There are two wild animals in Jasper you don’t want to surprise in the bush: a bear with cubs and an elk with a calf.
On Monday June 5, Jasper ultra runner Wendy Copp ran into both.
“Hi there Mrs. Elk, sorry to disturb you, I’m just passing through!”
Copp was up early that morning, eager to start a long trail run that she hoped would start her week off on a positive note. She had planned to go for 25 to 30 kilometres on the Pyramid Bench, but as she stopped for a photo on the Edge of the Bench trail (2B), she noticed rustling in the bush beside her. It was a female elk. Copp knew that female elk in the spring time are hormonal and unpredictable and knowing they can be dangerous, she prepared to give it a wide berth.
“I figured I could easily bushwhack a little through the forest and get past her,” she said.
Talking to the elk gently as she moved into the woods, Copp found the forest thick with fallen timber. When she stepped on a branch and it cracked loudly, the animal bolted to attention.
“She stared at me, tilting her head to the side and walking straight toward me,” Copp recalled.
Her heart racing a little by now, Copp changed course, electing to move back to the trail from where she had come. She could see the light getting brighter through the trees as she began to emerge from the bush.
“All I need to do was take a couple of steps and I would be on the trail.”
As she did so, however, a loud growl startled her. From the corner of her right eye she saw brown fur. Turning her head she saw a large black bear, no more than eight feet from where she stood. Backing away quickly, Copp saw the bear shoo her cub up a nearby tree before turning to face her.
“Oh my God! I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” she yelled, as the bear charged directly at her. The bear stopped just short of her, as Copp retreated backwards towards the steep embankment that overlooked the railway tracks and the highway, far below. The hill was too steep to descend backwards, so Copp turned around and looked over her shoulder. Within seconds, the bear charged again, huffing as it came.
“No!” she screamed, turning around to face it again. “No! No! No!”
Again the bear stopped short. It then attended to her cub once more, while Copp tried to escape down the hill.
Trying to negotiate the steep terrain, her body spiked with adrenaline, Copp slipped, falling hard on her side and sliding down the embankment. As she flipped onto her stomach, Copp grabbed at vegetation and sticks to arrest her fall. To her horror, she could hear the bear charging a third time. Gaining her footing, Copp jumped up and again screamed and waved her arms while the bear huffed and clawed the ground directly between them. There was no place to run.
“I could feel her breath on my face,” Copp recalled. “I thought she was either going to lunge at me or swipe at me with her paw.”
After what seemed like an eternity, the bear turned and ran back up the hill.
Sprinting in the opposite direction, Copp reached for her phone and dialed 911. She was convinced the bear would be back and figured if she got through to Parks Canada dispatchers, rescuers could at least pinpoint her location. Adding to her sense of urgency, a train impeded her route across the tracks toward the highway. Eventually she got through to a dispatcher. Copp and the dispatcher kept in contact as she reached the bottom of the slope and waited for the train to pass. After an excruciating wait for the train, all the while looking up the slope for the bear to return, she was able to run to the highway.
“I have never been so happy for my feet to feel pavement as I was that morning,” Copp said.
Copp has logged thousands of kilometres on hundreds of runs all over Jasper’s vast trail network. That morning was terrifying, but she chalks it up to bad luck, bad timing and plain old statistics: you spend enough time in the forest and you’re bound to encounter some wildlife.
“I am forever thankful that we all left that morning relatively unharmed,” she said.
Will the encounter stop her from trail running in the future?
On the contrary: she was out the next week.