How to Avoid

Becoming Roadkill

A tricky encounter in the wilds of Wyoming

It was a glorious August afternoon and I was out on my bike. The temperature was hovering somewhere in the mid-30s with no humidity and my legs felt supple and strong for the short climb ahead.

Turning off the main road, past the signs warning that the winding lane ahead was unsuitable for vehicles longer than 25ft, I went from open space, with stunning mountain views, to a narrow road with dense, dark forest, banking up on each side.

The only sounds I could hear, apart from the very faint hum of motor boats on the lake a mile or so behind me, were my own breathing and the slight whirr of the chain hauling me upwards. I was in that wonderful mental state in which the mind goes almost completely blank and simply exalts in the pleasure of being outside, on a bike.

Then I met the bear.

And things changed very quickly.

You’ll have realised by now that I wasn’t pottering around my usual routes in south-east England. While I've had my share of sightings of badgers, deer and even wild boar, rides in the UK tend not to encompass encounters with large carnivores. I was on a family holiday in the USA and had slipped away for a few hours to take a ride up Signal Mountain, a 2,350m ft peak in Wyoming.

I wasn’t expecting a particularly challenging ride. The foot of the climb was already at almost 2,000m and it was only another 5 miles to the summit itself, at a fairly benign gradient.

My main reason for trying it was to see how I coped with the altitude. I had suffered badly with asthma on my previous highest climbs, barely more than 2,000m, in the Pyrenees some years before. As I was planning to tackle the 4,260m ascent of Mount Evans in Colorado the following week, I was concerned that I might not be capable of riding in the thinner air above 2,500 metres.

Hence, my focus was my lungs as I pedalled comfortably through the first mile or so of gently undulating forest road, enjoying the peace and musing over what kind of view I would get from the top of the mountain.

I rounded a bend, on a slight incline, and there he was, on all fours, slap bang in the middle of the road about 40 feet in front of me. A fully grown black bear.

I knew about bears, of course. Any visitor to Grand Teton, where Signal Mountain is located, or the adjoining Yellowstone National Park is bombarded with warnings about the danger, the need to stay at least 300 feet away from any bear, the inadvisability of hiking alone and the wisdom of carrying bear repelling spray*.

I had heard all of that advice and, foolishly, assumed that a bear was unlikely to be hanging around on a popular road, with cars buzzing up and down, in the middle of the afternoon.

Now, as I looked at the bear and the bear looked at me, I found myself wondering if I would live long enough to realise what a fool I had been.

I am pleased to recall that I didn’t panic. Had I succumbed to my immediate thought, to turn around and get back down the hill as quickly as possible, you might not be reading this. Thanks to the Lonely Planet guide, I knew that the worst thing you can do when faced with a bear is to run away. Apparently, they enjoy the chase as much as the subsequent meal. So I stopped, dismounted, and backed away, painfully slowly, with the bike held in front of me (as everyone knows, a bicycle is a highly effective defence against a charging bear).

All the time I was avoiding eye contact and talking loudly to make it clear that I was a human. I can’t remember what I was saying but I suspect it was gibberish. I seem to recall that at one point I said something like: “Hello Mr Bear. What a surprise to see you here. I hope you are having a nice day.”

Fear does that sort of thing to you.

All seemed to be going well. I wasn’t too far from the bend and I hoped that once I was out of sight I would be forgotten.

But then a car came down the hill, behind the bear. And rather than stop immediately, the driver helpfully chose to get as close as he could to the animal so that his kids could lean out of the windows and take photos.

Not surprisingly, the bear took exception to this encroachment on to his bit of road and decided to move away.

Towards me.

Luckily, he didn’t move very fast, but I’m not embarrassed to say that I was very scared at this point.

He came a bit closer, now about 30ft away, then stopped again.

Suddenly, there was a new factor to consider – another car that had just come around the bend and stopped immediately behind me.

This was my saviour, or so I thought. There was a certain logic in placing another, large and metal, object between me and the bear. Very slowly, I edged alongside and then around the back of the car.

Caught in a vehicle sandwich, the bear began to pace restlessly from one side of the road to the other, still coming closer towards where I was lurking.

Then, without warning, he leapt up the bank at the side of the road and started to amble among the trees.

I think at that point, all involved assumed that our little encounter was about to be over. Another car had now come down the hill and was spilling its camera-wielding occupants all over the road.
As some of them were small kids, I reasoned that this was helpful as, given the choice, any bear would be bound to go for an easy bite-sized meal rather than take on an adult. On the other hand, he had now re-emerged from the trees and was almost parallel to the car behind which I was cowering.

Not wanting to take any chances, I edged back alongside the car, so that it was still between us.

This turned out to be a smart move as the bear jumped back down on to the road and approached the very spot at which I had been standing.

There were a couple of mountain bikes strapped to the back of the car and, perhaps because they would have the smells of previously-ridden trails on them, these became the focus of his attention.

However, so far as I was concerned, I was still fewer than six feet from a large black bear, so continued to take baby steps back towards the front of the car. I could hear him snuffling, as though he had a bad cold, and, as I thought in my fear, growling a little. A bear’s growling is not a welcome sound when you are that close.

Thank goodness for those bikes.

Whatever it was about them was enough to occupy him completely. He began clambering over them, pawing at the tyres and making the rear end of the car rock up and down.

That was enough distraction for me to gently back away, this time up the hill, towards the gawping onlookers.

I wonder how many holiday photos I appear in.

As soon as I was out of direct sight, I was back on the bike and continued the climb, albeit a little more nervously than before.

The car with bikes came past about 15 minutes later.

The driver slowed to tell me that the bear had ended up on the roof and he had resorted to beeping the horn and jerking the vehicle to drive him away.

I expressed my hope that he really had gone away and wouldn’t be waiting on his (or my) return!
A couple of cyclists who reached the top about 10 minutes after me reported that they had spotted him among the trees but that he had shown no interest in them.

As for the climb – it was lovely and the view from the summit worth the effort. But I made sure that I took the descent in company, tailgating (with permission) a large SUV all the way down. And I’m pleased to report that I suffered no ill-effects from the altitude and reached the summit of Mount Evans comfortably the following week.

But if I were to cycle in that region again, I think I’d do it with company – and a can of bear spray in one of the bottle cages.

* Bear spray is a powerful repellent that is to be used when an attacking bear is within a few feet of you. I was told that once a bear has experienced one spraying it will back off as soon as it sees the canister appear, but I’m not sure I would want to chance it. It stinks to high heaven which is why purchasers are repeatedly reminded that it is to be sprayed at the bear and not all over the body, as you would with insect repellent

Image by David Cardinez on Pixabay

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