This post is part of a series of 500 word episodes written for ‘In Focus’ magazine. Drawn from a 4500mile solo bicycle trip across the USA in 2017.
One day to one Bear
For a split second I was perplexed as to what this large animal could be, before my mind eventually engaged reminding me of where I was, and that the shape up ahead was not, as I first thought, a large dog.
I had been apprehensive about the possibility of bears since before the trip began; this was often reinforced by the frequent jokes about being attacked and eaten: The 2015 film ‘The Revenant’ was still fresh in everyone’s minds. It also happened to be one of the in-flight film choices, of which I avoided for obvious reasons.
Instead I tried to focus on the statistics: the 750,000 black bears of North America kill on average less than one person per year, while 1 out of every 16,000 humans a year commits a murder. Bear attacks then, are rare, and I often reminded myself that my biggest danger was people - people in oversized vehicles that may fail to notice a lone cyclist in a moment of distraction.
While I had done my research I was still curious about bears. Did I need to worry? Most people I probed on the subject had never seen or had any interaction with one,- “you’d be lucky to see one” they said.
“The advice, if you come across a bear at close range, is to retreat slowly, while still facing the bear. Bears are known to make mock charges to within a few metres; if you run you look like prey…”
But there I was, just a few hours into my first day with a bear in front of me. Stunned, I stopped immediately. He glanced briefly in my direction acknowledging my presence, before continuing to meander across the road ahead. Once out of sight, I cautiously began cycling again, past where the bear had been, singing myself a reassuring but nervous rendition of ‘lovely day’ by Bill Withers. (bears will flee at the sound of soul music)
The advice, if you come across a bear at close range, is to retreat slowly, while still facing the bear. Bears are known to make mock charges to within a few metres; if you run you look like prey - you are advised to stand your ground and shout.
It was an awe inspiring moment. Black bears in particular are generally more timid in nature than their larger cousins, and although numerous are rarely seen. This brief sighting served as an unforgettable start to my journey but also reinforced my anxieties. Lying in my tent that night I again thought of the statistics, calculating that I was currently at a ratio of one bear to one day. “They’re more scared of you than you are of them” rang like an echo in my mind as I drifted off to sleep.
When camping you are advised not to store food in or near to your tent. Bears have one of the keenest noses in the animal kingdom and it is estimated that a black bear’s sense of smell is about seven times greater than a bloodhound’s. It is unlikely that a hungry bear would pass up an easy meal. Fortunately, as the days went by the statistics began to improve and so too did my confidence; “2 then 6 then 18 days since I last saw a bear”. Grizzly country, however, was a different matter entirely.