Pa. family of wolf attack victim spreads ashes

Pictured: Candice Berner

August 24, 2010 12:48:39 PM PDT
High on a hill at Perryville, 500 miles southwest of Anchorage on the Alaska Peninsula, the family of a young schoolteacher slain by wolves has scattered her ashes, and found solace, they said, in a place Candice Berner loved.

"We chose Three Star (a hiking mountain in Perryville) to scatter her ashes because that's where she hiked a lot, and it was a very special place for her," said Diana Berner, of Grove City, Pa., the mother of the adventuresome 32-year-old educator.

So on a sunny afternoon in mid-August, the Berner family bid farewell to Candice on windy Three Star, where wildflowers grew and gulls and eagles soared overhead, and the wind carried off some of the scattered ashes.

Diana Berner, Candice's brother Trent, father Bob Berner and his wife, Janine, of Slippery Rock, Pa., were accompanied on the emotional journey to the mountain top by Lake and Peninsula School superintendent Ty Mase and others with whom Candice has worked.

Candice, a petite, accomplished athlete, who studied education at Slippery Rock University, was a special education teacher. She had just finished her day teaching at Chignik Lake, another of the small communities dotting the Alaska Peninsula, back on March 8 when she decided to go running on the road to the village airstrip.

State wildlife biologist Lem Butler, who later was involved in the investigation, said weather conditions were poor that day.

"It was cold, minus 10 degrees, windy, cloudy and darker than usual for that time of the day and year," he wrote in his report.

The road is well-traveled and not unduly dangerous, said Butler. Yet seven miles from the village, Candice had an unusual chance encounter with two young, hungry wolves, who had just formed a pack, he said. "They were normal, healthy wolves with no disease who were desperate for food," he said.

Candice, alone, unarmed, with headphones blocking all cues, became their instant prey. Area residents on a snowmachine who came down the road shortly thereafter saw blood on the road and found her body, Butler said.

The tragedy of her death hit hard, not only for the Berner family, but for the community where she grew up in Pennsylvania and throughout Alaska.

On March 29 the Alaska Legislature mourned her passing in a memorial proclamation.

"She was especially popular among her students and, even in the short time she taught them, had a positive impact on their lives," the proclamation read. "Both in deed and word, Candice inspired and motivated others to set wellness goals, work out, walk and to be physically and mentally healthy."

"My family knew Candice from childhood," wrote Dick Stevenson, a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, in a letter in May to Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham.

Diana Berner said Stevenson "wondered if the state of Alaska might use Candice's untimely death as an example for others so that this tragedy might never be repeated. Would it be possible for Alaska to develop a program to warn citizens and tourists about the dangers posed by wolves in a manner similar to the warnings provided about bears?"

Edgmon discussed the matter with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and expressed his hope that Candice's story would be incorporated into this outreach so that a tragedy such as befell her will never happen again.

When new teaching staff for the Lake and Peninsula School District arrived in August, Butler was there to engage them in a long discussion on precautions to be taken when living with Alaska wildlife, particularly bears and wolves. This was a special request from the borough school district, said Butler. A lot of federal employees get similar training, he said. "These are wild animals and we need to give them some deference because of that."

"Candice meant a lot to us in a short amount of time," said Rick Luthi, chief operating officer for the school district. "She was one of those people who brightens people up. Her love for being down here was so evident in everything she did. She was one of these people you instantly connected to. She loved to be out in the community."

In the past, said Luthi, new school district employees were cautioned about wildlife, with the focus being on bears, "but the deal with Candice made us realize there are many aspects of awareness we need to provide as a precaution for this country we live in. We want to do our very best to provide awareness so that our people are safe."

The school district welcomed the Berners to Alaska in August, meeting with them in King Salmon, and taking them on to Perryville, where Candice spent most of her time teaching, as well as to Chignik Lake.

Diana Berner said she was struck by the friendliness of the people, including a woman who made a white cross and placed it at the site where the attack occurred.

"We could never figure out why Candice chose Alaska, but after a week here, we know why," she said. "Candice understood the dangers of the Bush. I feel this had to happen for a reason, to warn other people."

Candice's father also was struck by the beauty of the region where his daughter died.

"It was a therapeutically helpful and meaningful week, and the school district was very, very gracious," he said. "We talked to several parents of children Candice taught at Chignik Lake and Perryville. They are still, like all of us, in the process of grieving."

Friends of the Berner family in Pennsylvania had donated a total of about $3,200 for an Alaskan Village Children's Fund in memory of Candice.

While visiting, the Berners learned of the school district's program that gives bags of preschool books to the families of newborn children and decided to donate all the money to the literacy project in her memory.

To encourage that project, Candice's name will be placed on a letter included in each bag of books, her father said.

Last year Candice had organized a 5K fun run on the beach at Naknek, to raise money for the preschool literacy project. The run - scheduled this year for Oct. 5 - will continue in her name, he said.

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Information from: The Bristol Bay Times


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