The Mendenhall Valley is not known for brown bears. Only a few sightings have been reported over the past 50 years. In one case, the bear lost his life. In another, Lee Hagmeier, then 17, was mauled in 1959 just a few miles from the glacier on McGinnis Creek.
The Mendenhall Valley was sparsely populated back in the 1950s.
"It was pretty wild back in there," said Hagmeier. "There were only six or seven houses in the entire valley then, along the Loop Road. It was just a forested valley with spots of water."
Black bears were common, but brown bears were not entirely unheard of.
Uncommon visitors to the Valley
There goes the neighborhood
"There were always brown bears up Montana Creek. That was where they lived," said Larry Hurlock, who spent his childhood on a farm near the Mendenhall Glacier. "They weren't down in the valley."
Hurlock grew up on a poultry farm on the banks of Jordan Creek, off the Loop Road just a few miles from the glacier. At the time it was the largest poultry farm in Alaska, with almost 4,000 birds. A brown bear was drawn to the farm one summer, about 1956, and after a few days of bear visitation the family took action.
It was just getting light in the early morning when Hurlock's two brothers shot the bear outside the farmhouse. Hurlock called it a farmer's encounter, and he's sorry it turned out the way it did.
"We always had several black bears every summer; they were common," said Hurlock, who still lives on his family's property. "But it was the only time we ever had a brown bear."
A near encounter came a few years later when he was 12 or 13. Hurlock rode his bike a few miles to Montana Creek to fish. He dropped his bike at the riverbank and rounded a bend with his fishing rod. When he returned 20 minutes later he was stunned.
"There were these brown bear prints all over my footprints. I had to walk over his prints to get to my bicycle. Talk about one scared kid. I was only about 50 feet away," he said.
Hurlock was only a mile or two from the spot on McGinnis Creek where his friend Lee Hagmeier was mauled on July 27, 1959. Hagmeier also was fishing.
"At that time there were brown bears, grizzlies there," said Hagmeier, who still lives in Juneau. "I was unaware how many there were. There were a lot out the road."
McGinnis Creek meets Montana Creek a mile upstream from the current end of Montana Creek Road. McGinnis Creek was chock full of chums that day, Hagmeier said. He and a friend had hiked up a side channel and were cutting through the woods back to the main stream when the bear charged out of the alders and grabbed him.
"It bit me three times on the leg, picked me up and shook me, and bit me once under the left arm," Hagmeier said. "I was playing dead. Then he dropped me and I laid still. Then he bit me in the face and it blinded me. It was instantaneous, severed both optic nerves, as well as the olfactory nerves."
Then the bear disappeared into the brush. Hagmeier's friend led him out of the woods with the help of some other fishermen on Montana Creek. At the time, a sawmill operated where the community garden is now and workers there called an ambulance.
Hagmeier said several brown bears were shot in the Montana Creek area within a few weeks of his attack, but he doesn't remember any organized vigilante effort.
He said he was surprised to hear that brown bears had been seen recently near the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center.
"I would expect them on the other side (of the lake), but I guess they were attracted to the cohos," he said.
In 1975 Sid Morgan lived on the banks of Montana Creek off the Loop Road. He remembers two brown bears near his home that year.
"We were storing garbage, and the bears were drawn to the cabin. Two big brownies came down fairly frequently that spring," he said. "Beautiful brown bears, pretty good size. It's impressive to see them from very few feet away, just the other side of a window."
Since that time, there have been few instances of brown bears near the outskirts of Juneau, according to Neil Barten, a state wildlife biologist. He said upper Montana Creek certainly has brown bears present, but even those are probably very few and far between. Occasionally a brown bear will show up out the road - a bear was sighted a few times at the Shrine of St. Therese in the summer of 1999, and another at Lena Point in the early 1990s. Brown bears are seen occasionally on Peterson Creek as well.
"Generally when asked, I mention Cowee Creek out the road as being the closest place on the Juneau road system where brown bears are frequent visitors," Barten said.
When tourists find out that Hurlock grew up in the Mendenhall Valley, they inevitably ask about bears, he said. Last summer at the glacier visitor center he told a tourist that he once saw a brown bear in the area as a kid in the 1950s.
"I said, 'You'll never see another brown bear in the Mendenhall Valley in my lifetime,' " he said, laughing. "I think it's really neat."
Riley Woodford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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