A weekend encounter with a brown bear on the Kasilof River left a Kenai man with just minor scrapes and bruises and his family unharmed, but the encounter was a scary one.
As a wildlife technician at the Kenai Wildlife Refuge, Toby Burke has spent plenty of time out where the bears are, knows all the rules. But he admits he was lucky this past weekend when he was with his wife and three children near the mouth of the Kasilof River.
He was out doing some surveys on shorebirds. They first saw the bear from about a quarter mile away. Burke says he hoped a nearby ATV would shoo it out of the area. They watched it walk into some sand dunes.
“We’re looking, didn’t see it. At that point, we’re wondering ‘should we move toward our van or just go back north?’ And we’re turning back north when the bear popped up over the dunes immediately near us, 50 or 60 feet away. My daughter said ‘Dad, the bear’s right here’,” Burke said.
“We immediately stopped and I said ‘well, I guess we’re not going down to the mouth. We’re going to just stop right here, let’s watch and see what the bear does. See if the bear avoids us.”
It did not.
“We got into a relatively tight group, arms length, to try to make us look like one big animal, waving arms, clapping, hollering at the bear, and then at one moment it kind of clicked with the bear and it started to bound toward us.”
At that point, Burke put himself between the bear and his family and deployed the only weapon he had: a tripod with a scope for viewing birds.
“So I shoved the tripod, used it almost like a jousting or a punji stick, and I remember the scope (was) actually shoved into the bears mouth, so I remember the bear actually clamping down on the scope and it wasn’t very long before the bear just swiped and severed the scope from the tripod. But what that did was leave was a very sharp piece of metal, so then I was literally stabbing the bear with that jagged piece of metal.”
That kept the bear at away for awhile, but eventually ...
“As the scope was collapsing, it was getting closer to me and then it swatted the tripod out of my hands, then it was (me) putting an arm up and just trying to keep it off my body.”
It was a pretty chilly day, so Burke was wearing a think coat and long sleeves. And the bear turned out to be relatively old, maybe in its 20’s, so its teeth were a little worn down.
“I can remember the crushing sensation of its vice-like jaws on my arm. And I do remember… at the time, you know, stupid thoughts go through your head; ‘I think this bear’s going to break my arm.’ But it eventually released. And people say how did (end)? Just by the grace of god. I wouldn’t have been able to keep the bear at bay for much longer.”
After the standoff, Burke immediately called the Wildlife Troopers.
“Mostly they wanted to make sure they contacted people in the area, let them know what had transpired, to warn them to keep an eye out. And while one of the troopers was talking to people and warning them about it, the other two troopers had their own encounter with the bear. The bear had come out of the tree line and was moving towards them and both the troopers fired upon the bear,” said Troopers spokesperson Megan Peters.
Burke says the bear had been acting somewhat erratically.
Jeff Selinger is the area biologist for Fish and Game who got the first look at the animal after Troopers put it down. He says that behavior could be explained by a number of things, including its age.
“(It’s) hard to tell all the details. More and more information is coming out on this animal as time goes on. There’s indications, I’m not saying it occurred, but there’s indications that this bear may have been chased around by an individual in a truck prior to this. So, we don’t have all the answers as to why the bear behaved the way it did, but it definitely is not normal behavior you would expect out of a brown bear,” Selinger said.
“Someone was watching over us and the bear did not engage us and turned back north and headed away from us. And when it was about 300 meters away I said ‘okay, it’s not coming back.’ Let’s start making our way back to the van,” Burke said.
“Like a lot of Alaska families, we go hiking and do trips in the mountains, and backpacking, so the kids kind of know the drill, if a bear does this, we do this, so it was the first time they really had to put it into practice. We survived. That’s what counts,” said Burke.