Beside a mountain lake in British Columbia in 2014, I was awoken just before dawn as a grizzly bear mistook my tent for a bush and sat down on top of me in the darkness.
The previous evening had been particularly cold. The geese had pecked away in the shallows, whilst I cooked dinner hurriedly amongst the boulders on the shore. When dusk touched down, they finished their meal and began to take off, pacing across the lake, wailing mournfully against the mountains as they climbed sharply above the trees. I quickly finished my own meal and changed my clothes; packing them away in a dry-bag with the stove. I then turned on my headlamp, and walked out into the surrounding forest to hang my bear-bag for the remainder of the night.
Alone at 6,000′ on the Great Divide MTB route, it was certainly one of the wilder places I had spent the night. And yet – as I hopped around in the bracken, blowing on my frigid digits and repeatedly failing to pull the bear-bag into a high enough tree – I thought about some of the other wild places I had stopped on bike trips over the years. And how, at the time, they had seemed just as intimidating as this night I was going into now
Before that point, one of the remotest places I had ever spent the night was on a sheep ranch in Patagonia, Chile. My Korean cycling partner and I had approached the farm at dusk after being battered by the wind all day. It was bleak and cold, and we were hungry and out of water. We rolled back the barbwire gate, and wheeled our bikes onto the property.
A figure appeared. A weather beaten rancher, coming towards us through the gloom. Just feet away, he stopped and fixed us with his one good eye whilst the other flickered madly over us. We had little language to explain our needs, but an hour later we were warm, and installed inside a barn. Soon after, his son Martn knocked on the door. He was on horseback and had brought a gift. A dinner of lamb steak, eggs and mashed potato with nothing expected in return.
If that was the remotest night I had spent on a bike trip, the scariest had been in northern Argentina, while making a solo crossing of the Esteros de Iber wetlands. It was nearly dark and for the last 30minutes I had been cruising down the potholed road looking for a place to pitch the tent. The fading light was golden, and the sky was reflected in the marshes, like heaven brought down to earth. Spying a disused track, I bounced my bike off the road and crashed my way through the undergrowth to find a pitch on high ground, away from the alligators that crawl out of the swamp.
In the darkness before dawn, my worst fears were realised though, when I woke to find a silhouetted creature crawling up between the inner tent and flysheet, making its way across above my head. But as day broke the alligator began to make a strange purring noise – and I soon had a brew going on the stove and was sharing hot milk with two very small, rather cute and extremely cold Argentinian kittens.
And so when the bear sank down on top of me in the Canadian Rocky mountains, I’d already had my share of remoteness and anxiety whilst wild camping. The animal’s crushing weight was perhaps my final comeuppance for trying my luck and exploring beyond the limits of where I should dare to go.
But like the Chilean rancher, the Argentinian alligator and so many of the other perceived dangers that make us pedal home and lock up the doors at night – we can often find they dissipate, when confronted, and prove nothing more than the crushing weight of our own preconceptions and fear.
Indeed, this is how it proved inside my tent. With a kick and a shove, I managed to free my trapped legs. Then, with a shake of the fabric, the bear shaped object astonishingly disintegrated into a brief snow flurry, before disappearing altogether.
In the first light of day I unzipped the tent wearing all of my clothing, and inspected the broken branch from where the overnight snow had suddenly fallen onto my tent. Next I dug out my bike, retrieved my bear-bag and then continued pedaling into the brilliant new landscape.
Call for Comments
- Have you ever been on an overnight bike trip?
- Did you have to overcome any fears of the unknown?
Next Up: The Cycle Touring Cookbook
Matt Maynard is a British outdoor journalist, environmentalist and photographer based in Santiago, Chile. 2016 credits include: BBC Travel, The Guardian, Mens Fitness and Red Bull. His stories seek to draw on that clarity we have when living life with determination and truthfulness.