Ranger keeps cool during bear encounters

Posted: Monday, September 08, 2003

One day about 10 years ago, Harry Tullis got up, went to work and was charged by a 700-pound grizzly bear.

But it was just another day at the office for Tullis, who since 1989 has worked as a wilderness ranger for the Juneau Ranger District on Admiralty Island, home to one of the densest bear populations on earth.

"You could just see these ripples of muscles and fat, and he's just coming at us like a runaway locomotive," Tullis, 41, said of the encounter he and Wilderness Field Manager John Neary had in the early 1990s.

Tullis and Neary took a hike after setting up camp near Pack Creek on Admiralty, when they noticed a large male grizzly about 300-400 yards away pursuing a female in estrus.

"Suddenly he just seemed a little stressed out and just starts running at us," Tullis said.

The bruin ran several hundred yards in a matter of seconds, Tullis said.

"At that point he did something, gosh, almost comical in the sense that I had never seen a bear do this," Neary said. "He stopped almost like a cartoon stop."

Staring down his powerful snout at the two intruders, the bruin gave them a long, hard stare and waved its head back and forth, a sign that it wasn't too happy.

"He then backed up right in the steps he had taken, like somebody was clicking the movie in reverse," Neary said. "The message was: 'You've come far enough; don't come any closer.' "

That wasn't the first time Tullis was charged by a bear, and it wouldn't be the last. In the first seven years he worked on Admiralty, Tullis was charged seven times.

He has since been promoted to wilderness ranger crew leader, which requires more office work in Juneau. But he still works occasional shifts with the ranger crews out on Admiralty.

Admiralty Island is about 1,700 square miles and has about one bear per square mile, Tullis said.

"Admiralty is right up there with Kodiak Island, the Alaska Peninsula and the Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Russia," Tullis said.

After graduating from Juneau-Douglas High School, Tullis spent three years in the U.S. Army.

Tullis held a variety of jobs after returning to Juneau. In the summer of 1988, he and a friend started a food cart business downtown.

"It wasn't as successful as either one of us had expected," Tullis said. "There were actually four days in the months of June, July and August that we had no measurable signs of precipitation. Every other day it rained."

The following year, Tullis became a wilderness ranger when a vacancy opened up in the U.S. Forest Service Juneau Ranger District crew that covers Admiralty. The crews work from mid-May to mid-September, 10 days on and four days off. Duties include maintaining cabins and trails and educating visitors on bear safety.

"It was cool," he said. "I felt really fortunate that I had finally found my dream job. I'm literally doing something and getting paid for what other people pay thousands of dollars to do while they're on vacation. You can't get any better than that."

He noted that harsh weather, mosquitoes and going 10 days without showering are a few drawbacks to the job.

Visitors to the bear-viewing area at Pack Creek - about 30 miles south of Juneau on Admiralty Island - skyrocketed in the 1980s. The numbers grew from about 100 people a summer during 1982 to about 1,200 in 1988.

Now the ranger district allows 24 people to visit Admiralty a day, Tullis said. About 1,400 people visit during the summer.

He said the Juneau Ranger District teaches "leave no trace" practices to minimize the impacts human have on habitat.

"You want to make sure that people are not chopping green trees for their firewood and building a fire where they shouldn't be - or leaving toilet paper all over the forest," Tullis said. "I've walked into campsites and had people having a paper plate target up on a tree, and they were just shooting bullets into a tree, and you're not supposed to do that."

Neary said Tullis is good at the job, largely because when dealing with bears you have to keep a cool head.

"He has a way of getting through sticky situations with just a real ease and comfort that people admire about him, and he's just a real easy-going fellow," Neary said.

This came in handy in 1996, when Tullis was guiding a group of eight cabin and trail maintenance volunteers from the American Hiking Society.

The group was hiking up the side of a mountain when a bear came charging out of the woods.

"Everyone was like 'Oh, my God, a bear here it comes,' and I was like 'Yeah, he's not going to do anything,' " Tullis said, noting that he knew the bear would see several screaming people and turn the other way.

Tullis said his in years as a ranger he's learned the non-verbal messages that bears send and the ones to which they respond. He said the conventional thinking on bear encounters is to stand your ground.

Backing away from a bear sends a message that they are dominant and you are submissive, he said.

"In the bear world, they have evolved over millions of years learning this language, this communication between them and other bears," he said.

He said backing away from a bear is a judgment call that you have to make depending on the situation. If you're far enough away from the bear and can sense that the bear wants you away, you can back away slowly, he said.

"If the bear is going to allow you to leave the area, take that opportunity to do so."

Waving your hands and making noise can send the message to bears that if they charge you, they could get hurt.

"Bears don't want to get hurt," he said. "They want to make sure that they live to see another day."

He said campers should camp away from fish streams and make sure bears cannot access food or garbage.

Always be sure to make noise while hiking to prevent sneaking up on bears accidentally, Tullis said.

"Bears hate surprises," he noted.

• Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at timothyi@juneauempire.com.

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