The typical result of a bear encounter usually ends with the person and the bear going their separate ways, a bit shaken up. Rarely, if ever, does it end up in a mauling. But have you ever heard of a person surviving a wrestling match with a bear and coming out unscathed?
That’s exactly what happened to Niki Mussman three weeks ago on the Aspen Trail near Driggs, Idaho. He was completing the 10-mile loop on his mountain bike, and after a tight downhill turn he suddenly came upon a mother black bear and her cubs. The cubs, startled, ran into the bushes. The mother, however, charged Mussman.
“I had no bear spray on me, so I did what I heard you’re supposed to do: I made myself as big and scary as I could, holding up my mountain bike like a shield in front of me and yelling at the top of my lungs.” But according to Mussman, this did nothing.
“She just kept coming, and tried to bite me through the bike frame, so I just kept dodging her and blocking her with the bike. This went on for what felt like a long time, like five minutes.”
Mussman says he realized at one point that both he and the bear were so aggressive that his tactic was going nowhere, so he decided to calm down and talk to the bear.
“Just go home, I don’t want to hurt you or your cubs,” he told the bear. “Just go home; you go your way and I’ll go mine. I don’t want to hurt you, just go home.”
Mussman kept repeating these words in a soothing voice and the bear finally backed down, walking slowly away. When he felt the coast was clear, Mussman climbed back on his bike and headed the opposite direction.
“I thought for sure she was going to pop a tire with her claws or something. I really didn’t know if I would make it out ok. Ever since, I always carry bear spray. I’ve also attached a bear bell to my bike to alert any bears that I’m coming.”
According to Jeremy Nicholson, Regional Wildlife Biologist for Idaho Fish and Game, close encounters with bears average only three to four per year in Idaho and rarely result in any physical contact.
“Both hiking and biking pose dangers,” he says. “However, mountain bike encounters are a relatively new phenomena, now that more trails in this area have been opened up to the public and the sport is growing in popularity. Incidents of encounters are increasing, not just in this area but in the Rockies, Montana, and Idaho, because mountain bikes are fast and there is no response time for the bear. There was an incident in Glacier Park, Montana, a few years ago where a cyclist ran straight into a grizzly and, due to the lack of response time, he was mauled on the spot.”
One might think that since you can ride a bike between 15 mph to 20 mph, it might be a safer option than hiking because you can outride the bear, but that’s not the case.
“Mountain biking isn’t necessarily safer because the bikes typically can’t go faster than a charging bear, so you can’t ride away,” says Nicholson.
Nicholson says the two reasons a bear might charge is: 1. To defend her cubs, and; 2. To defend a carcass.
“If the charge is defensive, hold your ground. If the bear approaches, back away slowly.”
However, if the charge is aggressive, the response is different. “If the ears are back and the bear is charging, play dead. Never run. That’s a surefire way to get attacked.”
What can hikers/cyclists do to prevent encounters altogether?
- Hike or cycle in groups rather than alone
- Make loud noises on the trail
- Attach a bear bell to your bike (bear bells ring at a specific frequency bears can hear well)
And lastly, carry a can of bear spray and make it easily accessible in the off-chance that you do come across a bear.
Mark Gocke, Director of Wyoming Game and Fish’s Information and Education in Cheyenne, Wyoming, says, “We don’t hear of a lot of attacks of mountain bikers by bears. We’ve had a lot of black bear sightings on Aspen Trail and throughout the Tetons, though. A couple of hikers have been charged, but were unharmed. In one instance, the person climbed a tree, and the bear grabbed his shoe.”