A solo backpacker along the Toklat River in Denali National Park and Preserve has been fatally mauled by a grizzly bear, according to park officials, who added that it is believed to be the first fatal mauling in the park's history.
A wallet was found near the kill site, but park officials on Saturday were waiting to make positive identification of the victim and notify next of kin before releasing the backpacker's name or home town.
The mauling was discovered Friday afternoon after three day hikers came across a backpack along the river roughly 3 miles south of the Toklat River Rest Area.
"Upon further investigation, they saw evidence of a violent struggle, including torn clothing and blood. They immediately hiked back to the rest area and notified the NPS staff of the findings at approximately 5:30 p.m.," park spokeswoman Maureen McLaughlin said Saturday.
"Park rangers launched a helicopter and a fixed-wing aircraft from park headquarters at 8 p.m. Searchers on the aircraft located the scene at 8:35 p.m. At least one grizzly bear was still at the site, although there may have been multiple bears," she added in a release. "The bear(s) moved away when the helicopter approached and landed. Two rangers on board the helicopter got out and confirmed the location of the victim’s remains."
According to the park spokeswoman, the rangers believe a grizzly attacked the backpacker near the river's open braided gravel bar, "although the bear subsequently dragged the remains to a more secluded, brushy cache site."
Due to waning light Friday evening and the presence of bears at the scene, rangers decided to wait until Saturday to recover the remains.
The area where the attack occurred is described by park officials as being "known for its classic mountain scenery and quick access to large expanses of alpine tundra deep in the Alaska Range. You are surrounded by the jagged peaks of the Alaska Range, but views of Denali are only possible from the highest ridges. This is a popular unit with a single primary access corridor and very open terrain. Expect to see other hiking parties at some point during your trip. Wear appropriate footwear because long walks on the gravel bar can be hard on your feet and ankles."
Park officials don't think there are other registered backpackers in the immediate vicinity. An emergency closure has been put in place, prohibiting all hiking and camping in that backcountry unit until further notice.
Wildlife biologists estimate that roughly 12 grizzly bears have been residing in the vicinity of the kill site this summer.
All backpackers in the park receive mandatory ‘Bear Aware’ training prior to receiving a backcountry permit, including a 30-minute safety video, a safety briefing from the backcountry ranger staff, and all backpackers are required to carry a Bear Resistant Food Container.
More details on this fatal incident were expected to be be released as the investigation continues.