A 16-year-old runner who texted a family member to say that he was being chased by a black bear during a popular race over mountainous terrain in Alaska was killed Sunday, triggering an intense search for the bear by wildlife authorities.
Patrick “Jack” Cooper, who had just completed the 10th grade, was competing in the juniors division of the Robert Spurr Memorial Hill Climb, a rigorous race that is in its 29th year. The race director told KTUU that the runner was beginning his descent near the halfway point on Bird Ridge Trail, which takes runners up a mountain that rises over the Seward Highway between Anchorage and Girdwood. Juniors race to the halfway point, about 1.5 miles from the start, before heading down.
“The mother was here with her family, her children,” Anchorage Police Dept. Sgt. Nathan Mitchell told KTUU. “They were running the race.”
That, according to the obituary posted on his funeral home’s website, was not unusual for Cooper. “He loved the beach, the hot tub and the trampoline. He had a great basketball three-point shot,” his obit states. “He ran races, fished like a champion, inner-tubed at the lake and was an avid hockey fan. He loved board games like chess and Monopoly. He enjoyed beating his grandmother at Wii bowling and being a wolf in his iPad wolf simulator game. His favorite food and drink were cheese and root beer with no ice.”
His obituary notes that he was a student at East Anchorage High School. “Jack came into the world as Patrick Stephen Woodward. He was a tiny fighter, cared for at the Providence Hospital NICU for two months and then by his birth family for two more months. Then he became ours; Patrick Jack-Stephen Cooper. Jack was a gift. He was a special ed student whose challenges were far exceeded by his joy and excitement for life. We are all better people for the honor of having him in our lives. He will be dearly missed.” He is survived by both sets of parents as well as by a number of other relatives and his funeral will take place June 24.
Sightings and even encounters with bears are not, of course, unusual in Alaska, but mauling deaths are. “I’ve been running in the mountains for 30 years,” Brad Precosky, a race director, said. “People come down off the trail and say they’ve run into a bear. Sometimes that means nothing; other times, it’s really serious. Like this.”
When a member of Cooper’s family received the text message, he sought Precosky. “I went off and talked to him about it, trying to get a straight story,” Precosky said. “He was very shaken and had received this communication.”
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Park rangers and officials believe that Cooper got off-trail as he descended. Other runners say they had lost the teen in thick brush and, when they came running down the trail to report the attack, runners and officials ran to help. One runner said he had seen a bear circling a teen. Using GPS coordinates from the teen’s phone, searchers were able to find the boy, but were unable to immediately close in because the bear was standing over him.
“The bear was remaining in the area where the young man was laying,” Tom Crockett, a Chugach State Park ranger told ADN.com. A ranger shot the bear in the face, but it fled, triggering a massive hunt by rangers and officials from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for a lone adult bear. State biologists, using helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, tracked and shot to death four bears in the Bird Ridge area and by Tuesday were confident that they had killed the right one. Officials said they had no choice but to actually kill the animals because using tranquilizer darts would have caused them to run into the wilderness. One of the bears that was killed bore a gunshot wound to its jaw.
“The only real option in this situation was to shoot the animal and collect it this way,” Fish and Game spokesman Ken Marsh told ADN.
Cooper, who was pronounced dead at the scene, was found about a mile up the trail on what Mitchell said was “really, really rugged” terrain at about 1,500 vertical feet.
“This young man didn’t do anything wrong,” Crockett said. “He was just in the wrong place. You can’t predict which bear is going to be predatory.”