Photos Taken by Denali Bear Mauling Victim May Hold Clues to Fatal Attack
Photo at left shows Upper Toklat, the area of the mauling. Courtesy Google Earth.
DENALI NATIONAL PARK, Alaska — Investigators may never know why a bear fatally mauled a solo backpacker in Denali National Park on Friday.
But photos taken by the victim, Richard White, 49, of San Diego, may help reconstruct events leading up to the first deadly bear attack in the park’s 95-year history.
White died about three miles south of the Toklat Rest Area where the Toklat River narrows from a braided river into more narrow terrain. The bear responsible was killed on Saturday.
“There are 26 photos,” said Kris Fister, spokeswoman for Denali National Park and Preserve.
It appears that White came across the bear initially from around a corner, about 40 to 50 yards away. The park recommends staying at least 300 yards away from a grizzly.
“We will try to get some better confirmation of distances by going out to the site again and comparing the locations with what is in the photos,” Fister said.
Most of the photos show the bear with its head down, feeding.
“In the last five photos, the bear had lifted its head, noticed the backpacker, perhaps for the first time, and then looked straight at him, and started moving toward him,” she said.
Those last five photos were taken during a period of 13 seconds, she added.
Fister said the 26 photographs, taken over eight minutes, will be shown to bear experts for their interpretation of the bear’s behavior.
“Somebody who knows more would be more keyed into the body language, because the bear is looking directly at him,” she said. “What happened then? We don’t know. Did he try to run? Or just dropped [to the ground]?”
The park advises hikers to curl into a ball on the ground if a grizzly attacks.
It appears from the photos that White might have moved or changed position to get a better angle for a photograph, Fister said.
“It could have been a combination of not moving out of there in a timely fashion,” Fister said. “This might also have been a more aggressive bear.”
The photos are still being used in the investigation, but the park is checking to see whether it can release the photos. The photos may actually belong to the victim’s family, since they were in his camera.
It does not appear that White was carrying bear spray or a firearm. At least, neither was found in his personal effects.
The area, Backcountry Unit 10, and adjacent Units 9, 11, 32 and 33, have been closed until further notice but will likely reopen in two to three days.
“It’s mostly just precautionary,” Fister said. “We are planning to monitor the area from the air and on the ground from the other side of the river for unusual bear activity.”
That is because other backpackers could well wander into the area from other units, she said.
Two parties were evacuated by helicopter from Unit 10 on Saturday after day hikers had discovered the attack site. Backpackers from other units were allowed to walk out on their own, but they were monitored from the air.
The park has no plans to change the safety information it distributes to backcountry users before they head out into the wilderness.
“The information we give out and the education efforts we go into, with all hikers out there, has been effective for almost 100 years,” Fister said. “This is the first fatality.
“We feel our program is effective,” she said. The only serious injury between bear and humans occurred in 1967 when a seasonal ranger was seriously mauled in the Toklat area.
She pointed out that hikers can expect to encounter a bear anytime, anywhere, while heading into the park’s wilderness.
“They have to pay attention and take precautions,” she said.
In White’s case, it may never be known what really happened.
“It could have been a combination,” Fister said. “Maybe he didn’t leave when he should have, or maybe this bear was more aggressive. What triggered it to become more predatory? Who knows?”