The Forest Service notice at the trailhead read: Trail Not Advised – Wounded Brown Bear. For several years now, I have thought that Crescent Lake Trail to Carter Lake Trail - in the middle of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula - with a packraft paddle of Crescent Lake, to link the two trails, would make a great overnight trip. Our bags and bikes were packed; the day was flawless…but now this.
“Not advised,” I said. “Which is different from trail closed, right?” After a few minutes of debate, the three of us repositioned our bear spray for quick draw convenience and decided to risk it. The sign had been posted four days earlier, we reasoned, and a handful of vehicles in the parking lot assured us that others had made the same call.
Where bears and people cohabitate, there is often an uneasy tension. Many years ago, a guy I knew was mauled by a brown bear on his way back from a day of fishing in this area. The bear clamped down on his head. Thankfully he survived the attack but the damage was severe. His eyes were bitten and in an instant he lost his sight forever. As we rode up the trail, I thought about him and the time I was seriously charged. Periodically, I’d let out a loud, “hey bear,” and glance at the can of spray strapped to my stem.
Friendly faces greeted us at the end of the trail and the beginning of our lake paddle. They too had read the sign and opted to cautiously gamble. We all rolled the dice and won.
On the lake, my attention wandered away from the bear. The day was incredible and the trip was everything, if not more, than I’d hoped it’d be. The trails on either end of the long U shaped lake are one’s I’ve ridden many times and I’d once gone all the way through on the primitive trail, which follows the lake shore, but this was my first traverse with the packraft.
Although this trip could be done in a day, we’d gotten a late start and from the outset had planned to camp on an island in the middle of the lake. The sound of loons calling and fish splashing in the calm water lulled us to sleep.
In the morning, we finished paddling the rest of the lake, transitioned back into bike mode and hit the steep and technical Carter Lake Trail back to the highway and the bustle of mid-summer traffic.
A couple hours later we were back at the vehicles - just in time to see a ranger removing the warning sign. They’d found the bear, dead in a ravine.
The bear, as we gathered from the ranger, had been an aggressive sub-adult that bluff charged a cyclist several times. Finally, fearing for his life, he shot the bear with his handgun – wounding but not killing it. Shooting a bear out of season is only ever lawful in defense of life or property. In this instance, it appeared that no charges would be brought; the cyclist had been within his rights.
It’s unfair to pass judgment on someone in a stressful life-threatening situation – and so I don’t. However, it’s worth mentioning, that bear spray works. If you have the time and the presence of mind to draw a handgun, aim, and fire up to four direct and well-placed shots, you have time to draw and spray. Sub-adult bears often behave badly; a peppery dousing can be just the medicine they need to learn that humans can hurt. I can’t help wonder: had the bear been sprayed, would the trail warning have been necessary and, more importantly, would the bear still be alive?
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