Bears coming out of den
Bears coming out of den
Bears coming out of den (Photo: Arterra/Getty)

It’s No Fun to Wake a Sleeping Bear

To live in the small town of Haines, Alaska, is to live with bears, with roughly one brown bear for every nine human residents. Last winter, a local snowboarder woke a hibernating brown bear in the backcountry and was severely injured, furthering tensions between food-stressed bears and anxious local residents. But in most encounters, it’s the bear that ends up dead, prompting the question of what it means to coexist.

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At first glance, it appeared to be the scene of a classically gruesome bear mauling—gnashing jaws, torn flesh, crushed bones, the grim outcome of pitting fist against claw. Afterward, a man was lying in a heap on an icy slope as a streak of brown-and-silver-tinted fur tore off into the forest. Nearby, hoarfrost shimmered on hemlock branches, a bear cub peered out from a hole in the snow, and a sudden, terrifying silence echoed in the ears of the man’s ski partners.

During one of the coldest months of the year, a seasoned local snowboarder and two of his friends had gone in search of powder and instead stumbled onto a brown bear’s den. It was the most recent encounter in what had been an unprecedented year of conflicts between humans and bears in the small town of Haines, which sits on Alaska’s southeastern coastline.

The story began as it did on many bluebird winter days in February—three friends in the backcountry, doing what they loved most. Bart Pieciul, a 38-year-old Polish chef turned fisherman turned carpenter, headed into the mountains with 33-year-old Jeffrey Moskowitz, a forecaster and educator for the Haines Avalanche Education Center, and Graham Kraft, a 35-year-old ski maker and owner of Fairweather Ski Works, who brought along his dog, Tsirku. Nothing about their plan stood out as exceptional. They intended to access ski terrain above Chilkoot Lake, at the end of a ten-mile road that parallels the coastline north of town in an area they’d all traveled before.

Along with self-rescue equipment, the trio carried a healthy share of local mountain knowledge. Kraft is a former alpine racer who commutes by foot and ski to a treehouse he built with his wife, Moskowitz has been involved in avalanche and rescue training for more than a decade, and Pieciul is a backcountry aficionado who knows all the ski lines in Haines. They’d each spent hundreds of days in the backcountry. But they hadn’t prepared for the prospect of waking a sleeping bear.

By early afternoon, the group was skinning up a forested ridgeline, with Kraft in the lead, just out of sight of the other two men. After they’d ascended about 1,500 feet, the route became too icy for their climbing skins, so Pieciul and Moskowitz strapped their boards to their packs and transitioned to hiking, their steps punching through several inches of powder onto a hard, slippery base. Soon after, Pieciul spotted what he first thought was a “cute porcupine” 50 feet away. But the porcupine grew to an unimaginable size and transformed into a brown bear clawing its way out of the snow. Moskowitz heard Pieciul scream, “Bear, bear, bear!” When he looked back, he saw an enormous hulk of brown fur heading toward Pieciul. They’d hiked directly over the top of a bear den and now dangled in the liminal space between encounter and attack.

Behind the pulse pounding against Pieciul’s temples was the sickening realization that a sow with a cub in a den was among the worst possible scenarios for a bear encounter.

The bear’s initial motions were stiff and awkward, its head swaying slightly and its steps exaggerated as if sleepwalking. Even after shaking off its hibernation stupor and focusing its gaze on Pieciul, the animal proceeded slowly, plodding toward him on broad paws that flattened the snow and claws that clung easily to the crust layer below. Pieciul raised his arms and spoke to the bear, a practice recommended in bear safety training courses to identify oneself as human and potentially defuse a tense situation. As he backed up through the trees, Pieciul caught a brief glimpse of a second, smaller bear emerging from the den. Behind the pulse pounding against his temples was the sickening realization that a sow with a cub in a den was among the worst possible scenarios for a bear encounter.

From 30 feet away, Moskowitz watched in horror as his friend faced off with the bear. “Which way is this going to go?” he wondered. He didn’t have to wait long for an answer.

Pieciul is six feet, two inches tall and weighs 200 pounds. The bear grabbed him by his left wrist and shook him like a rag doll, hoisting him above the ground with her powerful jaws. He later described the scene to me in slow motion, recalling the nightmarish view of his own fingers flopping limply from his wrist as he was flung about.

Shortly after the initial attack, bear and man began rocketing downhill, the bear on top of Pieciul as he slid headfirst. They landed 100 feet below, where Pieciul suddenly felt “huge pressure” on his body and saw the bear’s nose and mouth as she grabbed the left side of his neck. That’s when he began to play dead. As she proceeded to bite him on the buttocks, right arm, and above his right hip, Pieciul lay quietly, making his body as still and limp as he could. He wanted the bear to know that he meant her no harm. Later, he would speak out in defense of the bear that mauled him.

Pieciul with his snowboard
Bart Pieciul, with his hand-built snowboard, poses for an annual calendar for Fairweather Ski Works, where he works in Haines (Courtesy Graham Kraft)

Pieciul’s encounter was unique given its midwinter timing, when most bears are hibernating, and it was equally unusual that a person got hurt instead of a bear. It would be tough to find anyone in Haines who hasn’t bumped noses with a bear; they’re as much a part of the landscape as glacial rivers and big trees. But in most human-bear interactions, it’s the bear that ends up dead.

Haines is nestled near the north end of the Inside Passage, where the Chilkat and Takshanuk mountain ranges give way to steep slopes and fluted spines featured in some of the world’s most popular extreme-ski films. There are endless opportunities for backcountry skiing and alpine adventure, and there are also plenty of ways to get into trouble, with limited prospects for help. With about 2,600 residents, an unreliable ferry system, a volunteer paramedic crew, and no local hospital, Haines isn’t the sort of place for people who prefer wide safety margins or cheap burgers. There’s a palpable rawness to living here and an implicit humility necessary to survive.

I first came to Haines two decades ago while working as a volunteer field technician on a bald eagle research project. Several years later, during a local kayaking trip, I and my husband, Pat, stumbled onto a coastal, boat-accessed piece of property on a land feature called Glacier Point, named for the nearby Davidson Glacier. Over the next few summers, we built a log cabin from trees on site, and we’ve lived here seasonally ever since, patching together remote work—me as a writer and wildlife biologist, Pat as a designer and builder—raising our sons (now four and seven), fishing, picking berries, and exploring, often with bears for company. At the outset of the pandemic, we moved here full-time. We’re 12 miles and a rough skiff ride from town, where we go to buy monthly resupplies and visit friends.

This region hosts one of the highest bear densities in the world; nearby Admiralty Island is home to more brown bears than all of the lower 48 states combined. Although the Chilkat Valley is thought to have a more modest ursine population, at least by Alaska standards, it’s still home to an estimated 300 brown bears—roughly one for every nine people. At Glacier Point, we have far more brown bears than humans for neighbors. (Brown bears and grizzlies are the same species, Ursus arctos, but “grizzly” is a term that refers to brown bears that live inland, usually without access to fish and other coastal resources. In other words, all grizzlies are brown bears, but not all brown bears are grizzlies. As a result of their rich diet, coastal brown bears are generally larger than grizzlies, weighing up to 1,600 pounds.)

Nobody has done an official count of black bears in the area, but they’re common, too, carving out a life alongside their larger relatives, creating a unique area of overlap where the two species coexist.

For Haines, the presence of a few hundred brown bears and an uncounted number of black bears means there will almost certainly be human-bear interactions. Last year proved to be a devastating example of how these encounters can go awry, resulting in an unplanned and contentious local campaign to rid the town of bears. The summer and fall of 2020 saw a record number of conflicts—a product of hungry bears and careless human food and waste management—leading to a bad case of bearanoia and more dead bears than anyone could have imagined.

In Haines last summer, bears wandered into town and found rewards, in some cases in outrageous quantities—like the 15 pounds of fudge stored in an unlocked shed or the two-decades-old stockpile of dried goods owned by a Y2K prepper.

Both species of bears are smart and opportunistic, and they have an excellent sense of smell. If natural foods aren’t available, they will look elsewhere for the calories they need to survive the winter. When people leave free meals on their doorsteps, bears invite themselves in. In Haines last summer, bears wandered into town and found rewards, in some cases in outrageous quantities—like the 15 pounds of fudge stored in an unlocked shed or the two-decades-old stockpile of dried goods owned by a Y2K prepper. Some bears learned that homes, businesses, outbuildings, and vehicles offered food and learned to open car doors, break into freezers, and crawl through windows. Other bears simply found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In the end, bears paid the ultimate price for these conflicts, with 30 brown bears killed by Haines residents, local police officers, and Alaska State Troopers, who were acting under legal language that allows bears to be killed “in defense of life and property,” or DLP. Combined with 19 bears that were legally killed by hunters, the total number of human-caused brown bear deaths reached 49, resulting in up to a 20 percent population drop in a matter of months. It was, by most definitions, a bear catastrophe.

In practice, a DLP designation means a problem bear can be killed when humans or their property are at risk. However, this rationale is typically reserved for life-threatening situations or for bears that don’t respond to nonlethal deterrents, such as noisemakers, flares, or rubber bullets. Usually, people are also expected to take corrective action as needed to avoid future conflicts. This includes basic measures like securing trash, pets, and livestock from bears so they don’t associate humans with food resources.

Last year—and, arguably, for many years —preventative actions in Haines were too little, too late. Without enforcement and with only partial public support for mandating responsible handling of potential attractants, the problem has gotten worse. As each week’s news headlines described yet another apparently avoidable bear mortality, DLP became a disturbingly common part of the local vernacular. A bear in town proved to be, in many cases, a dead bear.

Pieciul after the attack
Pieciul shortly after the bear attack (Courtesy Graham Kraft)
Moskowitz keeping Pieciul warm at the rescue scene after the attack
Jeffrey Moskowitz keeps Pieciul warm as the men wait for rescue (Courtesy Graham Kraft)

Two weeks after the mauling, I sat down with Pieciul in a mutual friend’s living room for an informal interview. With his hand bandaged and his arm cradled in a sling, he was perched carefully on the edge of his seat. Before recalling details of his experience, Pieciul shared a box of chocolate mochi ice cream balls with my sons, who greeted him with wide stares and get-well cards.

In my pocket was a bear tooth, a large upper canine my husband had pulled from a carcass we’d found near our cabin, and I offered it to him as a talisman or badge of honor. He turned the tooth over and over in his hand.

I knew Pieciul from town, where he works as an assistant ski builder at Kraft’s Fairweather Ski Works shop. The company features skis and snowboards crafted from local wood products, with mountain- and fish-themed graphics by Haines artists.

Within a few minutes, I was overwhelmed by Pieciul’s passion for Haines, where he’s lived since 2013. “Ever since I saw these mountains in a snowboard movie when I was in high school, I knew I would move here,” he said. “My family and friends in Poland thought I was crazy, but it was the life I wanted.” Behind his thick accent, intense blue eyes, and grizzled hair was an obvious gentleness, a surprising balance between Polish hardman and the kind of person you’d want to babysit your children. “And then I met Kraft,” he said. “This place is my dream.”

As we talked, I noticed a line of stitches along the entire edge of Pieciul’s left ear and a fierce red gash on the back of his neck, where the bear had gouged him. “Her face came so close when she bit me here,” he said, describing his peripheral, close-up view of the bear’s dark nose. The fact that his splitboard was strapped onto the sides of his pack might have helped protect his head and neck. In any event, as soon as the bear made contact, he knew the situation was grim: “It was clear I wouldn’t be skiing the next weekend.”

After the bear left, Pieciul lay in the snow, trying not to think about his one-handed future, the medical bills he’d have no way to pay, or the fact that his mountain days could be over. He attempted to block out the pain that raged through every cell of his being. But even in his misery, he explained, he felt a twinge of gratitude. The bear could have easily killed him, and didn’t. In North America, 13 percent of serious brown bear attacks (defined by human injury or hospitalization) recorded between 2000 and 2015 resulted in a human fatality. In Alaska, the statistic is nearly identical—over a similar time period, there were seven human deaths out of a total of 54 brown bear attacks.

With the trauma of the mauling still fresh in his mind, Pieciul insisted he never thought the bear intended to kill him. “I know it sounds weird, but the way she grabbed me with her molars made me think she was just trying to move me away from her den,” he said. “She wasn’t trying to hurt me, but she needed me to leave.” Pieciul described her as a calm but concerned mother whose den had been tromped on by three men and a dog. “Considering what happened, she was very gentle,” he said.

Pieciul later explained how he came to Haines after immigrating to Michigan with his mother, working any job he could—from baker to dishwasher to deckhand—to make his dream of living here a reality. “I came for the mountains, the freedom, and the wildness,” he said. “Playing around bears is just part of the deal. It’s a risk we take.”

Helicopter rescue scene
A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter hoisting Pieciul (Courtesy Graham Kraft)

Soon after meeting with Pieciul, I spoke by phone with Kraft and Moskowitz about the mauling. Without knowing exactly what had happened but realizing a bear was involved, Kraft recalled strapping on his helmet and skiing down to check in with Moskowitz. “I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I thought if the bear was still on Bart, I’d try to distract it and hope to outski it,” he told me. He described following a track of blood and broken ski poles, and then finding Pieciul, motionless, with his hand lying uselessly by his side. The bear was nowhere in sight.

The hand showed an open fracture, and Pieciul couldn’t move his fingers. “I’m going to lose my hand,” Pieciul told Kraft. Kraft was relieved to hear him speak at all. Moskowitz remembered fighting back panic, especially when Pieciul began to tell him his Social Security number, his mother’s phone number, and where to find his computer passwords. “At that point, I was pretty sure he was bleeding out and help wouldn’t get there soon enough,” Moskowitz said.

He pulled out his InReach and began to send an SOS. Besides his wrist, Pieciul complained about bite wounds across his body, including one that they would later learn came frighteningly close to his femoral artery. Kraft cut Pieciul’s backpack off him and assessed his injuries as well as he could without removing his clothes. At ten degrees in a shadowed forest, the cold was as much of a threat as Pieciul’s wounds. Moskowitz had packed what Kraft described as a “clown car” of extra equipment. Besides plenty of down layers, he carried a thermos of warm water, first aid kit, space blanket, sleeping pad, and bivouac sack.

The men did their best to treat the most obvious injuries, but they worried about internal damage and blood loss while they cuddled against Pieciul to keep him warm and waited for rescue. “We did a lot of snuggling,” Kraft said.

They closely watched Kraft’s dog, Tsirku, as she raised her nose to sniff the air, not knowing if the bear might return or if the cub was still in the nearby den. Each time the dog’s ears perked up and she began to growl, they shouted and banged on shovels to alert the bear of their presence. When a Coast Guard helicopter finally reached the group three hours after the mauling, Pieciul was nearly hypothermic, with deep puncture wounds to his neck, legs, buttocks, and arms. But he was conscious and alive. Pieciul was even able to half-scoot himself onto the litter before it was hoisted. Moskowitz and Kraft crouched down in the snow and watched him swinging wildly from a cable as the violence of the rotor wash bent 100-foot-tall trees and scattered their ski gear.

I was on the beach by our cabin when I saw the red-and-white Jayhawk helicopter fly overhead, en route to Juneau, the state’s capital and the site of the nearest hospital. The next day, after it had become apparent that Pieciul would survive and keep his hand, Kraft set up a GoFundMe to help cover medical expenses and loss of income while Pieciul recovered. “Bart got bit by a bear” raised more than $30,000 in less than 48 hours.

Bear paw from the carcass found near Hemert’s cabin
A paw from a brown bear carcass found near the author's cabin (Courtesy Patrick Farrell)
Bear carcass found near Hemert’s cabin
The author's son and husband examining the skull of the brown bear (Courtesy Caroline Van Hemert)

In winter, bears aren’t typically on skiers’ minds, although recent data collected by Anthony Crupi, bear biologist for the Division of Wildlife Conservation at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, suggests that perhaps they should be. A research article he published last year, called “Steep and Deep,” indicates that good denning habitat and prime ski terrain share many features. Crupi has been studying brown bear denning ecology in the Chilkat Valley for more than a decade, leading a project intended to address concerns about land use—including mining, recreation, and heli-skiing—and the potential for den site disturbance.

Between 2015 and 2020, Crupi and his team used a combination of visual aerial surveys and satellite data from bears they’d collared, over time identifying 149 dens. The sites ranged from hollows under tree roots to rocky caves to excavations in the ground, and Crupi found that bears chose their den sites carefully. Hibernation is a critical part of a bear’s life, allowing the animals to conserve precious energy during the leanest period of winter. Among other dramatic physiological changes, a hibernating brown bear lowers its body temperature by 10 to 12 degrees, slows its heart rate by 20 percent to 40 percent, and cuts its metabolism in half. Despite the fact that they don’t urinate or defecate, bears can lose between a quarter and a half of their body mass during hibernation. Females also gestate, give birth, and nurse cubs in their dens; even while lactating, female bears are able to substantially limit their energy needs.

On average, bears in the Chilkat Valley study area spent five months in hibernation, but the timing of when it began and ended varied widely. Some bears entered dens as early as mid-October and stayed as long as mid-June, while others emerged after just two months; females with cubs typically denned longest. But even in the midst of a far deeper sleep than we can fathom in human terms, bears are susceptible to various forms of disturbance, including the movements and sounds of skiers.

Another backcountry skier, 35-year-old Forest Wagner, had been mauled five years earlier, in April 2016, when he was descending from glaciated terrain onto a steep, snow-covered ridge on Mount Emmerich, a 6,800-foot peak west of Haines. Wagner was alone, attempting to scout a safe route for a group of outdoor recreation students from the University of Alaska Southeast, when he came upon a brown bear sow that was thought to have recently emerged from a den with her cub. Despite the serious nature of the attack—Wagner’s injuries resulted in multiple surgeries and a long recovery—the bear was assumed to be acting defensively. The mauling seemed like a case of bad timing rather than a harbinger of future problems.

But as residents of Southeast Alaska are discovering, such “rare” encounters may become increasingly frequent. Shortly after New Year’s Day, and less than a month before Pieciul’s encounter, I found a freshly dead bear near our cabin, its mouth full of porcupine quills, its flesh stripped from the bones by wolves. Later identified as a male brown bear by a DNA sample sent to Crupi’s team, the carcass was a grisly reminder of what a tough year it had been for local bears. Although wolves have been reported to take down black bears or their cubs, they’re usually the losers when it comes to tussles with brown bears. Besides the surprising circumstances of the animal’s death, we’d also never seen evidence of a bear awake in January. We weren’t alone. Despite record snowfall in November and an extreme cold snap in January and February, there was an unusual number of reports of winter bear activity throughout the Chilkat Valley. Facebook posts showed photographs of tracks on frozen lakes and rivers and of bears rummaging through snow-covered outbuildings. Just a week after Pieciul was mauled, a black bear nipped a Haines woman in the rear at Chilkat Lake while she was using the outhouse, a scary episode that fortunately resulted in no major injuries. The most obvious explanation for the abundant late-season activity was that hungry bears don’t sleep. And 2020 was a very hungry year.

As is true with most wildlife populations, the health of local bears is tied closely to what they have to eat. By many definitions, Haines is a land of plenty. All five species of Pacific salmon occur in local waters, filling residents’ freezers and supporting a diversity of wildlife. The Chilkat River is home to the latest salmon run in North America and one of the largest annual gatherings of bald eagles, which congregate for the same reasons the bears do—easy access to rich salmon resources.

However, recent numbers of pink and chum salmon, two important food species for bears in Southeast Alaska, have been in steep decline, and no one knows exactly why. Unusual summer weather—from extreme drought to record-setting rainfall—have also made for unreliable berry harvests. In 2020, a heavy late-winter snowpack followed by the coolest, wettest summer on the books severely limited the growth of early summer foods like sedges and salmonberries. Things got worse from there. State fisheries reports documented what local fishermen and bears already knew—2020 was an abysmal year for salmon in the region, with a 60 percent reduction in overall harvests and some of the worst returns in 50 years. Given future projections, this isn’t likely to be a temporary shortage. “As we’ve seen the past two summers, the changing climate can lead to scarcity of critical bear foods such as salmon, which puts additional stress on the bear population,” Crupi explained.

Although Pieciul’s mauling probably resulted from an accidental disturbance rather than a bear being wide awake in February, winter encounters are expected to become increasingly common. Bears without adequate fat reserves will delay den entrance, meaning they may stay awake well into winter.

If bears in Southeast Alaska face another year like 2020, it’s likely they’ll again be roaming around later than usual. Studies in other parts of North America have also documented climate-related shifts in denning periods. Warmer winters mean fewer months of hibernation. Meanwhile, in Haines and elsewhere, people are spending more time in bear habitat, particularly in winter. Heli-skiing began in Haines in 2000, with the number of skier days steadily growing since then. Backcountry ski users, while still relatively sparse compared to many parts of the U.S., have also increased their footprint over the past two decades, raising the probability of encountering dens. As Pieciul and his partners discovered, it’s no fun to wake a sleeping bear.

Get-well-card for Pieciul by Hemert’s son
A get-well card for Pieciul from the author's son (Courtesy Huxley Farrell)
Pieciul at hospital after attack
Pieciul, seen here in the hospital, initially thought he might lose his left hand (Courtesy Beth Fenhaus)

Heading into another fall and winter season, Haines faces this reality: the brown bear population in the Chilkat Valley is in trouble, and residents remain tense and highly conflicted about how to respond. Like most issues surrounding wildlife-human conflicts, it can be difficult to build consensus on the best way forward. Bears have a long history of being extirpated; people have a long history of trying, often unsuccessfully, to learn to live with bears.

Undeniably, bears have recently caused more headaches in Haines than they usually do. One morning last October, we stopped by a friend’s house in town to find broken glass covering their gravel driveway. They’d been woken in the night by the car alarm, their vehicle rocking with a brown bear that had locked itself inside. The only attractants were old snack crumbs buried in the recesses of their son’s car seat. Just as the troopers arrived, the bear broke through the driver’s side window and ran into nearby woods. Other residents had sheds destroyed, kitchens ransacked, and boats demolished. In fact, Pieciul’s car door had been ripped off just a few months before he was mauled.

The bear task force formed in 2019 was less organized during the pandemic, in part because travel restrictions complicated response efforts. In a November 2020 story reported by local radio station KHNS, Derek Poinsette, a member of the bear task force, put it this way: “It does feel like we, myself included, did not do a very good job of really getting out ahead of this…I hope we all can look at what we did wrong, and try not to repeat this.”

By any estimation, bears paid an undue price for their hunger. Forty-nine dead bears, likely more by unofficial count, is not a statistic anyone likes to hear. Biologists are facing real concerns about population sustainability, hunters are facing drastically reduced future harvests, and conservationists and bear lovers are feeling enraged by the wanton bear kills. Many people in Haines are more fearful of bears than they’ve ever been, despite the fact that bears are the ones at highest risk when encountering humans.

Although bicycle accidents and dog bites result in far more human injuries and deaths in Alaska than bear attacks do, the image of an aggressive bear dwells among our greatest wildlife fears and fascinations. Not surprisingly, the media often reinforces stereotypes. A recent analysis published in the scientific journal Conservation Science and Practice argued that “the North American news media is largely prone to report dramatic, high-consequence, human tragedy stories about bears.” The result: heightened fears about risk.

Stories of marauding bears as threats to public safety play against the myth of bears as the enemy—the one that features jaw-popping, flesh-tearing, beady-eyed horrors. The truth, however, is much less dramatic. Bears survive because they are resourceful, not because they are monsters. They have individual personality traits and habits; they learn, like we do, in response to their environments. And in many cases, we’ve done a lousy job of training them.

Admittedly, it’s not always easy to live with thousand-pound carnivores in the neighborhood. I wish bears didn’t favor the same strawberry patches that my children do, and I often grumble when I wake up to fresh tracks on our beach heading in the wrong direction. We’ve had bears plow through our electric fence and come too close for comfort on more than one occasion. But we’ve never had a serious bear issue, even when supposed “problem bears” were living in our backyard. Last summer, a sow and her yearling cub spent several weeks grazing the meadows near our cabin. Despite their frequent proximity to our home, they never attempted to do anything other than live like bears. Unfortunately, they made the mistake of wandering into town, and four days after our neighbor last saw them, they were dead.

Although there’s no single, simple solution to eliminating human-bear conflicts, experts agree that an effective bear management plan requires human food and waste to be secured. Many measures have been proven to work in other communities, such as bear-resistant trash cans, electric fences, and locked doors. Not every system works flawlessly, and none of us is perfect. But to not try is inexcusable. “Losing 50 bears from this small, isolated population needs to be our call to action,” Crupi says. “Too many bears were killed because we failed to protect our chickens, fruit trees, compost, porch freezers, and garbage cans.”

Outreach programs by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have largely been virtual to date, but with COVID-related restrictions easing, additional hands-on trainings are planned, including local demonstrations on setting up electric fences. A program designed to help residents harvest fruit trees before they attract bears is also gaining popularity. At the same time, hunting for the upcoming 2021 season, September to December, has been severely restricted in order to assess the impacts of 2020 mortalities and allow the population to recover.

The reality of dwelling in a landscape that doesn’t bend to our will is what makes Alaska special. It’s the promise of wildness that has been stripped from most other aspects of our lives.

Perhaps most important, a recent ordinance passed in Haines not only requires people to have edible attractants secured but also mandates fines if the problem isn’t resolved within a week. A similar law was passed in 2010, but only a handful of citations were issued in the next decade, even after some residents repeatedly refused to comply. Ultimately, local actions, not advisories, will decide the future of bears and humans in the Chilkat Valley. And action depends on public will.

Other ongoing research will help support reduction of human-bear conflicts over the long term. Crupi’s study is the first of its kind in the area and has not only identified den site characteristics but also helped pinpoint where bears spend their time and where they might run into problems. From satellite data, his team has tracked everything from illegal hunting to freezer break-ins to far-flung, glacier-trotting travels. As an avid backcountry skier keen to help reduce unwanted bear encounters, Crupi also created an app layer to identify potential bear denning habitat that can be overlaid on a topographic map. Similar to how skiers identify potential avalanche slopes, this risk assessment approach includes elevation, slope angle, snow loading, and vegetation cover to predict the relative probability that a bear will use specific areas for denning. Crupi acknowledges that it’s still a work in progress, but it offers a helpful first step for flagging areas where skiers and bears are most likely to come into contact.

Faced with the possibility of sharing his story with a larger audience, Pieciul said he was interested in education, not gossip. What could others learn from his experience? Several points seemed obvious, and they apply to many outdoor situations.

Carry bear spray and an emergency communication device. Yes, bear spray works, even in the cold. Watch a YouTube video on the operation of your device—you don’t want to start learning to use it during an emergency. Although the skiers used their satellite communication device to summon a rescue, they learned later that they hadn’t confirmed the SOS message, meaning it hadn’t transmitted. Fortunately, Moskowitz had also sent a message to his girlfriend, who relayed their request to local dispatch.

Travel with trusted partners. Pieciul repeatedly mentioned how grateful he was to have been with two highly skilled and capable friends. Without them, the outcome could have been much worse.

Pack more gear than you think you need. Moskowitz remembered feeling sheepish when friends teased him about the excess load of emergency equipment he often carries, but after this incident, he said his heavy packing habits were locked in. “Building in an extra buffer for the unexpected is necessary in the backcountry,” he said.

Take a wilderness first aid course, and refresh your existing skills. Having the ability to deal with injuries in the backcountry is helpful no matter the circumstances.

When in potential bear habitat, look for clues of den sites. These include fresh diggings or dirty tailings in the snow, depressions, and tree holes.

Beyond the practicalities, all three men involved in the February incident talked about the same thing: reverence. They live in a wild, untamed place, and they like it that way. They also acknowledged a central element of chance—even in an area of high bear density, the likelihood of stumbling onto a den while skiing is relatively low. But without a number of things going right, their encounter could have had a very different ending. “We got unlucky, and then we got lucky,” Kraft said.

Pieciul mentioned that his healing process has been eased somewhat by the knowledge that, in the end, they hadn’t done anything inherently wrong. “It just happened,” he said. “It wasn’t because we made a stupid mistake.” He also expressed relief that law enforcement or wildlife officers hadn’t tried to track down and kill the sow. Pieciul said he resented the description of the bear he met as aggressive: “She was never aggressive. Defensive, yes. But not aggressive.”

Living with bears is a responsibility as much as it is a privilege. If we fail to recognize our role in conserving bears, there’s no reason to believe our fate won’t eventually follow that of so many other parts of the world, where it has become shamefully obvious that getting something back is much harder than never destroying it in the first place. The reality of dwelling in a landscape that doesn’t bend to our will is what makes Alaska special. It’s the promise of wildness that has been stripped from most other aspects of our lives. Left with guns blazing, tempers high, and a landscape absent of the very creatures that define our sense of place, we risk finding ourselves bereft not only of bears, but of our own humanity.

“It’s people who intrude on the bears, not them on us,” Pieciul told me. “We have to find a way to coexist.” Like many residents, he wants greater awareness, not more dead bears.

Perhaps that’s why, when Good Morning America called, Pieciul turned down their requests for an interview. His decision not to appear on TV screens wasn’t merely a product of his modest nature, but also distrust of the sensationalism that has plagued the town’s bears.

I spoke to Pieciul several weeks after our first conversation. He was on a break from a wilderness first responder training. With the pins out of his wrist and his wounds healing, he was ready to move on. His bear encounter had changed him, but he didn’t want it to define him. He was anxious to swap the seemingly endless questions about a backcountry day gone wrong for new experiences forged in the mountains. With a deep late-season snowpack, clear skies, and good friends, Pieciul got his wish late last spring, high on a glacier perched above the Chilkat Valley, once again exploring the wildest edges of his home.

Lead Photo: Arterra/Getty