This weekend marked a tragic first for Denali National Park. On Friday, August 24th, three hikers near Toklat road camp made a discovery that would reveal the Park’s first bear mauling fatality. The group discovered an abandoned backpack along the Toklat River, and upon further investigation, found evidence of a violent struggle. The hikers immediately returned to the Toklat Campground and reported their findings to Park Service at approximately 5:30 pm. Park rangers launched a helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft to search the area where the unsettling evidence was seen. Approximately thirty minutes after beginning the search, the helicopter team made the grisly discovery of the remains that would be later identified to be those of Richard White, 49, of San Diego, California. One bear was standing near the cache where it had moved White’s remains, but retreated when the helicopter approached. The bear soon approached the rangers and began circling, forcing them to retreat to the gravel bar and fire a rifle into the air to force the bear to retreat before they boarded the helicopter again. Due to waning light and the presence of at least one bear, further investigation was delayed until Saturday.
Rangers and Alaska State Troopers returned to the scene on Saturday. A large male grizzly was defending the site of White’s remains and preventing the recovery team from approaching. The team was forced to shoot and kill the bear. Necropsy results, as well as photographs from White’s camera confirm that this is the animal that killed him, according to a National Park Service press release from Saturday night.
The attack occurred in Unit 10, or the West Branch Upper Toklat area of Denali National Park. The area is frequented by hikers due to its proximity to the park road and its access to glacial headwaters. The area has been closed until the investigation into the fatal mauling has concluded. As of Saturday night, twelve hiking parties had been contacted and removed from the area. No additional incidents have been reported.
KTNA spoke with Maureen McLaughlin of the Talkeetna Ranger Station on Sunday morning regarding the incident. McLaughlin stated the photos on White’s recovered camera indicate that he may have been within one hundred yards of the animal while photographing it. Before being allowed to hike into the backcountry, hikers are required to undergo what McLaughlin described as one of the most extensive bear-awareness programs in the National Park system. The briefing advises hikers to maintain at least one quarter mile of distance between themselves and any bear. While it is possible to come across a bear at closer proximity by accident, hikers are told that they should back slowly away from the bear to maintain a safe distance. White had obtained a permit to hike in the backcountry, and so was required to undergo the bear-awareness program. As of the time of the interview, McLaughlin was not aware of any planned changes to the program.
Richard White’s remains were recovered and sent to the office of the Medical Examiner in Anchorage. The bear’s remains were taken by Park Service to conduct a necropsy. Details as to the cause of the attack are still unclear, and rangers are continuing their investigation.