A parent’s worst nightmare came to life this Father’s Day when a teen running an annual trail race was fatally mauled by a bear near Bird Creek.
Law enforcement officials and fellow competitors said a 16-year-old boy was participating in the Robert Spurr Memorial Hill Climb at Bird Ridge, which was being run for the 29th year straight.
Dozens of runners, including the teen, toed the starting line that morning for the mountain race that begins at the start of Bird Creek Trail, and meanders through heavily wooded terrain. As for the ascent, that’s a 3,400-foot vertical climb that spans three miles for adult racers and half that for juniors, those who are 17 and younger taking on the mountain.
Challenging terrain, but in those three decades, many said the territory had never proven to be a big problem.
That all changed shortly after noon Sunday.
“I’ve been running in the mountains for 30 years,” said Brad Precosky, a director of the race. “People come down off the trail and say they’ve run into a bear. Sometimes that means nothing; other times, it’s really serious. Like this.”
The teenager, who police said is from Alaska, reportedly sent a text message to his mother during his descent of the trail after the all-uphill race sometime around 12:30. He said he was being chased by a bear.
“The mother was here with her family, her children,” said Anchorage Police Dept. Sgt. Nathan Mitchell. “They were running the race.”
Precosky said the teen’s fellow competitors lost him in thick brush when he went off the trail. When one of the runners came barreling down the trail saying there had been an attack, he said, the entire race crew went into crisis mode.
Other runners, most of whom who had completed the race already, immediately volunteered to be part of the search for the boy. They returned – weaponless – to the trail.
“There were probably a dozen mountain runners up there keeping the bear on its toes,” Precosky said.
One of the runners said he saw a bear circling the teen somewhere off the beaten path.
John Weddleton, who didn’t win a lottery spot for the race this year but attended to cheer his fellow runners on, was first to find the boy after the attack.
“I ran up to cheer, came down, and thought, I might as well go back up,” he said. “All I knew was there was a boy missing, and missing in bear country.”
He was on his own after splitting off from the main search party when he heard the rustle of a bear.
“I heard something above me and thought, maybe that’s him,” Weddleton said. “The bear came by me, maybe about 10 feet away, and then I saw [the teen]. No motion. He looked awful.”
The police department received a call reporting the mauling around 3 p.m. Sunday afternoon.
“We didn’t have a whole lot of info initially,” Mitchell said, “so we started sending assets. It sounded like park rangers were ahead of us, but they didn’t have any long guns.
“There really wasn’t much here when we arrived,” he said. “Just people pointing up at the trail.”
APD, the Anchorage Fire Dept., Alaska State Troopers, the National Guard, and park rangers were all part of the search.
“We got word that it didn’t look good when we got eyes on the bear around 2:30,” Precosky said. “This is not – it’s not something I want to see.”
What was described by police as “a large black bear” that attacked the boy wasn’t the only one in the area Sunday afternoon. Runners reported seeing multiple bears while along the trail during the race.
“There was a brown bear sighting, there was a black bear with cubs sighting,” Precosky said. “We didn’t know which was which.”
After an extended search, the boy was eventually located off the main trail, about a mile up the path at about 1500 vertical feet.
“The terrain was really, really rugged,” Mitchell said, “to the point where we only sent down a team of six. The officers went down, very guarded, and located the victim.”
Mitchell said the teen was pronounced dead at the scene, and the body was airlifted out of the area.
“How do you respond as a parent when you hear news like that?” he said. “It’s devastating. It’s tough.”
As family and the community mourn, for now, that bear continues to wander the trails, which remained closed as of Sunday night.
“Pray for that family,” Weddleton said.
Author’s note: This story has been edited to clarify that the teen was injured while descending the trail, not ascending it during the race.