By Melinda Munson
Multiple risky bear encounters along the Canadian side of the Klondike Highway, observed and curtailed by Skagway tour guides, resulted in them calling for enhanced safety protocols for rental car customers originating from Skagway.
In early June, Skagway Private Tours owner Sherry Corrington was conducting a tour near Carcross.
“There was a lineup of Jeeps clogging the highway and off to the right is a bear,” Corrington said. “And it looked annoyed. It was doing the stamping thing … and then out the window comes a sandwich.”
Corrington reported the bear gobbled up the food. Corrington said she “laid on my horn and rushed up and got in between the Jeep and the bear,” which was still on the green. Corrington yelled at the tourists who sped off.
Raymie Eatough, operator of Midnight Sun Excursions, had a less benign experience when she intervened in an unsafe situation. On May 31, she witnessed multiple people exit a vehicle to observe a bear. They were pulled only halfway off the narrow highway with all their doors open. She gave them a few minutes to take pictures, then honked her horn to scare the bear away. The individuals returned to their car, pulled in front of her vehicle so she couldn’t leave, and screamed profanities at her.
Eatough, who was in the middle of conducting a tour which included children, said she’d “never witnessed anything so vile.”
According to Eatough, with the recent uptick in car rentals comes an increase in unsafe wildlife observation practices. She estimates she’s seen at least 15 instances so far this season where wildlife has been “disrespected,” with five being serious enough to document.
One incident included a Jeep keeping pace with a bear, which was hemmed in by cliffs on the other side, unable to escape. This continued for 10 minutes. Eatough said the bear became so enraged it finally put its paws on the vehicle and shook it.
“I’m doing my best not to let it affect my feelings about humanity,” Eatough said.
Both tour operators said they contact Canadian authorities following concerning incidents, but often there might not be a cell signal in their immediate location and the rental car is long gone.
Corrington and Eatough recommend the following safety rules for observing bears.
• Only pull over to view wildlife if there is space to completely pull off the road.
• If there is already a line of cars (called a bear jam), keep going.
• Never, ever, ever feed wildlife.
• Always stay inside the vehicle with doors closed.
Corriington gave the following quote, edited for profanity.
“You don’t know where that bear’s baby is. Mom could be behind you. Don’t be a dumb $%#*&. Don’t get out of your car. Period.”
Nils Davis is co-owner of Affordable Car Rental in Skagway. His company has a no-contact pick up system. He explained Affordable’s procedures for educating clients about bears.
“During the reservation process, when we are talking on the phone or over email, we tell them … there is a strong possibility they will encounter wildlife,” he said. “We express the importance to them to remain in their vehicle and try not to feed them.”
On pick up day, Davis said a text is sent with the location of the car and another reminder to remain in the vehicle and not feed wildlife.
Davis said that following the encounter where a client verbally abused Eatough, his company procured bear safety pamphlets from the Park Service and now places them in every vehicle.
“We know the importance of the safety of our guests and the wildlife they encounter, and we do our very best to inform our clients,” he said.
Jaime Goebel, co-owner of Alaska Green Jeeps, said the first thing her guests see when they walk up to her building is a sign that reads: “DO NOT FEED BEARS.” Renters are also given a mile by mile guide, with a reminder on the first page not to feed the bears. Goebel said that when checking in, guests are told not to leave their vehicle and again reminded not to feed bears. That information is also included on the audio tour.
“It is difficult because once they leave Skagway, they are on their own and out of our control, but we do everything we can think of to give them the knowledge to be safe, for them and the bears,” Goebel said.
Eatough appreciates the efforts of the rental car companies but said, “Obviously it’s not enough or we wouldn’t be having the issues we’re having.”
Corrington plans to bring a proposal before the Skagway Public Safety Committee to begin a conversation on how to increase bear awareness and accountability for car renters. Some ideas include clear identification for rental vehicles, a safety deposit and mandatory signatures on an educational sheet.
“…what will happen out there will reflect on our entire industry, and it reflects on our community,” Corrington said. “We also have to keep in mind that when people leave Skagway to go up there, we are going into a foreign country. We are going into the traditional lands of the Taku River Tlingit, the Carcross/Tagish First Nations people. We are their guests.”