Bear encounter north of Fairbanks raises questions about carrying protection in winter

a bear print in snow
Elizabeth Hinkle’s skis frame the print of a grizzly bear she and two friends saw on a trail in the White Mountains over Thanksgiving weekend. (Courtesy Elizabeth Hinkle)

Barrett Flynn and two friends were on an annual Thanksgiving multi-day backcountry ski trip in the White Mountains National Recreation Area north of Fairbanks when they saw the bear. Flynn says they were skiing between Crowberry and Lee’s public use cabins when his dog suddenly ran to his side.

“He came and stood right next to me, which is fairly abnormal for him. Usually means there’s an animal,” he said.

Looking through frosty glasses, Flynn says he spotted a furry brown figure he at first assumed was a moose or a large wolf. He says his friends skied up from behind, and together they confirmed the animal was a grizzly bear.

“I see the hump and I was like, for sure, that’s a bear,” Flynn said.

Flynn says the grizzly appeared young and thin, and it moved toward them “curiously.”

“Not running or doing anything,” he said. “But I would say briskly walking towards us.”

Flynn says the three stood together, and the bear came within about a 100-150 feet before it “turned around and scampered away.”

Flynn guesses the whole incident lasted about two minutes. He says the experience has made him think about winter bear protection — the encounter could have gone worse if Flynn had been alone or his dog wasn’t so well behaved.

“If I’m going solo, like on winter trip — absolutely bringing a gun with me,” he said. “If I’m going out with like one other friends, probably a gun. If it’s like three to four, like maybe not.”

Flynn reported the bear sighting to the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the White Mountains Recreation Area. BLM eastern interior assistant field manger Levi Lewellyn says the grizzly encounter is likely an anomaly.

“You have the norm, and then you have an outlier,” he said. “So the bear might have been an outlier, or maybe more bears are awake. We don’t know.”

Lewellyn advises that non-motorized travelers make noise, and he says bear spray is an option for winter protection as long as the canister is kept warm.

“I’d put it inside my coat,” he said. “I would carry something. You know, if you’re not going to carry a bear spray, maybe even a firearm to protect yourself. Just something that you’re proficient with and you’re trained on.”

Although very unusual, there have been some deadly winter bear encounters over the decades, including a starving grizzly that fatally mauled a woman and her baby outside a remote cabin in the Yukon Territory in November 2018.

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Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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