Illegal campers risk fines, bear attacks

Wednesday, August 9, 2017 - 12:50
  • Star photo by Matt Tunseth Garbage at an illegal campsite beneath the Briggs Bridge on Sunday, July 9, 2017.

Some scofflaw’s shoreside snacks sullied the Eagle River Sunday, evidence of an ill-advised — and illegal — Chugach State Park camping trip that could have resulted in penalties ranging from fines to flesh wounds for the unseen camper(s) hidden inside the red tent pitched in a too-late-to-be-shady spot beneath the Briggs Bridge.

Several bags of trash and what looked to be roasting sticks were strewn around an extinguished campfire (also illegal), with the trash appearing to have been picked at by animals. Among the goodies strewn about were peanut butter, soda cans, beer bottles, pretzels, chocolate, graham crackers and an open bag of marshmallows. Although the identity of the illegal campers is unknown, it’s clear they like s’mores.

But so do bears.

On July 4, Anchorage police were called to a homeless camp near Centennial Park in Anchorage for a report of a black bear on top of a tent with a person possibly inside. When officers arrived, they found a 58-year-old woman inside the tent. She said she played dead and wasn’t hurt. The woman was arrested on an outstanding warrant and also cited by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for feeding game due to the large amount of food and trash in the area.

The area where the illegal campers set up shop Sunday is a little known and seldom used nook on the fringe of Chugach State Park. A small trail leads from a tiny parking lot through dense alders to a clearing near the river, where pack rafters and kayakers sometimes launch from beneath the massive concrete bridge for a quick trip down the gray, glacial river and its intermittent whitewater. Camping is not allowed in the graffiti-splashed corner of the nearly 500,000-acre state park, and the spot near the bridge is a place rangers admittedly don’t get to patrol as often as they’d like, said Chugach State Park chief ranger Kurt Hensel.

“It can be hard for us to get off the beaten path,” Hensel said.

Illegal camping is an ongoing problem in the Municipality of Anchorage, which borders the park and where city officials have introduced new technology — including an online reporting system — to help cut down on homeless camps. The camps are dangerous for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is their potential to attract the numerous black and brown bears that live in the area.

In the muni, officials are required to give illegal campers public notice, after which campers have 15 days to leave.

That’s not how things work in the park, where rangers can shut down an illegal campsite immediately if it’s deemed a safety hazard.

“If it’s a potential bear issue we’re going to go ahead and take care of that as soon as we can,” Hensel said.

Hensel said he wasn’t aware of people camping near the Briggs Bridge. He planned to investigate Wednesday, but a check by a reporter Tuesday afternoon found the garbage and tent gone.

Had he discovered an illegal campsite, Hensel likely could have written a ticket for any number of violations. Leaving campsites and camping equipment unattended can bring a $150 fine, camping outside designated areas can incur a $100 fine, littering will set someone back $150 and bringing garbage into the park and dumping it is a $200 fine — that one happens most often with dipnetters or deer hunters discarding carcasses in the woods, he said.

Camping is allowed within most of Chugach State Park, which roughly forms the northeastern border of the municipality, rising from the Chugach foothills into the rugged, mountainous backcountry. There are three developed pay campsites at the edge of the park, including the Eagle River Campground, the Eklutna Lake Campground and the Bird Creek Campground. The Eagle River Campground is just a couple miles downstream from the Briggs Bridge; bears are well known in the area, and earlier this summer three people were injured in a bear attack that took place on the riverside trail that runs between the bridge and the campground.

Free camping is permitted throughout most of the park’s backcountry, the rules for which are pretty simple: no camping is allowed within a half-mile of a developed facility (including trails) and no campfires are allowed (except on certain river gravel bars). Campers are allowed to set up a base camp and go exploring, but Hensel said rangers might ask someone to move it along if they’ve been camping for more than 72 hours and it doesn’t appear they’re there for recreational purposes.

If rangers come across an unattended campsite in a legal area, Hensel said they may simply leave a card. However, when rangers find something that’s likely to attract bears — such as trash or unattended food — he said action is usually swift.

“It’s pretty easy for us to go in there and just take the camp,” he said.

With only four rangers to patrol the nation’s third-largest state park, Hensel said he and his team count on park users to report suspicious or illegal activity in Anchorage’s big backyard.

“We really rely on the public,” he said.

And while a few bad marshmallows may have briefly soured the s’mores in Eagle River, Hensel said he’s frequently encouraged by the large amount of public support he sees for the park.

“We have an overwhelmingly high number of park users that actually clean up after other park users,” he said.

Hensel said anyone wishing to contact rangers about an issue in the park can email csp@alaska.gov or call (907) 345-5014. For more on camping do’s and don’t in Alaska’s state parks, visit dnr.alaska.gov/parks.

editor@alaskastar.com

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