SGT. 1ST CLASS RONALD R. WEISS II
Headquarters and Headquarters Company,
1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment,
16th Combat Aviation Brigade
Fort Wainwright, Alaska
A few years ago, my son and I went on an overnight hiking trip with his Boy Scout troop. We met everyone at the old depot near the News-Minor newspaper office in Fairbanks, Alaska. The plan was for the boys and chaperones to hike 16 miles over two days on the Granite Tors Trail with 30-pound backpacks. Eight miles up the trail, sleep and then eight miles back. Great in theory, but after we set out, things didn’t turn out quite as planned.
We headed to the starting point of our trail — at mile marker 39.5 on Chena Hot Springs Road. As we pulled into the trailhead, we made ready our gear. The scoutmaster then called everyone into a group and started talking about bear safety. My son and I looked at each other. We had the same thought. “Who talks about bear safety? You mean we might see one in the wild?” Being new to Alaska, we were naïve about the local wildlife.
The scoutmaster told us to stay in a group because the bigger we made ourselves, the less likely a bear would attack with us. He also discussed the use of the bear spray a few of the adults were carrying. He showed the boys where each one was located on the adults’ backpacks.
The next thing I knew, the scoutmaster told us to go upwind. We obliged, and he then sprayed some of the bear spray to demonstrate how it works. The smell that permeated from that can was worse than the gas chamber in basic training. Even though we were upwind, Murphy’s law took over. The wind changed directions and we scattered while coughing and hacking. The only highlight from that lesson was we were pretty darn sure bear spray would work if needed.
The scoutmaster’s words about bears put me on high alert, and I wondered what would happen if we actually encountered one. I put my apprehension in the back of my mind as I got ready for the hike. Once done with the safety brief, we put on our packs and off we went. Eight hours later, we reached our camping spot. The good news was we hadn’t seen any bears.
Early the next morning, we ate breakfast and prepared for our trek back down the mountain. Everyone was in high spirits; we were going downhill and still no bears! That was about to change.
About 500 meters from our campsite, my son and I heard what we thought was other campers. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. It was a bear! I’m not talking about a 300-pound black bear, which would have been bad enough. This was a huge grizzly, and it was heading our way. The adults sprang into action and put the boys in the middle to make us look bigger and hopefully intimidate the grizzly. Thankfully, curiosity didn’t get the better of the bear and it turned around and left.
The bear training the scoutmaster gave us worked. He pulled everyone together to discuss what had happened. Silently, I reflected on what had just occurred, thankful for the valuable training the scoutmaster had given us at the start of our trip. I’m glad everyone paid attention and took the training seriously. Things could’ve turned out differently if they hadn’t.
In the Army, we train and train until we can do our tasks in our sleep. Then, when faced with a situation, we handle it without thinking. Safety, training and awareness are key components in preventing accidents. Stay alert, stay alive!
Wildlife Safety Tips
Symbolic of the Alaska wilderness, both grizzly and black bears may be encountered in the backcountry. To keep these magnificent creatures wild and enhance your personal safety, keep the following in mind:
• Make noise while hiking to alert bears of your presence.
• Use bear-resistant food containers and store them 100 yards from cooking areas and tent sites.
• Be alert for bears and alter your activities to avoid them.
• Never run from a bear.
• Pepper spray can be carried as an added precaution. However, it is useful only as a last resort in the event of an emergency and should not be viewed as substitute for proper backcountry behavior.
Alaska is also home to sheep, caribou, wolves, foxes, bears, moose, eagles, ptarmigan and other wildlife you are very likely to encounter in the backcountry. Please keep Alaska’s animals wild by following these guidelines when encountering wildlife:
• Do not feed or allow wildlife to obtain human foods.
• Maintain a minimum 300-yard distance from bears.
• Do not approach or follow wildlife. Maintain a minimum 25-yard distance from all other animals, dens and nests.
• If your presence alters an animal’s behavior, you are too close.
Source: National Park Service