Running in Bear Country, Yukon
When ‘Safety First’ takes on a whole new meaning in the Yukon
On a sunny summer morning in 2014, Tom Ullyett race-walked around the small kettle lakes on the course of the Yukon River Trail Marathon in Whitehorse. A longtime runner, Ullyett had broken his elbow falling off his bicycle six weeks prior, so he opted to walk the half-marathon rather than run it and risk falling and reinjuring himself. Since the walkers started before the runners, Ullyett was the first racer through this part of the course, a hilly section with some open, grassy slopes. He went down a hill into a treelined gully, and that’s when he spotted the grizzly. She was trotting down the other side of the hill, with her cubs, about five metres away. Seeing him, she dug her paws into the dirt, dust clouding in the air. “I just remember looking at how big this thing was and how big its face was,” Ullyett says. “I thought, this is it. I’m about to meet my maker.”
Having lived in the Yukon for nearly 30 years, Ullyett knew how to react. He put his arms up, talked softly to the bear and slowly began moving backwards up the hill he’d just come down. The cubs took off in the opposite direction, and the grizzly sauntered off after them – along the race route. He knew there were other walkers not far behind him, so he headed back up to the top of the hill and shouted, “Bear! Bear!” When four walkers came along, including his wife, they decided to continue along together while making lots of noise to alert the bears to their whereabouts. They didn’t see the grizzly, or its cubs, again. Ullyett went on to win the walking division in 2:47.
He doesn’t r un a lone on t hose trails anymore.
A few years earlier, a trail runner in Haines Junction, Yukon, about an hour and a half from Whitehorse, had an even closer call. It was August 2008, and Bob Hayes was out for a six-kilometre run through a spruce forest. The narrow trail was bordered by soapberry bushes – a favourite food source of the grizzly bears that live in the adjacent Kluane National Park. The bears were in their pre-hibernation feeding frenzy. As Hayes ran along with his golden retriever, Charlie, he saw a hulking blonde shape just off the trail. He didn’t even have time to react before the grizzly charged at him, roaring. Hayes, now retired, spent decades in the Yukon working as a biologist and had several bear encounters, but never something as intense and instantaneous as this. “It wasn’t a bluff charge, for sure,” he says.
With the bear just metres away, Charlie jumped in, saving Hayes’ life. He lunged at the bear, distracting her so that she turned and chased after him instead. Hayes quickly began scrambling up a nearby tree. Then the bear came back. As he climbed just out of reach, the grizzly stood up and opened her jaws, grazing his ankle with one of her teeth. “It was like somebody stuck a hot poker in my ankle, that’s how it felt,” he says. She didn’t break the skin, but left Hayes with a scar nonetheless. From the tree, he watched as Charlie deked around the bear, barking and easily leaping out of her way. The dog had previous experience with bears, chasing them out of Hayes’ yard in Haines Junction.
When the grizzly showed no sign of leaving the area, Hayes reached into his fanny pack and grabbed his bear spray. When she looked up at him, he blasted it into her face. The effect was immediate: she snorted and roared, yet she still didn’t leave, running wildly underneath the tree. Hayes heard two calls from her cub nearby, and then he shouted at the bear for the first time. With that, she took off into the forest in the direction of her cub. Hayes eventually clambered down from the tree, and he and Charlie went home.
Hayes doesn’t blame the bear for what happened. He says it was obvious he startled her and she was protecting her young. “Most of them are really just minding their own business. That’s their world, and we just have to be really aware that they could be there and give them lots of warning that we’re around.”
He recommends runners carry bear spray in an easily accessible spot on the front of their body – unlike he did, on his lower back. It’s important to practice pulling it out and removing the safety cap, and he even suggests unleashing the spray from an expired can as a drill. Be sure to stand upwind when doing so.
After the attack, fear didn’t keep Hayes from venturing into the wilderness again. “It was just something that happened,” he says. “What’s the point of going out if you’re spending your whole time worrying about it?” Rhiannon Russell is a freelance journalist based in Whitehorse. Russell has written for The Walrus, the Globe and Mail, and Maisonneuve.
“Hayes quickly began scrambling up a nearby tree. Then the bear came back. As he climbed just out of reach, the grizzly stood up and opened her jaws, grazing his ankle with one of her teeth.”