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Hal and the Three Bears
By Hal Shepherd
This story unfolded almost 2 years ago, but some folks have asked me to share it to promote bear spray rather than lethal methods as a means of bear deterrent. Used correctly, bear spray can work out better for both the humans and bears involved. I am sharing it now, as the bears are again waking up.
In August 2020 my wife Jessica and I took a water taxi to Humpy Creek, on the south side of Kachemak Bay, with plans to fish and stay overnight in one of the yurts available in the State Park. The taxi dropped us off in the late morning at the mouth of the creek and we schlepped our gear the quarter of a mile to the yurt. When we approached the yurt, we notice the folks who rented it the night before were still inside waiting out the rain and we had a nice chat. As part of the conversation, they mentioned a black bear hanging around the yurt that seemed mostly harmless and a brown bear sow and 2 cubs further up the creek.
After we got settled in, we decided to go for a hike along the Humpy Creek/Grewingk Glacier trail and at the trail head next to the creek, we came across a young couple (we’ll call them “Joe and Ann”) who were camping there. They had recently moved from Idaho to Eagle River and were down to do some fishing and camping.
While we are talking, Joe said that they had seen a sow brown bear with two cubs near the popular (for both bears and people) "fishing hole" located near the campsite, about ¾ of a mile upstream. But with a flare of confidence, that it didn’t quite fit when sharing a fish-hole teaming with salmon, with a young brown bear cow and her 2 cubs, he casually suggested that this was nothing to be concerned about because "she is just as afraid of us as we were of her."
It was not a big surprise therefore, when later that evening, as we were fishing at the mouth of the creek (where we assumed there would be less bear activity), we heard, “BLAM, BLAM, BLAM!” followed by a brief pause and then, “BLAM, BLAM!” coming from the direction of the campsite. I turned to Jessica and said, "That can't be good," and, in the abundance of caution, we decided to cut off our fishing early and start back to the relative safety of the yurt.
When we got about half-way there, we ran into Joe and Ann, who were headed to the yurt to find us. They reported that while they were fishing at the Hole, the brown bear sow suddenly charged them and Joe had to shoot her several times. Probably because he had only a smaller 45-caliber handgun, she didn’t so much as stumble, but did stop her charge and disappear with her cubs into the trees. When we asked him if he was sure he hit her, his response was that she was so close he could not have missed and was certain that several of the bullets hit her right in the head.
The couple said they were trying to evacuate because they did not want to be camping with a wounded brown bear in the area, but could not get hold of a water taxi, so we invited them to share to the Yurt with us. I used my phone to call one of the Water Taxi services. Because it was after hours, I had to try several times before I finally raising someone who, as I recounted the story, was getting increasingly alarmed and kept saying "oh shit…OH Shit!... OH SHIT!!" So, if the water taxi service with their years of experience with all things Kachemak Bay, was alarmed, I supposed that we should be too and set up a time for them to pick us ALL up. After that, Ann and Joe went back to their camp to pack their gear while we feverishly packed up all of ours to haul back to the beach.
In the meantime, I got a call from the State Parks Ranger, who asked me to describe what happened and then to have Joe and Ann call him. After talking with the ranger, we headed for the pick-up spot all the while keeping watch for any sign of an angry, crazed, wounded bear headed in our direction.
When we all met again at the beach I told Joe about the request to call the ranger and while they talked, we waited for the taxi to arrive. It motored up around 7:15pm and after wading out to it with gear in tow, we clambered aboard and headed back to the Harbor. When we got there, the Parks Ranger and Department of Fish and Game Wildlife biologist were waiting to get Joe and Ann’s statement. They also told me they would probably head out in the next couple of days to look for the bears.
The local news the next day casually reported a possible wounded bear in the area. Then I got an e-mail from the Park Service stating that the yurt and lower creek were still open because it was unlikely the bears would be in that area and it was only the upper creek that was closed. I responded by asking if they had found the bears but they said they could find no sign of them.
Fast forward to a week later. Feeling somewhat disgruntled about cutting short our fishing at Humpy Creek the previous weekend (especially since, at that time, the fish were piling into the creek), and probably being stupid, I decided to return to the creek hoping to get there before the run slowed down and early on a Saturday morning, paddled over by kayak from the beach just down the road from my house and directly across the east end of the Bay from the creek.
As I got closer to the mouth of Humpy Creek, I had a brief moment of panic when it occurred to me that I probably left the bear spray in the car back when Jessica dropped me off. When I beached the boat and got out, however I gave a sigh of relief to find that I did, indeed, have the spray buckled to my waist.
I was forever scanning the horizon to check for any sign of large dark land-dwelling objects moving around in the area and especially, in my direction. After I fished for a while with no luck, around 4:30pm I decided to sit on my kayak, break out the snacks I had brought and wait to see if the fish would eventually come in with the incoming tide. During this time, I was mostly focused on the mouth as the tide came in but occasionally would look around 360 degrees for any sign of bears.
About 20 minutes later, I must have heard something behind me and turned to see three pairs of tell-tale orange-brown, fuzzy ears just peeking out from behind the small knoll I was sitting next to. Upon closer inspection, I saw, not 10 feet away and heading in my direction, the very same sow brown bear, looking very large and surprisingly healthy for having been shot a week before, and two cubs following behind.
They say that when faced with a life-threatening situation, during the next several seconds you don't think, you just react… I was thinking the whole time. My first thought was, "I thought she was dead?!?!?" and my next was, "But the Park Service told me they would not come down this far towards the mouth!?!?"
The bears had not seen me yet. Realizing they would be upon me any second, and for lack of anything better to do, instantly stood up and started yelling at the top of my lungs. This startled them and for a moment the sow turned to run the other way. As she did so, my next thought was, "She’s going to turn around again and charge!" And my next thought after that was, "Remember that the bear spray is tied into the holster so you can't pull it out - you have to unbuckle the belt and pull it off" - which I did… just as she recovered from her initial alarm, transitioned into defending her cubs mode and, when she was about 12 feet from me, turned back and charged.
There was no jaw cracking or huffing and I wouldn't say that she was snarling, but had her ears pricked up so that she appeared more like a really cuddly dog coming up to me to be patted which may have been why (rather than just standing there shitting myself) I was able to stay relatively calm. My next thought as I was looking at the bear spray that was still in the holster I had just pulled off my waist was, "Oh right. This is the one with the safety clip still in it, not the one where the clip fell off, so you'll have to remove that," which I did.
By this time Big Mama who had closed the gap to about seven feet, let out a low growl that sounded something like "Uuuuurrrrrrrgggggghhhh" at which point my thought was, “I’m really screwed.” At six feet, I pointed the bear spray and gave her a full blast right in the face while at the same time letting out what could best be described as a Highland Charge Battle Cry that sounded something like, "Yyyyyyyyhhhhhhaaaaaaaahaa!!!" As I pulled the trigger and watched the orange, brownish spray immediately leave the nozzle to fully engulf the large brown head right in front of me, my next thought was, "Oh good. The bear spray works" (You never know about those damn things until you really need them).
At about four feet she stopped, turned, and ran off with her cubs. At that point I thought, "This was not a bluff charge. She would have connected if it hadn't been for the bear spray." Then I said to myself, "She'll be back." And so, in the next few seconds I went through a kind of Key-Stone Cops scenario, trying to pick up all of the gear and other stuff that was strewn around at once, and shove it and myself into the cockpit of the kayak, all the while, constantly dropping and attempting to pick-up gear again while watching over my shoulder for the next charge.
I’m not sure how long it took, but eventually I miraculously managed to get everything either in or on top of the kayak and myself in it and paddle about 30 feet across the mouth of the creek to the other side all they while saying to myself (in addition to a string of epithets), "You’re not out of the woods yet. Try to calm down!"
After reaching a point on the other side of the mouth that was as far away as I could get from the incident, I began organizing and re-packing gear in order to get in the boat and get out of there. I called Jessica to report what had happened and said, "I'm alright but I'm getting the Hell out of here!" Then I with new found inspiration, paddled back across the Bay (which somehow took a lot less time then the morning trip).
Looking back several days later, in addition to remembering the bear spray, one of the things I may have done right that day was to wear the bright red dry suit I normally have on as a precaution against hypothermia should I unexpectedly end up being dunked in the middle of the Bay by my kayak. Instead, the dry suit may have combined with other factors to save me from death or a severe mauling when from the bears perspective all she could see was a bright red, screaming demon with stinging fire spewing from its limbs.
Regardless, hopefully there is a healthy and happy mother bear with, by now, two full grown cubs roaming the vicinity of Humpy Creek who are fed-up with and therefore, staying away from humans. For me, I now carry bear spray with me were ever I go now…even to mow the lawn.