Beware the bruins

by • June 4, 2018 • Highlights, Safety MattersComments (0)730

Get out and enjoy all Alaska has to offer, but follow basic safety precautions

I sang loudly as I followed the trail through the woods from our family’s favorite fishing hole on the Russian River back to our base camp on the Sterling Highway. Eight years-old at the time, I had just learned a new song at Girl Scouts and belted it out loudly as I moved along. “I’m bringing home a baby bumble bee, won’t my mommy be so proud of me…”

Michelle and Michael Tawfik hike to a favorite fishing spot on the Russian River. DEBRA MCGHAN

A sudden rustling in the dry leaves ahead stopped me dead in my tracks. Black bear? I didn’t see anything but I’d heard something. Adrenalin coursed through my veins and my instinct was to run back to my dad.

Except I knew if it was a bear, it would chase me. Daddy had warned us, “Never Run. Bears run really fast. They will outrun you, knock you down, and maul you to death.”

I stood frozen, listening. A small black bird hopped on the dry leaves duplicating the sound as it jumped into the trail ahead. A bird. Not a bear. I let out a huge sigh of relief and set off running, singing even louder until I came in sight of our campsite moments later.

Dad had sent me to get the water thermos and tell Mom
we would all be back for dinner in an hour or so. But that would mean hiking the trail again. I didn’t want to do that. I mean, it could have been a bear.

Lucky for me, Dad and my brother Rick emerged from the trail minutes later.

“We saw a bear!” Rick shouted excitedly. “Big old blackie. He came right up on the river where we were fishing.”

“I figured it was his turn to fish,” Dad joked, “so we decided to come back early.”

To this day I still wonder, had there been a bear and a bird on the trail in front of me?

Over the years of hiking, biking, berry picking, and generally tromping through the woods, I’ve never actually come face to snout with a bear. But living in Valdez, they were my closest neighbors, and I saw them often.

I remember one spring spotting a family of brown bear on Hogback Ridge through the binoculars. Mom and her new babies were sunbathing and frolicking in the remnants of snow when two older rogue males happened along. The mother reared up and growled at those boys to warn them away. When they continued to- ward her, she bolted into action and I watched the raw power of a protective mama in full force. Never would I want to be on the receiving end of that business.

We rarely had bear trouble in my neighborhood despite living on the side of a mountain with a salmon stream downhill. But we also remained diligent about cleaning up our yard, our barbecue grill and our garbage. And getting on the neighbors about theirs.

We try to always practice good wildlife skills like wearing bells, making noise, and carrying bear deterrent when traveling through the backcountry.

Spring in Alaska is one of the most spectacular seasons we get to enjoy. Beautiful sunsets, sunrises and long days bursting with life; lakes that turn from white to black to water within days, attracting waterfowl from thousands of miles away.

It’s fun and healthy to get out and enjoy Alaska and you can do it safely if you remember you are going into the home of wild animals. Respect their territory, and they will give you a wide berth. Startle them by coming on them unexpectedly, and you could suddenly be in a seriously dangerous situation.


  • Wildlife specialists at the National Park Service say you can avoid an dangerous encounter by following some basic wildlife etiquette rules.
  • Rule 2: Bears can be unpredictable and every bear and every situation will be different so there is no one- size fits all solution. If a bear has noticed you, speak calmly and identify yourself. Stand your ground and help the bear recognize you as a human. Use a ‘Shoo bear. I’m human and you don’t want me,’ stern tone and demeanor.
  • Rule 1: Make noise. Bells work, or like I do, sing.
  • If you’re not alone, huddle together and make your- selves look big to the bear. Most bears have no interest in people and attacks are typically a result of an unexpected encounter or a battle to protect their families or food source.
  • If the bear is standing still, back slowly away and retreat the way you came, the bear will typically do the same.
  • Just remember bears run fast, can climb trees, and will knock you down and tear you up if provoked.
  • They are also suspect of people and want to avoid you. If you are ever fortunate enough to see a bear in the wild, give them a wide berth, savor the moment and enjoy the special treat for what it is.
  • Learn more at


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