A Guest Post By Nancy Sathre-Vogel From ‘Family On Bikes’
“Go, Davy, go!” I screamed in terror. “He’s chasing you! Pedal fast!”
Only moments ago, the 300 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!”
My husband and I, along with our twin sons, were pedaling the Alaska Highway in British Columbia that July day in 2008. As a family, the four of us had cycled over 11,000 miles through three countries and had never had a problem. We had pedaled 1,500 miles through bear country in Alaska and Canada, and had seen a wide variety of the animals. But always, they either ignored us and continued grazing, or turned around and fled when they saw us. This bear, however, was different.
It had been a long day on the road. After cycling sixty miles, we were tired and looking for a suitable spot for our tent. My husband and other son were a kilometer or two ahead of Davy and me as we pedaled wearily on our heavily-laden bikes.
“Look!” I cried. “A bear! Over there! 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 my camera out of my handlebar bag when the bear came up to the road and lumbered toward us. We froze.
“Holy cow!” I exclaimed quietly. “He’s coming this way. Bears aren’t supposed to come toward people!”
A few moments later, the bear turned and headed back down into the ditch thirty feet away, apparently unconcerned with our presence.
Our hearts resumed beating and we began breathing once again. I stashed my camera and we readied ourselves to take off.
All of a sudden, 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. “We’re just leaving. It’s OK.”
The massive beast plodded to within four feet of my side and stood still. I gazed into his cold, black eyes. Blades of grass stuck out on either side of his grizzled face.
I panicked as my mind replayed all I had read. “Stay calm and talk quietly to the bear as you slowly back away,” the books had said. The problem was that I was straddled on my bike and couldn’t back away.
The bear ambled toward the trailer I hauled behind my bicycle, where I carried all the food for the four of us, and sniffed. I had no way of knowing how hungry he might be. He came back to stand by my side.
Mr. Bear and I stood staring at each other for nearly a full minute. He wouldn’t back away and I couldn’t. I played through every scenario I could think of to get away, but there just weren’t any that would work. I became more and more certain with each passing second that it was time for me to meet my maker, but I figured I could save my son. Davy 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!”
My son hesitantly turned around and began pedaling slowly. The bear followed.
“Go, Davy, go!” I shouted. “Fast!”
Davy quickly gained speed as he pedaled furiously.
I pondered my options. On the one hand I was relieved – I was free. The bear no longer stood by my side, threatening me. I could easily retreat and wait for the bear to move on. On the other hand, my son was up ahead being chased by an angry bear.
A split second later my decision was made. I shifted into my highest gear and my adrenaline-fueled legs 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 at high speeds. “Pedal, sweetie! Keep going!”
The two of us sped frantically down the road. Our legs pumped furiously, our hearts pounded, and 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. Keep going.”
The bear was merely a black speck in the distance before I could bring myself to slow down.
“We did it, Davy!” I shouted triumphantly. “We did it!”
Davy and I stopped our bikes side-by-side in the middle of the road and clung to each other, trembling.
“We’re safe, sweetie,” I murmured. “We did it.”
“Do not fear death … only the unlived life. You don’t have to live forever; You just have to live.” — Natalie Babbitt
Writer’s Bio: Nancy has just completed a three year cycling adventure from Alaska to Argentina with her husband and their 13-year-old twin boys. Carrying everything they needed on their bikes, the four adventurers cycled through deserts and rainforests, over high mountain passes and along miles of coastline. Read more about their adventures at www.familyonbikes.org and follow Nancy on Twitter.