I met my first (and last) grizzly bears 26 years ago in June. My boyfriend Ken and I were bicycling through the Richardson’s Mountains en route from Inuvik, NWT to Richmond, BC.
Why we started the journey was a little odd. Ken was working retail and won the prize as top camera salesman. They offered him either a big ass TV or two mountain bikes. As I couldn’t bear the thought of watching non-stop sports and car racing, he got the bikes. Despite neither of us having ridden since high school, we decided to go on thousand km trips carrying all our stuff and camping out and cooking along the way.
We had a rocky start to the trip–On the third day (early June) we got snowed in for a few days in Fort McPherson. Turns out the clay on the Dempster Highway becomes orange mush when wet. And although it was very sweet of the locals to share, I am not a big fan of their Itsu treat (a frozen ball of lard, white sugar and dried caribou meat ) or the other specialty–the innards of the white fish. Go figure. (these may seem like small things, but when you’re bicycling long distances, food becomes an obsession)
The road dried out and, after several days building up our butt callouses and quads, we were finally starting to get some kilometers under our tires. We’d already cycled for about 80 kms and were looking for a suitable place to pitch tent when Ken noticed the bear scat.
Our options were 1) to stay and pray the bear had moved along. 2) backtrack a few kms until we felt safe. Or 3) press on forward and just hope for the best. We took door number 3 and moved on soon to be joined by the crazy Belgium guy we’d met earlier in Fort McPherson. (His plan was to ride all day and night while the sunlight was shining 24/7. As he was travelling faster and further, that was the only day we travelled together.)
At the top of a hill, we looked down to see a bear cub on the left at the bottom just before the highway climbed yet another huge hill. Again we discussed options. Crazy Belgium wanted to ride down quietly to get a picture of said cub. Ken explained if there was a cub, there probably was a mama grizzly willing to kill anyone getting anywhere near her baby.
I wasn’t prepared to backtrack (on a clay highway, every kilometer is a hard earned victory) so we cycled as fast as we could, ringing our bicycle bells and loudly singing the “We Don’t Have Any Peanut Butter song.” (note lyrics and tune of the WDHAPB song are lame but, to date, it had kept bears from raiding our tent)
Halfway down, Ken yelled, “Look to your right!”
Shit. Well, not literally.
In this case there was a huge mama grizzly bear about 3 meters from the road with a smaller cinnamon coloured cub (it looked just like a stuffed Gund) between its front paws. We couldn’t stop and go back so we just got louder and peddled faster. But you don’t go too fast with heavily loaded mountain bikes on clay and climbing up the next hill, we were even slower. Luckily Mama just gave us the stink eye as she herded her little baby away from the road.
We cycled for about 30 more kilometers on adrenaline alone before I finally felt safe enough for us to camp. The crazy Belgium continued on still grumbling about us not letting him get the photo of a lifetime.
We saw a ton of wildlife on that trip: foxes, caribou, ptarmigans, black bears — not nearly as scary, but still dangerous — as well as the ubiquitous squirrels, chipmunks and gray jays. But my main memory will always be of the sheer terror and awe as we passed way too close by the mama grizzly and lived to tell the tale.
Looking back on that month long expedition, it feels almost like someone else’s story. I was a different person, living in a different time. I do occasionally wonder if Ken is still out there somewhere bicycling and photographing wildlife, but probably he has finally gotten his dream of travelling in an old VW van.
We live, experience, and then move on, carrying only diminishing memories. I guess that’s why I don’t really believe in having a bucket list. Yes, I’m glad we did that massive bike trip (as well as the one from Toronto to St John’s Nfld) And having survived them, I gained more confidence in my day to day life. But it makes more sense to me just to be open to whatever opportunity is in front of you, instead of having a pre-set list to make you feel like you are merely passing time in your current life waiting to tick off exciting things to-do lists sometime in the future.
Carpe Diem! Because as The Specials said back in 1980 (and Guy Lombardo, Doris Day and many others before them) Enjoy Yourself, It’s Later Than You Think.