Eagle River man killed, searcher injured in South Fork bear attacks

Friday, July 13, 2018 - 10:05
  • Family and friends of Micahel Soltis react to the news of Soltis’s death on Wednesday, June 20, 2018. Searchers found the 44-year-old Eagle River man’s body in the woods near Hiland Road Wednesday morning. (Star photo by Matt Tunseth)

A brown bear killed a 44-year-old hiker deep in the South Fork Eagle River Valley and mauled a member of a search party looking for him on Wednesday, Anchorage police said.

Michael Soltis’ body was found in the same area near the end of Hiland Road — a winding, 9-mile-long route into the South Fork Eagle River Valley — where a brown bear also attacked a man searching for the missing Eagle River civil engineer Wednesday morning.

“It appears the brown bear was protecting the body when it attacked a member of the search party,” APD said.

As of Wednesday evening, Fish and Game biologists were searching for the bear, said department spokesman Ken Marsh. If biologists are able to find the bear, they will kill it, he said. They were asking the public to avoid the area Wednesday evening.

“This is a public safety concern,” he said.

Soltis’ death is the second fatal bear attack in the Anchorage municipality in two summers. Last June, a 16-year-old racer was killed by a black bear during a running race at Bird Ridge, south of Anchorage.

Before that, the last fatal Anchorage bear mauling happened in 1995 when a mother and son were killed on the McHugh Creek Trail, also south of the city.

Missing

Mike Soltis went missing Monday night.

The avid hiker and outdoorsman lived a few miles from the end of Hiland Road, deep in the mountain-rimmed South Fork Valley of Eagle River. The area is east of Anchorage.

Police said the last time anyone heard from Soltis was around 5 p.m. Monday. On Tuesday afternoon, his friend, Sean Rheault, went up to the home on Hiland Road to check.

“I searched the house, searched the property, then realized there was chicken in the sink from the night before,” said Rheault, who said it looked like Soltis went out for a quick hike before dinner.

That wouldn’t be uncommon for the lifelong Chugiak-Eagle River resident whose sister, Laura, said loved the wilderness and often hiked alone.

“He was a really loved guy, outdoorsy, active,” she said.

When Rheault realized his friend was missing, he sounded the alarm.

“I called everybody,” he said.

Family members began to spread word of his disappearance on social media, and organized a search party to scour hiking trails in the area. His father even hired a private helicopter as the family expressed frustration at the slow pace of state and local emergency responders in the initial hours of the search.

Soltis was a longtime civil engineer with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium who had worked on rural water projects around the state. He and his fiancee, Elisabeth Claus, a U.S. Army brigade judge advocate, were expecting a child in November.

“His life just got happy,” his sister said. “They just got engaged, they’re having a baby, she’s going to move here in the fall, all this wonderful stuff.”

On Wednesday morning, groups of searchers set out to check some of the myriad unofficial hiking paths near Soltis’ home.

‘It was so fast’

Soltis’ cousin, Wendi Yohman, said the searchers had broken into groups of three for safety. She and two men were checking a trail in the woods off Hiland when she heard a noise.

The next thing she knew, a large brown bear was charging.

“It was so fast,” Yohman said.

[‘This brown bear comes lunging out of the woods’: Watch a witness describe the attack on her search party]

The man put himself between Yohman and the bear and was mauled.

“I’ve never been so scared in my life,” said Yohman, who credited the man with saving her life.

The three searchers were able to scare the bear off, at which point they took the injured man to the road to seek help.

A passing driver rushed them back to near Soltis’ home, where other volunteers applied a tourniquet to his injured leg. He was driven away in the same vehicle that picked him up, with a police cruiser escorting them from the scene.

“It’s protecting something,” a visibly shaken Yohman told reporters shortly after the attack. “The bear is not acting normal.”

Police did not identify the man, but said he’s expected to survive his injuries.

Body found

Anchorage police officers called to the scene of the mauling around 10:30 a.m., according to police spokesman M.J. Thim. Some officers walked into the woods to search for the bear.

They didn’t find a bear, but they did find a body.

“What we believe is the victim was attacked by the bear and taken to this location and then the brown bear was protecting its prey, its find, when the volunteer group went into the area and the adult male volunteer was attacked,” Thim said from the road near the scene of the attacks.

The body was found in a brushy area a short distance from the road, Thim said. It appeared to be on an informal trail, said Ken Marsh with the Department of Fish and Game.

Biologists found no bear spray or gun near the site of the body, but would be going back to check to make sure they hadn’t missed the items, Marsh said.

Police formed a perimeter around the body to protect it from bears until the medical examiner arrived, Thim said. The body was examined and removed, and officers left the scene shortly before 2 p.m. Officers taped off the area with yellow police tape and placed a small sign on the narrow footpath leading from Hiland Road where the attacks happened.

As they talked in hushed tones alongside Hiland Road, family and friends remembered a “kind, giving, caring,” man whose baby sister said always gave the best Christmas presents.

“Everybody loved Mike.”

The attacks come almost exactly a year after two Alaskans were killed by bears in a span of two days. On June 18, 2017, “Jack” Cooper was killed by a black bear near Bird Ridge after completing the junior race at the Robert Spurr Memorial Hill Climb.

The next day, another Eagle River resident, 27-year-old biologist Erin Johnson, was killed by a black bear while doing field work near the Pogo Mine in Interior Alaska.

[The killing of an Eagle River hiker marks the 6th fatal bear attack in Alaska in the past 10 years. Here are the others.]

“Needle in a haystack”

The Anchorage medical examiner arrived to remove the body. After an autopsy, it will be returned to Soltis’ family, Thim said.

Fish and Game biologists searched for the bear through the afternoon before stopping to regroup, Marsh said.

It won’t be easy to find.

“It’s a needle in a haystack at this point,” Marsh said. “It’s a big area with a lot of bears.”

Marsh said biologists collected evidence at the scene, which he said will be used for DNA analysis if they’re able to locate the bear suspected in the attacks.

Police were clear in saying they believed the same bear killed Soltis and mauled the searcher. Fish and Game wouldn’t go that far.

“There’s a lot of assumptions we could make,” he said. “There’s a lot of logical ones and probable ones, but as far as cause of death we really have to wait until the medical examiner’s office finalizes their examination.”

Biologists cautioned people to stay away from the end of Hiland Road while biologists are working. The area is marked with caution signs, Marsh said.

The South Fork Eagle River trailhead in Chugach State Park — on the other side of the valley — was still open as Wednesday afternoon, said Debbie Wuerch of the state Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation.

Is it safe to recreate in the area?

“Well, that’s a very difficult question to answer,” Marsh said. “People should exercise due caution. They should carry a deterrent — bear spray, a firearm, whatever you’re most proficient with.”

“We’re always in bear country.”

Related stories:

[The killing of an Eagle River hiker marks the 6th fatal bear attack in Alaska in the past 10 years. Here are the others.]

[Fish and Game kills 2 brown bears in Eagle River]

Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected]

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