Devoured by Grizzly Country
Note to self: a good night’s sleep is not best accomplished when reading “Bear Safety Tips” right before bed. It does however guarantee a restless night. I tossed and turned, haunted by phrases from the ‘useful’ pamphlet such as “if a bear ‘pops’ its jaws, it’s agitated”, “snaps its teeth”, “intends to eat you”, “bear mauls you continuously”, “fast as lightening”, and finally and rather obviously I thought, “you will panic”. I hadn’t even ventured out of bed and I was on the verge of panicking. The next day Chad and I planned on riding the Little Wapiti Creek trail in the prime grizzly habitat of Big Sky country, Montana. The ride was supposed to be incredible. “If there is an afterlife for mountain bikers it will include singletrack downhills like this” quoted the guidebook. It also happened to mention “this area is serious grizzly country! Make noise!” Riding fast and quietly in such terrain was a recipe for a bear encounter. So that evening, we entered the tourist town of West Yellowstone and armed ourselves with Bear Defense Pepper Spray and bells for our bikes. After mounting the weapons in the optimal position for rapid deployment, we read the accompanying propaganda and fruitlessly tried to sleep. The next morning, groggy and anxious, I tried to calm my mind as we drove towards the trailhead. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, a perfect day for a beautiful ride. I was just being silly. The chances of a bear encounter were slim to none. The crystal clear Gallatin River wound its way through lush meadows of tall grasses and wildflowers over which butterflies flitted. The sereneness of the scenery started to work its magic and I finally felt more settled. And then there it was! A real live grizzly bear! Just 200 feet away! For real! A magnificent beast, its shiny brown coat rippled over its massive body as it lumbered through the meadow. Beautiful. And scary. Holy moly, we weren’t even off the road and the place was overrun with grizzlies! They must be really hungry or something. My heart immediately leapt back into my mouth. A few minutes later we arrived at the trailhead. I pushed thoughts of grizzlies out of my head and focused on the 2,400 foot climb that started off the ride. Evidently the buff singletrack of the downhill wasn’t going to come without prepayment. For an hour we pedaled in our granny gears up a hillside covered with vibrant green grass and wildflowers. It was steep and hot and we were continuously attacked by swarms of nasty flies, crawling between eyes and sunglasses, in the ears and biting our scalps through the holes in our helmets. It was an unwelcome distraction from the bear prevention tactics we were trying to employ. One hand on the handlebars, the other alternated between swiping flies and ringing the bell. As we climbed spectacular scenery behind us unfolded but unfortunately stopping to take in the views only encouraged more vicious fly attacks. We kept on pedaling.
During the final two miles of the climb we left the open, sunny meadows and entered the dark forest. On the plus side the flies left us, but now every brown tree, brown stump and brown rock took upon the appearance of a bear. Ringing my bell, I noisily and nervously made my way through the trees. Without incident we finally arrived at the top of the downhill portion of the ride. The journey to mountain bike nirvana was about to begin. But not quite yet. While in the forest, thunderheads had built to the west and now started to rain on our parade. No matter, we would wait it out. Taking shelter beneath a stump we were still buoyant and giddy about the ride ahead. The rain stopped. We remounted our bikes and made the turn onto the singletrack downhill. This was going to be special ride. An incredible six miles of trail rolled out before us. We just had to make enough noise and the bears would afford us safe passage through their country. Unfortunately we had missed the Hot Tip in the guidebook “Dirt turns to gumbo mud when wet and your bike will not move; do not go after (or during) a rainstorm”. There is no better way to describe what happened next, only to say it was a suffer fest. I have never had to work so hard to go downhill in my life. First we tried riding on the trail but the wheels completely clogged up. After we scrapped off the mud with a stick, we rode through the meadow at the side of the trail, which at least meant we were moving. But every so often we would be unceremoniously dumped to the ground by a log or rock lurking beneath the grass. It was slow going. After a while we thought the trail might have dried out a little. We tried the trail again. Bad idea. Drying mud was even worse than wet mud and harder to remove with a stick. We carried our bikes, now twenty pounds heavier. Throughout it all we tried to remember to ring our bells as we traversed from meadow to forest. In hindsight the foul language emanating from our mouths was probably more than sufficient to scare the bears away.
Note bear spray and bell mounted on very muddy bike.
At last we were in sight of the finish. A mile of trail stretched through the sagebrush, now dry enough with hard pedaling the wheels would finally move. Arriving back at the parking lot we were a sight for sore eyes: absolutely filthy muddy, red welts swelling from fly bites and close to exhaustion. In the end it was the grizzly country that devoured us, not the grizzlies.
Grin and bear it. I manage a smile at the end.