Back in Bolivia we hit a big bump in the road. It sent us into a spin.
Two months off the bikes re-grouping and now we’re back on the road full of energy and enthusiasm for the Alaska leg of our round the world journey.
Problem is we just rammed into one more annoying obstacle. Another bump in the road. An itsy-bitsy one this time, but a bump nevertheless.
One thing leads to another
Our problem began with bears.
I’ve always had something of an obsession with bears. As a kid, there was nothing on earth I loved better than my loyal Teddy. In fact, Teddy (a spry 41 today) still occupies a position of honor in the family home back in Montana.
Bears that scare
But as an adult traveling the world on a slow-moving getaway vehicle, my bear obsession is now focused not on the snuggly stuffed type, but those 500+ pound creatures that roam the great expanses of North America.
Real live bears–grizzlies in particular–, the ones with ferocious growls, massive jaws, the ability to charge at 30 MPH and maul humans in a matter of minutes, those bears scare me as much as the thought of spending the rest of my days trapped in a cubicle with two-weeks annual vacation.
So I’m taking precautions. Reading up on bear facts. Searching out advice.
Turns out about 31,000 grizzlies make their home in Alaska and 21,000 in Western Canada. Granted, maulings are extremely rare. Bears are generally shy and avoid contact with humans, but still, who wants to take a chance and end up as hibernation fodder?
The scout in me: always be prepared
As a line of first defense we’ve armed ourselves with Counter Assault bear deterrent.
Alright, we’re good to go. Got the bear spray in the handle bar bag. Any irate bears come charging down the highway within 30 feet and they’ll be doused with pepper spray for 7.2 seconds.
And if those 7.2 seconds of eye irritation don’t do the trick, let’s just hope we’re on a major descent and can out pedal a perturbed grizzly.
Riding the Divide
Day 4 in Canada. All is well. Friendly families have been hosting us, our slightly-out-of-shape legs are proving to be up to the strenuous job of getting us across the Great Divide and the scenery is stunning.
There are snow-capped mountains, and fast-flowing streams, waterfalls tumbling down into deep ravines, there are cork-screw climbs and fast descents and there are BEARS. Plenty of them we’re told.
Hungrier than usual since summer has been so long in coming.
Too tired to think straight?
By the time we arrive in the tourist mecca of Lake Louise, exhaustion has set in. The campsite is full, and, “so sorry but no there’s absolutely no room to squeeze in a couple of itinerant cyclists.”
Next campsite is 30 kilometers yonder. “But,” whispers the understanding guy in the tourist information center, “you might just pitch up at Herbert Lake, nobody’ll bother you there.”
Terrific. Apart from the mosquitoes ravaging my body, the setting is idyllic. A beautiful lake surrounded by pristine wilderness in the heart of bear country.
Trying to be wise
Only those with suicide wishes would pack their food inside the tent for the night. Wise campers, we’ve been told, string their supplies up in a tree, well out of reach from wandering bears.
And we’re prepared with a length of sturdy rope and some carabineers we’ve been toting along for just such an occasion.
But wait, these scrawny pine boughs will never support the weight of our panniers! This is not the way things worked out on the YouTube video.
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A second shot
Plan B. The rest area garbage dumpster. Yep, just slip your food supplies in the vestibule behind the big dumpster’s plastic bags and you’re all set. Sounds strange, but several cyclists we met passing the opposite direction assured us this was a great solution to bear worries.
Unfortunately, this ingenious solution doesn’t work in Banff National Park. Not only are Canadian dumpsters bear-proof, turns out they’re also people-proof.
The final solution
As a last resort we store the panniers with the food and cooking gear (whose residual smells can apparently attract bears) plus the toiletries (can also be mistaken for food) in the public restrooms.
I scrawl a friendly note explaining the situation (Hi, we’re two cyclists. These are our food supplies. We are protecting them from the bears. Please do not disturb. Thanks, Eric and Amaya).
Later a ranger stops by.
“You realize you’re camped illegally.”
“Yes, yes, but you see, sir, my wife’s really tired and…”
With a nod the ranger cuts Eric off.
“I understand. You cyclists don’t have it easy. Enjoy your evening.”
And we do. I nod off as soon as my sleeping bag’s zipped up.
An ever so unpleasant surprise
In the morning I trot down to retrieve our gear and WHAT! A bag is missing. One of our beautiful, shiny new Ortlieb panniers.
Panic. I assume the thief has taken the expensive MSR stove and the lightweight cook set. But no, the evil-doer has made off with our bagels and oatmeal. He’s swiped our precious jar of peanut butter and the big bag of dried craisins. The low-life has pinched the packet of spaghetti and the supply of rice. Why the nerve!
Not the Canada I know
We are in shock. Truly in shock. Robbed in Canada of all places. In a National Park. I mean, who’d have thought we’d make it all around Africa without a hitch to get robbed right in my own backyard? My blood is boiling.
I’ve always tended to trust those who hang out in nature. Good people for the most part, I’ve always believed.
Not that I normally leave gear lying around. In spite of the hassle, we religiously unload the bicycles each evening and stow our stuff away safely in the tent. As a matter of course, we lock our bikes to the nearest tree.
Why take risks?
But the thought of a hungry bear roaming around after dark sniffing out my peach-flavored oatmeal was enough to make us store our stuff in a public restroom at a little-used rest area.
Fatigue impaired our decision making and common sense flew out the window. Couldn’t we have left the food in a plastic bag? Why tempt a thief with a set of bright-red panniers?
Now I’m riding a very lob-sided bike. With all the weight in one front pannier, I feel like I’m going to spin out on descents.
With our food supplies gone, we spent a few hungry days (albeit less hungry than expected thanks to help from fellow campers) riding the Icefields Parkway.
And we learned another lesson. The hard way.