Final Mile: Here There Be Bears, Seriously

Jun 14th, 2022

This article first appeared in the October/November 2015 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine.

Late in the afternoon, I arrived in a small mountain town called Kibriscik, where I filled my water bottles from the fountains by the mosque. A group of men seated on a bench beneath a nearby mulberry tree called greetings to me. “Çay!” an older man said, more of a demand than an invitation to drink tea with them. I joined the group, and we sipped from shot-glass-sized teacups while they questioned me about my home, my family, and my reasons for riding a bicycle through Turkey. The older man, who spoke some English, seemed dubious of this form of vacation. Why, he asked, was I not at the beach?

“I like the mountains better,” I said in rough Turkish.  

“Where will you stay tonight? Do you have accommodations?”

“I don’t know,” I said, shrugging and pointing at my sleeping bag, strapped over the rear rack of my bike. “I will camp somewhere.”

He wagged a finger at this idea. “There are very dangerous animals in Turkey. Wolves! Bears! You must sleep in a village, in a hotel.”

I had heard this kind of talk many times in Turkey, Bulgaria, and Georgia, and I took these warnings about as seriously as I would children’s stories about man-eating beasts. I knew that bears and wolves lived here, even just a hundred miles southeast of Istanbul, but I wasn’t afraid. Rather, I’d been hoping to see a large predator for years, and the thought that I was among them in this mountain range called the Köro?lus thrilled me.

Anyway, touring cyclists know the most basic tenet of wild camping is to get away from people at dusk, not ride into a strange town.

I nodded in feigned concern and lied, “Okay, I will sleep in a village.” I thanked them for the tea and rolled out of town parodying the men cheerfully as I pedaled. “Camping is dangerous! You must find accommodations. Outside the animals will eat you!”

I love camping and always prefer to sleep outside rather than cram into a grubby bedroom — especially when there is a clear September sky overhead. I turned off the highway on a small dirt road that led toward a high flank of alpine country covered in forest some 10 miles away. Perhaps, I thought, I could get there before dark and sleep in a green streamside meadow with soft grass under my tent, the gold standard of wild camping sites. But the road was rough and the going slow and dusk arrived long before I could reach the high country. It was dry and scrubby here with few trees, but there was no one around so it would do. With a small landslide of shale, I scurried down a steep bank into a stony riverbed and walked my bike across the cobblestones. I moved upstream, looking for some vegetation that would obscure my small tent from the road.

A pile of shriveled bear scat stopped me in my tracks. My eyes widened as I looked around, reassessing my camping spot. I moved cautiously forward — several feet farther lay another pile, also studded with berry seeds and cherry pits. I touched it with my foot. It was soft and fresh. I felt there wasn’t time now to retreat to the highway and move on so I walked another 50 yards, put up my tent behind some willows, and hoped morning would come without incident.  

I ate my dinner, tossed my melon rinds into the stream, and crawled into my tent. Darkness settled as the full moon appeared over the hills. I was dozing off when a large branch snapped a short distance off. I lifted my head and listened but heard no more. I was dozing off again when a clear noise, subtle but troubling, yanked me back awake: swoosh, swoosh, swoosh. A large, thick-legged creature was moving toward me through the grass. A shepherd, maybe? But there were no bells.

I fumbled with my sleeping bag zipper and clambered from my tent in a hurry. There it was,  clear as day in the light of the moon and only 50 feet up the streambed: the hulking figure of a brown bear. Its heavily furred shoulders rolled powerfully with each stride over the cobblestones while its huge head and nose led the way straight toward me. It had the surreal effect on me of seeing a celebrity familiar from television in person, as if Barack Obama or Bono had stumbled across my camp.

Luke McDonnell

The years of ignored bear warnings convened in my head in a rush of clarity. What was I thinking? People actually get killed by bears. I had been directly warned of this, and yet here I was, thanks to my stubborn arrogance, face to face with one of the biggest carnivores in the world.   

“Hey, bear!” I shouted — a tactic learned during hiking trips in Yellowstone as a kid. The wind was flowing down the valley and the bear couldn’t smell me, but now it saw me. It stopped, jumped in alarm, and huffed a terrifying warning. A woman, I’d heard, had been fatally mauled in eastern Turkey recently. Now it was my turn — or not. The bear whirled around and sprinted as fast as a horse straight back the way it had come. It vanished into the brush, leaving me with an image of its muscular hindquarters.

The encounter was over in seconds, but I was charged with giddy adrenaline. I’d seen my brown bear. However, this place was not safe. I had to move my camp. Within five minutes, I was packed and rolling across the riverbed to the bank below the road. Pushing my bike, I started up the 20-foot slope, struggling on the shale. The rocks and gravel slipped six inches for every foot I gained. After several minutes of scrambling, my arms and lower back ached and my calves were quivering. Five feet from the top, I reached a ledge and I was stuck. I tried to calculate a way up, but my bike was a problem. It weighed 60 pounds, and with my feet slipping, I couldn’t lift it over the lip of the road. Bullets of sweat poured off my nose.  

Then I froze. A vehicle was puttering up the road. “Now what?” I whispered as I turned off my headlamp and ducked against the ledge. I saw a pickup truck round the bend moving suspiciously slowly. To my alarm, I saw a spotlight and a rifle aimed out the window. I clung to the rock and hugged my bike as the truck grumbled by just over my head. It passed slowly, rifle barrel aimed and ready to fire, and continued and rounded a curve. Half-panicked, I slid back down the bank and rolled my bike farther down the gully to find an easier way out. Two gunshots split the air. I yelped and ducked, then glanced back and hurried on.

At a gentler slope, I made another attempt at escaping the gully. As I fought my way up, I heard the truck engine again and saw the headlights on the road. The men were coming back, still at a crawl, spotlight in the gully. I knew they were hunters, but this was clearly an illicit hunt. What would these men do if they found a witness to their poaching? Praying that my feet would hold, I directed all the strength I could into my effort and was successful at last at shoving the bike over the ledge. I leaped after it, righted the bike, mounted, clicked into my pedals, and in a moment was rolling easily toward the highway. I kept my lights off until I hit the asphalt, then lit up and sprinted up a long grade and several switchbacks in the moonlight.

I crested a plateau and was greeted by what normally were the strongest deterrents to making camp — the lights of a village and men’s voices nearby in the night. I pulled over and threw out my tarp in a fallow field just 200 feet from a home. Dogs barked and unseen people chattered. There would be no bears or flying bullets here. I stretched out on my sleeping bag in the warm night and, drenched in sweat, finally got some sleep.

At dawn, I rode into town. At the water fountain, several men gathered around me. They asked what I was up to, where I was from, where I had been, and where I was going. One man nodded toward my sleeping bag and said in English, “You are camping? That is dangerous here. Many bears live in these mountains.”

The greater peril may have been trigger-happy Turkish hunters. But I nodded in honest agreement and answered, “It’s okay, I will be sleeping near a village.” And I wasn’t lying.  

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