Our trailers loaded with camping gear and our spirits thirsty for a week in the wild, we pedal away from the crystal waters of British Columbia’s Flathead River onto a faint dirt road that climbs into the hills. Deeper into the mountains we ride, the scent of spruce thick in the air, until an unruly creek charging across the road forces us to shoulder our bikes and ford its thigh-high waters.
The mid-July sun warms our skin as we remount and weave between piles of wolf, moose, elk, lion, and bear scat. Wrapping around a hillside, the old road opens into what feels like an entirely new place, a new valley, this one narrower and leading us away from the airy river bottom and into a world of deep forest, roaming wildlife, and peaks that close in on all sides.
Suddenly, I grab the brakes and silently thrust my hand in the air, giving Dad
and Ron the halt-for-a-large-furry-creature-ahead signal. They stop next to me without a word as my forefinger stabs the air towards a large, brown shape a couple hundred feet ahead. A grizzly bear, probably weighing more than the three of us combined, is lolling in the roadside flowers with its back to us, raising its snout to the sun as if reveling in the beauty of its world. My first thought is simple: please don’t have cubs.
“Stay together,” I say under my breath, as I slip a hand into my pack and pull out camera and binoculars. “And keep your pepper spray handy.”
For several minutes we watch the bear before it notices us and, no cubs in sight, casually lumbers across the road. Ron, a New Yorker with an abiding fear of grizzlies, is glued to the binoculars, his hands gripping them with undue force, as the bruin, filling his field of view, pauses and turns its head to stare directly at us. For one electric moment, Ron looks straight into the eyes of the beast. As it lumbers into the forest and Ron lowers the binoculars, only
one word escapes his lips, “...Wow.”
Being in no rush to continue on the road at this particular moment, we let the
adrenalized tension ebb from our bodies through smiles and laughter as we marvel at our encounter.
“We’re sure going to hang our food at camp tonight!” Ron says enthusiastically.
The conversation stops awkwardly for a moment, as I hesitate and slowly look at my father, “Did you bring a rope?”
“No,” he says, “I thought you brought the rope.”
We look at each other just long enough to realize neither is joking. Ron lets out a deep sigh. After giving the bear ample time to find new lolling grounds, we begin to yell, Ron with particular gusto, to prevent surprising the giant, toothy creature as we prepare to ride where it stood only minutes before.
As we start to pedal, I mention that I’ve read grizzlies never attack groups of three or more.
“We’d better stay together then,” Ron says, without missing a beat, “Because the bear won’t necessarily believe us if we tell it a third guy is coming.”