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Urban Campbell Creek Running Brown with Bears

BEWARE: Signs abound, especially on North Fork, due to big salmon runs and few human interlopers
Peter Porco / Anchorage Daily News / July 27, 2005

Along the North Fork of Campbell Creek, less than a quarter mile from Tudor Road in places, on the edge of the Alaska Botanical Garden, back behind Alaska State Troopers headquarters and the city animal shelter, is a grizzly bear highway.

Lured by prosperous runs of salmon, bears prowl the dense brush on either side of the narrow creek, pounding down a dirt track. In a single day earlier this month, state wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott walked the creek from the east boundary of Far North Bicentennial Park, at the edge of the mountains, nearly to Lake Otis Parkway a few miles to the west, and he counted the paw prints of at least eight individual brown bears, including a sow with cubs.

"There are long stretches of that North Fork where the bears have beaten a trail on both banks, so it looks like a bear highway on both sides, including roundabouts, merge lanes and rest stops," Sinnott said last week. "It's pretty amazing, but they're behaving and staying by themselves."

Except for the occasional fisherman and scientists like Sinnott and area sportfish biologist Dan Bosch -- who said he recently was charged by a grizzly near the Fort Richardson boundary on the east edge of the park -- few people venture into that neck of the woods.

But those who do should know what to expect.

Avid fisherman and Campbell Creek habitue Duffy Blume knows. A big, blond grizzly, angry about something, rose up in front of him three summers ago while he was fishing the winding, clear-water creek a short ways off Campbell Airstrip Road.

"All I could see was this blond mass of fur, snapping his teeth, grunting and coming towards me," Blume said at the time. He often runs bear-encounter scenarios through his mind so he can practice responses. He had "Roscoe," his .44-caliber Magnum, at the ready. The bear, about 8 or 9 feet tall in Blume's estimation, was standing on hind legs 30 feet away.

Blume didn't move, make a sound or pull the trigger. He knew one shot was all he might get. If a bad one, he'd be through.

The bear dropped to all fours and pounced on the ground. It bluffed a charge and, as quickly as it had shown up, turned and walked calmly back into the brush.

Blume, 56, and a buddy were fishing on the creek near the bridge on Friday evening, one of the few times he's gotten out this year.

"There's bear sign all over the place up here," he said by cell phone. "There's dead fish and bear (scat) everywhere."

Except for Bosch, no one is known to have been charged near the creek this summer, said Jesse Coltrane, the assistant area wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
A man in a vehicle on Campbell Airstrip Road, which crosses both the North and South forks of Campbell Creek, apparently irritated a bear late last month.

The man was stopped near the North Fork when a grizzly no more than 20 feet away "huffed and stomped" in his direction in a show of force, Coltrane said.

A few weeks ago, a brown bear on a moose kill near the upper Spencer Loop Trail in Hillside Park, close to the Campbell's South Fork, "walked in the direction of several groups of people," she said.

On June 30, about the time red salmon started moving up the waterway, Sinnott put up a large sign on the trail beside the North Fork where it flows under Campbell Airstrip Road, warning that bears had been seen there. He added more warnings to the sign two weeks later.

Bosch, the sportfish biologist, said kings were running in both forks of Campbell Creek, though mostly in the South Fork, in above-average numbers this summer. As of July 13, some 755 were counted in the South Fork, 125 in the North Fork, he said.

Red salmon ran pretty much at average numbers, he said -- a total of 650, almost all of them in the North Fork, through July 13.

Silvers will start running next month and continue deep into the fall.

Mike McGovney, an owner of the Tudor Road tackle shop World Wide Angler, got a bad case of the willies recently when he went alone to the stream for some after-work fishing.

"The North Fork is about the bear-iest place I've ever fished," McGovney said. "Every gravel bar I stepped on had a bear track on top of the human track. There is every kind of bear sign."

The narrow creek twists often on itself through the brush. A person standing on its bank in many places can't see farther than 15 feet in any direction, according to McGovney.

"It's all up close and personal," he said. "There are places a little higher (upstream) where it opens up a bit, but it still stays in 5-foot-tall grass, 6-feet-tall grass."

On his recent visit to the North Fork, McGovney sensed the bruins, he said.

"I've had a few feelings on rivers where the bears are close by. That was one of them. I fished for about 15 minutes and just got an eerie feeling." He left.

"I've fished all the Parks Highway streams and down on the Kenai Peninsula, and I'm more comfortable fishing those than that little stream," McGovney added.

Bears have been sighted this summer at the Alaska Botanical Garden, but only black bears, Anita Williams, the assistant horticulturalist, said Friday. Generally, bears are seen at or near the gardens two or three times a month, she said.

"Considering where we are, it's not that frequent," she said. "We have some warning signs that say you have to be careful, because it does scare the snot out of people. But most of the time, they're (the bears) just passing through."

Passing through the Botanical Garden on Friday were Jim and Janet Graff of Lexington, Ky. They were enjoying the last day of a weeklong visit to Alaska, they said.

Over the past week, the Graffs had mostly sat in a small tour van traveling the state. They saw a lot, including a grizzly in Denali National Park and Preserve, but almost all of it was from the seat of their pants. Now they were on foot, walking on the Lowenfels Family Nature Trail, which loops through the spruce, birch and alder woods between the gardens and the North Fork.

They had stopped at the North Fork and seen lots of fish, Jim Graff said. They were pestered by mosquitoes. And without knowing any of the history of Campbell Creek, they were thinking of bears.

"All the time we've been walking, we think, 'This is a good place to see a bear,' " Janet said. "We don't want to see one near. We'd like to see it just far enough away to take a picture," she said.

"I wouldn't go in there to view bears, because you can't see very far," Sinnott said.

"We made lots of noise. We gave them warning. We were clapping our hands, saying, 'Hey, bear!' ... I wouldn't go in there just on a whim, and if you have to go in there to fish, make sure you're prepared to meet a bear."

Daily News reporter Peter Porco can be reached at pporco@adn.com or 257-4582.

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