Bear Witness (The Long Run 2010 Oct)

funny_bear_not_a_runner_now_you_are-1561You gotta love moms. In a casual Sunday catch-up chat I mention that I just got in from a 12-mile run. “Without stopping?” Mom asks incredulously as though it were a feat of madness on the order of swimming the English Channel. This dubiety, mind you, is coming from a woman who accepts tabloid headlines about alien-human hybrid births. If only my feat were immortalized in an Enquirer headline: “Man runs from Woodmen to Baptist Road and Lives to Tell the Story.” Anyway, the next thing out of her mouth is not, “Good job,” or even a jesting, “Were you in some kind of trouble?” Instead she asks, “Honey, what about the bears?”

I return a dose of unfounded incredulity (apparently it runs in the family). “Bears?” I say dismissively. “Maybe in Alaska.” To me wild bears are mythical creatures. To date I’ve seen as many wild bears as I have human-alien hybrids: zilch. If I hadn’t seen bears at the zoo, I’d swear the whole bear lore was a hoax. I can’t tell you how many times some saucer-eyed runner has warned me off a trail because a bear had just scared the [insert your noun here] out of him. I am never daunted. Always foolhardy, I venture where folks with better sense dare not go. I secretly—not so secretly now–hope for an encounter. A benign encounter, mind you. And, as always, it ends up being just me and the empty spaces. With me, every purported encounter holds as much water as a “bigfoot” sighting. I’m a veteran runner (and camper) who has logged his share of time on mountain trails and in alpine meadows. Darn it, I’ve earned my sighting! And yet there are Circuit City clerks who have seen more bears than I have (remember that story?) To think that some kid shelving Blue Rays was granted the encounter I’ve been denied is a cruel piece of irony. God has a confounding sense of humor.

Were my friend John to read this, he would shake a finger at me and warn me to be careful what I wish for. John had his encounter (and not while in the market for electronics). And his wasn’t exactly a benign encounter. Before I say more I’ll say that John is as honest as your conscience wired to a polygraph machine. And his flair for the dramatic rarely reaches the pitch of a single exclamation mark. John doesn’t cry wolf–or bear—or anything. So when an uncharacteristically emotive John called me one night a couple of years ago I listened. And I believed. Here’s the story John related. He went for a run in Eldorado Canyon near Boulder. A few miles in he was met by a ghostly-white runner moving rapidly in the opposite direction and aggressively imploring him to turn on his heels and run for it. John, being quicker on the uptake than I, complied. And good thing he did. Within seconds a grunting, testy bear was running the two runners down. Sensing the futility of outdistancing the bear on a well-trammeled trail they ducked into the forest (a suspect move when one considers the advantages a woodland creature might have in . . .um, the woods, but one I might’ve made in a panic). In the ensuing scramble, John’s informant twisted his ankle badly, forcing the two to turn and face their aggressor. A stand-off ensued. Pawing the ground, the bear circled their position. No amount of hurled rocks and sticks could persuade the bear to disengage. As the standoff dragged, dusk was approaching. The bear showed no signs of relenting. In a desperate move to avoid adding darkness to the bear’s advantage John parted company with his hapless new friend (I don’t think John ever had time for such niceties as learning his name) and bolted for it. Amazingly the bear held his position, allowing John to escape, find the trail, and eventually recruit a posse of local firemen. John’s, his friend’s, and the bear’s story ended well. Cooler heads prevailed and the bear backed down and slunk off into the woods.

John’s harrowing adventure is surely rare but with the scariest time of the year upon us we should remember that even a routine run can turn scary. When running (especially trails) be aware, run with a friend (canine or human), and heed warnings. And enjoy!

Maybe it’s time to start wearing that bear bell mom gave me for Christmas.

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