The Last Frontier

PinkHueMy flight landed at 11:24 p.m. on Thursday (June 15th) in Anchorage. The sun was setting, yet it was still daylight, or otherwise known as civil twilight, and the snow-peaked mountains glowed with a pink hue. I had arrived to run my 25th half-marathon in my 19th state.

I was tired after my flight, but the moment I was driving in my rental car, in the daylight, I re-awoke. I felt like I could have went out for a night on the town. When I arrived at the hotel close to 1 a.m., it seemed the other guests in the hotel lobby felt the same way. Alaska was like the casino that pumps oxygen in to keep the gamblers lively and awake unaware of the hours that have passed them by, except Alaska was pumping its visitors full of light essentially creating the same effect.

That night, well early that morning, I finally lay down at 1:30 a.m. I saw the light nosily pushing its way in on the sides of the metal blinds. But I was able to roll over and ignore the intrusion…for 4 ½ hours.

Then, I found myself wide awake at 6 a.m. I continued to turn back and forth in the queen-size bed forcing my eyes shut because I was tired, but the light did not relent. In fact, it was encouraged, so I conceded.

My three main goals for this new day, that never really ended or started but just sort of continued, were try this vegan, but still served meat, restaurant named Middle Way Café, get my race packet at the Alaska Airlines Center and go on an epic run.

I am happy to say I loved Middle Way Café. In fact, I have eaten breakfast there three times now. I am already a vegetarian, who still eats eggs and fish, but my doctor informed me I had a milk intolerance. So now I am essentially a vegan, who still eats eggs and fish. While there is no “category” for me, I guess if I haveNe to classify myself I would say I am a disgruntled milk intolerant, no meat eatin’ gal who loves farm fresh eggs and fresh fish. So my vegan breakfast burrito, with an egg added, was actually amazing, even though it was cheese free.

Next, I headed to the AAC (Alaska Airlines Center) to go to the race expo and pick up my race packet. Outside the AAC was a very large green blow-up seawolf head, which is the mascot for the University of Alaska Anchorage. In case you are wondering if you missed some new hybrid species of animal, you did not. The seawolf is a mythical creature that is part of the Alaskan culture. It is strong, generous and humble. I thought this seawolf was the perfect creature to embody for my race on Saturday. After watching a large group of exuberant runners take their picture with the large green blow-up seawolf head, I walked inside and briefly perused the expo and received my race bib as well.

The day was shaping up to be beautiful and productive. It was right at 60 degrees with clear skies and sunshine. I ended up asking a local runner, and worker, at Skinny Raven Sports where there were some non-road running paths. She was awesome, and told me 3 different areas to run, but she also warned me about black bears. Apparently they were quite active this time of year and of course Alaska was bear country. I heeded her warning and decided to run on a popular bike trail that followed the coast named Tony Knowles Coastal Trail.

There were many places to pick up this trail, and I decided to begin my run at Point Woronzof Park and run towards Kincaid Park. Before I headed out on my run, I decided to Google what I should do if I should happen to encounter a black bear, and a moose for that matter. I have been obsessed with bears since I was a young child, so I already knew black bears were more shy and timid, but they are wild creatures and deserve respect as all animals do. In case I did encounter a bear, I was supposed to walk away from the bear without turning my back, make my presence known by calmly speaking to the bear and slowly wave my arms in the air. The one cardinal rule was never run from a black bear because it may trigger the bear’s chase instinct. This all seemed simple enough. Basically if I encountered a moose, I should give it space, and if it decided to charge I should try to get behind a tree. If I didn’t make it to a tree and it decided to stomp me, then I should curl up into a ball and protect my neck.

So after reading what I should do in case I encountered the different Alaskan wildlife, I took a brief walk down the road and picked up the trail. The weather was warm, the trail was inviting and the trees felt like old friends. I instantly felt comfortable and my legs were energized. If running through the woods wasn’t an enough of a reward, the view of the coast would periodically show itself through a break in the trees.

I was the only runner on the trail, but there were a lot of cyclists and people leisurely strolling along with cameras and binoculars hanging from their necks. There were enough breaks in people though to where I was able to enjoy one-on-one time with the trail and the surroundings. I was only going to do a 3-mile run, but I didn’t want my run to end, so I thought a 4.50 mile run sounded better. I ran farther out, so I could also enjoy a nice walk back to my car to stop and sightsee a little more intently.

So when I was about 3.25 miles into my run I realized I hadn’t seen any other people in about 5 minutes. I was coming around a bend in the trail, and there ambling down the trail in front of me with his head down was a black bear. I instantly stopped running because I remembered the one cardinal rule of encountering a black bear: don’t run. I couldn’t believe this was happening.

I had so many emotions running through me. As I mentioned earlier, I have been obsessed with bears since I was a child. My parents had bought me an encyclopedia set (yes, pre-internet) when I was around 9 years old. I read and reread about all the different bears, moose and sharks and fish of the ocean. My mom and I would also go to the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois every weekend. I spent hours watching the bears sleep, feed, fight, and roughhouse. So needless to say, the first emotion I felt was awe. I thought, “Holy shit!” I started smiling in disbelieve, but it also started to register that a bear was walking towards me because my thoughts went from “Holy shit” to “Oh shit!”

I started to walk backwards slowly, but I realized the bear still had not seen me. He was walking towards me faster than I could walk backwards. I know black bears don’t like to be surprised and that is what can cause them to react to a human. So I thought I better let the bear know I was there, but let me tell you it goes against your instincts. So when I first tried to alert the bear of my presence, I apparently wasn’t speaking loud enough, and I may have been using my library voice, because he never looked up. I realized I was going to have to be louder, so I started my one-sided dialogue again while I slowly waved my arms in the air, “Mister Bear?!” I called out. (The bear continued to follow the trail towards me with his head down). Shit, he still didn’t hear me. I cleared my throat, “Mister Bear?!” (Damn, I hoped this wasn’t a female bear, and now I offended her because I confused her gender). The bear finally looked up and made eye contact with me as his ears pointed upwards. Great, I finally got his attention…now what. As I continued to wave my arms slowly I calmly said, “Mister Bear. Hey, um, I need you to get off the trail please. Okay?” He stopped walking and looked at me just for a second more, and then he veered off the trail into the woods.

It was at that point I realized my heart was pounding like a war drum. My palms were damp, and my jaw had dropped open. I stood astonished for a few moments feeling my blood surging through me. I thought I better wait a few moments before I started running again, so I turned around and started to walk back in the direction of my car. It was then I started smiling again. I just had a beautiful and safe interaction with an animal I had loved and respected my whole life. It was just him and me there on that trail. I felt so thankful. I could not believe Mother Nature gifted me this present.

It took about 5 minutes before I started running again, but my smile never left my face.