Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Short Story: Grizzly Bear in Camp in Montana

It was the day we had been thinking about since we rolled out of Calgary: crossing back into America from Canada. We spent our last night in Canada at a provincial campground and then stopped at a rural convenience store in the morning for supplies, just a few miles north of the U.S. border. The owner of the store was missing quite a few teeth, but he was as friendly as can be. We briefly chatted about grizzly bears and Canada's strict laws on handguns before we went on our way.

After a few miles on a quiet highway, the border station came into view. We biked up to the border agent, showed him our passports, and he asked us if we were carrying any raw meats or vegetables with us. We answered no (honestly), and he let us through. The whole process took only a minute or so.

It felt good to be in America, but still, with around 2,300 miles to go until Mexico, there was still no clear sense of direction. We took every day as it came, never really paying attention much to long terms plans except to stay roughly on track with our mileage-per-day. That was one of my favorite parts about the trip.

The US-Canada border was clearly visible in the mountains - they had clear cut a stretch to mark the border as far as the eye could see - and it was a reminder of the arbitrariness of country borders. But I digress.

After a quick stop in Eureka, Montana, we started up the Whitefish Divide climb, a wonderfully scenic 2,500+ foot climb. It started as pavement, where we briefly chatted with a couple riding the Great Divide with their dog in a basket (more on them later). Eventually, pavement turned to gravel, and the higher up we climbed, the rougher (and more beautiful) the climb got. As we neared the top, I was in such a rhythm climbing that it almost felt effortless lugging the 50 pound bike up the mountain.

Then suddenly, "pfffffffft".

A flat. On my front tire. Going uphill. We both immediately stopped and I quickly found the puncture - more of a huge gash - along the sidewall. It was far too big for a plug, so I knew a tube would be needed. We'd be in Whitefish the next day, so I'd have to buy a new tire there.

After a few minutes, a tire boot and a tube was in and we were off. After only a few hundred yards and a slight downhill, there it went again.


Another flat. 

We each had two tubes with us, but still, what a bummer. I think the tube might have been bad before I put it in, something I regret not checking. Seeing as the gash in the tire was quite sizable, I tried super-gluing the gash to prevent dirt from puncturing the tube. It was largely unsuccessful, and we resorted to putting a second tube in. This one worked.

As we neared the top of the climb, there was a little bit of snow still visible in the ravines among the pine trees. Yet another reminder that this is the west, where snow in late June is a common sight. Perhaps it was also foreshadowing to later than night.

We planned to camp at Tuchuck Campground, a primitive national forest site just a mile past the summit of the climb. We leisurely rolled to the campground, and without really looking around, set up our tents in a little grassy patch near some piled up logs.

After getting set up, we cooked some ramen and ate dinner. We noticed there was a camper van parked near us, and the guy was cooking a smelly barbecue dinner. Not exactly the ideal thing to be doing in grizzly bear country.

We eventually decided to move our tents to a different spot, farther away from the smelly barbecue man. It was a better spot anyways, and we set up close to the other bikepackers with the dog who we saw earlier. We filled up our water in the stream, hung out for a little bit, and then crawled into our tents to go to bed.

I had just taken out my contacts to go to sleep when I heard a stern voice.

"Bear. Bear. Bear."

It wasn't a panicked voice; like I said, it was stern. It took me a couple seconds to process it, then I realized it was the bikepackers next to us saying there was a bear right by our tents.

I grabbed my bear spray and asked Will if he heard it too. No response from Will for a few seconds, but then he said yes, he heard it too.

Unsure of what to do, I put on my glasses and slowly unzipped my tent, peaking out between the zippers as I did. No bear in sight, so I climbed all the way out. A few seconds later, Will came out of his tent. We saw the other bikepackers and there dog nervously standing around, so we asked them what happened.

They told us a grizzly bear walked right down past our tents, heading toward the smelly barbecue man's van. Instantly, I knew this meant Will and I were going to pack up and leave. We learned that when a bear comes through camp once, they're more likely to come back later. We didn't want to be grizzly bear food.

There were some park employees at the campground also, young kids about my age, who were camping there and clearing brush. They revved their chainsaw to try and scare the bear away, but they told us that "the bear is definitely still close by". That sealed the deal for us that we were leaving.

We packed up our gear and set off riding again just before sunset, this time going down a massive downhill toward Red Meadow Pass.

The sun was setting as we weaved our way down the mountain. It was some of the most mesmerizing views I've ever seen. The Rockies in the distance looked huge, and the strange colors of the setting sun added a mystique unlike any other.

By the time we reached Red Meadows Pass, it was dark. We set up our dynamo lights and started climbing Red Meadows with only our dynamo lights to guide us. 

About halfway up, we stopped for a quick snack and our lights turned off when we stopped moving. It was something to behold: a crystal clear sky with more stars visible than I've ever seen. We continued up the pass on our bikes until we hit snow, which we expected.

The snow was impossible to ride, so we started hiking. After maybe an hour of hiking, we reached the top of the pass. There was a lake there, but it was so dark, we couldn't see much. Surprisingly, there were two other bikepackers camping up there also. Seeing as it was about 1 o'clock in the morning, they had probably been asleep for quite some time.

After some debating of where to sleep, Will and I set up a tent on a snow-free patch of ground and quickly fell asleep.

We slept-in a little, and in the morning, we chatted with the other bikepackers briefly before continuing on. 
It was maybe 30 more minutes of snow hiking before it got rideable again. After the snow, it was a fast gravel descent toward Whitefish, where I bought a new tire and we both resupplied.

Going into the trip, we both didn't know what to expect in terms of grizzly bears. From what we'd read, they were pretty rare to see. I was hoping we'd see a grizzly or two, but having one walk right past our tents (which we didn't actually see because we stayed in our tent while it walked past) was perhaps more than we bargained for.

Either way, we knew right when it happened that it was going to be a memory we'd both remember forever. And now, five months later, the memory is just as vivid as when it happened. We ended up seeing several more grizzly bears in Wyoming, but no experience was more special than this.

The park service eventually closed the Tuchuck Campground because of grizzly activity, but as far as I know, no one was ever harmed there by a bear.

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