Since I decided to run the Bear 100 in 2016, bears have been at the forefront of my mind. Whether in magazines, or stories on the radio, my life seems more peopled with bears these days. Today, this phenomenon came to a peak.
Since winter is coming and I wanted to get in one more solid mountain run before the snow starts to fly, I decided to do today's long run at Rocky Mountain National Park's Lumpy Ridge Trailhead. I knew I would be running by myself, and the trails at Lumpy tend to be pretty heavily used, making it a bit safer for someone on her own to venture out on the trails.
Strangely, when I reached the trailhead a few minutes after sunrise, mine was the only car in the parking lot. This seemed a bit odd, but not alarming, so I set off down the trail, intending to run clockwise for the first loop, refill my hydration pack at the parking lot, then do the same loop counterclockwise for a 22-mile total. That's not how things turned out.
When running by myself, I do all I can to make noise to avoid surprising wildlife. So the first two miles fell away pretty quickly, as I hummed and sang in the quiet of the morning. I had just gotten warmed up and was making my way up the Black Canyon Trail when I noticed a bear sitting right in the middle of the trail, perhaps 20 meters ahead. The bear was sniffing at something along the ground, and I couldn't tell if he or she had noticed me yet, so I hummed a little more loudly and waited for the bear to move along.
He or she noticed me, twitched an ear, and settled back on a haunch to watch me.
I kept waiting for the bear to move along, but he or she just kept watching me, occasionally pawing at whatever had been occupying his or her attention before I came along.
The bear wasn't outwardly threatening, but wasn't moving along, either...so I thought to myself, "No problem! This is a loop trail. I'll just turn around and run the loop counterclockwise instead. Then, by the time I reach this part of the trail again, hours will have passed and the bear will probably have moseyed along." So I turned around.
I started slowly, looking back over my shoulder frequently to make sure the bear hadn't decided to follow me. Gradually as I picked up the pace and put some distance between me and the bear, I realized my heart was beating rapidly, my hands were trembling, and every tiny noise from the forest prompted me to turn my head.
I was starting to relax a bit after perhaps half a mile, when what do I see but another bear?!
I couldn't believe it. This time, the bear wasn't right on the trail, but rather, off to the side, but moving on a trajectory that would soon prompt him or her to cross the trail. Beck's "Dreams" had been playing in my head for much of the morning, so as I watched the bear make his or her way up the hill, I found myself humming and singing that melody, making sure I wasn't going to surprise the bear.
All the while, I was thinking about what to do next. I knew there was one bear behind me, so if the bear in front of me didn't keep moving, which direction could I go? The rock formations of Thunder Buttress, the Pear, and the Lens climbed steeply to my left, while to the right, trees grew densely, leading down a steep hill with uneven terrain. It was the best of bad options, but would be tough going if I actually had to go that way.
Fortunately, the bear kept moving, and I was able to continue down the trail.
By now, my heart was once again racing, hands trembling, as I continued on my way, again looking over my shoulder to make sure I wasn't being followed. I was still humming and singing, but my breathing was a bit uneven as I continued down the trail.
You won't believe what I saw next.
Yes, another bear.
Fortunately, unlike the first two, the third bear was quite a way off to my right, crossing a clearing where elk were also grazing. I stopped running, remembering the admonition never to run around bears, and walked calmly, keeping my eyes on the bear, humming and singing all the while.
The last mile to my car was agony. That stretch of trail has lots of blind curves around huge boulders and by this point, my brain was turning every sound around me, any hint of movement in my peripheral vision, into a bear. I alternated between running -- wanting to be off the trail as quickly as possible -- and walking, thinking that was a safer option.
I reached my car, and though I felt a bit silly to do so, called it a day. My mind was prompting me to see bears everywhere -- every hint of movement, every tiny sound -- and although I'd covered just six miles, I felt exhausted.
I learned a valuable lesson today, though: it truly is important to have company when venturing out on the trail -- especially in wildlife-rich areas like Rocky Mountain National Park. I've gotten into the habit of running by myself here, and until today had been very, very lucky not to run into wildlife more often.
So, grab a training partner, friends, and I'll see you on the trail!