At a bend in a rushing river in the Alaska wilderness, the hatch of a nylon tent unzipped. A slight, curly-haired man in a vest emerged.
Unhoused in the world’s largest temperate rainforest, Jacob Carroll said it was “no one’s goddamn business” how long he had been living in the woods, just outside the remote fishing town of Sitka. But he did agree to recount a few of his “multiple encounters” with bears.
Once he had a stare-off with a young bear at night. The bear’s eyes glowed a fiery orange in the spray of his headlamp. Another time a bear got into his “igloo” – what he called his cooler. The bears are especially bad in the spring, before the salmon start to run, Carroll said. But that’s just the cost of being homeless in the woods, he decided.
Situated on an island some 800 miles north of Seattle, unhoused people in the vicinity of Sitka face a particular peril: the Sitka brown bear, a brown bear that shows evidence of a genetic link to the polar bear. There are about 1,050 brown bears on the island – just under one bear per square mile, said Stephen Bethune, a wildlife biologist at the Alaska department of fish and game. And there are about 20 people living in the woods, according to the Sitka Homeless Coalition.
As winter recedes and the days get longer, bears head for beaches where the greenest vegetation grows, Bethune said. The groggy creatures are “very motivated” by food, and might be attracted by any smells of more readily available meals along the way.
This is how bears and unhoused Alaskans often come into contact.
Tent cities have become common in the metropolises of the “Lower 48”. Although Sitka remains difficult to access – a town of 8,500 where more people own boats than cars, with just 14 miles of road – homelessness is on the rise here as well.
Gayle Young, who co-founded the Sitka Homeless Coalition (SHC) in 2017, estimated that 35 people go without a home in Sitka – a number that increases in the summer when the weather turns, and the fishing industry kicks into gear, attracting “slime-line” laborers at the fish processors, and baristas at the pop-up food and coffee stands set up for the independent and cruise ship tourists.
In 2020 Sitka was recognized as one of Alaska’s – and America’s – most picturesque towns, largely due to the historical buildings left from when it was under Russian control in the 19th century. Drawn in by the serenity of the fishing village vibe, and the seemingly endless pristine rainforest around town, visitor numbers from the continental US have snowballed. Cruise ship passengers have bounced from pre-pandemic numbers of about 158,000 in 2018 to nearly 600,000 projected for summer 2023.
Median home prices have increased by 8% in the past year. “There is a shortage of available long-term rentals and affordable housing in the community,” said the Sitka realtor Kerri O’Toole. “Listing pricing continues to trend upward.”
“Everyone wants to be on this beautiful island, but that means that only people with a lot of money can afford a roof,” said Young, who helps unhoused people do their laundry every Monday between 8am and 11am at the Sitka laundromat. “Sitka is becoming a second-home community, and people are getting priced out.
“If you’re already on the edge, you can easily get pushed off up here,” Young said. “And on top of that, to have bears in the spring – it certainly doesn’t make any of it easier.”
Adult males can weigh over 1,000lbs, standing as much as 10ft tall, and are easily recognizable due to the pronounced hump behind the head that shifts when they walk. Bear attacks are rare, though they do occur. So far unhoused people have not been the victims. A man was mauled in August 2021, and survived after his friend shot the attacker. In 2012, a bear attacked and killed a Forest Service contractor in Poison Cove, north of town, Bethune said.
“When they come out of hibernation is when a guy can get in trouble,” said Darian Bliss, 33, while sitting at a wooden picnic table in downtown Sitka eating lunch provided by the Salvation Army. “In the fall the bears are fat and happy after all the salmon. In the spring they just want to eat – anything.”
Bliss came to Sitka for treatment for alcoholism and never left. He moves between the woods and various couches, and is in the process of trying to buy a fishing boat that will serve as shelter, a source of income, as well as a mode of transportation back to his home town of Ketchikan, south of Sitka. In the spring, he says that he tries to stay on boats and couches, to avoid the bears rather than live in the woods.
“It’s harsh,” said Dana Mitchell, 51, as she sat alongside Bliss forking egg noodles and blueberry cobbler. “This is definitely not the easiest place to be homeless.”
Mitchell drives a bus for the Westmark Hotel in the summer, sometimes making $300 a day in tips, but struggles with homelessness in the winter. “The rain and the elements in general – they just make it even harder to get back on your feet.”
Robert “Bob” Cain, 61, says he has lived in the woods for 15 years, and in Sitka for 27. While camping at the base of Gavan Hill, he woke to the pressure of a bear’s paw on his hand. “When I opened my tent I saw tracks all over.”
Another time in April he returned to his site to find the fabric of his tent slashed through. “It was violent. I mean – you could smell him. It made my hairs stand on end. The young ones are the ones to worry about.”
Fortch “Stormy” Wayne, who arrived in Sitka from Ketchikan as a child and attended high school in town, has countless stories of bears plodding through his various campsites in the woods, where he lived for eight years, scaring them off with shouting and bear spray made of red pepper oil.
As he strolled through a cemetery at the far end of Baranof Street, among lichen-coated headstones chiseled with Russian surnames, he recalled the time he encountered a bear digging out skunk cabbage root in the springtime. “When I saw him I yelled: ‘I don’t have anything for you, bear!’”
The bears, along with the harsh winters and williwaw gusts off the mountainsides, compelled Stormy to apply for state-sponsored assisted living in town.
“I just got tired of the winters, and always being afraid out there,” he said.
He’s not the only one who believes Sitka’s unhoused need a refuge.
The former magistrate judge Rachel DiNardo Jones said some of the court system’s “regulars” seem to commit petty offenses – urinating on squad cars, trespassing – in correspondence with the fall storms. “They just want to get out of the cold, and have three square hot meals. That’s what happens when there’s no shelter. Essentially Sitka’s jail is the town’s men’s shelter.”
Andrew Hinton, the executive director of SHC, said that while he was impressed by the ability of Sitka’s unhoused population to forage and subsist he hopes to break ground this summer on a facility for 13 cabins with community showers, laundry and bathrooms. The project will allow SHC to address substance abuse problems, and to provide shelter – especially in the winter and spring. “We believe that people needing help for addiction should have shelter first. And then we can address the rest,” Hinton said.
The new facility will have an electric fence around it, Hinton said, along with air horns, to keep out bears.
“These folks have to put up with so much,” Hinton said. “At the shelter they shouldn’t have to worry for their safety when they go to sleep.”
On a recent morning a man named Kyle Sullivan followed a dim path cutting through the moss along the banks of Kaasda Heen River, not far from where Carroll lived. As the trail branched away from the bubbling current, salmonberry bushes and thorned devil’s club pushed up on either side.
“For thousands of years bears on the island have been using this path to come down from the mountains after hibernation,” says Sullivan, 57, a denizen of the woods for the past couple of years. “People call it a ‘bear spirit trail’.”
Following years of itinerant work in the continental US, fishing, horseback guiding, mucking out stalls and tiling, Sullivan ended up in Alaska. Unlike his two brothers who became miners in the footsteps of their father, Sullivan said he preferred the freedom of living in the open air.
When asked about Forest Service regulations that require people to move every 14 days, he cackled. “The Alaska troopers or police come around and annoy us with their flashlights. But we pretty much get left alone. Except in the springtime, when the bears wake up.”
He added: “Bears keep you on your toes. It’s all a practice in not letting fear conquer you. It’s healthy not to be at the top of the food chain.”
Sullivan said that he recognizes the dangers of sharing the forest with bears. He keeps a close eye on his site, and uses what he calls an “early detection system” for large and furry intruders.
“It’s a bunch of strung-up trash bags. Once I heard a noise, opened my tent flap, and saw this bear staring at me from about 12ft away. I got him right in the eyes with the spray, and that sent him running right on home.”
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