Even bear experts can be startled.
In Wrangell, the cause for a grin is a bear 073014 OUTDOORS 1 Capital City Weekly Even bear experts can be startled.

James Brooks | Ccw

A young black bear seeks shelter from the rain in the branches of a tree next to the viewing deck Friday, July 25 at Anan Creek Wildlife Observatory.

James Brooks | Ccw

James Brooks | Ccw

James Brooks | Ccw

James Brooks | Ccw

James Brooks | Ccw

James Brooks | Ccw

James Brooks | Ccw

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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Story last updated at 7/30/2014 - 11:15 pm

In Wrangell, the cause for a grin is a bear

Even bear experts can be startled.

On July 25, the guest presenters at this year's Wrangell Bearfest walked through the woods of Anan Wildlife Observatory and came face-to-snout with a black bear sow and her cub.


"Hey bear!"

"What - look, there's a cub, too!"

The cub clambered up a tree, briefly peeking around its trunk at the strangers before running after mom, who disappeared into the forest along the narrow visitor boardwalk.

Visitors might have flocked to Wrangell to hear from the experts, but the area's bears are still the stars of the five-day festival.

Bears rarely come into Wrangell proper, but the area is known for its four-legged inhabitants thanks to Anan Wildlife Observatory located 31 miles south of town. Each year, thousands of tourists cycle through the observatory, 60 per day, to get a close-up glimpse of black and brown bears feeding in Anan Creek.

"For accessibility and availability, nothing touches Anan," explained Bearfest founder Sylvia Ettefagh.

Ettefagh, who runs Alaska Vistas tour company with husband John Verhey, launched Bearfest as a way to boost tourism to Wrangell. "What's the thing that everybody thinks about Alaska?" she asked, then rattled off a few answers: bears, whales and glaciers.

Wrangell has LeConte glacier nearby, but other Alaska glaciers are more photogenic or easier to get to. Sitka and Glacier Bay are already known for whale watching.

That left bears. "What we do have is Anan," she said.

Anan Creek is home to one of Southeast Alaska's largest pink salmon runs and was long exploited for commercial fishing. About half a mile from the ocean is a set of waterfalls. Under normal conditions, salmon can hurl themselves upstream with few problems. When water is high, however, the fish can't swim against the current.

They stack up in pools beneath the falls, forming a phalanx seemingly thick enough to walk across.

To hungry bears, this is a dinner table without comparison. Black bears and brown bears gather at the waterfall, eating side by side in a spectacle like few others in Alaska.

The Forest Service, which controls the land along the creek, has long recognized that tourists are attracted to bears as much as bears are attracted to salmon.

To control the upstream flow of tourists, the Forest Service built a raised boardwalk and fenced viewing decks, then capped the number of visitors per day.

In 1995, Wrangell's sawmill closed just as the salmon industry entered one of its intermittent downturns. With its two main industries on the decline, Wrangell looked to tourism. Ettefagh and others started tour companies and began boosting Wrangell as a destination.

Bearfest is only one aspect of that campaign, but it's one that seems to be working.

The five-day event includes academic lectures, bear safety training, kids games, Tlingit dances, running races, music, photo workshops and raffles - a range designed to have something for every possible visitor.

During this year's Bearfest, the fifth, Wrangell's hotels and bed-and-breakfasts were sold out and tickets to Anan were hard to come by.

The town's cab drivers, on the other hand, seemed to think there's still room for improvement - they didn't see much difference in business.

Bearfest runs on a shoestring budget of about $37,000 - and about two-thirds of that consists of volunteer labor and donated items, Ettefagh said.

"To bring the researchers here is all donated (Alaska Airlines) miles ... and that's how we do it," she said.

If the bears are the main act of Bearfest, those researchers represent an important supporting cast.

This year's Bearfest topic, "Bears and People," attracted experts from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, Park Service, professors and researchers.

"For them, it's a chance to talk to the public," Ettefagh said.

There are plenty of bear research conferences around the world, but Bearfest is geared toward the public. This year's theme, said lecturer Lance Craighead, is one that will become increasingly important as the Earth's climate warms. People and bears will increasingly compete for the same space, and bear encounters will become more common.

"If bears are going to continue to thrive," he said, "we're going to have to learn to be more tolerant."

Ketchikan artist Ray Troll - who designed the Bearfest poster and T-shirt - explained how his encounters with bears have shaped his art. On Bearfest's first day, retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist John Hechtel explained the psychology behind what happens when a bear meets a human on a forested trail.

In those cases, he said, it's important to carry a deterrent - but the most important thing you carry is your brain.

"Calm, assertive energy, standing your ground and talking is better than almost anything you can do," he said. "The bear doesn't know what you're saying and it doesn't matter what you're saying, but it will understand your tone.

Each bear is different, however. "They're not interchangeable fur units," he said.

Simple anecdotal rules like "if it's brown, go down; if it's black, fight back" don't tell the whole story. A young bear might be scared off with a step toward it. Playing dead in a casual encounter might end with a bear gnawing on your leg.

"That's what you've got to understand; there's no magic one thing that's always going to work," he said.

Instead of backing away from a pushy bear following you on a trail, stand up to it by banging pots or making noise. Back away from a defensive bear. Fight a predatory bear aggressively. Stand your ground against a curious bear.

Among those listening to Hechtel speak in Wrangell's Nolan Center was Pack Creek bear guide Ken Leghorn. Though Leghorn had more experience than most in the audience, he said Bearfest is a valuable resource. "For me, it's a massive dose of education."

The chance to take in a bunch of information - and have fun doing it - is too much to pass up, he said, and he only expects Bearfest to grow.

"It's one of those small-town Alaska events that takes a few years to build momentum," he said. "I think if Wrangell keeps investing, there should be people from all over Alaska, all over the Yukon and Canada, too."