Bear visits houseboat, tries waterslide — and is rescued at Lake Powell
Young bear is rescued after being shot with a tranquilizer dart and taking a dangerous jump into the water.
Published: October 22, 2013 03:02PM
Updated: February 14, 2014 11:35PM
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| Courtesy Utah Division of Wildlife Resources A young male bear captured at Lake Powell is fit with a radio collar before being released in Southern Utah far from people.

There are a lot of crazy stories about boating trips at Lake Powell in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Most of them focus on wild parties.

Recent events near Face Canyon involving a bear, boats and a potential drowning show just how wild things can actually get.

Terry Peterson of Smithfield was on a houseboat with six others on the morning of Sept. 27 when a small black bear they eventually named “Boo-Boo” appeared on the beach.

“He was just a little guy. He must have come down off the top of the plateau. He paid everybody a visit,” said Peterson. “We were worried his mother might come around, but she never did.”

National Park Service officials received a call that night about a bear on the beach near the houseboats, but the callers said they weren’t afraid of the bear and just wanted to make sure rangers knew about it.

Boaters camping in the area made sure to store their food and settled in for the night.

“My sister-in-law woke up probably about 7 a.m. She was sleeping on an air mattress by the front sliding door and he was looking through the glass right at her,” Peterson said. “As soon as we opened the door he went back to the beach.”

Two National Park Service rangers and Utah State Parks Ranger Jared Jones responded to a new call about the bear.

“When we arrived we chased him up the hill and tracked him for about two to two and a half miles and figured it probably wasn’t worth pursuing him anymore,” National Park Service Ranger Christian Roper said. “As far as we could tell he had not had any recent human food rewards. If somebody had been feeding him marshmallows, we would have taken more serious action. It was young and impressionable so we hazed it away from the beach.”

Peterson said the bear was chased off just before noon and was back on the beach by 5 p.m.

At one point the young bear swam around to the back of the houseboat, climbed on board and was sniffing around an area where anchovies used for fish bait were stored.

“When we went to chase him off he crawled up the framework of the water slide,” Peterson said. “When he realized he had reached a dead end, he jumped off into the lake.”

Peterson said the bear was never aggressive and that it often walked within yards of the people on the beach.

When Peterson’s group left the beach Monday morning, Boo-Boo was there to bid them bon voyage.

Reports of the bear reached Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) officials and they decided to remove him from the area. A team showed up Tuesday morning with tracking hounds to find him, and it didn’t take long.

While biologists were exploring the beach for tracks and setting the dogs loose, a boater from a nearby cove waved them over, indicating there was a bear on his boat.

Sure enough, the bear was on a 22-foot boat with a sleeper cabin under the deck. Jason Nicholes, a wildlife biologist with the DWR, shot the bear with a dart from a tranquilizer gun.

“Everything was going well until the bear decided he had a little bit of energy left,” said Wayne Gustaveson, longtime Lake Powell project leader for the DWR. “He runs, leaps off the boat and starts swimming and then passes out.”

Nicholes immediately recognized what was happening and stripped off his shirt, handed someone his cellphone and dove into the lake.

“Jason didn’t even think about it for one second. He reacted really quickly,” said Kevin Bunnell, supervisor for the DWR’s Southern Region. “By the time he got there, the bear was pretty well under the drug.”

Nicholes held the bear’s head above water and waited for help.

“With an adult bear it takes two to three minutes [for the drug to work]. This bear was in the water within a minute or so after the dart hit him,” Nicoles said. “I got there faster than I thought I would.”

Gustaveson, who has never seen or heard of a bear at Lake Powell in his 38 years working there, pulled the boat over to Nicholes and they got the bear out of the water.

“My kids thought it was funny I went swimming with my clothes on for a bear,” he said Wednesday. “My boots are still wet.”

The bear, 30 pounds and born last winter or the year before, was a little skinny, but in good shape. He was fitted with a radio collar and released in a remote location in southern Utah, far away from people and houseboats but with plenty of natural food sources — namely acorns.

“We go every year, and we have seen a lot of wildlife: badgers, roadrunners, coyotes and rattlesnakes,” Peterson said. “But never a bear.”

brettp@sltrib.com

Twitter: @BrettPrettyman