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A year after a fatal bear attack, family will return to Bird Ridge for ‘Jack’s Run’

  • Author: Beth Bragg
    | Sports
  • Updated: June 16
  • Published June 14

A memorial bench for Jack Cooper overlooks Bird Creek and Turnagain Arm from a point midway up the Bird Ridge trail. (Marc Lester / ADN)

It was a small detail in a staggering tragedy, a detail Katrina Garner can't forget.

When searchers found the body of her son last summer on Bird Ridge, they found a bottle of Gatorade near him. Garner and 16-year-old Jack Cooper both were on Bird Ridge racing in the Robert Spurr Memorial Hill Climb, and the last time Garner saw Jack alive, he was thirsty.

The two had crossed paths halfway up the 3,450-foot peak near Indian. Jack had just finished the junior race and Garner was on her way to the senior finish line at the top of the mountain. Garner stopped to congratulate a jubilant Jack on his finish, and he asked her for water.

She gave him some out of her Camelbak and he asked for more. "Go get something from the volunteer table and we'll see you at the bottom," she recalls telling him before she resumed her climb.

Jack didn't make it to the bottom. He was killed by a black bear on his way down the mountain.

Garner said her other sons, Jesse and Jason, saw Jack with a bottle of Gatorade as he headed downhill, and searchers saw the bottle when they found his body.

"My thinking is somebody gave that to him, somebody like a volunteer (who) carried up drinks and water and Gatorade," Garner said Thursday, three days before this year's Bird Ridge hill climb.

"So I'm going to go down there early and carry Gatorade to the junior finish. To contribute, right?

"… It's important to be back. I don't think we need to stay away from the race. Nobody's blaming anyone."

Most of Jack Cooper's family will be at Sunday's race, either as racers or volunteers.

Twelve-year-old Jason will compete in the junior race. Fifteen-year-old Jesse will hang out in the parking lot on crutches — he was the first member of the family to announce he was signing up for this year's race, but he broke his leg on the last day of school while skateboarding.

Rose Garner, Katrina Garner's wife and Jack's stepmother, will compete in the senior race along with her son and Jack's stepbrother, 18-year-old Matthew Theisen.

Dave Cooper, Jack's dad, will join Jesse in the parking lot, where the race begins. And Katrina Garner will accompany Jason during his race, something she thinks will ease both of their minds.

"Jason and I are not entirely super-comfortable being alone (on the trail), so I want to do the kids' race with him," she said.

A hiker at Bird Ridge on Thursday passes a memorial bench that overlooks Bird Creek and Turnagain Arm. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Race director Brad Precosky said new safety precautions will be implemented this year.

A dozen or more "trail sentries" will carry bear spray, make noise and wear bright safety vests as they station themselves along the 3-mile trail. Surveyor tape will block a few spots where people might mistakenly veer off the main trail, including two places where some people think Jack may have lost his way on the trail, Precosky said.

Two emergency-room doctors and two physician assistants will be on the trail, twice the number from last year. And a volunteer who is also a cop will wait at the junior finish line to help assemble kids into pairs or larger groups for the descent to the parking lot (Bird Ridge is an uphill-only race).

Beyond that, Precosky has emailed racers stressing that they spend time on the mountain before the race and recommending that they don't descend by themselves.

Other measures — including making bear spray mandatory gear for all runners — were considered but not adopted, he said.

"My whole thing is I wanted to keep the spirit of a mountain race but make sure we are giving them the best safety we can," Precosky said.

"I'm not sure what those responsibilities are, what is too much, what is not enough. We could take surveyor tape and go up both sides of the trail all the way up to the top of the mountain. But that teaches people they can just put their head down and not worry about anything, and when you do a mountain run, you have to keep your head up and know where you are."

Jack Cooper. (Courtesy Katrina and Rose Garner)

Precosky, an accomplished mountain runner whose victories include two at Bird Ridge and six at Mount Marathon, said bears have become part of the scenery at Bird Ridge in the last several years. But he is convinced that Bird Ridge on race day is a safe place to be.

"I don't think there's a safer place except for maybe Flattop than Bird Ridge on race day," he said. "I was there the other day and there was a big pile of bear scat 100 feet from the parking lot and only four cars in the parking lot."

That gave him pause. But on race day, he said, "you've got 250 racers and another 150 people volunteering and watching, and that's a pretty safe place."

Race entries are capped at 250, and this year that number includes about 45 juniors — far more than the usual 30 or so.

"They're seemingly not deterred," he said. "That was a real encouraging thing for us as race directors to keep going — the kids aren't deterred, so we shouldn't go crazy paranoid."

Precosky said he's heard from hikers and runners who say their habits have changed since Jack Cooper's death at Bird Ridge. The chief change, he said, is they're carrying bear spray now.

Katrina Garner said her family's habits have changed in the same way.

"We're more bear aware," she said. "We owned bear spray before, and now we own more. When we bike in Kincaid, we carry bear spray. We're much more educated."

Almost every expert and authority called the attack that killed Jack Cooper a freak occurrence. In the days after Jack's death, his family made it clear they didn't want what happened to scare people away from places like Bird Ridge.

"Neither Brad nor I felt that this meant you shouldn't go into the wilderness or have races or bike in the wilderness," Garner said. "It's why it's so important for us to be back there."

“Be adventurous, keep on running,” says the inscription on a bench that commemorates Jack Cooper. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Sunday won't mark the first time Jack's family has returned to Bird Ridge. Family members helped construct a giant, granite bench that rests at Bird Ridge's halfway point near the finish line of the junior race.

Dave Cooper used his construction background to build the bench, Garner and others hauled tools and water and other supplies up.

The slab of granite was flown to the mountainside, but volunteers hauled up almost everything else, Garner said.

"We were going to do two helicopter trips, but we had lots of mountain runners volunteer to carry things," she said. "Physically carrying the stuff up was good for everyone. It was kind of healing.

"It wasn't too long after that happened, after we lost Jack, that I saw a bear in the woods. So sorta soon I had to deal with that fear, and it's still hard. But it's part of Alaska, realizing what things you should be afraid of and what you shouldn't be afraid of."

This year's race T-shirts will feature the new name of the junior race – "Jack's Run."

Sunday’s race T-shirt will display the new name of the junior race. (Photo provided by Brad Precosky)

Garner expects that race day will evoke strong emotions, but she wants to return to Bird Ridge and be back with the mountain running community that helped searched for Jack that Sunday one year ago and that supported the family in the weeks and months that followed.

"To be able to go back there and remember all the really cool things about Jack and the good things that have come out of it – the fact that so many people have told me that because of us having a bench up there and us being so encouraging about it, they're going back up there," Garner said.

"I don't want to trivialize the part that's hard about it and will always be hard. But Alaska is a beautiful place and mountain running is a wonderful thing.

"Every parent who has lost a child has to deal with the circumstances around which their child died — they have to walk past the same spot or something. It's not like you can choose to not deal with it. I can't choose not to have lost Jack on that day in that way. It's my reality. To be able to be in some way there and face that — I think other parents would understand that."

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