A black bear was in first place for a short time during one of the races at the Region V Cross Country meet Saturday in Ketchikan. Teams from around Southeast Alaska faced off for the chance to compete in the state championship. But the event took a chaotic turn when the first race was interrupted by a bear.
The first heat of runners to circle the course at Ward Lake was made up of girls from 1, 2 and 3A schools – those are the smaller ones, like Wrangell, Hoonah, Petersberg, Klawock.
“Runners set?” an announcer says. A gunshot and cheers ring out.
The fastest of these runners is Taylee Nyquest – the only girl on the Thorne Bay cross country team. I followed her coach, Sheila Nyquest, who also happens to be her mom, to the 2-mile marker.
“Oh my legs are shakin’. I just get so nervous for her,” Nyquest says. “I get excited for all of them. We are at 12 minutes at the 2 miles mark. If she did three of these it would be 18 of these.”
Then Taylee came into site.
“Taylee you’re doin’ awesome! You’re at 12-12, just over 6 minutes. Just book it. Your pace is awesome! Go, go, go like the wind!” her mom cheers.
Taylee yelled something back, which we weren’t able to make out.
“There’s a black bear!”
She said: ‘there’s a black bear.’ You can hear someone who was standing on the beach at another part of Ward Lake yell back to her. When I listen back to the tape of her mom and I talking, I can hear Taylee yelling: it’s in a tree! It went into the forest!
ACT 4: There’s a black bear on the trail up there. Is she ok? What happened? She had to stop, there’s a black bear on the trail?
Thorne Bay School principal Rob O’Neal saw everything from underneath one of the Ward Lake shelters. He even managed to get a blurry picture of the bear on his phone.
“Right here, there’s some rocks and the bear’s right there. And then Taylee came through and then boom, the bear shot off. She stops…” O’Neal remembers.
And then he and other coaches stopped the rest of the girls right before the two-mile mark because of the bear. They walked back to where all the teams were gathered. But once the bear cleared out, Taylee kept running. She was the only one to finish the race.
“Go Taylee! Push, push, push! Go Taylee!”
“I was just running and the bear was coming up from the water, and I didn’t want to keep going,” Taylee explains. “So it climbed up into the tree and I yelled back and waited and it went into the forest on the other side so I just kept going.”
Taylee wasn’t as worried about the bear as she was about her time.
“To be honest, what was going through my head when I had to stop was what could have my time been if I didn’t have to stop?”
A committee of coaches and athletic directors decided the 1, 2, and 3A girls would re-run the race, since it was interrupted before the end. Madison James and Marissa Yliniemi from Metlakatla High School were not thrilled about that.
“We were running we were in the mojo of it. Then all of a sudden they were like, there’s a bear! And it’s like, are you kidding me? I was doing good! I felt like I did not want to run again. There’s been bears [before] but they’ve never been actually on the course to the point where we had to stop the race.”
Since Taylee finished the course the first time, she didn’t have to run it again.
Ketchikan High School Activities Director Ed Klein said in the approximately 7 years he’s been here, there has never been a bear situation at an athletic competition. He says the cross country trails are marked, but not cleared of bears before the race.
“But it might be something we’ll have to put on our list,” Klein laughs.
Thorne Bay Coach Nyquest says she’s tried to prepare her five-person cross country team for encounters with wildlife.
“We run on logging roads, so we’re in the wilderness quite a bit. Tell the kids to make a lot of noise. But we’ve never had an issue.”
Despite the unexpected visitor, Taylee qualified for state. She was disappointed about the impact the bear had on her time – she was about a minute slower than usual – but she tried to take a positive perspective.
“In practice we always say, run like there’s a bear chasing you. I was like, well perfect opportunity!”