Safety & Security

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Bear Danger: Race Organizers Focus on Safety after Attack on Trail

12 Jul, 2017

By: Michael Popke

It’s not as if racers in Alaska’s annual Crow Pass Crossing backcountry marathon aren’t warned: “This is a risk-filled and dangerous race,” the event’s registration form bluntly advises. “Bad things can and usually do happen. Someone has been injured or imperiled each year. There are very real hazards and little chance of immediate medical aid if needed.’’

Aid might be quicker in coming, though, after the June 18 death of a teen runner in another Alaska mountain and trail race. Patrick “Jack” Cooper, 16, was attacked and killed by a black bear after losing his way while descending Bird Ridge Trailhead near Indian, Alaska, after completing the uphill-only Robert Spurr Memorial Hill Climb. And in that experience is a continuing lesson for all those who own, organize and hold the rights to events in areas where bear are frequent guests.

Events held in the woods and in parks are particularly susceptible. Mountain biking, trail running, orienteering and other sports frequently find athletes out alone -- and vulnerable.

“Bears sightings and occasional encounters are not uncommon in Alaska mountain and trail runs, which have blossomed in popularity so much in the last two decades that some events employ a lottery system for coveted race entries,” according to the Alaska Dispatch News. “The Alaska Mountain Runners’ Grand Prix consists of seven races, and there are nearly two dozen trail and mountain races in all this summer in South-central Alaska.”

Jack Cooper’s death is believed to be the first bear attack in an Alaska mountain race; in 1995, two people were killed by bears in Chugach State Park, where the Crow Pass Crossing takes place. But bears are not uncommon sites on or near race trails.

“Virtually anywhere in the Anchorage municipality or Chugach State Park is bear territory,” one longtime racer told the Dispatch News.

“If you are going to participate in mountain running events in Alaska, you have to accept the inherent risks,” added Harlow Robinson, a longtime trail and mountain runner from Anchorage. “Everything should be prefaced by the fact this is so heartbreaking, and I feel so badly for the (Cooper) family. The reality is, it’s far more dangerous to drive … to the Bird Ridge parking lot than it is to hike up and down that ridge.”

Brad Precosky, director of the Bird Ridge race and president of the nonprofit Alaska Mountain Runners organization, told reporters he warned runners that a brown bear was detected high on the mountain earlier the morning of the Crow Pass Crossing race but was seen later leaving the trail; the race went on as scheduled, but volunteers were armed with bear spray at the finish lines.

Bear-safety experts suggest organizers of high-risk mountain and trail races hold pre-race safety briefings and make all participants carry bear spray. Tom Harrison, superintendent for Chugach State Park, says safety concerns in the wake of Cooper’s death will likely be addressed by the park’s advisory board.

“We plan on looking into it with respect to these types of events,’’ Harrison told reporters. “Are there stipulations that can be added after this tragic event?

Not surprisingly, staying safe in bear country has been a major talking point in the country’s northernmost state, and the Dispatch News shared several bear safety tips that include making noise so you don’t surprise a bear, traveling in groups and carrying bear spray.

It's not just Alaska, either. A Maine runner, out training for a marathon, was forced to flee from not just one but two bears.

Here’s a short, four-minute video about bear safety produced by the Alaska Public Lands Information Centers and the National Park Service.

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