The surveillance cameras at Hilltop Ski Area in Anchorage, Alaska, caught an unexpected prowler recently. “It was a big grizzly. He walked all around the chalet,” said operations manager Rick Cramer.
Cramer said bears had been poking around the on-site caretaker’s cabin, where he lives.
The ski area is waiting for more snow and the right temperatures before opening to the public. But the management is playing it safe. “We’ve put up signs at the chalet and the trail head for the cross-country skiers,” Cramer said.
Cramer took a picture of his size 9 boot next to a giant paw print. The Hilltop bruin isn’t the only bear up and about in the vicinity. John Hemeter has spotted the tracks of at least four different bears on nearby Hillside trails while doing early-season grooming for the Nordic Ski Association of Anchorage. That’s a lot, he said.
“I’ve done preseason up here for the past three or four years,” he said, “and I’m usually watching out for that sort of thing. I’ve never seen them like this, to find them in two different parts of the park on two different days.”
Bear tracks have been reported at Conversation Corner, on the Spencer Loop and the North Gasline trail. Hemeter said he’s found one set of small tracks, probably a black bear, one pairing of large and small tracks, which he thinks were made by a brown bear sow and cub, and one set of huge prints from a really big brownie.
The last one, on the Double Bubble trail, just north of Hilltop, got his attention.
“We’re using these old three-wheelers, just rolling the snow right now, packing it on the ground for early-season work,” he said. “I’m thinking: Man, I couldn’t go fast enough to get away.”
Holly Brooks, the Olympic skier and Alaska Pacific University coach, skied on the Hillside trails on an early November morning and was spooked to learn later about the bear.
Bears are an ongoing concern in the summer and fall, she said, but when the snow falls, it’s easy to forget they may still be up. “Usually I have a false sense of security in the winter when I’m skiing,” she said. “It’s a little disconcerting to know that [the bear is] out there and hasn’t gone to sleep yet.”
Fish and Game biologist Jessy Coltrane was not surprised to hear of bears postponing their winter nap. “It may seem like winter outside, but it’s really the end of bear season,” she said.
By the end of October, most black bears should be in their dens, she said. “But they may linger on until early November.”
Brown bears may stay out longer. Sows and cubs go into hibernation first, she said, “but we’ve had collared boars that stay up until around Thanksgiving.”
Homeowners near bear habitat in and around Chugach State Park should continue to take care with their garbage, she said. “And I’d hold off on the bird feeders for a while.”
But not for much longer. “If we get another cold snap and with the snow,” she said, “that should drive the rest of them off into dens.”
Meanwhile, early-season skiers on wooded trails should remain bear-aware. “It’s the woods,” she stressed. “That’s where they live.”
Hemeter agreed. The snow cover is rudimentary, but it’s enough to get some enthusiasts out on rock skis, and they might run into more trouble than a few bare patches.
“You’d better watch out,” he said.