“I loved it. Sure, there were bear around, but I felt safe.”
I woke up around 6 AM the next morning. Everything I owned was very damp. A bland meal of old chicken pot pie got me going. I was running low on water, so I didn’t drink much. After pedaling down more soggy, sandy fire road, I came across a backhoe. A company was repairing sections of the dirt road. Ducking around the sleeping iron behemoth, I cut into the woods into a beautiful section of single track that took me up and over small mounds into green meadows where rabbits ran blissfully about my tires in the morning dew. Eventually, I came out on another dirt road, which my GPS told me ran into the main highway. At this point I was ravenously hungry and very tired. To my delight, I found the highway and a wondrous diner not two miles off route. There I saw a few dirty, heavily loaded bikes.
This restaurant was a wooden establishment made to play up the Montana stereotypes. Preserved game specimens lined the walls, high ceilings were criss-crossed with round log support beams, and the entire place smelled like bacon.
It was like I died and found glorious, pancake heaven.
The two men I spoke too were very nice. They talked about the storm the night before, and how they had found shelter in a forest service cabin. The rangers let them stay for the night, in exchange for help drinking all the extra beer they had in their refrigerator.
They were very surprised that I slept out in the wilderness. Astonished at my courage, no doubt.
Another racer had taken refuge in the overhang of an old church. He was a Texas rider from El Paso. They hadn’t seen much of him since last night. I caught up with him after breakfast for a bit. His neck was in too much pain to hold his head up, and he was headed to town via the fastest route possible to hopefully get some help. He dropped out soon after.
So after around six pancakes, four sausage patties, a couple strips of bacon, biscuits, tea, milk, water, and butter, I was full and ready to start toward Seely Lake. Seely Lake is a tiny town next to a beautiful lake. It was only another 35 miles away. However, those 35 miles meant cutting into the forest land again. I was only on pavement for 5 miles until I came across the park road going into the mountain range. I climbed through national park land for hours it seemed. Beautiful scenery was abundant, but I was too tired to really notice. Last night had not been very restful.
Park road eroded into overgrown doubletrack which narrowed into singletrack that I was too tired to enjoy. As great as it was, I had to walk my bike up the final tiny embankment. That hurt my pride a bit. The singletrack let out onto a very remote fireroad littered with pine limbs blown over in the storm. A quick map-check put me on the right track (Left!), and off I went.
I was tired. Fairly downtrodden, really. I just wanted to make it to Seely Lake and get a little rest. But you know the old saying, “You’re never too tired to run for your life.”
“I got between a mama grizz and her cubs today and lived to tell about it. Somebody’s watching out for me.”
I was on a gravely dirt road, cruising on the side of a hill that made up the foot of a mountain. Huge evergreens straddled the patchy dirt road, which careened up and down the side of this hill. Ups followed downs and followed ups again. I was in my own head for this, thinking long and hard about just how large my dinner was going to be. The road began a sharp downward slide, followed by a climb that ended in a slight curve. Keeping my momentum up, I was able to crest the hill.
Where I came to a complete stop.
A Grizzly. Not 30 yards from me stood a Grizzly. And three tiny grizzlies. I was almost too tired to immediately realize how serious this predicament was. Almost.
Instinctively, as I had done before, I grabbed my whistle hanging off of my pack and began a wailing that would have made any sailor-thieving Siren proud. My experience with bears thus-far was while I was moving rather quickly, and I was able to combine my odd presence with a screeching high-pitched whistle to scare the bears, both black and grizzly, away.
But this bear simply stood on her hind legs and pondered. It was huge. If I were to guess its height, at that moment I would wager it was somewhere between 13 and 34 feet tall. I was scared senseless.
I changed the pattern of whistle noises. Short, sharp, varied wails seem to work best with bears in my experience. The grizzly took a step towards me, but then turned away and ushered its cubs down the side of the hill.
It sounded like Atlas let loose his boulder.
But one of those cubs didn’t follow its mother down the hill. One of them took off the opposite direction, right across the road, and began scrambling up the nearest pine tree large enough to support the weight.
This little fact, however, was unobserved to me. I waited a minute, a full minute of blowing that whistle, before I sat on my bike and conjured the leg muscles of a horse. I made INCREDIBLE time for a bit.
Even better time when I saw the cub climbing a tree 15 yards to my left. That’s about the time every single bear mauling I have ever heard of came flooding into my head. I pushed HARD. Hills were minor inconveniences. Bad roads were smoothed into glass by my incredible reluctance to become bear bait.
I took a second to notice my surroundings about three miles up the road, when I saw a sign that stated the following.
BEAR TRAPPING IN PROGRESS
They missed a few. I even saw a giant trap used to catch the bears. I didn’t stop to see if it had been sprung.
At this point I realized how badly I was shaking. Not just my legs, which went from lazy-tired-slow-spinning mode to XC-world-cup-attacking-Nino-Schurter-speed in two blinks of an eye, but my whole body. My arms, hands, and probably toes too if I could feel them.
Finally, after one final climb, I hit pay-grade. The long, meandering, brakepad-searing downhill that took me around hairpin turns and through the beautiful woods
Times flies when you’re having fun, and this is especially true of downhills. I reached the end of the old road as it T-boned into a highway. It was a fairly boring twelve mile ride into Seely Lake. When I finally rolled into the tiny little Montana town, tucked away at the foothills of mountains, it was roughly 4 PM. I was spent.
I booked a room at the local motel, took some laundry to the laundromat, had dinner with a few other riders that were calling it an early day as well, and quickly realized an interesting problem.
I had lost my phone.
Somewhere in that feverish race against Darwin, my trusty phone had found its home in nature thanks to an open pocket on my pack. I was able to contact home using the motel’s phone. I was sure to kindly exclude the part about the giant man-eating grizzly. My mother wouldn’t have been happy to know I was playing with strange bears on this trip.