Run­ning in Bear Coun­try, Yukon

When ‘Safety First’ takes on a whole new mean­ing in the Yukon

Canadian Running - - DEPARTMENTS - By Rhi­an­non Rus­sell

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.”

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