Like many runs, it began innocently enough – and ended with bears ravishing members of our party.
I’d heard of the Bluff Trail, but had never been there, so when I received an invitation to run a portion of the rugged terrain, I jumped at the chance.
Early on a drizzly Saturday morning, I pulled into the trail head parking lot and waited for the others. Pretty soon the usual suspects began to appear, a motley collection of ultra, trail and marathon runners and triathletes.
Notable among them was Gordon, a lanky, grey-bearded engineer whose trail running prowess – he has a coveted Leadville 100 mile belt buckle that dates back to when running ultras was considered an extreme activity by those who even knew such a thing existed – is only surpassed by his story telling ability.
Yes, Frank, who’d cruelly mocked me on the roads (see earlier posts such as In which I run in Halifax), had somehow ferreted out an invite to this relatively obscure group (okay, I emailed him the time and place).
In total, seven of us, and Lucy the dog, idled in the parking lot waiting for the leader of the group, Jay. “Where’s Jay?” people kept saying. “It not like him to be late.”
Finally, after five minutes of this (“Where’s Jay? He’s always on time.”), the man himself – a large, trim fellow – burst out of the woods looking hale and hearty. Obviously, he’d already been running for a bit – 18 km, as it turned out.
We set off at an easy jog down the rails to trails for about 600 metres before turning left into the Bluff Trail.
The Bluff Trail actually consists of four stacked loops which cover over 30 kilometres of rugged ground. In 2003 and ’04, summer students and volunteers working under the direction of the Woodens River Watershed Environmental Organization built the trails. They constitute a magnificent gift to the Halifax area, access to a sprawling wilderness just minutes from the city.
If you are a fan of lichens, it will fascinate you to learn that over 100 species have been documented on the trail, including the “broom crowberry, a coastal plain species threatened elsewhere, and the rare mountain sandwort. “
But Richmond Campbell in his statement upon completion of the trail in 2005 puts it best: “When people go there, they are immediately impressed with its wildness. The experience is forbidding and alienating for some. For others it creates feelings of awe and even reverence and puts them in touch with parts of their natures that go untouched in the normal course of civilized affairs.
Campbell also says “walking in the solitude of ancient rocks and fens will bring wonder and joy.”
We progressed over rocks and roots, rocks and roots, rocks and roots, more rocks, more roots, rocks and roots – wooden bridge – rocks and roots, rocks, roots, roots, roots, wooden bridge, steadily climbing along a narrow tree and brush-lined path.
A couple of times we emerged onto granite barrens, their stone expanses covered in lichens, some of the latter maybe even the rare mountain sandwort. From our vantage point, we looked out over lakes, rocks, and trees – wild, untrammeled nature. The beauty of it was breathtaking, the loneliness and somber majesty of this primal scene aroused feelings which could only be described as spiritual.
Frank pissed on some low shrubs, and we set off again.
Rocks and roots, rocks and roots, rocks, roots, roots, roots – slippery rock! – roots, rocks and roots and rocks and roots.
Further along we descended to a lake. Everyone stripped down, discarding shirts, shoes and socks, various running packs, Garmins and other gear, and plunged into the warm water. A few black ducks peacefully circled nearby, undisturbed.
Never a great swimmer, I briefly mimed a parody of treading water and then lashed out to the granite rock from which we’d jumped. I scrabbled madly to gain purchase, but my feet slipped on the slimy rocks beneath and I couldn’t find a handhold. Above, Gordon calmly watched while I continued to claw in a slight panic on the rock.
The other night, on a different trail, as we’d made a crossing across a slippery and fast-flowing stream, Gordon had extended his hand. I’d grasped it and, pulling myself up to dry land, had nearly hauled him in to the water.
On this day, as I continued to scrape and flail at the rock, Gordon dryly remarked: “I’d lend you a hand, but you might pull me in.”
I managed to extract myself from the dark water.
Refreshed, and still alive, I set off again: clambering up stone faces, running along relatively smooth single-track trail, descending down into tight crevices of tangled root systems.
By this time, I’d noticed something about Jay. Now Jay has run the Western States 100 and last year ran across Newfoundland. He began running about eight years ago, determined to lose weight after, one day, hitting a bump and noticing his stomach bounce up and down .
But every time we ran a smooth fast section, Jay would be in front hammering. Then he’d tell someone, you go ahead, and suddenly it would be technical and uphill.
That Jay was some sly.
Honestly, he had that extra 18 km and was still easily hanging with everyone. That slow pace at the start? It didn’t feel so slow now. What would become a 14-km trail run, my longest ever, contained a few lessons.
The trail is different from the road. All that pylometric high-stepping over rocks and roots uses a bunch of different muscles, which begin to tire later in the run. You can’t just hammer; the trail demands focus, so that you don’t catch your foot on a rock or root and smack yourself upside the head.
Secondly, the trail’s slower pace ekes a high calorie count. It’s essential to carry even more food than you suspect you’d normally need. Frank gave me a granola bar, and I ate a gel and drank Gatorade and water and was still raging hungry at the run’s end.
Which leads us to the amorous bears….
In the last third, Jay and I fell into conversation and really started to push the pace. He’d lead for 500 metres and then I’d run ahead, both of us deftly dancing over the wet meshes of roots and leaping up onto rocks and jumping down again.
“Uh, shouldn’t we wait for the others?” I asked.
“Nah,” Jay said. “Gordon knows these trails.”
Leading Jay, I told him I felt like Dusty Olson.
“Who’s that?” he said.
“Scott Jurek’s pacer,” I told him.
“I’m not Scott Jurek,” he said.
Maybe not, but he could run.
We kept going, finally arriving back where we’d started. Shortly after, three more our of party emerged. We hung out at the trail head laughing about the run and chatting. But soon it was five minutes…and then 10…and then 15 – and the other three hadn’t emerged yet.
Finally Jay and I headed up the trail, alternately, calling: “Gordon” and “Fra-a-ank.”
We began to fear the worst.
Someone had turned an ankle, or keeled over dead from a stroke. It wasn’t good.
We ran back further, no sign of them.
I was particularly concerned for Frank’s well-being. At the beginning of the run, I’d given him my car keys to carry.
It would be just like that selfish bastard to go and injure himself and thoughtlessly leave me stranded.
I picked up the pace, seriously worried now.
But just when hope had vanished like blackened newsprint from an outdoor fire curling and vanishing into the summer night air, we heard their voices.
The trio looked cheerful enough – for men whom bears had callously used and discarded.
Frank said they’d taken a wrong turn and gone off-route, but clearly that was to cover up his shame, for Gordon reported that bears had, had their way with them, specifically Frank.
Frank laughed off the horror, but already you could sense his vulnerability and trauma, despite his denial of Gordon’s story.
But then I realized, in fact, that Frank had escaped unscathed. However, around Gordon’s ankles were scrapes and scratches where, in their frenzy, the bears had clamped onto Gordon in order to gain a better purchase!
The horror, the horror!
We escorted the meek trio back to their vehicles, where I was able to extract my car key – success! – from Frank.
They insisted that the bear story had been a joke and, in actuality, they’d taken a wrong turn, but the rest of us had gained a new respect for the lustful bears of the Bluff Trail.
What a day. I’d made more wonderful new friends, ran a classic trail, helped rescue a trio of lost souls and learned to seriously question the wisdom – after my friends’ experience with wildlife – of ever running a race called the “Cuddly Coyote.”