FAIRBANKS — Holding her walking stick in one hand and a bottle of natural insect repellent in the other, Alyson Jones-Robinson wished she had a gun.
There was a grizzly bear standing only a few feet in front of her, snapping its teeth and growling at her and her two nieces, 13 and 9, who were huddled behind her, as was her husky, Rowyn.
“It was a very surreal experience,” 43-year-old Jones-Robinson said on Friday, a day after the ordeal. “All I could think about was this bear is
so close to me I can see its teeth. I could have kissed it. I wished I had a gun.”
The bear, which confronted Jones-Robinson and the two girls as they were hiking the 15-mile Granite Tors Trail in the Chena River State Recreation Area about 40 miles east of Fairbanks on Thursday, wasn’t a large one — probably a 2- or 3-year-old that Jones-Robinson estimated weighed between 100 and 200 pounds — but it was big enough and acting aggressively enough that she knew it was trouble.
“I’m 5-foot-5, and it came up to my chest,” she said, describing the size of the bear.
It already had bluff charged the group several times after they encountered it on the trail about five miles from the trailhead at 39.5 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road. It definitely wasn’t afraid of them, Jones-Robinson said.
“It was terrifying,” she said. “On a scale of one to 10, it was above a 10. My adrenaline was going so fast all I could think of was getting the kids and dog to safety.
“I told the girls if the bear attacked me to take the dog and don’t look back, to get off the mountain and go until they found somebody,” Jones-Robinson said.
One bear or two?
After camping out on the trail Wednesday, Jones-Robinson and her nieces, who are visiting from Washington state, were hiking to the trailhead early Thursday afternoon when the bear appeared in front of them. Jones-Robinson told the girls to run back up the trail to get away while she confronted the bear.
“It was kind of trotting around me, and then it would charge and growl,” said Jones-Robinson, an English professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “It charged, and I used my bear spray when it was about four feet away and then I fell with my pack on and dropped the bear spray.”
The bear retreated for a moment but then came back and began circling Jones-Robinson, who took her pack off and threw a package of macaroni and cheese at the bear hoping to distract it.
That’s when she heard the girls yelling back on the trail.
“As it circled around me, I heard the girls yell, ‘There’s another one. There’s another bear up here,’” Jones-Robinson said.
She told the girls to drop their packs where they were and come back to her. The first bear, meanwhile, still was circling Jones-Robinson. She fumbled into the dog’s pack for the bottle of Natrapel, a natural mosquito repellent she uses because she’s allergic to traditional bug dope.
When the bear tried to bite her dog, Jones-Robinson smacked it in the head with her walking stick. The girls had returned by now and were cowering behind their aunt, as was the dog.
“It charged again, and I hit it over the head and held out my bug spray like this,” Jones-Robinson said, brandishing the bottle of Natrapel in front of her. “I hit it like three or four times.”
The dog, meanwhile, tried to attack the bear each time it charged, adding to the chaos.
“I had to hold her back the whole time,” Jones-Robinson said.
Not over yet
After what seemed like an eternity but really was only a matter of a minute or two, the bear finally retreated and the frightened hikers continued toward the trailhead with Jones-Robinson carrying her broken walking stick and bottle of insect repellent.
But the ordeal wasn’t over yet. The bear followed the hikers for about a mile, bluff charging them several more times before it finally wandered off.
“It was like a shark in the water,” she said. “It would circle around and circle around and then rush us and snap its teeth and growl.
“Every time it rushed, it would rush at my nieces,” she said. “I was basically walking backward and forward swinging my walking stick trying to anticipate charges.”
The two girls, who Jones-Robinson declined to name, “were troupers,” she said.
“They did everything they were trained to do,” Jones-Robinson said, noting that the girls did bear poses to make themselves look bigger. “My youngest niece was really scared. Even though she was crying and upset the whole time she didn’t do any high-pitched squeals.
“At one point, my oldest niece took off in the woods to lead the bear away from my youngest niece,” she said.
Jones-Robinson only sprayed it with mosquito repellent one time, which she said had no effect on the bear, but she credits the bottle for helping hold the bear at bay, possibly because she hit it with bear spray early in the encounter.
“It knew I had something in my hand that would spray it,” she said. “I think that’s what kept it from coming any closer.”
Jones-Robinson got the feeling the bear was sizing her and the girls up.
“I don’t know if it was bluff charging or ascertaining our ability,” she said. “I think it was ascertaining whether I was a predator that it could handle. It knew it had to get through me first.”
Jones-Robinson never did see a second bear, which the girls told her was smaller than the other one, but she has no reason to believe there wasn’t a second bear.
Trail still open
State park ranger Dane Happ, who spoke to Jones-Robinson by phone Thursday after the incident, suspects the bear or bears that accosted the hikers are one or both of the same cubs that were seen with a sow along the trail and in the campground at the trailhead last year.
“I’m wondering if this is related,” Happ said. “I wonder if this bear is one of the cubs that got kicked away by its mom.”
The trail remains open and park rangers on Friday were in the process of putting up signs to alert hikers of the situation, Happ said.
Anyone hiking the trail should be bear aware, the ranger said. Happ recommended hiking in groups and making lots of noise to alert bears. If camping, keep a clean camp and keep food away from the campsite, he said.
Happ advised against leaving backpacks or food behind if confronted by a bear because it habituates them to humans. Once a bear gets food from a backpack, it conditions them to think all backpacks contain food, the ranger said.
“It sounds like this one is getting habituated,” Happ said.
When they finally reached the trailhead a couple hours after the confrontation, Jones-Robinson said her adrenaline was still pumping.
“When I got down off the mountain I collapsed,” she said. “I was overwhelmed.”
Their ordeal wasn’t over.
When they got to the trailhead a couple hours later, Jones-Robinson and the girls had to hitch a ride to Chena Hot Springs Resort because the keys to their car were in her backpack, which was 5 miles back up the trail, and their spare key was locked inside the car. They had to hire a locksmith to open the car.
Jones-Robinson still was having a hard time comprehending the whole thing Friday.
“If somebody had told me I would hold off one or possibly two bears with a walking stick and a can of natural insect repellent I would have told them they were crazy, but you do what you gotta do,” she said. “I wasn’t going to let that bear eat my dog and I definitely wasn’t going to let it eat my nieces.”
Which might explain why Jones-Robinson went out and bought a gun Friday.
Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.