Friend and running partner, ‘Rascal’ fatally mauled thwarting bear attack

Linda Behnken poses with her dog, Rascal, on an early morning run up Mt. Verstovia in Sitka. A veteran of many bear encounters, Behnken credits Rascal with behaving appropriately. “She did everything right,” says Behnken. (Photo courtesy of Cindy Edwards)

A dog was attacked and killed on a Sitka trail on Saturday, defending her owner from a brown bear.

The same bear may have shown aggressive behavior towards hikers on another trail the following day.

Linda Behnken, a long-time resident, called Sitka Police at about 8:45 a.m. Saturday morning from the Mt. Verstovia trail.

Behnken told KCAW that she and her female husky/shepherd mix Rascal, along with a friend’s golden retriever, were descending the trail on the lower third of the mountain, when they rounded a switchback and encountered a large male brown bear coming up.

She says that Rascal immediately got between the bear and herself, and forced it to turn back into the brush.

Behnken, a veteran trail runner, says that this was not the first time she and Rascal had encountered bears on Sitka’s trails, nor was it the first time that Rascal had intervened in this way.

This time, however, the bear returned and attacked the dog.

According to state game biologist Steven Bethune, the bear’s behavior might have been the result of unfortunate timing.

“We’ve gone through a long winter where the bears have been, for the most part, we haven’t had any sightings or incidents,” Bethune said. “Because the bears have been denned up for the wintertime . Now we have green up and warm weather, and the bears are emerging from their winter hibernation and they’re out and about seeking food sources.”

Behnken says that she yelled at the bear and tried to distract it by throwing rocks — and it subsequently pursued her and the golden retriever up the trail a short distance. Behnken hoped that Rascal might be able to get away, but she was too badly injured. Behnken thinks that the bear closed to within five feet. She says “If it had wanted to get me, it could have.” The bear moved off the trail but but could be heard crashing through brush not far away.

By this time Behnken’s husband, Kent Barkhau, arrived with a firearm, followed shortly by police.

Barkhau and two other friends helped Behnken carry Rascal’s body down the trail. Officers then proceeded up the trail to escort three other hikers down.

Both Alaska State Wildlife Troopers and USFS law enforcement searched the trail for signs of the bear after Saturday’s encounter, but it was not found. The trailhead was posted, but the trail itself remains open. (Photo by Robert Woolsey/KCAW)

A sign was posted on the trailhead, but as of Sunday the trail remained open.

Behnken believes that the prospect of a bear encounter is a fact of life in Sitka. She says that she typically carries bear spray, but didn’t on this run because it’s still early spring and she hadn’t seen any bear sign. She doesn’t know if it would have been effective in this encounter.

Behnken credits Rascal for behaving courageously and correctly, and for saving her life.

Biologist Bethune doesn’t believe that events like this should deter people from the outdoors.

“Although it’s tragic, they (harmful encounters) are rare in occurrence,” Bethune said. “I don’t want people here to live in fear. I want people to keep enjoying the incredible outdoor opportunities that we have.  Be bear aware, be smart, educate yourself on some of the ways you can be mentally and physically prepared for bear encounters, but don’t let this keep you from getting outside.”

Unofficial reports of a second encounter  — possibly with the same bear — rippled through social media over the weekend. On Sunday — the day after Behnken’s encounter — a hiker posted to the Facebook group “Sitka Bear Report” that she and her family had encountered an aggressive bear on the Thimbleberry Trail. After being followed by the bear, they left a backpack on the trail, containing two oranges and a granola bar, and hiked out Blue Lake Road to avoid the animal.

Bethune says that he’s concerned about the Thimbleberry incident, and warns that this bear may now associate aggressive behavior with a food reward. The incident was reported to Sitka Police on Monday, May 6, and referred to state wildlife troopers for further investigation.

This story contained reporting from Katherine Rose with KCAW.