Wildlife Wednesday: Grizzly in the Neighborhood

Donna Gates has walked the trails by her home near Tonglen Lake weekly for the past 30 years, never running into a bear, until this year.


 The bear and Donna Gates' dog, Q, in close proximity.

By Mollie Foster

Donna Gates was walking with her 28-year-old daughter, Tessa, her friend Clint, and her three dogs on a trail just minutes from their house near Tonglen Lake, when Clint started asking questions about bears. New to Alaska, he asked: "Do you carry bear spray?" "Have you had close encounters?"

Donna and Tessa smirked at the questions, explaining that bears have never been an issue in the area close to their home. Donna told Clint of a bear encounter she did have, in Denali National Park, during her first year in Alaska. She wrapped up her story when she heard her daughter say in a calm, direct tone, "Mom. Bear." Slowly looking back, she saw a grizzly bear standing 15 feet off the trail, peering at them through the trees. 

Donna and Tessa collectively have more than 60 years experience in Alaska, and bear safety is second nature to them: stand your ground, wave your arms above your head, and speak in a commanding voice. Donna followed etiquette, yelling at the animal, but the grizzly didn't move.  One of the three border collies, Q, became interested in the bear, and started barking. Donna called the dog toward her, holding his mouth shut as he woofed through clenched lips. The other two dogs acted as if they didn't notice the grizzly, and sat at Donna's feet quietly, apparently oblivious to the situation. The grizzly sniffed around and then started to walk up the trail, away from the group. Then, just as they were losing sight of the bear, he circled back around toward the group. He was closer this time, grazing on the low brush less than 10 feet away. The group stoot still, waiting for the grizzly to move away. 

Donna had already yelled at the bear twice, with no reaction from the bear. Q, the dog, had barked at him, which Donna thought explained the bear's curiosity in the group—mainly in Q. The bear continued to act curious, and started staring at Q. The bear marched toward them as Q inched closer to Donna.The grizzly was now within five feet, with only a scrawny, black spruce between them. Donna shook a small branch, yelling "Get out of here!" The bear didn't budge. As the grizzly inched closer, almost touching noses with Q, the dog decided he'd had enough, and took off down the trail, away from the group, barking. The grizzly lumbered off after him. 

For a split second Donna thought about following her dog, and then realized she needed to get the rest of the group safely home. They ran the opposite direction that Q and the bear had gone, looking over their shoulders as they went. Then Q appeared, running toward them. Anticipating a bear in hot pursuit, they continued to look back as they jogged along the trail, back toward the house.

Donna couldn't help but wonder if her dog, Q, had known what he was doing when he ran off away from the group, giving them an opening to escape. "Typically when he is scared on a walk, he runs toward the house," she says. "This time, he ran away from home." Donna rewarded Q for his bravery with extra rations of treats that night.

For the full blog post from Donna and more photos, visit: http://tonglenlake.com/journal/119283


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