By Jenny Neyman
Richard White, of San Diego, was killed by a grizzly bear in Denali National Park on Aug. 25. He was backpacking off the road near the Toklat River. He wasn’t carrying a gun or pepper spray. His camera was recovered and showed that he had been photographing a bear next to the river. The last few shots show the bear looking up from what appears to be a meal, looking straight at White, and heading toward him.
Bloody evidence of a violent scene was found by other hikers later that afternoon. White was a regular hiker in the wilderness, had been to Denali before, was 49 years old, married and had a young daughter.
The U.S. Park Service estimates White may have been 50 yards or less from the bear, far under the recommended 300-yard distance visitors are told to keep from bears. It’s the first fatal bear mauling in more than 90 years of the 6-million-acre park’s record.
I list these facts in random haphazardness, rather than trying to string them into a narrative that presumes to makes sense of White’s death. Attempting an explanation is mere speculation. No one knows what, exactly, happened. It’s easy to blame White — he shouldn’t have been so close, or he shouldn’t have lingered to take pictures, or he should have had a firearm or bear spray.
All those things are true, but whether changing any of those factors would have saved his life, no one will ever know. Sometimes in the wilderness of Alaska, bad things happen to people doing things as well as they possibly can.
More often, bad things happen to people who make a slight error or have a temporary, minor-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things lapse of judgment. Most often of all, people demonstrate downright stupidity and escape the possible consequences completely unscathed, maybe not even realizing just how dumb they and their luck has been.
They go boating in glacial-fed waters without a life jacket. They set off for a hike in late afternoon without warm clothing, a first-aid kit or other supplies, without telling anyone where they’re going or when they expect to be back. They leave a stringer of fish on a riverbank in bear country and wade back out into the water for a few more casts.
I was visiting with an area resident recently who mentioned her experience getting lost in the woods of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. She still cringes with mortification over the whole ordeal, so I won’t identify her. Suffice it to say, this is someone who is very familiar with the area, very experienced in the outdoors and not lacking in knowledge, good sense or skills.
In other words, someone who “shouldn’t” have gotten lost. Rather than jumping on the easy bandwagon of poking fun or getting puffed up in a fit of high and mighty, I silently cringed in my own mortification at the thought of some of the things I “shouldn’t” have done.
Though I prefer not to admit it, I all-too-regularly make poor choices, exactly the kinds for which I would berate my friends, acquaintances and even complete strangers.
Sure, I was sure.
And yet, nothing significantly bad happened to me, during that outing or any other. In the overall ledger of safety, I do more things right than wrong. We all can get lazy in our safety precautions from time to time, and we all need to heed reminders of why it’s so important to not do so. In backcountry Alaska, so many things can go wrong, even to someone doing everything right.
The path to safety lies in realizing that just because everything turns out all right does not mean there were not wrong turns that should be corrected the next time.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go hiking. Yes, Dad, I put fresh batteries in my headlamp.
Jenny Neyman is a reporter and editor for the Redoubt Reporter.
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