Media Life: Tale of three bears adds to Western States 100 mystique

By: Gus Thomson/Media Life
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Add a protective mama bear and two cubs to the legend and lore of the Western States 100. But don’t expect the trio of bad-news bruins to lumber off into the sunset just yet. The tale is one of those keepers in the annals of ultramarathon running. Eventual second-place women’s finisher Kami Semick encountered the three bears Saturday night as she started the final uphill ascent from the American River Canyon past Mountain Quarries Railroad Bridge. The mother bear jumped from a tree onto the trail and started hissing at Semick and her pacer. As more runners gathered on the trail, the clutch of humans was able to gain enough collective courage to pass as a group around the bears. The Western States Endurance Run race continued through the night with no other bear-runner encounters reported. A trail-blocking bear during the annual race is something that hasn’t occurred in recent memory, if ever. The Journal hasn’t reported on one over at least the last quarter century and WS100 pioneer Gordy Ainsleigh can’t recall one either. Bear encounters rare, brief Generally, bears will keep to themselves and when they’re spotted, quickly take off. But like any wild animal, they can be unpredictable. In the Tahoe Basin, where the bear population is more pronounced, the state Department of Fish and Game reported a bruin had to be killed recently after a man in his tent was injured as the animal tried to break in. Ainsleigh, who has been running Placer County trails for more than four decades, said he’s seen several bears but they’ve always high-tailed it into the thick brush. His favorite critter encounter during the Western States 100 occurred in the early 1980s while running with another endurance legend – the Hawaiian who goes by the name “Cowman.” The two were padding along about 20 miles out from the LeFebvre Stadium finish line when they came upon a large rattlesnake in the pathway. Concerned about other runners following them failing to see the venomous snake in the darkness until it was too late, Ainsleigh decided to kill it, theorizing that if he scared it away, it would return to the warmth of the trail. Ainsleigh said he threw a large dirt clod at the rattler’s head and disrupted it enough to grab its head and disengage it from its body. Ainsleigh had visions of carrying the snake across the finish line but “Cowman,” with a fear of snakes, would have nothing to do with it. “It was the photo op of the century,” Ainsleigh insists. Instead, Ainsleigh tossed the snake away and proceeded on with just his story to tell. Ainsleigh, 64, was able to fight off bronchitis and bone spurs in his feet to complete 62 miles of this year’s race, by the way. Not the first time As for the three bears, Auburn State Recreation Area Superintendent Scott Liske said the Saturday-night encounter wasn’t the first time this June that the protective mother had created problems on the trail. Liske said he had answered a call the Sunday before from a group of five hikers panicked after they ran into the same mother bear with two cubs blocking another section of trail, this time near Robie Point. The group was attempting to travel to their vehicle parked on a Highway 49 turnout but felt threatened enough to contact a ranger. Liske said it was the first time in his state Parks Department career that he had been called out to deal with a bear preventing hikers from passing on a trail. He used his noisy electric horn to scare the two cubs into the trees. The mother bear retreated down an embankment, allowing the hikers to pass. California’s bear population is growing, according to the state Department of Fish and Game. An estimated 30,000 of them now roam California and many of them are in Auburn’s own backyard. Fish and Game is saying bear country precautions should include keeping a close watch on children and teaching them what to do if they encounter a bear. Advice includes never approach a bear or pick up a bear cub, don’t attempt to attract a bear to where you are, and don’t run if you encounter one. Instead, face the animal, make noise and try to appear as large as possible. Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at or (530) 852-0232.