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.