Alaska Adventure Machine!

Alaska Adventure Machine!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Furballs and Firearms

Several folks have asked me about the pistol they have seen in my photographs, and why it was needed? It is a bit difficult to explain this to folks who have not spent much time in the Alaskan bush. To an Alaskan having a firearm is quite normal, even expected.  Alaska is a huge area with few roads and towns. Wildlife truly abounds here. They are a special part of the Alaskan experience. One routinely sees bears, wolves, moose, caribou. In an area 2 1/2 times the size of Texas, spanning 1,480 miles by 810 miles, one is always in Nature's backyard.
Bear encounters are routine in Alaska. In fact, at my field project this summer, we had encounters on a near daily basis for a month. Air horns generally scare them off and all personnel carry pepper spray.  Scientists, Fish and Game personnel and geologists routinely carry a firearm in the field. I personally know a geologist that was severely mauled by a grizzly bear in 2010. I have also met another geologist that nearly lost his life in a bear attack.

Paranoia about bear attacks is not useful. Proper precautions with food handling, food storage and bear awareness in brushy areas is all that is normally needed. Pepper spray is very effective. In one study of 176 encounters where bear spray was used, only three people had injuries; and those injured only had scratches with no fatalities to humans or the bears.

Now a can of pepper spray is not as assuring as packing a big 'ole gun on one's hip, that's for sure! So most Alaskans carry a magnum-sized caliber pistol, assuming they don't already have a shotgun with slugs along too. Shotguns are the first choice,  though not as convenient nor handy while working in the brush. Statistically firearms are not a better choice than bear spray. In 269 close-quarter encounters using a firearm, 151 people were still injured (some killed) by the bear and 172 bears killed. Handguns actually were slightly better at stopping the the bear's aggression than rifles, 84 versus 76.

So if handguns are less effective than bear spray, why did I find myself pedaling along with a massive .44 magnum pistol in my handlebar bag? Was this some Clint Eastwood "Dirty Harry" fantasy on my part?! Wolves, that is why.

These photos were taken from the inside of my work truck just 10 days before I started my bike ride. These three wolves were totally unafraid and surrounded my truck. The two projects I have worked in the Brooks Range have both had very active wolf packs in the area. At both locations wolves came through camp routinely. At camp closing day, 3 days before my ride, there were two wolves spotted down at our dirt airstrip. A single can of bear spray would not fend off several wolves intent on getting you. In some historical accounts people have been killed by large packs, even while armed. In one incident the remains of the person was surrounded by 16 wolves he had killed in defense before dying himself. A coworker of mine has seen a massive pack of nearly 60 wolves near our unoccupied project camp in winter, during an aerial reconnaissance.

A few selected wolf encounters:

2006 A wolf chases a bicyclist down the Dalton Highway; before being run over by a trucker, saving the cyclist
2006 A wolf bit a woman near the Arctic Circle on the Dalton Highway
2006 A group of bus tourists were approached by a wolf on the Dalton Highway
2006 Motorcyclist was chased by a wolf on Dalton Highway
2010 Jogger killed by two wolves in Alaska
2012 Snowmobile rider attacked by wolf in Alaska
2013 In two separate incidents cyclists were attacked by wolves and rescued by motorists in Canada
2014 Female snowshoe hiker and her 4 dogs attacked by lone wolf in Alaska

This is not a rant about how we ought to be exterminating wolves, especially in the western USA. I find wolves and bears an interesting and necessary part of the ecosystem. Just be prepared if you go into their backyard...

For the touring cyclist or backpacker in Alaska,  I'd recommend a lightweight handgun with 2 clips of ammo for wolf protection. Also bring along a small air horn and bear spray for the bears. You'll sleep well at night then!

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