Santa and friend hit an ursine snag
Long before the advent of reality TV shows, Alaskans were already pitting themselves against each other and the environment in a variety of endurance events. The Mount Marathon race is just over three miles but dishes out a grueling climb up its namesake peak and offers a bone-jarring descent every Fourth of July. It is arguably the most notable running race in the state, delivering a Mardi Gras atmosphere for all.
Crow Pass Crossing is another such classic race, challenging athletes against the terrain and elements. Crow Pass receives less fanfare, but completing the near marathon distance in less than six hours has its own worthy set of bragging rights.
Held on the outskirts of Anchorage, it has a similar appeal to Alaskans: You have to be a “good scout and be prepared.” Mother Nature can be merciless. “Re-dos” are seldom given. Weather can move in fast, so short cuts in preparation and execution can land you a spot in the next “Unsolved Mysteries” show.
Thankfully, I avoided ending up on one of those episodes. My “near-miss” adventure happened back in 1990, while acting as a trail-river crossing monitor during the race. I had raced this event before and knew the river crossing is sometimes the most difficult part. Still, confident in my survival skills honed in the Army I felt relatively comfortable with managing the post, about halfway on the course.
My plan was to hike in the night before from the Girdwood side, bringing my dog Boris as company, and camp out at the river. It would serve as good cross training for the Canadian Ironman I had been training for. So there I was, traversing the same route as the runners, up the steep four-mile trail and climbing past rusting remnants of an old mine to the pass. Contestants are given an hour to reach the pass, and those missing the cutoff time are dropped from the race and told to turn back.
Next I crossed several snowfields before reaching the rocky trail, obscured with dense vegetation. The runners would be glissading across the snow then trying to motor fast on the downhill.
The trail continues to descend steadily down the valley to the halfway point, my volunteer station at the river crossing. Hiking in the day before was a treat because one had the luxury of a relaxing pace with plenty of time to enjoy the striking views of Raven Glacier and the valley below. Black and brown bears are the locals in this area and always a concern. Having read “Alaskan Bear Tales,” I carried the latest device on the market – bear spray – and sang loud, obnoxious tunes out of key to keep Yogi and his friends away.
Morning came quickly and so did the runners. Legends of the trail, Bill Spencer and Nancy Pease, were the first to arrive, in tandem, doing a double take when they saw me, wearing a full wetsuit and a Santa Claus beard meant to lighten the mood. I offered them their choice of animal crackers or gummy bears and they quick dashed across the ice-cold river. Over the next hour, the rest of the race field would follow, but none would catch Bill or Nancy. Some runners enjoyed the extra measure of help traversing the river, but most ran through solo or linked arms with other competitors and crossed at an angle heading downstream.
After the sweeper passed my station, I was free to break camp and head to Eagle River. Now my time was my own, which is where this misadventure really begins. You see, Chechako Mike did not tell anyone of his intentions to explore the opposite side of the valley heading toward the Eagle River Nature Center. Nor did I think through that all of these runners had likely scared the game from the established riverside trail to the opposite shore, the very shore Boris and I were about to explore.
So literally I’m on my own with my four-legged 110-pound dog, bushwhacking down the river toward the finish. It was a gnarly route with tons of alders and lots of wet spots, and after a few hours it was time to work back to the main river and find a safe crossing point.
Just before breaking through the last set of alders to the riverbank, a sound of crashing branches came fast from the trail behind me. Time goes by fast in situations like this, and I shouted out, “Boris we have company,” and made it out of the alders and down the riverbank to the gravel bar.
Sure enough, a good-size black bear was coming straight out of the alders. I gathered myself, feeling naked and armed with only a ski pole and a can of bear spray, when Boris took off and charged the bear with his deep, baritone bark.
To my amazement, and good fortune, the bear veered sharply to the right and headed downstream after descending the bank. Boris held his ground for a moment, then returned to my side after he must have felt the threat was averted.
“Good dog!” Ear scratches came in short order, but we were not out of the woods yet – literally.
The bear was in front of us now so we had to cross the river close to our spot. The best fording point was fairly deep, almost swimmable with a modest current. Boris saved the day a second time – a strong swimmer, he helped pull me across the river.
Tonight, I thought, Boris gets a steak.
In short order, the two of us found the Crow Pass Crossing Trail and rested briefly at Echo Bend four miles shy of the Nature Center.
I’m the first to admit we were lucky to return from the wilderness intact – that bear could have reacted much differently, or I could have been swept up in a current too strong. Mistakes were made and lessons learned, especially this one: Know your route, communicate it to others and stick to it.
Keep striding and smiling,
— Coach Mike
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