Editor’s Note: Below is final part in Stephen Mullaney’s three-part series of essays about encounters with bears in the backcountry. The first essay in the series recants the shock Stephen experienced with one particular bear encounter, while the second essay in this series attempts to find humor in a persistent bear taking up quarters in an NCOAE camp late at night. This time around, Stephen — who serves as Director of School Partnerships here at The National Center for Outdoor & Adventure Education (NCOAE) — writes about a timing issue.
Decision Time for the Trailbike Rider
When NCOAE offers larger courses or custom outdoor education courses, we try to have a floater in the field. The floater is an instructor who knows the course area, can navigate to multiple groups in a single day, and has the ability to be flexible and help out when groups are in need of extra support.
I enjoy being a floater because it allows me to see the NCOAE field staff in action. To watch an NCOAE instructor teach is inspiring to me. It also has the added benefit of allowing me to discover different approaches to teaching our curriculum. As a result, being a floater is akin to real-time professional development.
On one particular wilderness course for which I was the floater, we 11 crews/groups in the field. Because of the distance between the groups, the terrain that would need to be traversed, and the need to reach groups quickly, I figured using a trail bike was a no brainer. I could get to each group every four days and still be able to respond to any group that may need outside support in a quicker fashion.
Each day I woke up, left the crew with which I had spent the night, and headed off to meet the next crew before they had even had their breakfast. Then I was off to the next group before lunch, and I usually showed up to meet my final crew for the day a little before dark. Or very much after dark depending on circumstances.
Floating in the Backcountry on a Trail Bike
It’s easy to crash on a bike that’s loaded with gear. A wheel in the wrong spot, or a wet rock or root, and you find yourself laying on the ground wondering what happened. So, while paying attention and riding in control is key on a trail, it’s even more so when you’re carrying enough gear to support a multi-day expedition.
On this particular occasion, it was four in the afternoon, and I needed to get to the crew where I planned on spending the night. They would be camping way above the valley where I currently found myself, located along a ridgeline that was only accessible by very steep, rocky, rooted trails. That means I would be participating in a long section of “hike-a-bike,” a necessary part of most bike-packing trips.
After two miles of unfriendly terrain, I reached the ridgeline and was happy to see long sections of windy trails disappearing and appearing again through the trees. I hopped back on my bike and started down a delicious section of trail. A wave of relaxation spilled over me as the sun began to dive below the horizon. Dark comes quick in the deep woods.
It wasn’t quite dark enough to turn on my light as I reached the apex of the ridgeline when I looked up to see a silhouette in a tree. I looked down at the trail and up again in an attempt to reset my line of vision to confirm I was seeing what I thought I was seeing.
Confirmed! There’s a bear in a tree right alongside the trail, and I am traveling along at a fairly good rate on the descending trail. The question is, do I stop or continue on? Maybe the bear won’t see me. That’s it. The bear won’t see me, and I will quickly be gone. I keep pedaling.
The light has faded even more, so it’s difficult to see the trail condition. I can’t stop to turn on the light. I approach the tree where the bear is hugging the trunk.
When I look up, I note that the bear has seen me. No worries, I think. It’ll stay in the tree. My bicycle is loud going over all the rocks — the rocks I can no longer see, only feel. I may crash.
Now I am right next to the tree, getting the bear stare. I should have my eyes on the trail. Dammit!
I look up in time to see the bear dropping out of the tree and onto the trail right next to me. My thoughts turn to the dogs that used to chase my bike on my childhood paper route. I used to think thatwas scary. I’m thinking, “Do I need to dump my bike and go head-to-head with this bear? That doesn’t sound like an alternative.”
My bike slides just past the bear’s head and we’re face to face. I look behind me and the bear’s heading my way, but it’s not running. So, I start yelling at it. And now that I think about it, my “go to” for bear encounters seems to be screaming at them. And it’s worked every time.
The bear quits following me and veers from the trail, descending the steep ridge and disappearing from sight. I’m riding slightly out of control, clipping trees with my elbows and bouncing around the trail. I tell myself, “Deep breath, get the bike in control, and continue pedaling towards camp.”
I reach camp, let the instructors know there’s a bear in the area. They take in the info, have a few nervous laughs with me, and get back to their groups more informed about the local wildlife.
Eventually, as I sit down with my bike, I find that I’m relieved I didn’t need to truly interact with the bear. Raindrops hit my face. I reach to the top of my bag where I keep my rain gear and find the strap that holds it on my bike dangling to one side.
No rain gear! But I know where it is. And I know I need to go back and get it. What I don’t know is whether the bear will be there to greet me.