“Go, Davy, go!” I screamed in terror. “He’s chasing you! Pedal fast!”
Only moments ago, the 400 pound black bear had been standing a mere four feet from my side. Now I stood, rooted in place, and watched it chase my ten-year-old son down the road.
“Go, baby!” I shouted. “Pedal!”
Davy pumped with all he had, knowing full well his very life depended on it.
It had been a long day on the road in northern British Columbia that July day in 2008. After cycling sixty miles, we were tired and looking for a suitable spot for our tent. John and Daryl, on the tandem bike, were a kilometer or two ahead of Davy and me as we pedaled wearily on our heavily-laden bikes.
“Look!” I cried. “A bear! Up ahead! See him grazing in the ditch?”
“Wow!” Davy murmured in wonder. “He’s huge.”
Bears, in general, are afraid of humans and do their best to stay away. As we traveled through the Yukon and British Columbia we had grown accustomed to seeing bears grazing quietly in the ditch on the side of the road.
Motorists frequently left the safety of their vehicles to get better photos of the bears. I often marveled at how close people got to the animals, and yet the bears seemed uninterested in them. Motorists, however, had the safety of their vehicles to retreat to. As bicyclists, we had no cover at all. I vowed to stay well away from any wild animal I encountered.
Davy and I pulled to the opposite side of the road and stopped a respectable distance away – I had a good telephoto lens and had no need to get close. I had just pulled the camera out of my handlebar bag when the bear came up to the road and lumbered toward us. We froze.
“Holy Mother of God!” I exclaimed quietly. “He’s coming this way. Bears aren’t supposed to come toward people!”
Davy and I stood quietly, not quite sure what our reaction should be to the fact that a massive bear was drawing near.
A few minutes later, the bear turned and headed back down into the ditch thirty feet away, apparently unconcerned with our presence. Whew! Our hearts resumed beating and we began breathing once again. I stashed my camera and we readied ourselves to take off.
Suddenly, out of the blue, the bear leaped up onto the road right beside us. My heart skipped a beat or two as I struggled to maintain my composure.
“It’s OK, Mr. Bear,” I said calmly and quietly as the massive beast plodded to within four feet of my side. “We’re just leaving. It’s OK.”
I gazed into his cold, black glassy eyes. Blades of grass stuck out on either side of his grizzled face. My mind raced through everything I had read about what to do in the event of a close encounter with a bear.
The first thing the books said to do was remain calm which, trust me, is easier said than done when you’re standing face to face with bear. The second thing they said to do was talk to the bear.
That I could do!
“It’s OK,” my mouth muttered, seemingly on its own. “We’re just leaving, Mr. Bear. You can have your territory back. We mean you no harm. We’re on our way out.”
As my mouth chattered on autopilot, my mind replayed what the books said. I stayed calm (sort of) and talked with the bear. The third thing they said was to back away slowly.
You never want to turn your back to a bear, they said, because that will provoke an attack. And never run as that will provoke a chase.
The problem was that I was straddled on my bike and couldn’t back away. If I tried to go backwards I would jackknife the trailer I hauled behind my bike. If I tried to go forward I would put my back to the bear. I couldn’t go sideways because… well, bikes don’t go sideways.
Mr. Bear and I stood staring at each other for nearly a full minute. As I gazed into Mr. Bear’s glassy black eyes, I became more and more certain with each passing second that I was about to meet my maker. It wouldn’t be long before the bits of grass hanging out of the bear’s mouth would be replaced with bits of Nancy.
Davy, on the other hand, had a chance. He was standing twenty feet away – straddling his bike and looking back at me.
“Davy,” I said quietly. “Ride away slowly, honey. Just start pedaling very slowly and ride away. Please, sweetie.”
Davy stood his ground, unwilling to leave me.
“Honey, go!” I pleaded. “Please!” It was bad enough that I would soon be mauled by a bear. Even worse would be for my son to watch it.
Davy hesitantly turned around, put his feet on his pedals and began pedaling slowly. The bear followed.
“Go, Davy, go!” I shouted. “Fast!”
Davy quickly gained speed as he pedaled furiously.
I will admit that, for a split second I was relieved – I no longer had a massive bear by my side. On the other hand, that very same bear was now chasing my ten-year-old son down the road.
With every motherly instinct within me – not to mention massive amounts of adrenaline – I jumped on to my pedals, shifted into my highest gear and quickly brought my bike up to heretofore unknown speeds. I blasted past the bear and caught up to Davy.
“Keep going!” I urged as the bear chased us. I have no idea how fast we went, but I can tell you a bear can run 35 miles per hour. Fortunately, two adrenaline-fueled cyclists can pedal faster.
The two of us sped frantically down the road. Our legs pumped furiously, our hearts pounded, our breath came in raw, jagged gasps. We watched in our rear-view mirrors as the bear fell farther and farther behind.
“Mom, I think we’re safe now,” Davy said when it had become obvious the bear would not be able to catch us.
“Not yet, sweetie,” I panted. “Not yet.”
The bear was merely a black speck in the distance before I could bring myself to hit my brake levers. Davy and I pulled to a stop in the middle of the Alaska Highway and reached out to cling to one another.
As we trembled and shook, and our heart rates slowly returned to normal, the only thing I could think of to say was, “We did it, baby. We did it”