Finally, I’m ready to retell one of my favorite running stories, inspired by the documentary Grizzly Man. The acclaimed film focuses on Timothy Treadwell, who spent his summers in the wild with Kodiak brown bears, the largest of its kind in the world. After seeing the film, you wonder how Treadwell managed to live so many years in the bears’ natural habitat before being eaten by one.
I lived on that same island for five years and had a couple of bear encounters myself. We lived in a military housing complex midway between the town and the Coast Guard base, and there was a nearby stream that sometimes drew hungry bears, especially if the salmon run was late and salmonberries were abundant. Usually, if you were upwind, you smelled the creatures before you caught a glimpse, which was a good thing when you had a baby and toddler in tow. My husband once joined two other friends for a week in Karluk to shoot (with old-fashioned manual cameras) the bears in their native environment. I noticed he brought back a lot of blurred shots of animals looking straight at the camera -- and very clear photos of bear butts.
I was then a young mother who didn’t have many opportunities to run outdoors between my work schedule, husband’s deployments and the mercurial weather. One summer we had a friend visiting from Virginia and I used the opportunity to head out for a four-mile run while the kids were entertained. I rarely ran beyond our complex because I usually needed to remain close to home; therefore, being able to break out of my usual borders was a special treat. Just crossing the lone two-lane road to run toward the base felt foreign, and the lack of cars that time of day made me feel alone and vulnerable. I’d gone about a mile when I noticed a brown mossy boulder in a field to my left. I’d driven past this field at least twice daily for three years and never noticed it before. Then suddenly the boulder moved, and up stood a giant brown bear -- staring straight at me.
Now, everyone in Kodiak is told two things: Never, ever get between a sow and her cub, because mama bear instinctively will attack. And never, ever run from a bear. While I tried to keep my heart from leaping out of my chest, I instantly assessed my situation. The bear was big, but not fully matured. Was his mother on the other side, in the woods? And I was already running -- would this just entice him?
I stopped. I stared. I debated. Do I make for the base ahead or turn around toward home? Both were about the same distance.
I turned and started to walk toward home, not caring I now was on the wrong side of a curvy road with no bike lanes, sidewalks or other buffer between me and a speeding car, which I’d greatly have appreciated at that moment anyway. I kept an eye on the bear, which kept on eye on me. Then it lowered onto all fours and I completely freaked and started to run, believing the chase was on.
However, it wasn’t. The bear let me be. I arrived home yelling, “Bear!...Up…the road!” between heaves. My husband and our friend hopped in the truck for a look, but the bear was gone by then. A couple of weeks later, while in the Anchorage airport, I picked up the local paper and found an Associated Press story with a Kodiak dateline about that same bear, which had since become a regular in our area. The bear had forced my neighbor and her 9-month-old son onto their roof after it broke through the back door. After authorities shot it to death, they discovered several wounds, perhaps inflicted earlier in the day by humans, which may have caused the aggressive behavior.
I never looked at my watch when I got back from my bear encounter that afternoon in August, but I feel certain that was the fastest mile I ever have -- or will -- run in my entire life.