Prevailing "bear encounter" wisdom says you should wave your arms up high and make loud noises to scare the bear away. If the bear attacks, you should "play dead." So, do you think you can follow this simple advice? You won't know for sure until the moment arrives. My experience tells me we sometimes forget the "advice" when adrenaline takes over…especially when you're shaken from a deep sleep and forced to react before you have time to think.
We were on a coast-to-coast ride in 1998. This was not a good year to ride much of anywhere because "El Niño" was dumping rain, snow and tornadoes all over the country. When we got to Cook City Montana, it was unusually cold, but the roads were clear. The "bear country" warning signs didn't go unnoticed, but we were tired, cold and hungry. We needed to cook dinner, set up our tents, and get some sleep before another long ride the next day. Dinner was great, but I wasn't very excited about the choice of dessert. It was something made with peanut butter and honey. I love all kinds of desserts, but this didn't seem to be the best place to be eating such an aromatic treat made out of two things bears really love.
I've known for quite some time that worrying is a useless activity. I enjoyed my bear-lure dessert and got ready for bed. All I could do was clean all the sweet stuff off my face and hands, keep my pepper spray and sheath knife next to my sleeping bag, and hope for the best. Since two young riders in our group were finally consummating their thousand-mile flirt in a tent nearby, I figured their whispers and groans might attract the bear first anyway. I was optimistic that I'd wake up alive and well-rested the next morning. A long day of riding helped me finally pass out.
It wasn't quite morning when I was awakened by a broad, solid pressure against my face, through the side of my tent. Holy sh!t. It was still pitch black out. I was very quickly going from a deep sleep to a complete panic. Getting eaten alive has to be one of my LEAST favorite ways to die. Sure, it might be over quickly and might be better than some of the long, drawn out alternatives. But the mere thought of feeling my own body getting ripped and consumed by another animal gets me very worked up. I did not play dead. I didn't grope in the dark for my knife or pepper spray. I immediately screamed and waved my arms wildly. I was not going down without a fight, even if my "fight" would amount to nothing more than appetizing entertainment for this bear.
It probably wasn't more than a second before I was sitting upright with the heart rate of a sprinter crossing the finish line. The bear had apparently backed off, because I was still alive and intact. I grabbed my flashlight, knife and pepper spray. I turned on my flashlight. (It might not have been the smartest thing to do, but remember I already broke the "play dead" rule.) A good portion of my cheap tent had collapsed under pressure from all four sides. This was no ordinary bear. As I came to my senses, I unzipped the tent fly slightly to confirm what I suspected from the shape of my tent: We were under several inches of snow. That pressure on my face was my cheap tent collapsing under the weight of the snow. (An imaginary "polar" bear of sorts, you might say.) I had just survived my first bear-less bear encounter.
The roads were all covered in snow, so we didn't get to ride that day. We did have the first and last snowball fight of our summer ride that morning. My cheap tent gave me one of the scariest [albeit short] and most memorable experiences of my life. Just like ghost stories, bear stories don't necessarily require a real bear.
Footnote: This bear "encounter" took place quite a few years ago, but I thought I'd finally write it down. It's a quiet morning after Halloween. The house is quiet, I'm up, I can't ride (collar bone still healing), and won't finish putting my office back together (after re-arranging it to accommodate some new furniture) till after I finish this delicious cup of coffee. I've told this story to a few friends, but now–after my latest crash–I figure I should write it down while I still have the brain cells to remember it.