March 2, 2017 - Robert Downes is today's guest blogger.
At first, I thought I was hallucinating.
That looks like a bear, I thought as the critter leapt out of the woods into the middle of the bike path, but it’s too big to be a bear.
I was on a lonely stretch of forest trail with darkness settling in and it took a few seconds to grasp that it was indeed a very large black bear, even though at first glance he seemed as big as an elephant. As wide and tall as my fully loaded touring bike, he was barring the way about 100 feet ahead of me.
The bear looked at me as if it too couldn’t believe its eyes and then turned and ran straight down the Stower Seven Lakes Trail, just west of Amery, Wisconsin.
Ran? Actually, it galloped like a horse at an amazing pace with me in hot pursuit on my bike, fumbling with my phone in hopes of snapping a photo.
On and on he ran, steadily pulling away; he must have been running 20 mph. About a quarter mile down the trail, he crashed off to the right through the underbrush into a cornfield.
That’s when I slowed down, because it’s one thing to chase a bear near dark when he’s running lickety-split in the other direction and quite another to pass by a spot where he might be licking his chops.
As it happened, I had a transistor radio duct-taped to the front bag on my handlebars, which was tuned to a girly-pop station. I turned it up and Justin Bieber emerged from the tinny speaker, crooning in his girly-pop way. It was some song about his mama not liking his girlfriend and how he didn’t much like her either. Hoping that nothing scares the bejabbers out of bears like the Biebs, I cranked up the volume.
I took extra precautions while passing the spot where the bear had vanished, ringing the bell on my bike and yelling, “Hey bear, hey bear! You better watch out, I’ve got a jingle bell here!”
An hour later, I rolled into Amery, exultant over my bear encounter and jabbering about it with the locals. It turned out the bruin is something of a local legend, believed to weigh about 400 pounds.
Sightings of American black bears seem to be fairly common among touring cyclists.
Last summer, while cycling to and from Adventure Cycling’s 40th anniversary celebration of Bikecentennial in Missoula, Montana, from her home in Michigan, Patti Brehler was struggling up a series of hills in Wisconsin on her recumbent bike when a bear came wandering down the road.
“I eased back for the ride, opting for the granny gear to conserve energy,” she remembers. “Was that another cyclist coming this way? Nope. A humongous black bear was ambling along in the other lane, apparently enjoying the damp morning as much as I was.”
The bear kept coming.
“I came to a quick halt, which isn’t hard to do when you are creeping uphill at 5 mph,” she says. “He hadn’t seen me yet. I yelled, ‘Bear!’ and he bounced to a stop. The bear’s ears stood up like satellite dishes. It was a standoff. I snapped my teeny bicycle bell. The bear bounded right and hightailed it into the woods.”
Like me, Brehler says her heart was banging like a marching band’s drum section with the exhilaration of her bear encounter.
Matt Pierle is another cyclist who has encountered Ursus americanus while touring. A seasonal park ranger on Isle Royale in Lake Superior, he takes precautions when camping. “I have hung food, usually in a dry bag, according to standard good bear/backcountry practices, and of course, always keep a clean camp,” he says. “In grizzly country I’d probably carry a bear spray product as a last resort or consider traveling in a small group.”
Despite their daunting appearance, black bears pose little danger unless they’re surprised at close quarters or are sows protecting their cubs. Black bears are omnivores and 85 percent of their diet relies on vegetation, augmented by a smorgasbord of grubs, ants, honey, nuts, acorns, fish, birdseed, and even yellow jackets. They are also a hazard to fawns, and like coyotes, will eat their prey alive if they catch one.
In Wisconsin, which has an estimated 28,000 black bears, a hunter told me that restrictions on bear hunting were wreaking hell on the state’s deer herd because of predation on fawns in the spring. Bears can easily outrun newborn deer and have a sense of smell that’s seven times more acute than that of a bloodhound, or 2,100 times that of a human. It’s claimed that they can detect the carcasses of road kill or dead animals as far away as 20 miles if the wind is blowing in their direction. That amazing ability makes it possible for them to track down fawns or food packed along by campers.
Occasionally, they can be a hazard to people, especially those who try to flee. Like dogs, bears have a chase response. Considering that a black bear can sprint more than 30 mph, cyclists should remember that you can’t outrun a bear on a bike unless you have a very long head start, an unencumbered racing bike, and the abilities of a time trial champion.
In August 2013, 12-year-old Abby Wetherwell was jogging along a forest path near her family’s hunting cabin outside Cadillac, Michigan, when she encountered a bear. Abby took off running and the bear gave chase, easily taking her down. The girl played dead until the bear was driven off, but suffered deep cuts in her leg and back, as well as puncture wounds. She required 100 stitches and was still suffering from feelings of anxiety three years later when the bear was shot while attacking a dog.
Fortunately, bear attacks are rare; statistically, you’re more likely to be killed or injured by someone backing up in a parking lot. Black bears in America kill on the average of one person per year, whereas more than 700 cyclists die annually in vehicular collisions. In terms of wildlife, the most dangerous creatures are bees and wasps. The Centers for Disease Control reports that their stings account for approximately 100 deaths each year in the U.S.
So, perhaps the greater fear is that you won’t have the thrill of seeing a bear while cycling in his habitat.
Some parts of the country lend themselves to bear sightings. On the 62-mile Pine Creek Rail Trail through the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania, for instance, my wife and I were thrilled when a large black bear ran across the trail right in front of us. I also saw a bear swimming across the canyon’s river. We didn’t know it at the time, but this beautiful gorge packs more black bears per square mile than almost any other region of the country; in 2010, hunters took 894 bears in this part of northern Pennsylvania.
Years ago, I also saw a huge brown bear while cycling in the early morning rain outside Ucluelet in the rain forest of western Vancouver Island. As with my encounter in Wisconsin, I fumbled with my camera, hoping for a photo of a lifetime, only to see the bear crash into the dense brush by the side of the road in a shower of raindrops.
It’s estimated that there are as many as 465,000 black bears in the lower 48 states, with Maine, Wisconsin, North Carolina, California, Idaho, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Washington, Oregon, Michigan, Wyoming, and Montana having the largest populations. Alaska is the king of all bear states with at least 200,000.
The Bear Essentials
What to do when you roll up on a bear? Here’s some advice from the rangers of Denali National Park in Alaska, home to both grizzlies and black bears. Some of the responses have been tailored for cyclists.
• Don’t run; this can provoke a chase response. Detour around the bear, giving it a wide berth. If the bear spots you, back away slowly and speak in a low, calm voice while waving your arms slowly above your head to make yourself appear as large as possible.
• Stand your ground and don’t drop your pack (in this case, your bike). “Bears sometimes charge, coming within ten feet of a person before stopping or veering off,” say park officials. If there’s food stowed in your panniers, abandoning your bike may encourage the bear to stick around.
• In Denali, hard-shell, bear-proof canisters for food and scented toiletries are provided to backcountry hikers, along with advice to stow them at least 100 yards (300 feet) from camp. You’re also advised to cook your food 100 yards from camp and change out of the clothes you used to cook with, leaving them at the same distance. Touring cyclists should take similar precautions; hang your food and toiletries in a waterproof bag from a tree limb at least 10 feet above the ground and four feet out from the tree trunk.
• Play dead if attacked by a grizzly. “Curl up into a ball with your knees tucked into your stomach and your hands laced around the back of your neck,” advises the park service. “However, if the attack is prolonged, fight back vigorously.”
• But fight back against a black bear: “Their charges are less likely to be a bluff.”
Obviously, grizzly bears are in an entirely different class than black bears. A male grizzly can stand up to seven feet tall and weigh anywhere from 350 to 800 lbs.
In a story that made national headlines last summer, Brad Treat of West Glacier, MT, was killed after colliding with a male grizzly while riding along a narrow forest trail in the Flathead National Forest. According to news reports, the winding section of trail that Treat was riding had limited sight distance. It was the first fatal grizzly attack in that part of northwestern Montana since 2001.
In the United States, approximately 1,500 grizzly bears are largely confined to remote areas of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. The Associated Press reports that there have been six fatal grizzly attacks in the Yellowstone region of these states since 2010.
Cyclists riding remote stretches of these states, such as the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, usually take the necessary precautions. Glacier Cyclery, a bike shop in Whitefish, MT, reports that many local mountain bikers pack along bear spray when riding the Great Divide trail. Like backpackers, some cyclists also announce their presence on remote trails with bear bells.
I used a radio while in bear country on my cross-country ride along the Northern Tier route. While cycling near dark over Sherman Pass in Washington State, a motorcyclist stopped and warned me that a large bear was in the road about a half-mile ahead. With no other choice but to push on, I turned up the volume of my radio in the hope that the bear would be scared off by a double shot of Def Leppard. Ironically, the song playing when I passed the approximate area of the prowling bear was “Pour Some Sugar On Me.”
Robert Downes is the author of Travels With My Wife and Biking Northern Michigan. His website is www.planetbackpacker.net.
Photos by Robert Downes.
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