“I’m yelling at a bear right now, and there is no one around to hear me”.
We are all told to take safety precautions: always wear a helmet, hike and run in groups, wear hunter orange, always wear a life jacket, and the list goes on. But I would like to stress the ‘always hike and run in groups’ part, especially for dense bear country. Having grown up in Juneau, I am very familiar with bears, and how to react in an encounter. But I will impress upon the reader, that we Alaskan’s don’t particularly enjoy bear encounters in the woods, especially with habituated ones. They don’t have the natural fear response of flight, and they don’t exactly get out of the way in the same expedient manner that we would like. So, though it makes for a good cardio workout, it’s a situation we prefer to avoid.
So, after a stressful day, I hit up the East Glacier Trail Tangle put on by Southeast Road Runners. These are not dog-friendly runs, so my friend got his bib, and I started out on the trail about 25 minutes before the start. East Glacier trail is a great trail to run, and starting on Under Thunder trail is a nice flat warm up for the incline and the (insert dramatic music) dreaded stairs. There is also a one mile walk as part of this race. Klas Stolpe was there at the half mile mark, ready to take pictures of our walkers and runners as they headed out on the trail amid the light showers and high spirits. As I trotted past him with Kiska in the lead, I was so happy to be on a quiet run in the woods, alone with my thoughts and my dog.
And then I see it. A huge, black, fuzzy bear butt just off the trail. I immediately stop, tell Kiska to ‘wait’, grab Kiska’s Lupine training leash (about a 6 inch long loop) that I always clip to her body harness, so she always has a leash on her but I don’t have to carry one that is multiple feet. I start loudly talking to the bear, and without even looking back, she (because why not) just kept walking off the trail into the woods. Never once did she look back at me, or even acknowledge that she saw me. After yelling ‘hey bear, how’s it going buddy?’, I started yelling how much I love my dog. Because really, I feel silly yelling at a random bear. Kiska, once I grabbed her leash, just looked at me with those big brown eyes, tongue out, totally unaware that legitimate danger was just a few feet away. Kiska didn’t growl, never barked, didn’t make a single sound. Just looked up at me adoringly.
Knowing that there was an aggressive sow with cubs in the area (we actually had to close the East Glacier trail a few weeks back because of her), that current event flashed in my mind and I literally thought ‘I have no phone to call my parents, no one is out here, no one can hear me, if she has cubs someplace and turns around and sees me here and cares, I could totally die and the last thing I would see is how much my dog loves me’. I guess that’s not so bad. I mean, I TOTALLY don’t want to die anytime soon, but if the last thing I see is the love of my life looking at me with her big shit brown eyes, it wouldn’t be so bad.
While standing still and loudly talking about my awesome dog, I scanned frantically between the bear butt and trees, looking for any sign of cubs scurrying up. Seeing no babies, Kiska and I slowly walked back towards the start of the race for about 100 feet, then we ran back. I lost the bear in the woods between the trail and the houses, and ran back that half mile as fast as my little legs would carry me. Knowing that adults and children would be running along the trail, I felt it my moral obligation to let them know a fatty bear was JUST on the trail. Running back, I found the race director and let her know what happened. I told a few friends that were running it, and everyone was happy to know make plenty of noise.
After the runners left, I lingered for a few, then started before the walkers. That way I would stay ahead of the walkers but behind the people actually running the race. Tim missed me leave, so I had to wait for him and ended up in the middle of the one milers. After we passed the half mile turn around, it thinned out and we were in the back of the pack, as hoped for. Now that Kiska and I had already added a mile onto our run, we were a little more tired but pleasantly warmed up. After mile three (for us), I started to feel my half mile burn back to the start. The switchbacks were killer, and the amount of large step ups were getting to me. Tim’s calf muscle was so tight, he said his foot was falling asleep. We stopped often to stretch out legs and backs, and for Kiska to meander about. At one point I will admit, I thought of turning around.
This was the first race my heart was just not in. I just couldn’t get my mind into a race mentality of running for a goal. And maybe it’s because I started this ‘race’ out with me just going for a run. We all have those runs where we set off, and turn around early. I wanted to turn around early. But Tim said he wouldn’t “fail”, but as I was actually just out for a run with my dog, I didn’t see it as ‘failing’ but rather ‘cutting my losses for another day’. After a moment of standing and contemplating, I realized that even if I wanted to turn around Kiska wouldn’t run back with me, knowing that Tim was heading the other way – NOT towards home. So, as a boat caught in this wild stormy ride, I had to just ride it out. And then it literally started to rain really hard. To add additional insult to injury.
Many miles, and many stretching stops later plus an emergency off trail pee, we headed back the way we came. I passed the half mile where the bear had lingered. Coming back into the dense woods along that part of the trail I was on high alter. I told Tim to look on the right, and I would look on the left for any bear butts. He said that the bear was probably long gone, and I said that was naive. The bear was pretty big, so it must be a well fed bear. It wasn’t scared by Kiska or myself, so it must be used to people and dogs. I doubted that the bear was ‘long gone’, but we managed to cross the finish line with no more bruin encounters.
As per the usual, I mad a ridiculous face at the finish line (some people take themselves too seriously). Because after a month or two, I won’t really remember the awful nitty-gritty details of my race. I’ll remember that it was raining – like it usually is, and that I saw a huge ass bear. O, and that I ran a mile farther than Tim.