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Victims of Alaska bear attack were wilderness vets

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Victims of bear attack were wilderness vets
THE HUFFMANS: Longtime local lawyer and teacher had taken every precaution.

Anchorage Daily News

Published: June 28th, 2005
Last Modified: June 28th, 2005 at 07:56 AM

An Anchorage attorney and his retired schoolteacher wife, both cautious veterans of the Alaska wilderness, were identified Monday as the victims of a rare, unprovoked attack by a predatory grizzly bear in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, state and local officials said.

Richard and Katherine Huffman were killed over the weekend in their tent while camping along the Hulahula River near the end of a two-week wilderness float trip by inflatable kayak. Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials who investigated the scene said the Huffmans appeared to have set up camp carefully, storing their food in bear-proof containers far from their tent.

"All the indications now are it was a predatory attack. It just hardly ever happens," Fish and Game spokesman Bruce Bartley said. "Even more baffling is that these people had taken all the precautions."

A gun was found in the camp, troopers said. It had not been fired.

The 300-pound bear attacked the campers in their sleeping bags and tore at their bodies but did not devour them, officials said. The grizzly was tracked and killed by North Slope Borough Search and Rescue officials who flew by helicopter to the scene from Barrow.

The bear's body is being taken to Fairbanks for a necropsy but showed no obvious signs of illness, injury or starvation that might account for the attack, Bartley said.

"It was apparently a healthy male, 5 to 7 years old, which adds to the mystery and improbability," he said.

The ransacked campsite was first spotted Saturday afternoon by someone passing in a river raft, according to North Slope police. The passer-by, a resident of Kaktovik, 12 miles downstream from the site, tried to approach the camp but was chased away by the bear. He reported the scene to police in Kaktovik.

The attack occurred in the heart of the refuge's coastal plain, a tundra region coveted by the oil industry for its oil potential and by environmentalists for its wilderness values. The Hulahula runs from the Romanzof Mountains north across the coastal plain to the Beaufort Sea. Kaktovik, an Inupiat village of about 300 residents, is the only community in the area.

With Congress poised to make a decision about oil drilling in the area, the refuge has seen an increase in visitor inquiries, said Richard Voss, the refuge manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He couldn't say whether there was an increase in wilderness travel because independent travelers like the Huffmans are not required to get permits. Last year, 60 to 100 people, including hunters, floated the Hulahula, he said.

In Alaska, about six people a year are injured by bear attacks, Bartley said. Two-thirds of them are hunters who surprise bears in the wilderness. Every other year, on average, somebody is killed, usually by a brown bear, he said. Usually the bear is defending itself after being surprised or is protecting its young or a fresh kill.

That's really not much, Bartley said, considering there are people all over Alaska's bear habitat, along with 35,000 brown bears and three times as many black bears.

"If bears wanted to eat you, they would. We'd lose one a day," he said.

On the other hand, hundreds of bears are killed every year by people defending life or property, Bartley said. Such killings always increase after a widely publicized killing by a bear, he said.

"Quite frankly, there'll be a spike after this," he said.

Bartley could remember very few unprovoked fatal attacks by bears in Alaska -- one on a camper in Hyder in Southeast in the 1990s, another on a solo kayaker in Glacier Bay in the 1980s. A child was killed by a brown bear in King Cove a decade ago, though in that case people fleeing into nearby brush may have triggered a chase response, he said.

A special case could be made for bear advocate Timothy Treadwell, whose body was devoured along with that of his girlfriend after they camped extensively in the midst of brown bears and heavily used game trails on the Alaska Peninsula. Treadwell's unconventional approach was often criticized by biologists.

"Everything that he did wrong, these folks did right," Bartley said.

A Fish and Game wildlife biologist, Cathie Harms, said the campsite was "a model of how to do it right." She said the ultra-cautious biologist who investigated the ravaged camp concluded "this one is as clear-cut as he's seen of a predatious attack."

The Huffmans were so careful with bears that they customarily stopped one place to cook and eat dinner, then floated on to a different site to camp, said Veronica Galvan, whose sister is married to one of three Huffman children. The Huffmans went on a three-week wilderness float trip last summer, Galvan said.

Richard Huffman, 61, was a lawyer who has worked in Anchorage for electric and telephone utilities since 1975. He served as a captain in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General Corps and worked two years for the Anchorage municipality before going into private practice.

According to his law firm, Kemppel, Huffman and Ellis, Huffman received his bachelor's and law degrees at the University of Kansas.

A partner, Don Ellis, said Huffman had been making long camping trips for several years. He declined to say more Monday.

Katherine Huffman was a long-time teacher for the Anchorage School District. She had a long history of camping and backpacking and was married for a time to wildlife photographer and Mount McKinley climber Johnny Johnson.

"She was real savvy, a real smart woodsperson," said a friend, Steve Hagedorn, who accompanied her on a 55-mile backpack trip in Denali National Park in the 1970s.

She brought that love of nature to the classroom, said Carol Comeau, Anchorage schools superintendent, who co-taught second grade with Huffman at Ocean View Elementary in the mid-1970s.

"She had high expectations for discipline and respect. But the kids had a great time," Comeau said Monday. "They spent a lot of time outdoors doing winter activities. She just loved the outdoors."

Huffman later taught at Birchwood and Lake Otis elementary schools. She retired in 2002 but continued to substitute.

The Huffmans were married in 1989. Richard Huffman had three children by a previous marriage. The children were on their way to Alaska on Monday.

"It's just sad," Comeau said. "I've been thinking about her all day, remembering. It's just an absolute Alaskan tragedy."

Even when doing everything right you can become a victom. All the education and bearproof garbage cans in the world aren't going to save you if a bear decides you would make a good meal! With too many bears here in NJ it's just a matter of time! You can't have this many people and this many bears crammed into this small of an area and expect there to be no problems!
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