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Andersen: Riding the ‘bear trail’

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

Riding my mountain bike on remote trails — alone — gives me a potent sense of clarity. It may not be the purest approach to the wilds, but for me it’s very intimate.

This goes back to the ’70s, years before mountain bikes were banned from wilderness. I was living in Crested Butte at the time, and mountain bikes were so novel that there were few restrictions.

My friends and I followed cattle tracks onto the high ridges around town into what’s now wilderness. We explored sagelands and deserts. We rode virgin trails into old mining camps. We felt like pioneers of an emerging sport.

In those days we rode prototypes that weighed 35 pounds, most of them engineered by California frame builders who showed off their innovations every September on the annual Pearl Pass tour to Aspen.

In the late ’70s, I took my mountain bike to Moab for the first time. Nobody had seen a mountain bike, and they rubbed their eyes in disbelief as I pedaled up Elephant Hill on a 21-speed chrome Mongoose with Magura motorcycle break levers and Snakebelly tires.

Helmets seemed like a bother in those days, so we just wore cycling caps. Melanoma was off the radar, so there were no jerseys in our wardrobes, just bare skin to burnish in the sun. Toe clips with leather straps were perfect for our Nike Lava Domes.

In those early years, we crossed all the high passes between Crested Butte and Aspen. We frequented memorable trails like Daisy Pass, with wildflowers up to our shoulders. Most trails were totally buffed because they had never seen a tire track.

Looking back, I have no regrets that bikes were banned from wilderness. There are plenty of wild places to ride without having to poach. Leaving wilderness for walking is good management, mandating a closer and slower contact with the land.

I love wilderness walking, but there are times when I crave a long, solo ride on a trail that’s far from home, something challenging that piques my senses and keeps my survival instincts strong. I need such primal experiences, whether on foot or bike.

Certain rides I do annually just to make sure I’m not losing my edge. I haven’t really thought out what happens when I can’t finish a big loop, but I’ll cross that bridge — when I don’t come to it.

What I call the “bear trail” is an annual favorite. My last two rides there I’ve done alone, and both times bears figured strongly into the picture. The first time was the most threatening. The second time was the scariest.

The threatening part resulted from a close encounter with a mama bear and two cubs when I inadvertently inserted myself between them. It happened where this narrow trail contours across a plunging mountainside in the dark timber.

I had seen fresh bear scat from the start, so I made plenty of noise until the scat was no more. I assume the bear had meandered off the trail, but rounding a tight turn, I heard something scrabbling up a tree on my right.

I took my eyes off the trail long enough to glimpse two bear cubs in a tree close enough to reach out and touch them. Then I heard the crashing of brush on my left. My legs reacted with a sprint Lance Armstrong couldn’t match, even on full steroids. Adrenalin can do amazing things.

Last week I made the same ride, this time starting from my house up the Fryingpan, which added a few hours of pleasant spinning. Bear scat again marked the trail, and there were huge prints in the mud — with long claws.

“Hey, bear! Ho, bear!” I called while passing overturned rocks, uprooted stumps and broken chokecherry branches — clear signs of a hungry, foraging bear, and a large one at that.

I shouted out for the next hour but never saw the bear. That made it even more frightening. The idea of this bear gave free rein to my imagination. It also focused me fully on the present with the clarity I seek and often find on solo rides in the wilds.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at andersen@rof.net.


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