Community mourns woman killed in bear attack

Wednesday, July 19, 2017 - 15:08
  • Photo by David Morse/Star archives  Chugiak High School senior Forrest Mayen peels off to the side after tagging Erin Johnson in the exchange zone of the East High Mixed Relays Saturday, February 10, 2007. Johnson made up three positions, said Mustang head coach Jon Kehler, helping Chugiak place seventh overall among 23 teams entered in the A division. 
  • Erin Johnson, 27, died on June 19, 2017 while working near the Pogo Mine in Interior Alaska. (Photo courtesy Abe Schmidt)
  • Erin Johnson’s family said she was passionate about the outdoors, especially the mountains near her childhood home in Chugiak. Johnson, a 27-year-old botanist and geologist, died on June 19, 2017 after she was attacked by a black bear while working near the Pogo Mine in Interior Alaska. (Photo courtesy Abe Schmidt)
  • A wooden wizard’s staff that was presented to teacher Heather Beck by her students at Mirror Lake Middle School. (Photo courtesy of Heather Beck)

Erin Johnson wasn’t just one of the good ones — she was one of the best.

“There are certain students that stand out,” said Heather Beck, Johnson’s eighth-grade English teacher at Mirror Lake Middle School in Chugiak.

Johnson was one of those students. Even as a middle-schooler, it was clear the girl with the sparkling eyes and wide grin had a unique presence, Beck said.

“She was one of those kids that when you had a new student or maybe someone who needed a little extra care, she’s be the person you’d sit that kiddo by,” recalled Beck, who fought tears as she remembered her former student. “Just a kind-hearted, bright, funny, quirky, silly kid — but not to the point where she caused problems. She always got her work done, she was always polite.”

Johnson, a 27-year-old geologist and botanist, died June 19 after she was mauled by a black bear while working near the Pogo Mine in Interior Alaska. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game said the attack by the bear appeared to be predatory — one of two suspected predatory black bear attacks in two days in the state.

Johnson’s death sent shockwaves through the tight-knit community where she grew up. The 2007 Chugiak High grad was a standout athlete and student who was a member of two Junior Olympic Nordic Ski teams. After high school, she studied at UAA and the University of Montana before returning to her beloved home state.

“Erin grew up in the mountains, especially those behind her parents’ home in Chugiak,” read a statement from Johnson’s family.

Her former teacher remembers Johnson’s passion for the outdoors.

“She was one who was always like, ‘I want to be outside,’” Beck said.

Johnson’s family said she was full of life and had a wide variety of interests.

“Her passions extended to gardening, playing her violin, making art in many forms, a love of board games, foraging and preserving the bounty she harvested,” they wrote.

Johnson’s former Nordic ski coach Stan Carrick said photos showing Johnson’s wide smile almost don’t do her justice.

“She had a big, bright smile and her eyes just sparkled,” said Carrick, who said he coached Johnson for about six years.

Like Beck, Carrick remembers Johnson as an extraordinarily caring, hard-working person who was a friend to all.

“It didn’t make any difference who you were or what you looked like, she’d be there to help you or talk to you,” Carrick said. “She just was always there for her friends.”

He said Johnson lived to breathe fresh air, and seemed to excel when the going got tough.

“She loved being outdoors — no matter what the weather, what the conditions — she wanted to be out there,” he said.

Johnson is survived by her parents, Barb and Steve, and her husband, Abe Schmidt. High school sweethearts, the couple were wed in a small ceremony just 10 days before Johnson’s death. In a Facebook post, Schmidt said the couple planned a larger ceremony on their one-year anniversary, and hadn’t yet written their wedding vows. In his post, Schmidt revealed what he would have told his bride:

“Erin,

I love you with all of my heart. I promise to be there for you through all the trials we encounter, both positive and negative. I promise to take care of you when you need it and let you take care of me when I need it. I look forward to all the mountains we will climb and all the valleys we will cross together. I never thought I could love someone as hard as I love you. You are beautiful, funny, witty, and smart, and that’s only a few of your wonderful traits. Frankly, you are the best. I have been lucky to call you my best friend for the last decade. We are a great team because you have made me a better person. You are my favorite. You are the love of my life.”

The family has not yet scheduled a memorial service; they’re asking that in lieu of flowers, people send contributions to the Erin K. Johnson Memorial Fund, a fund set up through the Alaska Community Foundation which will be used “to support two of Erin’s most cherished values — connecting youth with the outdoors and conserving Alaska’s wild places.”

Carrick said Johnson’s death leaves an undeniable void.

“It’s not just a loss to the people who knew her close, it’s a loss to anyone who would come across her path,” he said.

Carrick said Johnson was “a fantastic person” who was part of a large, energetic group of friends.

“They were always out there hiking, biking, skiing, boating, all of that,” he said.

Heather Beck said she’ll always remember Johnson and her friends running through the woods at Mirror Lake after school. While their teacher and coach supervised from the running trails, the kids would dart through the trees, pretending to be the elves and hobbits and dwarves from “The Lord of the Rings.”

“I think they even used to wear cloaks,” said Beck, who now teaches at Goldenview Middle School in South Anchorage.

Beck said the students later presented her with a gift as a token of their appreciation, a polished wooden staff into which they’d carved the names of those who’d joined the fellowship. And on the other side, they carved “The Ringing Stick Staff.”

It was a wizard’s staff; Beck was their Gandalf.

The gift still sits in Beck’s home. She said the simple, quirky stick will always be a reminder of the spirit embodied by Johnson, a young woman whose adventures ended far too soon.

“She was so funny and so kind and so strong,” Beck said, pausing. “She was the kind of person you hope your kids grow up to be like.”

In his Facebook message, Schmidt urged friends not to take anything in life for granted.

“Go hug the people you love,” he wrote. “Tell them you love them. Tell them every day.”

Contact Star editor Matt Tunseth at editor@alaskastar.com or (907) 205-0082

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