Saturday, July 26, 2008

UAA runner races a grizzly and gets lucky

HILLSIDE: Athlete knew fleeing was ill-advised but did so anyway.

By CRAIG MEDRED - Anchorage Daily News

Almost a week after the fright of his life, University of Alaska Anchorage cross-country runner Auston Ellis can't remember whether he heard the grizzly bear woof or a roar.

What he does remember very clearly is looking over his shoulder and seeing a huge set of jaws closing on his rump as he paused near the top of the Spencer Loop Trail on the Anchorage Hillside.

Instinctively, "I sucked in my butt."

The jaws, he said, clapped shut with a snap, barely missing flesh.

And then he ran.

He knew he wasn't supposed to. He knew, in this situation, with a grizzly bear this close, the recommended procedure is to drop and cover.

"I've never heard of a story where anyone who has run from a bear that bad things haven't happened,'' said Ellis, 21, who grew up in Wyoming before spending his high school years in Valdez.

But, as he fairly points out, most of the people who advise dropping and playing dead for a grizzly bear have never had a bear chomping the air inches from their butt.

"I couldn't do it,'' Ellis said. "It was one of those instinct things.

"I took off and sprinted for about 20 yards or so."

As usually happens, the bear gave chase.

It "was maybe 2 feet behind me the whole way,'' Ellis said. "I was 99 percent sure I was going to get mauled, and I was about 97 percent sure I was dead."

Running, he decided, wasn't going to work. A bear will invariably beat a man in a sprint.

"I banked left into the woods,'' Ellis said.

He was going fast enough that the bear, being far bigger and thus less nimble, couldn't make the corner.

"I banked quick enough that she had to come to a stop,'' Ellis said.

The move gained him precious seconds in the chase. He looked for a tree to climb to safety now.

He couldn't find one. He dove into a thick tangle of alder.

"The bear circled back,'' Ellis said, "and got with about 3 feet of my face. We had this stare down over the bush. I didn't breathe or blink or anything.''

He tried to calm himself down: Stay cool, he thought. Try to relax. Don't have a heart attack.

He could feel his heart turning over so fast it was whirring more than beating.

"I could hear it when I was holding my breath,'' he said.


The day wasn't supposed to have gone like this. It was Saturday and the first, almost the only, nice day of the summer in Anchorage.

Ellis had been able to toss his shirt and run in nothing but shorts for the first time all season.

He took off from the University of Alaska Anchorage sports complex in Midtown, ran up the Tour of Anchorage Trail into the Campbell Tract, took a turn onto a trail called Rover's Run and kept going up. He didn't think much about the fact that wildlife biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game consider this the most grizzly filled terrain near the city.

Or that only about a month earlier 15-year-old Petra Davis had been attacked and badly mauled near where Rover's Run intersects the Anchorage gas line corridor not far from Hilltop Ski Area. Davis was just getting out of the hospital, still looking at a long road to recovery, about the time Ellis ran smack by the spot she'd been mauled.

He kept going, followed Rover's onto a multiuse trail connecting Hillside Park to Basher Drive, and then headed up a series of rolling hills on popular Spencer Loop. It made for a good workout for a young athlete.

"It was a beautiful day,'' Ellis said.

It was about 4:30 p.m. Conventional wisdom would mark that as an hour when bears, which tend to be nocturnal, are less active, but state wildlife biologist Sean Farley, who has extensively studied the bears in this area, said he has seen no clear time pattern in their movements along Campbell Creek where they search for salmon in July and August.

After Davis was attacked, the darkness of the night (she was riding in a 24-hour mountain bike race at the time), the sound of the water in the creek, and the rustle of the wind in the trees were all cited as conditions that might have accounted for her surprising a bear. None of those things existed on Ellis' outing.

The winds were calm. It was the middle of the afternoon. Ellis was far away from the gurgle of the creek.

Somehow, though, he still surprised a bear. He was far from where a couple other runners were run over by a grizzly with cubs shortly before Davis was attacked. There is no way of knowing if that bear was involved in the mauling, but it is possible the one Ellis encountered was the one that had met runners before.

The other runners described a sow with two cubs. Ellis was about to discover that is exactly what he had, unexpectedly, run into.

He wouldn't make this discovery until the very end, however.

First, he'd have to survive that faceoff over the brush.


"When I was sizing her up,'' he said, "her head seemed to go from about the top of my head to my waist. It must have been 3 feet in diameter. She was easily the biggest bear I've seen since I've lived in Alaska.

"The weird thing is she didn't make a noise.''

For what seemed like a lifetime but was only a matter of minutes, possibly only seconds, Ellis and the bear stared at each other in the silence.

"Then she just walked away nonchalant,'' he said. "She just walked away.''

Ellis saw her collect a pair of cubs and head off, and he knew then just what had happened.

"I ran between the bear and the cubs,'' he said. "I don't blame the bear. I just spooked her. I run quicker than most people. I probably came up on her pretty fast.

"And it all sort of just worked out in my favor. I can't explain how lucky I was."

"Don't ask how lucky,'' added Michael Friess, Ellis's coach at UAA. "I'm getting a little fearful of what's going on.''

He noted his athletes have been running into bears all over Anchorage of late. That hasn't happened in the past. Area wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott said the bear population could be on the increase, but doesn't know for sure.

It could just be a weird summer. It's already that way weatherwise; why not bearwise?

Biologists are, however, cautioning people using Far North Bicentennial and Hillside parks to be especially alert, particularly runners and mountain bikers who might be moving fast enough to catch a bear off guard. The bears in the area, Farley notes, use the trails as regularly as the people, so encounters are always a possibility.

Many people appear to have abandoned recreation in the area since the attack on Davis, but Ellis said he will continue to run there even though bear encounter left him badly shaken.

He will just be sure to take a buddy along from now on.

"It's too nerve-wracking for me alone,'' he said.

Biologists note that one of the best protections against bears is to travel in a big group and make lots of noise. Short of that, they say, it is wise to stay alert -- leave the headphones at home -- and carry bear spray to douse any bear that might be encountered.