FAIRBANKS — It was 12-year-old Pearl Wyatt who saw the bear when it returned for the third time.
“There he is,” she said loud enough for her father, Chris Wyatt, who was packing up camp, to hear.
Pearl and 10-year-old brother Eli, along with their mother, Alina Wyatt, were standing lookout on a talus slope above him as Chris hurriedly disassembled their camp.
The bear, a sizable grizzly, had visited the family twice in the hour or so since they had set up camp near the top of the Table Top Mountain Trail in the White Mountains National Recreation Area north of Fairbanks on Aug. 17, a Saturday.
The first time, just a few minutes after they had set up camp, Alina had spotted the bear.
“We had just got some macaroni boiled up for macaroni and cheese and my wife saw the bear approaching from the east, coming down from the very top of the trail,” Chris said.
The family’s two loose huskies, Holly and Mistletoe, spotted the bear, too, and gave chase.
“They met the bear about halfway down the rock slope and the bear turned around and all three of them disappeared over the top,” Chris said.
He took the pot off the stove and was getting ready to investigate when the two excited canines returned. The bear was nowhere in sight.
“We thought that was going to be the end of that,” Chris said. “The bear’s seen us and got scared away.”
After getting a late start, the family had started hiking up the trail about 5 p.m.
The Table Top Mountain Trail, located about 50 miles north of Fairbanks on Nome Creek Road 10 miles off the Steese Highway, is one of their favorite hikes.
It’s not too far out of town, but it’s far enough to make you feel like you’re in the wilderness. At only 3 miles, it’s short enough for the kids to handle but still climbs above tree line and offers spectacular views of the White Mountains. It’s also prime berry picking country.
“We spent the night up there this time last year with another family and had a real good time,” Chris said. “You kind of have the place to yourself.”
As they hiked up the trail, they took mental notes where the thickest berry patches were located so they could return on Sunday to fill their buckets.
Twenty minutes after the dogs had chased the bear off, it was back.
“This time, he was coming from the south,” Chris said. “He had circled us out of sight 90 degrees.”
The fact that the bear returned was not a good sign, both he and Alina knew. They are both geologists who have spent enough time outdoors to know this wasn’t typical bear behavior.
“My wife and I knew this was a different game now,” Chris said.
The bear was only about 50 yards away and closing. At one point, when it was about 20 or 30 yards away, the bear stood up on its hind legs to get a better look.
“I’m six feet, and he was bigger than me,” Chris said.
Chris, 45, told his wife and children to climb up a talus slope behind him so they could get a better view of the bear while he stayed in camp.
“I started making noise and held my pack above my head to look big,” he said.
The bear continued to come closer, and it was at that point that Chris decided to fire a warning shot with the .44-caliber handgun he was carrying.
“I fired a shot over his head, and he didn’t even flinch,” Chris said.
The grizzly continued to come closer as the family continued to yell and make noise. Then, for whatever reason, the bear turned and headed back in the direction it had come from.
At that point, both Chris and Alina decided it was time to pack up camp.
“The second time it came back we said, ‘OK, we’re not staying here,’ ” Alina said.
Chris started packing up camp — “Just cramming stuff in bags,” he said — while Alina and the children kept a lookout for the bear.
“I gave them each 180 degrees to watch,” Alina said. “I said, ‘You look this way and you look this way.’ ”
Even at that point, the situation wasn’t all that scary, she said. The bear hadn’t acted aggressively. It hadn’t charged them. It seemed more curious than anything else.
“It was more like a stray dog than it was a bear,” Alina said. “It just kept coming back. The fact it came back from a different direction each time it came back was a little unsettling.”
Chris started ferrying gear up to Alina to pack into her backpack and tearing down camp as the kids kept watch. Not wanting the bear to get a taste of any human food, Chris even packed up the macaroni they had boiled and the water they used to boil it by pouring it in their berry containers.
“Just as we get it all packed up and I’m getting ready to put my pack on, my daughter says, ‘There he is,’ ” Chris said. “That’s not what I wanted to hear.”
This time, the bear was coming from the west. It was about 100 yards away, moving toward the family.
“Let’s go,” Chris told his wife and children.
Before leaving, he fired another warning shot at the bear. But, like the first one, it had no effect on the bear.
The bear was coming down the trail, so Chris decided to go straight down a hill that intercepted the trail and would put them farther ahead of the bear. They headed down through thick brush with what Chris figured was a 200- to 300-yard lead on the bear. The kids had the dogs on leashes.
Chris figured the bear was going to check out our their camping spot to see if there was anything to eat, but that wasn’t the case. Instead, the bear continued following the family down the trail. They could see the bear through thick brush coming toward them.
“He was moving fast in our direction and there were no trees up where he was so you could see a long way,” Chris said. “I said, ‘Man, this bear doesn’t get it.’ ”
When Chris caught up to his wife and children, he told them to continue down the trail while he stopped and pulled a second ammunition clip out of his pack. He also decided to let the dogs off their leashes, thinking if they chased the bear off once they might do it again. Chris was unhooking one of the dogs and adjusting its pack when he heard his wife scream.
“I turned around to say something to him, and it was right behind him,” Alina said. “I just screamed.”
Chris whipped around and saw the bear coming down the trail toward him. It was moving fast, as if it wasn’t looking where it was going. The bear stopped when it heard the family making noise and appeared surprised, he said. At that point, the bear was only about five yards away.
“By the time we saw him and he saw us, he was that close,” Chris said.
The bear didn’t charge or act aggressively.
“He turned around real fast for a split second and stepped off the trail looking at us,” Chris said.
He told his wife to head for the trailhead with the children. A frightened Alina hustled the kids down the trail.
“I turned around and told the kids, ‘Go, go,’” she said.
While the grizzly hadn’t necessarily acted aggressively, its behavior, he knew from training classes he had taken, was strange enough to give him concern.
“I kept trying to give him the benefit of the doubt, but how do you know when (the bear’s behavior) transitions to aggression?” he said. “He kept coming back and kept coming back.”
Deciding he’d had enough, Chris pulled out his .44 and fired two shots at the bear.
“I shot at it once, and it moved a few more feet to my left, and I shot at it again,” he said. “The second time I shot, it made this weird turn, and I thought maybe I hit it.
“I’d never shot a bear before and didn’t know what to expect,” he said.
Alina heard the two shots as she was hustling down the trail with a 50-plus pound pack trying to keep up with her frightened children.
“I yelled back and said, ‘Are you there?’” she said.
“Yep,” Chris responded.
The bear, however, was gone, having disappeared into the brush after the second shot.
“That was it,” he said. “We never saw it again.”
When they reached their truck at the trailhead, it was getting dark. They scribbled a note about an aggressive bear on the trail and pinned it to the bulletin board before driving down the road to the Mount Prindle Campground in hopes of finding a Bureau of Land Management ranger to report it. Not finding one, they drove back to Fairbanks.
The next day, Sunday, Chris called both BLM and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to report the incident but got recordings at both agencies. He ended up calling Alaska State Troopers, who put him in contact with BLM Ranger John Priday.
The ranger checked the trail Sunday after speaking with Chris and didn’t find any sign of the bear but still closed the trail based on Wyatt’s report. Priday returned to the scene with Chris on Tuesday and found some flagging Chris had tied to the stump near where he shot the bear. They searched the area in the rain but found no sign of the bear or that a bear had been killed or wounded, such as a blood trail or birds scavenging a carcass.
Priday praised Chris and his wife for doing an “exemplary job” in dealing with the bear, noting that they packed all their food out even though the situation was tense, left a note at the trailhead warning people about the bear and called it into troopers as soon as they got back to town.
While the bear never displayed any real aggression, Priday said its behavior was “concerning” and that Chris had cause to consider it a dangerous situation.
“It wasn’t afraid of warning shots. It wasn’t afraid of attempts to haze it. It was intent on interacting with them, and that would have concerned me,” the ranger said.
Whether it was the same bear that uprooted a pair of bear-proof garbage cans at the Ophir Creek Campground a couple miles down the road in June is impossible to tell, Priday said. Nobody ever saw that bear, but it was a sizable grizzly based on tracks found on the road.
“It’s definitely possible,” he said.
Alina said the bear seemed more interested in their food than them.
“I don’t think he wanted to eat us,” she said. “I think he wanted people food.”
Both Chris and Alina praised their children for their courage in what was a scary ordeal. They did what they were told, didn’t panic, kept the dogs under control and helped pack up camp.
“They were really solid and helpful,” their father said.
The worst part, Alina said, is that they went home without any blueberries.
“That was the whole point of going up there,” she said. “We didn’t get any berries.”
Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.