Music blared, and the crowd lining the streets of Downtown Seward cheered when Suzanne Knudsen crossed the finish line on Independence Day.
Frontrunners in the Mount Marathon Women’s Race were a half hour gone by the time Knudsen finished No. 82 overall, but the 59-year-old was well ahead of the middle of the pack.
Race records show this is the type of result Knudsen has gotten used to in her many years as a Mount Marathon competitor: since 2005, the earliest race results available online, she has clocked a shade over an hour on multiple occasions.
Like most that made it up and down the cliffy, craggy mountain at a similar pace, Knudsen runs often throughout the year. And it was during a run near her home in Indian three days after this Fourth of July that the longtime Alaskan was seriously injured by a brown bear sow and two cubs.
Suzanne Knudsen heads toward the finish line in Downtown Seward. (Jeff Rivet KTUU-TV)
Monday morning Knudsen was jogging alone along Bird Creek Trail on the way to Penguin Peak – amid Chugach State Park, slightly closer to Girdwood than Anchorage – when she came across a brown bear sow and two cubs.
Knudsen told emergency responders one of the cubs appeared from brush about 10 yards up the trail. It rushed her way, and almost immediately she was hit from behind by the sow.
"It seems like a case of a surprising a brown bear sow with cubs at very close range, which is a very classic defensive attack," said Jessy Coltrane, a wildlife biologist for the Department of Fish and Game. "It's usually a very quick and violent attack, but it's usually just a couple of swats and bites."
That sounds about like the incident Coltrane described. She said Knudsen suffered “serious” injuries to her back and bites and puncture wounds to her neck, and the bears disappeared into the woods almost immediately.
"People have died from attacks like this," Coltrane said. "She's very lucky."
The luck came in a few forms.
Knudsen had cellphone reception and was able to call 911, and even before a trooper arrived from Girdwood, a group of tourists participating in a three-hour tour operated by Alaska ATV Adventures happened by.
An employee hustled back to the parking lot to wait for help to arrive and then let the responding trooper borrow an ATV to make it to the scene of the attack.
Knudsen was transported to Providence Alaska Medical Center where on Monday she was receiving emergency medical treatment for injuries not considered life-threatening.
Whatever led to the attack, that Knudsen is recovering is good news, but Coltrane said at the height of summer when bear encounters most likely, the incident also serves as a reminder for anyone venturing into the wilderness.
'SHE'S RUN INTO BEARS BEFORE'
Barney Griffith is a mountain runner and longtime friend of Knudsen, who he called passionate, tough and unique.
"She's not afraid of anything," Griffith said. "She likes her friends, real outgoing but at the same time she is a real private person, likes to be alone too."
The pursuit of solitude could be part of what makes Bird Ridge and Penguin Peak favorite spots for Knudsen, Griffith said, but it is also what put her on top of a sow protecting its cubs.
"There's a lot less people, and there's more dangers with weather, with bears, with moose," Griffith said of the trail. "She's run into bears before, she absolutely knows the risks."
Running alone in the area is considered dangerous, and state wildlife officials said Knudsen made two other risky decisions: wearing earbuds and carrying no bear deterrent in bear country.
Coltrane repeated Alaska mantras: "Travel in groups, make a lot of noise, carry bear spray," she said. "Also, do not wear anything that might impede your ability to hear, like earbuds."
Griffith said his friend is tough and the he expects her to be back in the wilderness soon after she heals.
"She's been in these situations before that have shaken her up, and she always comes back," he said. "I expect her to be out there very soon."
In accordance with Department of Fish and Game policy, Bird Creek Trail will be closed for a week while wildlife biologists monitor the area and investigate the incident.
Channel 2's Corey Allen-Young and Blake Essig contributed to this story.
Editor's Note: Suzanne Knudsen could not be reached for comment.