Escape: The close call was in an overgrown area of Far North Bicentennial Park
Doug O'Harra / Anchorage Daily News / August 25, 2005
Gary Paterna was walking his dog down an overgrown trail in the woods southeast of his Chugach Foothills neighborhood Tuesday evening when a heart-stopping roar erupted behind him.
"I hadn't taken one or two steps when the bear burst out of the brush," he said Wednesday. "It charged down and then it stopped."
It was a grizzly sow, with at least one cub, and it growled upon finding a human so close to its offspring. The encounter was near the boundary of Far North Bicentennial Park, perhaps 1,200 yards from suburban homes and lawns off the Tudor-Muldoon curve.
"What I remember was just how big the head was -- it seemed enormous," Paterna said later. "I was scared. I took another couple steps backward and then it hit me."
The bear swatted his chest and knocked him to the ground so fast that Paterna later wasn't quite sure how it happened. But the dog, a 9-year-old Brittany spaniel named Tok, drew the bear's attention.
The bear pounced on the dog, giving Paterna time to leap to this feet. He saw Tok trapped between the bear's paws and started to back away. He didn't get far.
Twice more, the bear knocked him down. Twice more the dog's presence seemed to interrupt the attack.
"Each time she hit me, it was a matter of backing off and snarling, and it was fast," he said. "More like a body check -- she'd hit me, knock me down and back off quickly."
After the third hit, the bear bolted up the trail, allowing Paterna and Tok to run for the Klutina Drive trail head, where he warned other hikers and called 911.
The 60-year-old grandfather of five suffered scrapes and a sore hip where he'd fallen -- plus five distinct claw marks and a purple bruise across his chest.
And Tok, the dog who didn't flee when his master was attacked, didn't appear hurt at all.
"It's great to be alive," said Paterna, a former air traffic specialist who organizes schedules for a tour company. "It is just super."
The bear apparently tried to neutralize a threat to its cubs and then flee -- normal behavior for a surprised sow, said assistant area biologist Jessy Coltrane with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. She posted a sign at the trail head warning people about the attack.
The incident should remind people that both brown and black bears roam the Chugach Mountains foothills, especially near the North Fork of Campbell Creek and its run of spawning salmon, she said.
Last September, a resident from the same neighborhood shot and killed a brown bear that charged him along the popular Tank Trail, several hundred yards north of the most recent attack. That bear had been feeding on a moose carcass.
"We just urge people to use common sense where they're walking and make a lot of noise," Coltrane said. "If a bear physically makes contact with you in a defensive attack, the best thing is to stay put and not move."
Of course, she said, that's easier said than done.
You got that right, Paterna said.
"I'll tell you straight up, it's a lot to ask when you see the jaws above you," he said. "We were pretty much face-to-face. I thought, 'Here it comes -- she's going to chew on me.' But she backed off."
Paterna has lived on Resurrection Drive with his family for 26 years and walked the same trails countless times. On Wednesday, he marveled at his lack of serious injuries. His left arm was already in a cast, broken from a bike accident earlier in the summer, but it didn't get yanked further by the encounter.
During the first charge, he thinks, he brandished his telescoping walking stick but the bear batted it away. At some point, he grabbed a little canister of pepper spray, but he couldn't release the trigger in time.
Paterna said he plans to carry a larger can of bear spray in the future ---- and practice firing it. And he will avoid overgrown trails with poor visibility.
The bear left him with a souvenir of the encounter: a muddy paw print on his old T-shirt from a 1995 racquetball tournament.
"It's got a beautiful claw mark," Paterna said. "I think I'm going to get that one framed."
Daily News reporter Doug O'Harra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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