Heading out on your own to the Alaskan wilderness? You may want to read about this experience first in case you need to deal with a bear ripping up your tent…
Photos of the tent and possible reasons for the attack can be found here. This is the HIGHLY EFFECTIVE bear mace that I used to scare off the bear; this stuff actually works. Radio interview describing the attack (KSUA 91.5 FM DJ Tyler Mestas) Radio Interview (audio only).
What would you do in this situation?
It happened on Friday 3rd August at milepost 22 of the Dalton Highway (slightly misleading calling it a highway, more an ever changing gravel / clay / dusty unpredictable truck haul road). The mauling of my tent goes something like this; day 8 of 10 (12 days were planned but due to lack of shelter after the attack I had to speed things up):
There are two places to eat on the remote 500 mile Arctic haul road, that day I’d eaten at the Yukon, something like milepost 60 (I’d cycled from milepost 80 in the morning). I ate two enormous cheese burgers and had two US sized chocolate shakes. Delicious. Trying to increase my calories was at the forefront of my mind. I had been losing weight everyday and, as most of you will know, I’m not exactly fat. Unfortunately all that food incapacitated me and I couldn’t move for 5 hours! The digestive process was understandably slow.
Once my self-inflicted misery had subsided I set off (5.30pm-ish) aiming to get to milepost 20 that evening another 40 miles(I had remembered a potential campspot from the drive up). It was unbelievably [say it slowly] hilly. I think the climb out of Yukon alone took about an hour at a hair raising 3 mph with hell-ish mud in some sections.
Finally I started getting near to milepost 20 (my favoured camp spot) and I started my habitual bear safety process of cooking and eating half hour before camping. This is actually way beyond what they tend to suggest which is a only minimum of 100 yards or so. Anyhow I cooked myself a delightful pasta shrimp and salmon dish (clearly unbearably tempting for a bear). I then cycled off to find my campsite. I happened to be at the bottom of another gargantuan hill so I headed off pretty darn slowly; a toddler probably could have run faster so a bear, with a max speed of 56 kph, would probably be able to keep up.
My planned camp spot was at the top of the hill but since I stumbled upon a nice flat grassy area half way up I decided to camp there. Absolutely delighted with my spot I rushed through the process of setting up the camp: tent up; sleeping bag, mat, bear mace into tent; kit sorted for quick get away in the morning etc. I then started wheeling my bike away from the tent; all my food was in bags on the bike. It’s an absolute no no to have food in the tent so you need to get that a safe distance away…
I was 20 to 30 metres away and suddenly to my absolute horror I could hear tent crumpling noises coming from….er…my tent. I turned round to see it bulging, double in size and completely mangled in the most impossibly irregular shape. What in the hell…a moose? a bear? a human (worst case scenario!)? There was a tree obstructing most of my view so I peered around it and sure enough there was a bear (about 6 or 7 foot I’d guess) tearing apart my one man tent. I felt for my pockets…damn! The bear mace was in the tent. I’d been carrying that awkward pepper spray can around for the past few weeks and I couldn’t even use it when I needed it so badly.
I edged to the road to wave a car down (40 metres away). The bear followed. Up till then I wasn’t sure whether it was a black or brown bear since it was pretty dark (12.30 am – I was late due to my overeating at the Yukon). Each type requires a slightly different reaction. When it got close I could see it was black and had no hump: black bear. I knew then I could scream and shout and throw things at it to get it away. So I did that and it turned and ran…back to my tent. I followed, squaring up to it. It was fearless and ignored me sniffing the air (what could it smell?!). It went back to my tent and pulled my sleeping bag out and dragged it along for 5 metres. It then started heading to my bicycle where all my food and the rest of my kit was. I had a small window of opportunity. Excitedly, I headed straight for my barely recognisable tent and reached down through the massive gaping hole the bear had kindly created for me and grabbed the bear mace. Yes! I had it in my hands! Safety catch off? Yes please! I walked around to distract the bear before it could spot my bicycle and the delicious food on it. It walked straight to me ignoring my shouts and attempts at threatening gestures. Still sniffing the air hungrily. 10 foot away I took aim and blasted it straight in the face. It turned and ran. I can confirm that this bear mace works with black bears!
I turned to assess the damage to my tent and sleeping bag and started planning my next move. I had to pack my kit up on to my bicycle; my record time in the morning for that was 40 minutes. Time I didn’t have; I needed to get out of there immediately.
I gathered and packed all my badly damaged kit around the tent. Whilst I did this, I held my bear mace where possible and kept swivelling around to check it hadn’t returned. When I packed my sleeping bag into its bag, goose down went everywhere.
I then walked over to where the bear had disappeared, there was a 20 metre scree drop off into a forest. I could just see the shape of the bear through the darkness with its ears pricked up (indicating excitement, not fear unfortunately) staring right back at me. Damn it!
I then thought, what was it attracted to? There was no food in the tent, was it the mosquito coils or mosquito bracelet perhaps? I placed them far away from me only to get them when I left.
I took the packed tent & kit up to the road and then went back for my bike. Having strapped everything onto my bike I started cycling uphill wondering what the next adventurer would think finding the goose down and my forgotten bike helmet!
My finger in the trigger of the bear mace at all times and exhausted after a long day of cycling and the late hour, I could only manage 3 mph, constantly turning round to check I wasn’t being followed. I eventually found the spot 2 miles up the road where I’d initially planned on camping. It was too dark to cycle safely with the trucks on the road and large pot-holes I couldn’t see. I lay down on my tarpaulin to wait for light in my shredded sleeping bag.
After putting my bike and food as far away as possible, I lay there with my full waterproofs and head net getting feasted on by 100’s of mosquitos, clutching my bear spray, finger on the trigger; I would get up every so often and look around to check the bear hadn’t followed. It was a grim few hours.
Finally it became fully light and safer to cycle. I had to get to Fairbanks that evening or be without shelter (it was now raining, foggy and the coldest it had been). Just over a hundred miles away over very undulating terrain with a heavily loaded bicycle, the first 20 miles would be gravel and the rest paved. I calculated that it would take a minimum of 10 hours cycling total (not including rests), an optimistic appraisal based on previous average speeds over the past few days. I could hitch, I thought to myself, but then I’d have to come back and do this whole darn thing again.
Having cycled over 60 miles the day before and no rest to recover, I set off. My legs already felt heavy but I was focused and almost excited by the challenge. It was torturous but fairly uneventful for the first 40 miles. My bear spray was strapped to the top of my bags, bears were never far from my mind.
I stopped for lunch and thought I just had to sleep if only for 10 minutes. I put my waterproofs on and my tarp on the empty car park floor; I was now on the Elliott highway, a paved desolate road still cutting through a long section of wilderness. I shut my eyes for 10 minutes, the cold rain inconveniently falling directly on my face and tired body. The car park was surrounded by bush so the appearance of a bear was always going through my mind. I cooked after a few moments rest; a tuna pasta mix – it was revolting but I forced it in.
Then I remembered from previous research there was a general store called trading post a few miles down the road. I would go in there and get out of the rain for a while. Very kindly they lent me a basic cabin and I proceeded to lie down on the floor and sleep for around 16 hours. A complete life saviour, thank you so much.
The next day was a beautiful sunny day. Rested and fed the remaining 60 miles back to Fairbanks were relatively easy. I headed back to where I was previously staying with Tyler and Sarah for 5 days of recovery; both were very kind to me, thank you!
I’m now sitting at an excellent restaurant on the quiet road to Denali National Park. It’s 8 am in the morning; they had kindly let me sleep on there floor after I dropped by for dinner last night. Their burgers are fantastic, I highly recommend them. Monderosa bar and grill; Donna took good care of me. Thanks Donna!
So that’s the story; I will now go and pack up and head on down the road. I’m told there’s a very high population of bears where I’m heading; hopefully they don’t like my new tent.