Anchorage cross-country runner races a grizzly bear, gets lucky

University student Ellis says jaws clapped shut, barely missing him, he sprints about 20 yards

Posted: Sunday, August 17, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Some time after surviving the fright of his life, University of Alaska Anchorage cross-country runner Auston Ellis can't remember whether he heard the grizzly bear woof or a roar.

What he does remember very clearly is looking over his shoulder and seeing a huge set of jaws closing on his rump as he paused near the top of the Spencer Loop Trail on the Anchorage Hillside.

Instinctively, "I sucked in my butt."

The jaws, he said, clapped shut with a snap, barely missing flesh.

And then he ran.

He knew he wasn't supposed to. He knew, in this situation, with a grizzly bear this close, the recommended procedure is to drop and cover.

"I couldn't do it," Ellis said. "It was one of those instinct things.

"I took off and sprinted for about 20 yards or so."

As usually happens, the bear gave chase.

Running, he decided, wasn't going to work. A bear will invariably beat a man in a sprint.

"I banked left into the woods," Ellis said.

He was going fast enough that the bear, being far bigger and thus less nimble, couldn't make the corner.

"I banked quick enough that she had to come to a stop," Ellis said.

The move gained him precious seconds in the chase. He looked for a tree to climb to safety now.

He couldn't find one. He dove into a thick tangle of alder.

"The bear circled back," Ellis said, "and got within about 3 feet of my face. We had this stare down over the bush. I didn't breathe or blink or anything."

"I could hear it when I was holding my breath," he said.

The day wasn't supposed to have gone like this. It was Saturday and the first, almost the only, nice day of the summer in Anchorage.

Ellis had been able to toss his shirt and run in nothing but shorts for the first time all season.

He took off from the University of Alaska Anchorage sports complex in Midtown, ran up the Tour of Anchorage Trail into the Campbell Tract, took a turn onto a trail called Rover's Run and kept going up. He didn't think much about the fact that wildlife biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game consider this the most grizzly filled terrain near the city.

Or that only about a month earlier 15-year-old Petra Davis had been attacked and badly mauled near where Rover's Run intersects the Anchorage gas line corridor not far from Hilltop Ski Area. Davis was just getting out of the hospital, still looking at a long road to recovery, about the time Ellis ran smack by the spot she'd been mauled.

It was about 4:30 p.m. Conventional wisdom would mark that as an hour when bears, which tend to be nocturnal, are less active, but state wildlife biologist Sean Farley, who has extensively studied the bears in this area, said he has seen no clear time pattern in their movements along Campbell Creek where they search for salmon in July and August.

The other runners described a sow with two cubs. Ellis was about to discover that is exactly what he had, unexpectedly, run into.

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