Whoa, was that movement? On June 27, with my legs churning against a shrieking headwind, I was cycling southeasterly on the Alaska Highway, totally immersed in the vast and pristine Kluane wilderness area of the Yukon. I was starkly alone and lost in my thoughts, grinding my way toward Destruction Bay, a tiny enclave on Kluane Lake—appropriately named due to the vicious winds that had blown down military structures there during the Alaska Highway construction in 1942–43. My face buffeted against the gale as I gazed forward, squinting and straining for focus. Uh-oh! Shit—my worst fear! A large female grizzly was foraging on the side of the road. Her big head slowly swiveled toward me; our eyes met as she placed me in her crosshairs. I froze dead in my tracks about a hundred feet from her—Already too close! She was a big, dirty-blonde female grizzly in her prime, with a broad face and the telltale hump at her shoulders. Grass clumps fell out of her mouth as she chomped her lunch—but then she froze too as she considered me. Oh God—a stare down. My heart spiked with an adrenaline surge. Don’t stare, kemosabe: play it cool—nothing quick.
Despite her beauty, she was ominous and foreboding. Goddamn! My problem just tripled—there’re her two cubs! She has to be in lockdown protective mode. The searing reality of being completely alone and exposed in her house trumped my bravado.
“Did you hear about the mauling last week?” flashed through my mind. That was the blunt inquiry the REI saleswoman had made of me a week ago while I was buying bear spray in Anchorage. Jesus, lady! Do you get off trying to scare people? But it was her oblique warning to me to stay on my toes—nothing’s tame where I’m headed. Of course, I’d brushed it off at that moment.
In the prior few days, I saw bear scat along the roadside and even mused to myself, What an inside-out fate that would be. But suddenly, that possibility became very . . . real.
I’d been making pretty good time and was happy with my progress. But now, Christ! She’s between me and Destruction—Destruction Bay that is. I loved that name, until now! Now, all I want is out of here! Distance and separation, beyond her, so I can proceed onward.
I faced one of life’s most fundamental questions—What in hell’s name do I do now? I watched her, warily, for a minute. She averted her eyes, pretending I wasn’t there, but she knew damn well I was.
Hmmm. She doesn’t appear to be very concerned, but then again, what do I know about grizzlies? What to do, what to do—retreat to safety, or pedal past? I’m so screwed! I thrashed through my limited options. She could have already had my ass if she wanted! And if I proceed, I won’t have to cut between her and her cubs. Maybe I’m okay.
Already vulnerable to her whims, I steeled myself and simply hoped for the best. As though the intelligence of my feet made the decision—Click-clack—I clipped back into my pedals, the sharp snapping sound cutting the air. What is it about the siren call to move forward? My gut clenched. In grave trepidation and straining for speed, my ass subconsciously tucked under like a submissive dog’s tail, I thrust forward.
With the thin mist of bear spray as my only defense, I made the second-dumbest decision of my entire journey.