When Debbie and I first talked about taking another long-distance bicycle trip through the Pacific Northwest, my internal risk-o-meter kicked back in. Wolves, cougars, and grizzlies popped up on it, soon followed by rattlers, tornados, and wild dogs.
We began researching the tendencies and geographical dispersion of animals that have had a history of posing risk to unsuspecting—and unprepared—humans. With neither of us that familiar with outdoor survival techniques, a crash course courtesy of the Internet served to bounce the needle on my risk-o-meter far to the right. Fear and reason were jousting for supremacy in my mind.
The Grizzly, or should it be Grisly, Truth
Given the nocturnal nature of wolves and cougars, I was able to discount the associated risk to an acceptable level. As for bears, well…black bears are one thing. With reasonable precautions, they pose minimal risk. Grizzlies, however, are quite another matter. They’ve made a strong comeback from near extinction decades earlier. And human close encounters with them are on the rise, particularly in Yellowstone National Park and a wide radius surrounding it.
Many experts believe grizzlies have become more dangerous there because tourists have fed them and regularly come in close contact with them, with camera in hand and an open car door nearby. One of our lodging hosts in Montana claimed that the proliferation of the grizzly population is a significant problem for local ranchers and landowners. He said that the increase in predators, including grizzlies, wolves, and eagles, has jeopardized the livestock, the livelihood, and the well-being of area ranchers.
Debbie was much less concerned than I was before we embarked. She was also leading the charge for another grand adventure, although I don’t want to give the impression that I was not excited about one, too. So, we made a “deal.” I told her that we wouldn’t be traveling through bear country…period…unless we were prepared with safety precautions. I know that sounds like a hardline, unilateral decision, but some things are difficult to compromise on. Our safety is one of them.
Preparing for the Worst
Momentum surrounding pre-trip preparations brought the more practical considerations to the forefront. Even I would agree that bear attacks are low-probability events, despite the high probability of severe consequences if we were ever to face one. Therefore, we conveniently deferred bear proofing ourselves until the “midnight hour.”
We flew to Oregon armed with enough bear-defense information, but with little practical experience and as yet unproven—or missing—equipment. Once out West, buying a can of bear spray was an easy first step. Whether we would know how to use it—or be able to use it with an intimidating bear brandishing its jagged teeth as it charged full speed toward us—would be another matter. I studied the instructions as best I could and decided not to worry about the rest.
Our other major defense, beyond choosing our campsites judiciously, would be to learn how to suspend a bear bag from a tree branch. Every article that we read emphasized this practice. Not only does it keep bears away from your tent, but it also protects your food supply and your gear from other nocturnal hunters.
So, when we first decided on the trip, I had asked Debbie to take the lead on tying up a bear bag. She’s the “knot person” in this duo. She was a scout and a member of the Appalachian Mountain Club. As for me, when it comes to outdoor preparedness, you could call me the “not person.” I didn’t fail scouting, I just didn’t participate. I was too busy playing sports to embark on outdoor adventures. However, that was then, and this is now. As the starting gun was about to fire us into our excursion, the time had come. Check out this video.
When we reached Sioux City, Iowa, I breathed a sigh of relief. After all, when you bicycle tour, you should only carry the bare necessities, and we no longer needed the bear necessities. We could hand over our bear spray to the next cyclist bound for the Pacific Northwest. We would have a ceremonial picture of the handoff, post it online, and wish him well.
A few thousand miles later, however, that encounter still had not come. We were too late in the season for westbound adventurers. Consequently, here we sit, at home, with an unused can of bear spray. Yet, that suits me just fine. It’s a better outcome than if we’d had to use it!