Bear Mauls Woman in Gates of the Arctic National Park

Grizzly bear tracks are awe-inspiring. NPS photo.

On August 28, an adolescent grizzly mauled a woman hiker at her campsite in Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park. Thanks to the quick action of the woman’s companions, the bear was driven away and the victim’s life was spared. The woman, whose identity has not been revealed in early reports, is now being treated at a Fairbanks hospital.

The injured woman was camped with six other hikers in an exceedingly remote and seldom visited area of the park, the Okokmilaga (oh-cock-mah-lahga) River drainage west of Anaktuvuk Pass. At about 6:30 a.m. an adolescent grizzly bear entered the campsite and breached the group’s food tent. The food was in bear-proof containers, so the bear only destroyed some water jugs.

According to Park Service spokesman John Quinley, the young grizzly then dragged the woman from her tent and mauled her. Rushing to her aid, the victim’s companions drove the bear away with pepper spray and noise (no firearms were used).

The woman’s injuries, though significant, were not life-threatening. After being tended by medics at Coldfoot (a remote truck stop on the Dalton Highway), where she had been transported by Coyote Air, she was transferred by Alyeska Pipeline Services Company helicopter to a hospital in Fairbanks for further treatment.

As a precaution, park superintendent Greg Dudgeon ordered the closing of National Park Service lands in the vicinity of the attack. The park has posted a map of the closed area at this site.

It is exceedingly unlikely that the closure of the Okokmilaga River drainage vicinity will inconvenience anybody in this huge and remarkably wild park, which encompasses 13,238-square miles (an area about the size of Switzerland) and has no roads, trails, or visitor facilities. Coyote Air, the Coldfoot-based air taxi firm that services Gates of the Arctic National Park and the Brooks Range, reports that no flights have been booked for the area involved. That’s hardly surprising, since the area where the bear attack occurred gets visited only about once a year, if that.

The bear attack remains under investigation, with interviews of the victim and her companions yet to be completed.

No attempt will be made to locate the bear. It’s in an area that is very difficult to access (even by Alaskan standards), there’s no way of recognizing which bear made the attack anyway, and there is no good reason to bother the bear even if it could be identified.

Bear attacks are rare in Gates of the Arctic, but a black bear did kill a visitor near the Noatak River in 1996 (the park’s only bear attack fatality), and in 2005 it was necessary to close an area along the Alatna River because an aggressive black bear was threatening people along the river.

Yesterday’s mauling incident underlines the fact that traveling in bear country always entails some risk. It also affirms that hiking with others -- and bringing bear spray along -- can improve your odds of surviving a bear attack.

Comments

Very lucky lady to have survived a mauling and I wish her the best in her recovery. Having backpacked in Yellowstone and Glacier NP's several times I am puzzled about the "food Tent" being in the same close area as their sleeping tents. Is this common in Alaska or at long term camps to establish the food prep and storage tent in the same camp as sleeping tents? Or is this a giant mistake in grizzily bear safety protacal. We always maintained the minimum 100 yard triagle for sleeping, storage and prep when in grizzly country much to the "do we have to" whines of some fellow campers. Curious if anyone with Alaska experience can respond.

Alyeska flew her out...bet she won't ever bad-mouth "big oil" again.

Hiker,

I do not have direct experience with Gate of the Arctic Nat'l Park, but within the last couple years I did see an announcement & report out of the Park that may apply to the questions you raise.

A particular camp site had been close to further use, because it was becoming somewhat flattened & smooth. The article explained that the Park hoped to prevent camp-locations showing enough wear that they look any different from untouched landscape.

Under this policy, it may be that the Park requires users to restrict their tents to small, defined spots, and discourages 'proliferation' of tent-sites.

Also, in rugged country (such as the Olympic Nat'l Park with which I am familiar), rougher terrain often offers only the occasional camp-location, and there is no opportunity to isolate the functions of the camp into multiple tents separated in the fashion you describe. This factor could apply in some parts of Gates of the Arctic, too.

Did someone read a different article than I did? Did anyone read about the victim badmouthing "big oil"? I have had many non-threatening encounters with Grizzlies where I live in Alaska, but do respect their wildness. Besides the fact that the woman was not killed and many efforts were made on her behalf the other part of the story that pleases me is that in this era of exploitation and demanding population there are still places on this planet that are so remote and wild they are seldom visited. May there continue to be such places. I agree with HDT that "In wildness is the preservation of the world."

I completely agree with the NPS, NFS, and others who stress LNT principles in the back country. I was not aware of them modifying food safety recommendations when in bear country. I spoke with a couple of friends who go hunting each fall in Alaska and they both said that when they are at their base camp set up they do their best to triangulate sleeping, eating and storing sites. Both have been doing the Alaska hunting trip for many years and as such have had some "wisdom" experiences concerning bears.