A Sitka woman is safe after being located by Sitka Mountain Rescue on Harbor Mountain last Friday evening (12-13-13). Rescuers found 21-year old Ashley Horner-Raffaele after a four-hour search through darkness, torrential rain, high winds, and an encounter with a charging brown bear.
Alaska State Troopers report that Horner-Raffaele was found 600 feet up Harbor Mountain, above Kramer Avenue, also known as the Benchlands road. She had lost her way on an afternoon hike.
Search and Rescue Captain Don Kluting says a friend of Horner-Raffaele called Sitka Mountain Rescue at 3:40pm after receiving a text that she was in trouble.
“We got out to the field and one of the first things we identified was the winds were blowing high enough that we had trees falling, it certainly added a dynamic and a twist we don’t often face,” says Kluting.
Other factors also made it an especially-difficult search.
Kluting says, “The thickness of the terrain and everything was just so difficult and the wind certainly complicated things. We weren’t able to get sound attraction. She wasn’t able to hear us at long distance. The wind was carrying her voice.”
Although Horner-Raffaele did not have a flashlight, or proper overnight gear, she was able to text her rescuers and let them know she could hear their voices. But after nearly two frustrating hours without finding her, Kluting says the situation became even more challenging.
“And then right on top of everything else, at 6:15 we had resources in the field and one of our teams ended up contacting a brown bear. We had a bear charge our team,” says Kluting.
Rescuers were on the Benchlands road when they encountered the bear. They stood their ground before the huffing bear, until another rescue vehicle was able to reach them and safely pick them up.
With help from an Air Station Sitka helicopter, searchers located Horner-Raffaelli shortly after 8 PM. Because of the difficult conditions, it took over two hours to carry her out on a litter. She was transported by an EMS crew to a hospital to be evaluated.
As for the bear, Kluting says immediately after the encounter, he contacted state biologist Phil Mooney to report the situation. Mooney suspected that the bear either had a food cache it was defending, or a den site.
Mooney searched the area Saturday and found tracks, but not the bear, den, or food supply.
Mooney says, “You know I don’t know if its unusual. If you go back through our records we’ve had bear out every month of the year. It varies. This is likely some adult that’s still looking for a good den site.”
Mooney advises Sitkans that bears remain active, and people should still be careful when hunting deer, or storing trash.
Sitka Search and Rescue captain Don Kluting is relieved that everyone is safe. “When we look back on that mission there are just some interesting dynamics that we don’t normally have to contend with.”
Kluting says total of 24 rescuers, four dogs, and a Coast Guard helicopter were used during the search.