Biking Adventures With Bears

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By David Finch — “Hey-YOIP!” I yelped. For the hundredth time. On a trail with branches reaching in from both sides.

I was off my mountain bike, light ball cap drenched with sweat. Pushing my ride, loaded with overnight gear. Arms almost straight as I puffed my way up the steep trail.

“Hey-YOIP!” The “P” at the end exploding with sound.

David Finch in Canadian Bear Country. Photo by David Finch

Movement ahead. Brown fur rising. A hundred feet away, over a rise. One hairy head, then another. A sow grizzly and her nearly full-grown cub rose to full majesty. Sniffing the air. Snaking their heads.

Beside my bike, I lowered the bill of my cap to hide my eyes, so I didn’t stare at the startled sow.

And I reached for my bear spray.

Bear country in Alberta. Mount Muir (L) Mount McPhail (R) are in the distance. The Elk Trail Pass is to the left of the mountains, Lake of the Horns is between the two massifs, and Hill of the Flowers is illuminated by sun in the mid-distance. As you can see, the approach track crosses the river – easily waded except in the spring, and then about 10 miles of progressively steeper terrain. Not as the crow flies, but the distance a crow would need to fly if tethered to the back of the bike. Alberta, Canada. Photo by David Finch

The front country southwest of Calgary, Alberta in western Canada boasts great mountain biking. Road biking too. The highest paved pass in Canada – Kananaskis Pass tops out at 7273 feet – is closed from December 1 to June 15 each year. It affords narrow tired cyclists a high-country adventure option each spring.

But this stretch of the high country is also known as the Grizzly Daycare. More remote than the front country of Kananaskis Country that 5 million plus visitors invade each summer, the Highwood River valley is where bears go on break.

Grizzlies that bother campers or hikers or golfers get trapped in sections of metal culvert on flatbed trailers and relocated to the Highwood Valley. Far from the madding crowds – there are no campgrounds of the pass – the released grizzlies are safe. As are humans.

Most of them. One June my wife Jeannie and I and another couple encountered two grizzlies on our return from Highwood Pass. Out and back the distance is 47 miles and makes for a fun ride.

The first bruin was insatiably curious. Perhaps 500 yards away, we stopped and yelled at him – it seemed male. Blew our whistles. Waved our arms. Did anything we could to scare him. No way. He was busy grubbing. Digging up the soil for edibles. Or perhaps a ground squirrel? Each time I made noise to scare him off he looked up at us and then gamboled in our direction until he got distracted. Is it possible that young bears suffer from ADHD too?

We finally parked our bikes and hiked to the nearest tall trees, coniferous giants up which we could safety climb. The bear sniffed around our bikes, and then made a bee-line for the base of my tree. I had the only bear spray. Squirt him as he climbed? The myth is that grizzlies can’t climb, but they can. Especially the younger ones.

When he was right below my tree – I was at least 30 feet up in the branches – he caught wind of me. My guts clenched, yikes! Then the heard my helmet scratching the branches, and he bolted. West up the road, constantly seeking food.

Our brave-ish group returned to our bikes. Just 20 minutes later we ran into another grizzly. She (due to their actions we sexed the first one as a male and the second as his sister) was lazing in the sun. After a vote, we decided to ride past her quietly.

Off we pedaled. When we got to the bottom of the hill she woke up, jumped straight into the air – like in the cartoons! When she reconnected with the ground, she scampered the other way.

The Highwood Valley is cowboy country. Clint Eastwood made his movie Unforgiven in this watershed. For centuries, the First Nations people inhabited the foothills seasonally. They sometimes talk to bears. Cowboys prefer to let a rifle do the talking.

My cowboy friends encourage me to take a 45-calibre pistol on my meanders. I enjoy solo hiking and skiing and mountain biking. But I don’t want to injure a grizzly.

Others encourage me to not carry bear spray – it sharpens the senses. Okay … perhaps they just carry a sharp stick like Tony Hopkins in The Edge.

Others say it’s unsafe to travel alone.

So, I’m near the continental divide, a stone’s throw from two grizzlies. What to do?

Nothing. I let Mama Bear decide.

I’m a writer, always on deadline. The day before I had promised myself I would write until noon, then escape. Load up my beater steel-framed stick-sifter trusty mountain bike with rear panniers and a handlebar bag and a backpack.

My destination was a beaver pond not far from the Continental Divide between mountains called McPhail and Muir. With the Lake of the Horns perched high on the Alberta side – named for the horned coral fossils strewn everywhere. Just above the Hill of the Flowers – a ridge near the access to the lake that erupts with every color.

A cliff and scramble guard the way up to the pass called The Elk Trail. Stoney First Nations people had pointed it out to transplanted Georgio Pocaterra who escaped his father’s wealth in Italy to become a cowboy in the shadow of the Rockies.

According to Georgio – a “prince” in his own mind – after a convention, the elk decamped for British Columbia because the cowboys and settlers were making too much commotion in the Alberta plains.

My gear was minimal; tarp, small sleeping bag and a tin can stove to boil the “beaver” out of the water. Early start the next morning. Boil coffee water. Take a light pack up the rock wall into Elk Trail pass. Gaze over the Elk River.

Mama Bear stood tall. Proud. I awaited her decision. With gentle grace and composition, she turned and dropped out of view. Junior followed.

Stunned, I headed downhill. In shock. Sweating and scared. Walked a bit – looking over my shoulder all the time. Then I donned my helmet and mounted my rubber-tired steed.

The worst was yet to come – perhaps.

I’d read about bikers screaming down steep trails. Rounding a corner. Crashing into an enraged bear.

So, I took precautions. Rang my bike bell. Tooted nonstop on a Fox 40 whistle – if it’s loud enough for NHL refs pulling apart hockey players it’s good enough for me.

Gradually calmed down. Mama Bear and her cub could have The Elk Trail. I lived to return another day.

Ten miles back to the road. I loaded my steed into an old truck – a Ford F-150 with bull low gear on a stick on the floor. Drove to the cattle guard gate and locked the not-worth-stealing bike to the plywood side rail.

Evening sun setting, I humped my pack up The Bull Creek Hills. Side hill gouged steep terraces to the highest promontory. The small tarp under a shrubby tree for protection.

A large recycled peanut butter jar stored my food. I tossed it high in the tallest conifer. A length of parachute chord attached to it so I could pull it down the next day.

“Hey-YOIP!”

If a grizzly wanted my grub, she was welcome to the challenge.

David Finch is a public historian who bikes for fun in Calgary and southern Alberta.

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