I was very eager to meet a bear. I mean, I was eager to meet all the animals. But a bear was a creature I could really write home about. I could buy a postcard with a picture of a bear and write on the other side, “Bear!” And then whomever I sent it to would look at it and say, “Wow!”
Bears were big and wild and ate fish and berries. I wanted to be just like them.
In my first few days of cycling across Alaska, I was attacked by hundreds of bears. They came out of nowhere — constantly — growling and clawing at my bike tires. I sprayed them in the face with bear spray or clipped them in the nose with my fists. Once I lost a limb and had to tourniquet my arm with tent straps. Another time, a bear ate my bicycle and I hitchhiked home.
Of course none of this was true in real life, but all of it was very true in my mind. As my legs fell into the rhythm of pedaling, my mind spun into wild sagas of untimely possibilities. The reality of Alaska’s forests are now layered in my memory with some of the most extraordinary bear attacks never recorded by humankind. I wanted to meet a bear and perhaps even be mentored by one. But I was also terrified that this might not go very well.
Each evening, after a hard day of pedaling, I pulled off the road and set up my tent in the forest. I pulled out my sleeping pad, ate dinner, and brushed my teeth. Then I packed every shred of food and toiletries into a single, waterproof bag and wandered off to hang it in a tree. The tree needed to be at least 200 feet away, with a single, unobscured branch extending 10 feet from the trunk, 15 feet from the ground. Finding such a tree in Alaska’s windblown conifer forests was like trying to find a needle in a haystack — a haystack that was full of wild animals and was very easy to get lost in. I carried my bear spray in my pocket and left a trail of broken sticks and pine cones to mark my way back to my tent.
My nightly tree hunt was coupled with my very best singing practice. Bears hate surprises, so standard protocol is to sing or make sounds to warn bears that you’re coming. Once I found a good tree, I had to swing my rope over the branch and hoist the bag up. On a good night, I would get the rope over the branch within the first dozen tries. On a bad night, I got through three or four renditions of “Cabaret” before the rope finally came down in the right place. I always imagined all the bears drawing in closer to listen to the free concert. This imagery was exciting but also somewhat troubling. When I finally got back to my tent and snuggled up to sleep at night, I often placed a large stick next to me, just in case I had to fight something.
After a week of riding, I still hadn't seen a bear, but I did finally see another cyclist. He pedaled toward me on the other side of the road, his bike loaded with gear, just like mine. I crossed over to say hi.
“Hello, have you seen any bears?” I blurted.
The guy laughed. “I see bears every day,” he said.
Just as I had long suspected, we were surrounded by them! We chatted for a bit and then rode away in opposite directions. I wouldn’t see another cyclist again for over 2,000 miles. But I would see a whole lot of bears.
The afternoon was clear and crisp, the sky bright and blue. The road rolled up and down in short hills flanked by wild forest. I lost myself in the rhythm of pedaling, breathing in and out, moving forward at my own speed. Alaska was the biggest backyard I had ever been in, and I loved it.
An ambulance pulled over ahead of me, and as I moved to pass it, the paramedic waved me to stop.
“There’s a bear in the road up ahead,” she said. “Do you want a ride?”
Finally, a bear! I mulled over my options. Of course I didn’t want a ride — I loved pedaling. And what if there were actually endless bears ahead, like that other cyclist had said? In that case, I would need a ride all the way to Vancouver. Then again, what if I declined the ride and actually got mauled? I would still have to get in the ambulance!
I looked at the road ahead. “Has the bear attacked anyone?” I asked, finally.
“Well, no,” she said.
For some reason, that answer was good enough for me. I secured my bear spray on my handlebars, waved goodbye, and kept riding.
“I’M COMING, BEARS!” I sang. “HAIRY BEARS! SCARY BEARS! MERRY BEARS! DON’T EAT ME, BEARS!”
I was getting pretty good at my song — really nailing the high notes — when I rounded a bend and suddenly saw it. There was my very first bear, right in the middle of the road. And it was galloping furiously after a small car. Its legs stretched forward like a racehorse, the hair on its shoulders and back rippling with each leap. As the car gained traction, so did the bear.
I stopped, my hand on my bear spray, and watched the bear charge ahead of me. Finally the car pulled away and the bear veered off the road and crashed into the forest.
Oh dear, I thought, pedaling slowly forward. I’m going to have to keep singing for a very long time.
After this, it was like the seal on bears had broken — I saw them everywhere. Black bears walked down the side of the road. Grizzlies stood on their hind legs, inspecting traffic. Families of bears with little cubs in tow climbed over guardrails. Bears bumbled around my tent, near my bike, around the next bend. This time it wasn’t in my mind, it was the reality of cycling through Alaska and Canada in early summer. These creatures were fierce and wild, but they were also scared and vulnerable to human encroachment. They wanted my snacks, but more than that, they just wanted to be left alone. I felt grateful to be allowed passage through their space. And I hoped they enjoyed my concerts.
I eventually made it all the way down to California without being attacked by anything. At one point, some raccoons raided my panniers, but that was really my fault for not closing them properly. And I was partially eaten by large hordes of mosquitoes, but that’s not really preventable.
I was never technically mentored by bears, but I do feel like I learned a lot from them. I admire the way bears own their space and find treasures in unlikely places (grubby stumps, garbage bins). I appreciate their ability to just dig a hole and pass out in it until spring. And I have a special affinity for any animal that flees from show tunes but is still willing to take on 3,000 pounds of speeding metal. Bears — wow!