Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Thu, 26 Jun 2003 13:00:02 -0400

Bears Watching


My visit last year to the Prince of Wales Marathon in Craig, Alaska, led to a story titled "Somewhere Different" (RC 416). It began, "No road trip is ordinary. All have their attractions and surprises. Few have ever been more surprising and attractive than the latest one."

Craig is one of the nearest points in Alaska to the Lower 48. But you must fly across the southwestern edge of Canada to get there, then from Ketchikan cross the channel that separates the mainland from Prince of Wales Island.

This race isn't easy to reach, as this year's record field of 44 attests. But the destination justifies the journey.

You'd think that making the same trip for a second time would only offer more of the same. Not so. No two trips are alike, even when you return to the same place and race.

Last year I saw bears only from the air, as our single-engine float plane descended for a water landing at Craig. This year the view was closer.

The town's high school borders what locals call the "Craig Zoo" -- the dump. Students will tell for decades the story about their principal Doug Rhodes and his encounter with a cub.

Rhodes is a bearded bear of a man who also serves as POW race director. He tried to "rescue" the apparently orphaned cub from a tree on the school grounds. The ensuing wrestling match with the little black bear's claws left Doug bloody.

WHEN TWO fellow Outsiders (as Alaskans call everyone not from their state) and I needed a ride to an assembly at the high school, Doug Rhodes said, "No problem. I'll come over and pick you up."

Which he did -- in a pickup. Four of us squeezed into the cab.

"You won't be this crowded coming back," he said. "I'll loan you one of the school vans."

This shows how casually the Alaskans take life. Almost anywhere else we would have needed a committee decision and a million dollars in liability insurance to drive a school vehicle. Here all we needed was a key and a promise to bring back the van "sometime."

Bob Dolphin, who is 73 and would run his 314th marathon that weekend, stole the school show. I just introduced him and asked a few questions.

Then the students had their turn. Amazed that someone older than their grandfathers could run even one marathon, let alone hundreds, they quizzed Bob.

He asked them in return, "Are any of you running tomorrow?" Several hands went up. I thought these kids were in relays but learned later that two had decided that day to go the full distance.

Only one of their classmates had made this a longterm goal -- and trained correctly. This was the one we met after the assembly.

The name hadn't registered when I first heard it. Now I remembered talking last year with her father after Chuck and Anjuli Haydu had run a half-marathon apiece as a relay team.

Anjuli made the state cross-country meet all four years, placing fourth as a senior. She has yet to run track (her school doesn't offer this sport), but still attracted the attention of college coaches. Instead of taking the obvious path south, she'll head north -- to the University of Alaska/Anchorage.

Anjuli won't head for the East Coast next spring, though she could. In her first marathon at POW, she ran 3:36 to qualify for Boston.

I PLAYED minor roles on raceday. First came firing the starting gun.

This being Alaska, it was no wimpy pistol shooting blanks. Doug Doug Rhodes handed me a shotgun and asked, "Do you know how to use one of these?"

I didn't. He instructed, "Hold it tight against your shoulder. Otherwise it might knock you over."

He added, "This is the safety. Remember to take it off."

I forgot. On my second try the shotgun fired, and I barely felt its kick. Doug had kindly used an underpowered shell.

I handed him the shotgun, then started the active part of my day as the last runner to leave the line. This was another false-start. I ran 50 yards before realizing I'd forgotten my bone.

The yellow plastic bone served as the relay baton for the team I'd joined the night before. A team called the Tired Dogs had lost a runner and needed a replacement. I needed a run, and the team took me to carry its bone for the first one-fourth of the marathon.

My best event of the day came a little later. Finished with my relay segment, I climbed into a car with race founder Dave Johnson and Lenore Dolphin, Bob's wife. Soon after catching the lead runner, winner-to-be Aaron Prussian, we came upon a non-entrant.

"Bear!" shouted Dave. This large black one waddled across the road in front of us, within 100 feet of where we stopped.

Dave and Lenore both fumbled for their cameras. I just watched, awed at this sight.

Only once before had I seen a black bear this close. We'd met on a trail at Whistler, British Columbia. Each of us was so startled that we raced in opposite directions at equal speed.

"Bears are like people," Dave explained. "Some are shy, but some are downright cantankerous. It's wise not to try and introduce yourself to get that perfect picture."

Before any photos were shot, this bear fled into the woods. Told later of this encounter, Doug Rhodes said, "If you saw one bear, you can be sure that a dozen saw you."

Prince of Wales has a fast course (which yielded five Boston qualifying times this year). Its four-legged "spectators" could make it even faster.


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