An Ultra-Challenge for July

Of all the months, July is THE BEST.  July is like hitting a bunch of green lights in a row.  It’s better than the smell of crayons.  It’s the Justin Timberlake of months.

I usually take the whole month off, rent a cabin surrounded by hills and trails, and just run.  Last year, near Collingwood, I logged 347 miles on the Bruce Trail.  The July before that, I covered 316 miles in the Haliburton Forest. The July before that I managed, well, only 272 miles, but that’s because I was running up and down mountains in France.

Running up "The Canigou" - near Perpignan, France

Running up “The Canigou” – near Perpignan, France

This July, I’ve set an even BIGGER challenge.  In addition to running 12 miles per day, I’m determined to write my second novel.

WHAT???  In a month?  Who does he think he is – Stephen King?

Actually, I don’t have to write it from scratch.  I wrote a first draft a couple of years ago, but then I set it aside, so I could work on my other book, which is, you know, actually getting published.

This July is the first chance I’ve had to go back to work on that other writing project.  It’s a big, messy, 60,000-word turd right now, but I’m excited about polishing it into a diamond.

So every day this July, in addition to burning 1000 calories on the trail, I’m hoping to produce 2000 words.  Words that glitter like spun glass, words that gleam like dragonflies in sunshine, words that shimmer like cobwebbed trees in summery skies

Okay, I’ll stop now.

This July, I’m also planning to: eat 30 salads, drink 30 cups of coffee, watch 30 sunsets, take 30 naps, and watch zero television shows.

Wish me luck!

OK, So You’ve Run Into a Bear. Now What?

A few days ago I wrote about running into bears while on the trail.  It’s a daunting prospect, and there are lots of things you can do to prevent it from happening (like making lots of noise).

But suppose you do run into a bear.  What then?

No single strategy is guaranteed to work in all situations, but you can minimize your risk by doing the following:

First, keep your distance from the bear and remain calm.  Don’t run away.  In most cases, if you make some noise, the bear will leave.

Don’t be surprised if the bear rises up on its hind legs.  Bears are curious animals, and often stand up to get a better view, or to catch your scent.  Back away slowly and speak in a firm voice.

A bear that swats at the ground, swings its head from side to side, snorts or huffs, pops its jaw, or bares its teeth is likely stressed and is asking for more space.  Give it to him.  Bears may also bluff their way out of an encounter by charging, then turning away at the last second.  Stand your ground.

A bear that follows you, circles or cuts you off is likely displaying predatory behaviour.  This is more common in black bears.  Face the bear and act aggressively.  Throw rocks and sticks.

If a Bear Charges:

If it’s a Black Bear, stand and fight.  Grab the closest stick and bash him across the nose.  Throw things.  If you’re carrying bear spray, use it.  Any of these actions may convince the bear to leave you alone.

If it’s a Grizzly Bear, play dead.  Protect your face, and the back of your head and neck with your arms.  The typical grizzly attack happens as a result of surprise, so non-aggressive behavior generally works.

Here’s an easy way to remember: If it’s black, fight back.  If it’s brown, lie down.

Another Burden to BEAR

Patricia Sommers was having a great race.  Until she ran into the bear.

Sommers was running her first 100-miler, in the Haliburton Forest, back in 2000.  She was keeping a good pace, the weather was good, and her husband was waiting for her at the 75-mile turnaround.

One mile shy of that aid station, Sommers heard a noise.  It was eleven at night, and she could hear a large animal crashing down a hill towards her, on the left hand side of the trail.  “I hoped it was a moose, but it wasn’t,” she explained. “It burst onto the path 100 meters ahead of me.”

Sommers shone her headlamp at the animal.  It was an adult black bear.  It rose up on its hind legs and roared.

Black bear

I’ve run into a number of bears on the trail.  It’s gets your heart pumping, that’s for sure.   Given that these animals are large, with claws the size of steak knives, I’ll found myself wondering: am I crazy to be running in a forest?

The answer, according to Bart Hillhorst, is no.  Hillhorst is a Forestry Technician with Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources.  He deals with a lot of problem bears.  “There’s always a danger with animals of this size,” he explains, “but in general, black bears are programmed to be scared of humans.  Ninety percent of the black bear’s diet is vegetation – grass, berries, nuts.  The other ten percent is meat, but that’s mostly larvae and ants.  The reality is, bears don’t like dealing with people.  It’s not in their personality.”

Statistics back this up.  Since the early 1900’s, fewer than 70 deaths in North America have been attributed to black bears.

“When you see a bear on the trail, your first reaction is to be scared,” Hillhorst says.  “That’s perfectly natural, but fear is the wrong thing to show a bear.  You want to be calm.  You want to look at the bear and figure out her situation.  What’s the bear doing?  Is it aware you’re there?  Is it feeding on something?  Are there cubs nearby?  Then you can figure out your best response.”

“Once you know what the conditions are, then it’s just a matter of risk tolerance,” explains Dr. Stephen Herrero, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science at the University of Calgary.  “There is risk associated with bears, so you have to decide if you’re comfortable with that.  I’m a runner myself, and I love running in nature.  But there are some places in North America where I wouldn’t dare run right now.”

If you do decide to lace up in bear country, you can take steps to increase your safety.

1) “Run at a more leisurely pace than you otherwise might.  Bears hate surprises, that’s a major cause of aggressive behaviour, especially with Grizzlies.

2) Keep an eye out for bear tracks, spoor, fresh diggings, torn up logs and scratched trees.  If you see any of those, find another place to run.

3) Above all, make lots of noise, particularly when you’re running in dense forest, or rounding blind corners.

Carrying a can of bear repellent doesn’t hurt either.  Just be sure you know how to use it.

“When you’re staring at that bear, and your heart is racing, and the wind is blowing, how good do you think your aim is going to be?” Hillhorst says.  “Bear spray is good because it gives you confidence, but practice using it a couple of times before you head out.”

A Puppy Off its Leash

This spring is giving me whiplash.

Three days ago I went running in a blizzard.  But one weekend before that, the hillsides were ablaze with blossoms.

Hogg's Falls

I took the opportunity to go hiking on the Bruce Trail with friends.  White and wine-coloured Trilliums opened as we walked.


These flowers would perish of frostbite exactly one week later, but they looked very beautiful at the time.

My friends were in an easy-as-a-Sunday-mornin’ mood, and took lots of time to admire the scenery.


Look out, I’m a snake, you cultured peoples!

The trail wove up and down the scarp face.  Every so often, we’d come upon a delicious downhill section.  I’d leave my friends behind, and slalom down the trail, my legs twirling like pinwheels.  When I got to the bottom of the ravine I’d turn around and jog back up to meet my friends again.  I felt sheepish, like a puppy who’s escaped its leash but still wants to be loved by its masters.  My friends barely even noticed I’d gone.

After a couple of hours we came to a gurgling stream.  It meandered through the grassy meadow like lazy cursive, swooping around apple trees and ancient slabs of limestone.  The water glinted like diamonds in the sunlight, and when you looked down into it, you could see fat black tadpoles shooting back and forth.

It was an idyllic place, surrounded by hills on all sides.  It reminded me of an illustration from one of my all-time favourite children’s books, Stan and Jan Berenstain’s The Bears Picnic.

It’s the book where Ma and Pa Bear set off with their son in search of the perfect picnic spot.  They pass through forests, over mountains, and through cozy glades in pursuit of the perfect picnic spot.  They endure bugs and monsoons and nearly get killed by a train and almost fall off a mountain.

Come to think of it, their adventure is eerily similar to my novel, Ultra.  Except, like, the main characters are cartoon bears.

When we got home after the hike we ate our own picnic of scones and salted pecans and Brie cheese and Oolong tea which raised our spirits nicely.  Six hours had passed since we’d set out on the trail.  It felt like ten minutes.  The best days always do.

Note – you can find that gorgeous creek and meadow at kilometer 58.8 of the Beaver Valley section of the Bruce Trail.  It’s on map 26 of the Trail guide; just a few clicks southeast of Eugenia Falls.

Or, if you’re feeling lazy, you can have almost the same experience just by reading this book: