Before I begin, here is my official disclaimer: I’m not actually advocating for running from bears. I’ve read my Parks Canada pamphlets and various other publications on living in bear country, all of which have informed me of proper protocol upon encountering a bear. Take their advice, not mine.
I would, however, like to point out that proper protocol (i.e. rationality) goes out the window when you’re miles from the trailhead, haven’t seen a single human being in hours, and hear the distinct huffing of a bear. I would also like to add that I’ve run my own statistical study and have found that 3 out of 3 times that I have employed trail running when suspecting a bear in the area, zero bear attacks occurred. Just try to argue with statistics like that.
With all that preamble aside, let’s move on to the topic at hand, which is that bears can, in fact, serve as powerful trail running motivation. Anyone’s who’s been following my brief blog life probably has a good sense of my thoughts on motivation. I’ve talked about guilt as a powerful motivator, but I’ve failed to mention an equally powerful motivator: fear.
And so, let me briefly recount three of my personal experiences using (my largely unfounded) fear of bears as motivation for trail running:
- Rockbound Lake–2009ish. I was not a trail runner at this point in my life. In fact, I had fairly recently moved to Banff and was just getting into hiking. Typically, this is a popular and crowded trail. As luck would have it, though, I happened to pick a day where I encountered exactly four people. There is a section of trail before the final climb to Rockbound Lake that crosses a wide meadow that I assumed to be highly bear-friendly. On my descent, as I passed through this section of trail, I became convinced that there was ‘something out there’. Mock me if you will, but I have always trusted my intuition in nature and it has rarely led me astray. In my mind, the source of my rapidly escalating nervousness was a giant, lumbering grizzly. With that image in mind, I commenced a slow jogging pace and inadvertently ran my first 3ish kilometres of trail ever. Moral of the story: even if you don’t see a bear, it may be there, and it is best to use that to your advantage by testing out your running chops to ensure a safe escape from the area.
- Sunset Pass–2011ish. I regularly trail run at this point but was enjoying a peaceful hiking day (in other words, I was too lazy to run) on the iconic Icefields Parkway. After about 12km of solo hiking and only two human encounters the entire day, I had already travelled through way too many kilometres of anxiety-provoking bear habitat. In fact, I had already been jogging off-and-on across one particularly terrifying meadow lined on both sides by bear-hiding, shoulder-high scrub. No sooner had I exited this meadow, and just as I was about to breathe a sigh of relief for being safe from bears, when I heard a loud huffing and what sounded like something large and ungraceful in the brush behind me. Without a thought, I launched into an adrenaline-fuelled sprint for the remaining 4 km of the descent. Moral of the story: You are never really safe from bears, even when you think you are no longer in prime bear habitat, so you might as well run the whole damn trail.
- Tumbling Pass–2015. At this point in my life, I have given up entirely on trail running care of many nagging injuries. So on this day, I was out for a 25km out-and-back on a section of the stunning Rockwall trail. Roughly 5km in, I had encountered zero humans and one giant, steaming pile of bear scat. I continued anyways, because I like to live life on the wild side. That said, I was in a heightened state of alert (i.e. making tons of noise and generally jumping at any sound or sign of life in the forest). I made it to the pass and revelled in its splendour. On my way out, I passed exactly two other hikers. Solitude is great…except when you are walking amongst berry-laden bushes as far as the eye can see. Right as I encountered the same, giant pile of bear scat, nature decided to teach me a lesson about solo hiking. I heard huffing and a rustle in the woods. As with my experience on Sunset Pass, zero rational thought occurred. I just ran like hell. And, like that, I inadvertently completed my first trail run in years, albeit only 3 to 4 km. To add to nature’s lesson, as I drove away from this hike, a black bear ran across the highway directly in front of my car. I am convinced to this day it was the same bear I heard in the woods, not-so-subtly informing me that he had been out there and had only allowed me to survive out of sheer pity. Moral of the story: if you’re going to hike alone, you might as well run to lessen your chances of encountering a bear.
- Find a secluded trail. If there’s more than 5 cars in the parking lot, keep looking.
- While hiking, listen intently for any possible noises in the woods, any bear scratchings or diggings, and even more obvious signs like fresh bear scat. When you encounter these, do not turn around. Stay the course.
- Work yourself up into the anxiety riddled hiker who jumps at every sound and sign of motion, which I assure you are plentiful in nature.
- When your anxiety reaches it’s tipping point and/or you legitimately see or hear sign of a bear, follow your true instinct and run like you have no other option.
And so, if you’re uncertain about whether you can trail run, let me assure you that you can, particularly if you share my slightly over-anxious temperament. If you’d like to leverage bear anxiety for motivation, here are my quick tips:
Congratulations, you are now a trail runner.