Sitka family encounters aggressive bear on Heart Lake Trail

Cedar and Rosie Starbuck on Heart Lake Trail on May 5. The two and their parents encountered an aggressive bear near Thimbleberry Lake later the same day (Photo provided by the Starbuck family)

Tensions are running a little high on Sitka’s trails after a bear attacked and killed a dog on Verstovia Trail Saturday. And on Sunday, another interaction with an aggressive bear left a family of four traumatized. But Alaska Wildlife Troopers aren’t sure if it was the same bear.

Early Sunday afternoon, Ariel Starbuck was hiking with her husband, her seven-year-old daughter and her eight-year-old son, up the Thimbleberry Trail to Heart Lake. The hiking area is just a couple of miles from the Verstovia Trail where a bear attacked and killed a dog on Saturday. So the possibility of a bear encounter was on her mind.

“We passed several people on the trail and everybody that I knew, I was like, ‘Hey, I haven’t seen any bear sign, what about you guys?’ We all talked about it,” Starbuck said. “And I guess maybe you think, “Verstovia is far away and maybe that’s an isolated incident.’”

Starbuck and her family sat by the lake, watched some people fishing, and ate a snack. Then they began the hike back to their car. When they got to the first bridge before Thimbleberry Lake, a bear jumped onto the trail in front of them. 

“It happened so fast,” she said. “We were just like what? Is that a dog? No, that’s a bear, oh my God, that’s a bear.”

Starbuck says she and her family stopped and right away they began to follow bear protocol. 

“We didn’t run, we didn’t turn around, we backed away slowly. My husband yelled at the bear. The bear started walking toward us. So we just kept moving  slowly backward,” she said. “Then the bear picked up speed, so we started moving backwards a little bit faster.”

As the bear sped up even more, Starbuck said they had to think fast to protect her children. 

“My husband told my son, who is eight, to drop his pack. So he dropped his pack,” Starbuck said. “The bear kind of ran up to the backpack, and we were able to get around the corner where he couldn’t see us and we just ran.”

They put their daughter up high on a stump so she could look down the trail to see if the bear was coming. When it seemed like it hadn’t continued to follow them, they debated what to do next. 

“My husband thought it was a juvenile bear, and didn’t know, does it have a mom with it? Is it aggressive? We didn’t know anything about it, so he decided we should just go back to Heart Lake and hike out Blue Lake Road, to get out of there.”

Starbuck says from beginning to end, the interaction may have taken around a minute, but she can’t be sure.

“My adrenaline was through the roof,” she said. “I’ve never been that scared in my adult life.”

Starbuck posted to the Facebook group “Sitka Bear Report” later that day, to warn people about the bear and let them know about the backpack, which contained two small oranges and a granola bar. Starbuck says she knew she’d get some criticism about leaving the pack for the bear- most wildlife experts don’t recommend distracting a bear with food, as it can train them to expect food after an interaction with humans. But she says everything happened so quickly, she doesn’t know what else they could have done.

“It bought us time to get away essentially,” Starbuck said. “I know that that was not the ideal thing to do, and people are going to have a lot of opinions about that, but in the end I feel like it saved my family. And I feel like I would make that choice again if I had to.”

She reported the incident to authorities on Tuesday. Trooper Kyle Ferguson says it’s possible it could have been the same bear. 

“Both incidents happened in areas relatively close to each other,” Ferguson said. “On the other hand, we can’t say definitively because there was nothing to indicate any distinctive coloration or markings with either bear in those two incidences. At this point I’d say it’s 50/50, it could be two different bears or the same bear.”

Ferguson says at this point troopers are not planning a response or a search for the bear. 

“The bear has moved on and there’s no indication it would remain in the area,” he said. “Even if we wanted to find the bear at this point, it would be kind of a needle in the haystack scenario.”

Starbuck says now that the initial shock has worn off, her kids are recovering, and responding somewhat differently to the incident. 

“My son was already excited to tell his friends at school, he had the bear at one-thousand pounds and drooling, and coming at us,” she said. “My daughter has been more reluctant. She’s like, you know, ‘can we just hike at Totem Park or on the sea walk and maybe not go in the woods anymore?’ We’ll have to ease back into that, I think.”

And after a weekend with high bear activity, Sitkans are easing back on the trails too, perhaps keeping a closer eye on the bushes and a tighter grip on their cans of bear spray along the way.  

Editors Note: The common sense advice for safely enjoying Sitka’s trails is applicable year-round: Hike with a friend, make noise, keep dogs under control and in the event you do encounter a bear, don’t run from it. And if you carry bear spray, make sure that you understand how to use it.

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