LISTEN: How a wilderness safety instructor interrupted a brown bear attack on her husband

Wilderness safety and medicine instructor Deb Ajango (center) with husband Blaine Smith and dog, Eyeore, on a family hike. (Deb Ajango)

Wilderness safety and medicine instructor Deb Ajango teaches her clients about bear safety through her business, Safety Ed, and she and her husband, Blaine Smith, live, work and play in bear country.

Ajango shared the story of when a brown bear attacked Smith in 1998 while the couple walked on a trail not far from their home in Eagle River.

[Check out all of our bear encounter stories here.]

LISTEN:

Read a full transcript with minor edits for clarity.

Deb Ajango: We had an encounter where a sub-adult stood up. This was near the Eagle River Nature Center. So it was a large enough bear that, for me, I didn’t recognize that it was a sub-adult, I thought it was an adult. And it was on the right side of the trail and it just looked at us. It wasn’t a threat. It was a brown bear that just was trying to figure out what we were. It stood up, it raised its nose, and my husband and I clapped and said, “Hey, bear,” we grouped up, to make (us) look big, to make sure he understands we’re humans, we’re not a threat. And the bear dropped down on all fours, and then it ran away from us. Totally the way it’s supposed to, right? It’s like, “I don’t want anything to do with you.” And it split.

Related: How to avoid a negative bear encounter in Alaska this summer

But a bear in distress will bark, right? And they sound a lot like a dog, and the bear barked twice. And I still remember the barks. There was a, “woof, woof,” and the second “woof” on the left side of the trail — it was very brushy at the time — is kind of like an explosion. And we heard lots of huffing, puffing, cracking. And that was when it was very clear to us that there was a second bear in the area. And it was a sub-adult that had stood up. And the “woofs” were a cry to mom. And so mom came bursting out of the forest. And so initially, we didn’t know if she was coming towards us or running away from us. But we are certainly experiencing a stress response. And so my husband and I are yelling, “Hey, bear! Hey, bear! Hey, bear!” without even seeing the bear. But when the mom came out on the trail, it was a full-on charge.

And so she was coming straight at us and her ears were pinned against her head, her shoulder was up, her head was down. She was frothing at the teeth. And I remember she was making a deep guttural clicking sound as she was charging. And both my husband and I, in hindsight, when we compare notes, say she was amazing. She was super impressive, very muscular. It was incredibly clear to me that if I ran, she would kill me. And so even though it was super intense, and I didn’t want to just stand there, and part of me was not happy to just stand there and wave my arms, it was very clear to me that she would kill us if we ran. And so we stood our ground. And it was an attack.

So my husband backed up a couple steps. I don’t know if she attacked him because he moved or he’s bigger. But she got him not me. And she was on top of him. I knew I had to get her off of him. Basically, I just had to break her focus. And I laugh at myself because I say just for just a nanosecond, I looked around for a big stick because I was going to hit her as hard as I could. And I’m glad I didn’t, because that probably would have gotten me killed. But instead I clapped really loud, “Hey! Hey! Hey!” and it worked.

So I went down in her face and clapped really loud, and she spun around, and now I was her focus. And so then I had a little conversation in my head saying, “Wow, I just made a big mistake.” But what are your options here, right? It’s like, “Well, I can fight her, I can run from her or I can lay down and play dead.” And so I just dropped. I just dropped to the ground and played dead. And so she just stood over top of me for a second, looked at my husband, realized the threats were gone. And then she split, she just ran. And I turned to my husband and said, “Are you OK?” And he said, “Where’s the bear?” And I said, “She’s gone. We need to leave the area.” And so I was able to help him up.

We walked on the trail, and after we decided it was safe, then we turned and started to do some first aid. But it was, you know, very, very fast. It was one of the very few times in my life that I actually- we didn’t have bear spray with us. People have often asked, you know, whether or not the bear spray would have worked. And I kind of think it would have, right? Because she was just so focused on us that I think that would have broken her focus, just like when I clapped, it broke her focus, but who knows.

If you spend time outdoors in Alaska during the summer, maybe you’ve run into a bear or two along the way. We want to hear your best bear stories. And let us know if there’s anything you do differently out on the trail since your encounter. You can send your story by email to news@alaskapublic.org or head to alaskapublic.org/engage.

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Casey Grove is the host of Alaska News Nightly and a general assignment reporter at Alaska Public Media with an emphasis on crime and courts. Reach him at cgrove@alaskapublic.org.

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