It was my first time in Montana, and my breath was taken away by the view. Mountain biking and I were good friends, so I was no stranger to beautiful views, but something about the way the river snaked beside the rocky mountain in front of me made me smile. I snapped a picture with my GoPro and watched a bald eagle alight on a fern tree by the river’s edge. Noticing a bull moose wading out into the water, I knew I had to get a closer look.
I was on a rocky hill that was perpendicular to the mountain range, and the river wound around the hill I was on and crawled into the mountains. The grass was low enough for me to ride through, and though the hill would be a tough descent, I decided to risk it. No guts no glory. Securing my camera back in its case, I took a quick squirt of water before heading down.
The ride was bumpy, as expected, but I kept my wits about me. I rolled over large rocks a couple of times, and my heart nearly pounded out my chest when I had to pop a wheelie over the last exposed root of a downed tree, but by the time I neared the end, I was smiling from the adrenaline rush.
A slight burning sensation turned my head down, and I realized something had nicked me on the descent. I shrugged and kept pedaling. I had a bandage in my backpack, but sometimes the scars left behind by cuts on the trails made for good reminders of all the beauty I’d beheld that day.
The angle of the hill leveled out, but the path stayed lumpy as if I were riding over a giant sack of potatoes. I remember passing a sign saying I was entering the Flathead Indian Reservation and I wondered if I was accidentally riding over burial mounds. I tossed out the idea after a few seconds, thinking the bumps were too close together to be anything but uneven earth.
Chirping and buzzing grew louder as I pedaled through the grass, and every so often a locust jumped out from its hiding spot, gliding to another and away from me. As I neared the river, the grass changed from yellow to green, as if only the grass near the water was allowed to get nutrients. The few fern trees growing near the bank were further downriver, and I stopped to take in the sites again.
The distant mountain range wasn’t very big, nothing like the Grand Tetons I had visited the month before, but they were still magnificent to behold. Since they were too low for snow, the grass and rocks could be seen on these mountains, even at a distance, I was at. I pulled out the GoPro from its case again and set my bike on its side.
Still wading in the water, the bull moose nibbled on the surface. I was unsure of what he was eating. As I neared him, the horns on his head grew more imposing, and I hoped he was friendly. It was the first time I was lucky enough to get near a moose, much less a bull, and his size was the first thing that struck me. At least twice the height of a deer, this thing could have stepped on me and done a good deal of damage. Hitting him with a car would have been a death sentence.
Trying to stay downwind and as quiet as possible, I snapped a picture and crept a little closer. He continued to skim the surface of the pond with his big lips, and I could hear his breath huffing against the water.
Then, without warning, he froze, and his head lifted. He turned over his shoulder, looking past me at something else. I flinched, a little intimidated, and my movement caught his attention. He bucked, splashing up water that crackled down against the surface before running through the middle of the river and over to the other side. The river’s water came up to his chest, but it was slow moving enough that I could swim through without worrying about drowning.
But the telltale sound of a bear’s roar froze the blood in my veins. I slowly turned, flipping on the video on my camera. If I were mauled, at least people would know what happened, assuming the bear didn’t eat the camera as well.
A young grizzly stared back at me, its breath coming out invisible puffs in the cool of the spring morning. It tilted its head to the side, confused at seeing a human.
My heart thumped into my throat, and I slowly stood, trying to make myself a little bigger. I was by no means a big man, to begin with, but I remember reading somewhere that making yourself appear bigger is a good tactic for scaring away bears. For a moment, we just stared at each other, and then he started chewing on some of the stalks of grass.
I sidestepped away from the direct line of sight of the bear, slowly moving toward my bike. It felt like forever before I reached it, and when I did, it was as if the bear knew I was leaving and he wanted me to stay. He released a throaty roar and charged at me. I jumped on my bike and sent my feet down as hard as I could. I pedaled without looking back for a long time, but when I did the bear was a good distance behind me.
Then I was upside down. My bike landed hard in front of me, and my water bottle fell out. Panicking now, I scrambled to pick the bike back up, looking over my shoulder every few seconds. I did a double take and realized the bear had stopped giving chase. He was looking at me again with that same curious look, and I hoped the flip had thrown him off enough to cause him to leave me alone.
Sure enough, he sniffed the air a little and turned back the way he had come. I sighed the deepest sigh of my life and checked my tire and spokes for damage. Finding none, I slowly pedaled away, hoping to never get that close to a bear again.