After deadly bear attack, hikers in Eagle River weigh risks

The Parks Department closed the South Fork Trail for a few weeks, but reopened it in late July. (Emily Russell/Alaska Public Media)

If you live in Alaska, you live in bear country. While the risk of a bear encounter or attack is low, there’s always a chance the worst could happen.

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Since last summer, there have been three bear-related deaths, with the latest earlier this summer in Eagle River.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game set traps and killed three bears, but still haven’t found the bear responsible for the June 18 attack.

That hasn’t stopped hikers from hitting the trails. On recent afternoon, Loni Quinn was out with her dad, Mike Quinn and friend, Dustin Miller.

“It’s beautiful, it’s sunny, it’s green,” Quinn said.

Eagle River locals Mike Quinn, his daughter Loni Quinn, and her friend Dustin Miller. (Emily Russell/Alaska Public Media)

Quinn grew up in Eagle River and knows the trails. That’s why she didn’t second guess going out alone in late June.

“He was over there, I was right here,” Quinn said, pointing just across the valley.

That’s where Michael Soltis went missing on Monday, June 18. Soltis’s body was found two days later and a member of the search party looking for him was mauled by the same bear.

Deadly bear attacks are considered rare in Alaska, happening once every three to four years. But just last year there were two– one outside Anchorage and the other in the Interior.

Rick Sinnott is a retired wildlife biologist. It’s possible the number of human-bear encounters are up, Sinnott said, but there are also just more humans here.

“Fifty years ago, who was jogging in the woods? Who was riding bikes in the woods? Basically nobody.” And today, Sinnott said, “we have two or three or four times more people in Anchorage — there’s way more people in the woods.”

And those people can leave scraps of food on the trails or unattended in campgrounds, which means bears get more habituated.

The South Fork Trail follows Eagle River through the valley and ends at Eagle and Symphony Lakes. (Emily Russell/Alaska Public Media)

Just weeks after the last death here, these woods are packed with people.

And it’s no surprise why. The trail starts out in a forest of bright white birch and dark green spruce. It climbs along a clear, cold stream perfect for cooling off on a hot day.

Sarah Smith has a colorful sleeve of tattoos up her right arm and a can of bear spray strapped to her hips.

“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when you’re going to have a [bear] encounter,” Smith said.

Sarah Smith is hiking with bear spray and Seth Ransom with a .44 pistol. (Emily Russell/Alaska Public Media)

Smith is camping overnight with her friend Seth Ransom and their two dogs.

“Sarah’s got the bear spray, I’ve got a .44 [pistol],” Ransom explained.

The two have talked about what they’ll do if they see a bear.

“We’re going to get together, see if we can get the dogs with us,” Ransom said. “We’ll have the [bear] spray first, firearm second. Hopefully we never have to use it.”

Ransom actually trains people for a living on how to stay safe in the backcountry. He tells his clients that having too many bear deterrents can be a bad thing.

“If you have an air horn, you have a firearm, you have a whistle, you have bear spray — in the moment you’re not going to know which one to for,” Ransom said.

Dustin Miller shows off the slug from his 12 gauge shotgun he’s hiking with. (Emily Russell/Alaska Public Media)

On the trail this day, some people had bells on their dogs’ collars, others had guns strapped to their chest or slung over their shoulders.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s guide to staying safe in bear country focuses on bear spray and firearms as the top deterrents.

Despite the hype of bear stories on social media and the recent death in this valley, hikers here said mostly they’re not afraid.

“I really just think you have to keep perspective,” Loni Quinn said. “Otherwise, I would just have fear and paranoia.”

Over the hundreds of hikes she’s gone on, Quinn said she’s only seen five or six bears.

Eagle Lake opens up at the end of the South Fork Trail in Eagle River. (Emily Russell/Alaska Public Media)

“That’s the way I rationalize it,” Quinn explained, “Because I love being outside and I love hiking and I don’t want to give up what I love so much just because I’m afraid of running into something that probably doesn’t want anything to do with me anyway.”

There’s a cow and two moose calves up along the ridge, but no sign of bears on this day– an added relief on top of the hike’s grand finale.

Across a foot bridge and beyond a big field of boulders Eagle and Symphony Lakes open up. They glow a bright, tropical blue in the long, summer sunshine.

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Emily Russell is the voice of Alaska morning news as Alaska Public Media’s Morning News Host and Producer. Originally from the Adirondacks in upstate New York, Emily moved to Alaska in 2012. She skied her way through three winters in Fairbanks, earning her Master’s degree in Northern Studies from UAF. Emily’s career in radio started in Nome in 2015, reporting for KNOM on everything from subsistence whale harvests to housing shortages in Native villages. She then worked for KCAW in Sitka, finally seeing what all the fuss with Southeast, Alaska was all about. Back on the road system, Emily is looking forward to driving her Subaru around the region to hike, hunt, fish and pick as many berries as possible. When she’s not talking into the mic in the morning, Emily can be found reporting from the peaks above Anchorage to the rivers around Southcentral.

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