By Mark D. Miller
When I heard the word “bear,” I knew it had to be a grizzly. James was a 100 feet ahead of me, staring into a meadow paralleling the trail. Still straddling his bike, he slowly removed his pack and pulled out his bear spray, never taking his eyes off the meadow. His tone was methodical and calm. It raised the hair on the back of my neck.
This was just supposed to be another weekly Thursday night ride with James and Brad, my regular biking partners. But it was fall, and we were looking to end the biking season on a high note. The plan was to leave work early, drop a truck at Porcupine Creek trailhead, then drive over to Portal Creek and ride the wild country in the Gallatin Range between the two.
If we took the three to three-and-a-half hours the guidebook suggested, we’d make it to the truck just before dusk. However, after a summer of rides, we felt strong. Scott was the wild card. This was our first ride with him, and his first in two years.
Brad, Scott and I worked on the same construction site. Scott was fresh out of Maine, and this was his first year in Montana. Seeing our bikes in the truck one Thursday, he asked if he could join a ride. The next week I told him about our plan. It’s not going to be easy I warned him, quoting facts from the guidebook: 2300’ of climbing, 3000’ descent, 12 miles total, and strenuous, expert terrain. Then I added with emphasis, “Right in the middle of grizzly country too.” He didn’t flinch.
He reassured me with stories of high school exploits on the track and ski teams. Then he showed up in a short sleeve cotton t-shirt with only his bike, 32 oz of water, and a Ruger 45. We had plenty of food and water, but clouds were moving in, and wet cotton would be a serious problem on a chilly mountain evening.
Scott started strong, chatting easily with James and Brad. I hung back, sucking wind and questioning my own fitness. I felt stronger after a few miles when we turned off the Forest Service road and began climbing the single track. It got technical just as it started pouring rain. When I went to put on my rain jacket, I realized I had my wife’s small jacket instead of my own XL. I crammed my 200 pounds into her size small, zipping it beneath my belly button. The boys laughed hysterically.
We continued, taking shelter under trees during downpours and continuing up in spells of lighter rain. Thunder and lightning boomed, and clouds clung low in the trees. Near the top of the climb, the trail meandered through endless meadows lined with whitebark pines.
Lightning flashed, and Brad and I stopped under a stand of trees to wait for Scott to catch up. James waited just up the trail. I had an extra long sleeve polypro shirt in my pack, which I gave Scott to wear. That’s when we heard the word “bear.”
Brad and I pulled out canisters of pepper spray, and Scott drew his gun. We couldn’t see the upper half of the meadow, but had a clear view of the bottom. Time stopped.
Everything seemed surreal: the light drizzle, the mist clinging to the trees, and the huge grizzly running through the trees that funneled right to us.
“Hey!” I yelled.
The bear stopped about 70 feet from us and stood on his hindquarters: this was the Shaquille O’Neal of bears. His front legs dangled like a giant dog on its hindquarters. His fluffy head was the size of a car tire. He stared in our direction and sniffed. The sliding of metal broke the silence, as Scott chambered a bullet.
“Be cool, man,” I said, unsure if I was talking to Scott, myself, or the bear.
Then, as fast as he’d come, the grizzly dropped and turned, disappearing through the trees on the far side of the meadow.
We headed up the trail as fast as we could. Once we started downhill, Scott got so cold he had trouble holding his handlebars on the bumpy, wet single-track. With five miles to go, his legs started cramping, and he began shivering uncontrollably.
Brad was warm and gave up his rain jacket and a granola bar. Scott warmed up, but the cramping continued and he became irritated with our help and suggestions, while we grew agitated with his lack of pace and ungrateful attitude.
It was getting late, and there was a good possibility of running into another bear, afterall, the last section is called the Grizzly Loop. Scott alternated between jogging and riding.
Eventually, James, Brad and I arrived at the final junction. It was an easy track from here, and we knew we’d be out before nightfall. Scott barreled in behind us and fell off his bike, clutching his cramped legs on the soggy ground. We busted out laughing.
“F*** yous guys,” he retorted in his best Maine accent. And just like that, all was forgiven.
On the final stretch, we carved a smooth track through sage brushed hills, reaching the truck in equal light and darkness. There, we opened beers and toasted our four-hour epic.
Scott took a sip and blurted out, “That was an awesome ride!”