Kenneth W. Cates, 05/25/99

By Craig Medred, ADN 05/28/99

Back in the forest off the end of Funny River Road, bear experts investigating the Tuesday ndeath of 53-year-old Kenneth W. Cates found a baffling scene.

No signs of a struggle marked the moss beneath the open spruce forest where a brown bear attacked and killed Cates with a bite to the head.

For more than a mile around, there was no sign of anything that might have attracted a bear to the area or caused it to act defensively. Most confusing of all were the indications that instead of Cates stumbling into the bear -- the most common precursor to a Alaska bear attack -- this bear stumbled into, or stalked, Cates.

"It doesn't appear (Cates) was moving when it happened," said officer Chris Johnson of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

Apparently, said Larry Lewis, a wildlife technician with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Soldotna, Cates had stopped for lunch along the Funny River horse trail when he was attacked.

"He had food out like he was making lunch," Johnson said, "but none of the food had been gotten into."

The fuel bottle attached to his lightweight backpacking stove was out of gas.

"I've looked at a number of these bear maulings over the years, and this one isn't easy to explain," Johnson said.

"It wasn't what you would expect of a bear-attack scene," Lewis added. "The ground wasn't real disturbed. There was no sign of a struggle."

Tom Landess, a friend of Cates and one of the first searchers to reach his body Wednesday, also believes the Soldotna man was preparing to eat when the bear pounced.

"This was Kenny's habit, to go hiking a lot," Landess said. "He'd go in three or four miles, have lunch and come out."

On this occasion, Landess said, Cates had stopped in a small clearing where moose hunters sometimes camp just off the trail. There are some logs to sit on.

"There was a package of Top Ramen soup on the ground, waiting to be opened," Landess said. A cup of water was poured, apparently awaiting placement on the stove. Cates' binoculars sat nearby atop a log.

A bear appeared to have been following Cates for about three-quarters of a mile up the horse trail, Landess said. Landess followed its tracks up the trail on the way to Cates' body.

"They were large tracks," he said. "They consistently stayed on the trail."

The front paw measured at least 8 inches wide, Landess said. The rear paw was big enough to accommodate Landess' size-10 boot.

The bear "would be a big boar to my thinking," said the lifelong Alaskan and sometime bear hunter. He discounted speculation that Cates was attacked by a sow with cubs. So did Lewis.

Lewis said a reported sighting of a sow with cubs along Funny River Road this week was at least 10 miles from where the attack on Cates took place. The bear that attacked Cates could have been any bear, Lewis said.

Landess believes Cates was sitting on the log, maybe concentrating on his food preparations with a noisy camp stove roaring nearby, when the bear came upon him.

"There was a shell ejected (from Cates' rifle), just like Ken was sitting on the log and fired," Landess said.

Based on past talks with Cates about bears, Landess figures his friend fired a warning shot. He doubts Cates would want to shoot a bear with the meager .280-caliber rifle he was carrying. The caliber is inadequate for trying to stop a bear, Landess said.

He figures Cates didn't aim at the bear until after the warning shot. Cates' rifle was found with an empty cartridge in the chamber. Landess thinks that was probably a shot fired at point-blank range just before the bear grabbed Cates, knocking the rifle 10 to 15 feet in one direction and Cates' glasses 30 feet or so in another.

Deputy medical examiner Dr. Franc Fallico on Thursday concluded the bear killed Cates with a bite to the head. There were also bruises, scratches and punctures on his right leg and arm, Fallico said, but he could not tell whether those happened before or after the fatal wound to the head. The bear did not feed on the carcass.

"The wound was on the back of his head, and he was laying on his back," Johnson said.

"He wasn't all beat up or pushed around or drug," Lewis said.

Landess speculates that was because the last shot that Cates got off hit the bear. Wounded, Landess theorizes, the animal quickly gave up the attack and fled.

Searchers believe they later heard it in the woods.

Johnson and Lewis said Landess' theory -- that Cates was having lunch when a lone bear stumbled into him, attacked and fled after being wounded -- sounds reasonable.

There are indications the bear was shot, they said.

"There was bear fur on a tree, and blood," Johnson said.

He said it looked like the bear ran into the tree, stumbled into a couple of others and then disappeared.

"It's kind of confusing," Johnson added. "The only thing typical is that it appears to have happened real quick. ... A short, aggressive attack, like one bite and gone."

"We've all just been speculating to beat the band," Lewis said. "There isn't that clear an indication that there was a big brawl here. It's a strange deal."


* Stay alert.

* Watch for signs of bear, such as tracks or scat.

* If camping, keep a clean camp and hang food to avoid attracting bears.

* Make noise so any bears along the trail can hear you coming and get out of the way. /BODY>