

The girl could not identify the kind of bear that hurt her but Sinnott speculates it was a grizzly.

"The extent of her injuries was pretty severe," he said. "She had a lot of bites."

Grizzlies are especially dangerous if they're defending cubs, protecting a food source or surprised by something in their personal space. Black bears are less likely to attack if threatened.

Like humans, grizzlies use trails.

The book on keeping safe calls for moving slowly and making noise to avoid surprising a bear. Hikers are counseled to carry cans of pepper spray that can spit out a cloud of choking gas.

Bike racers would have ignored those rules.

Bikers huffing and puffing don't hear as well and likely would be watching their front tires to avoid striking roots, not looking ahead for bears, Sinnott said. Biking would have been dangerous even in daylight, Sinnott said, because riders can rush into a bear's space on a narrow trail without giving them a chance to flee.

"The odds are great that if she didn't physically bump into the bear, she came up pretty fast," Sinnott said.

After the injured girl was carried out, Sinnott walked to the scene.

Wind made it difficult to hear.

"You almost couldn't hear yourself talking to someone else at 20 feet," he said. "Bear bells" she carried on her bike also would have been drowned out.

King salmon have begun to reach the upper reaches of the creek.

"There's not lots of them up there but bears patrol the whole creek," he said.

Bears walk down one fork until they reach the edge of the city, then walk back along the other fork, pausing at the best fishing places. Farther upstream, away from the mauling site, bear scat and salmon bones litter the banks.

"It looks like a bear highway, with off-ramps and onramps and rest areas," Sinnott said.

There are no plans to hunt down the bear, especially since no one knows if it was a grizzly or a black bear. Sinnott said the department will hunt an aggressive bear if officials believe it will attack again. They will leave it alone if they conclude it acted defensively.

"Just going out there and shooting a bear isn't going to solve the problem," he said. "There's a lot of bears there."

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