Bear attacks sleeping kayakers near Skilak Lake

Jun 14, 2021

Skilak Lake in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.
Credit Sabine Poux/KDLL

Two kayakers paddled six miles to safety across Skilak Lake after they were mauled by a bear early Saturday morning.

Jamie Nelson, of Kenai, was at the Upper Skilak Lake Campground when the kayakers pulled up around 2 a.m..

“Six miles for two hours after being mauled by bears. That’s the part of the story I just can't wrap my head around," he said.

Officials aren’t releasing the names of the victims. But Nelson said last he heard, they were both in stable condition.

The kayakers were tent camping on the shores of Skilak Lake on Friday night, where the lake meets Hidden Creek. They had kayaked there earlier that day from the car-accessible Upper Skilak Campground.

Close to midnight, a bear charged them in their tent while they were sleeping. They had bear spray but the bear charged too quickly for them to use it. 

Both were injured, the male victim more severely than the female. Nelson said he’s unsure how the victims got away from the bear. But when they did, they were able to treat the lacerations to their arms and legs.

“And luckily, they were so prepared and had a nice first aid kit with them, that they had a product called Quick Clot," he said. "Which apparently slows bleeding very well.”

The victims’ campsite was accessible via Hidden Creek Trail. But even if they knew about that entry point, the male victim’s injuries were so bad he couldn’t walk. 

Instead, they paddled for nearly two hours back to the Upper Skilak Lake Campground.

Skilak Lake is large and can get pretty windy and wavy. But that night, Nelson said, it was glassy calm.

“Had the winds picked up that night and the water been choppy, I just don’t know if they could’ve made the voyage," he said.

Nelson and his family had a campsite along the shore and heard the kayakers scream for help as they pulled in. So did several other campers and the campsite host. They called an ambulance and helped the female victim get something from her car while they waited.

The male victim stayed in the kayak on the beach. He was cold and didn’t think he could support himself with his leg. 

“I think adrenaline was still playing a pretty big role," Nelson said. "Because for everything they had been through, they were very calm. They were very matter-of-fact about what happened and about what needed to happen from that point forward.”

Less than a half hour after the campers made the call, the ambulance arrived. A few minutes later, a medevac showed up to take the male victim away. 

Nelson met one of the victims’ friends the next day, when he came by with wildlife troopers.

“I'll never forget what he told me, when he looked me in the eyes and thanked me," Nelson said. "He said, ‘You know, we have living friends.’”

Nelson’s kids slept through the whole thing. But he said it was really moving to see campers at the site jump into action.

“It's just a very life-affirming story," he said. That when people are in danger, Alaskans come together and rally around people in need of help. And even though there may be concerns for their own safety, they will come running to help neighbors in need.”

Meanwhile, officials from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have sent DNA samples from the scene up to Anchorage to learn more about the bear involved in the attack. Though they’re not sure what kind of bear it was, Nelson said the victims thought it was a brown bear. Officials said the animal was likely unprovoked. 

Fish and Game Regional Management Coordinator Jeff Selinger said it’s important to remember attacks like these are rare. But he said it’s also important to be prepared in bear country, as these victims were.

The refuge closed Hidden Creek Trail after the attack to give investigators some space. The trail reopened Sunday.