Things started off well enough. The trail wasn’t maintained this early in the summer, but the mile-high growth on either side lent itself to a wild kind of day. The kids were loving it.
I, however, had the first tiny ringing of a warning bell in my head. I always worried about bears along this trail because it was so desolate and swampy and quiet. This lush summer growth was one step worse: the ultimate setting for an ambush.
So, I shouted out a little, tiny, casual warning. “This is bear country, boys!”
They ignored me. What did they have to worry about? They had their fearless mother in spandex. And while, yes I had assured them I’d biked it many times solo, I had failed to tell them I did so with my headphones on, sporting tunnel-vision and sprinting it for all I was worth.
Soon we were at the spot I am truly skittish about. Down by the Betsie River. It’s a dark, gloomy section of trail with black mud holes and standing water.
“Watch for bears in here!” I said again, deciding to take on a guide-like tone.
“Enough about the bears, Mom!” they shouted back.
Down to the river we went, across a two-track and up to a big downed tree, dragging our bikes over it. The trail was rough, with debris on it everywhere.
Next, a wide mud hole I had once done an endo in during a race. I regarded the hole with both contempt and respect. It was squirrelier than it looked.
“Bike through it and don’t stop,” I instructed (friendly guide again). “And whatever you do, don’t step off your bike or look down!”
And the boys stayed on course—through the first mud hole—their wheels sucking down into the black almost, but not quite.
Next, another downed tree we could ride over (the boys shouted some appreciation over this wheelie opportunity). Past the river and yet another downed tree.
We weren’t on a bike ride anymore, I realized. We were on some kind of cross-country death march that would involve laundry.
And that’s when Kendall said it. The words I had feared since we had left the parking lot.
“MOM, A BEAR!”
A split-second stopping of my heart.
“That’s not funny!” I said, pedaling on through the forest, fighting to find the trail.
“Mom, I’m not kidding!”
And he wasn’t.
There ran a bear along the edge of the trail toward us. As soon as it saw us, it veered right, disappearing into the forest.
We stopped. OMG OMG OMG. I was astonished to have seen a bear after all my years of worrying about it. (I was also kind of pleased, but in a need-to-change-my-pants kind of way.) We watched for a moment and saw nothing else.
At this point, we were miles into the woods and the shortest way out meant crossing the Granddaddy mud hole, a 3-part number with logs and 2x4s thrown over it. A minefield, if you will.
OK then, I decided, let’s keep going and not panic. The bear seemed to be behind us. But I was on edge. We were at the biggest obstacle of all when I was about to freak out.
But, like pros, we crossed: 1-2-3, over the logs and the length of the 2x4s in three separate holes. We were clearly focused on survival. Onward!
But it wasn’t over yet.
I went another 10 yards, then it happened.
A bush next to the trail rattled.
And a very adorable baby bear tumbled out onto the trail.
I hit my brakes and almost hit it. The cub took three gorgeous, floppy leaps down the trail ahead of us and then went left into the undergrowth and out of sight.
I did a quick calculation, drawing a swift terrifying line between the cub and mama bear. Why, yes, we stood directly between them and couldn’t see either.
What to do?
Forward was the cub on the left. Backward was the mama on the right.
At this point, I went into “Mama Bear mode” myself.
“It’s best if we get away from the cub,” I said in my guide voice, my heart exploding with adrenaline.
Have you ever read the book, Going on a Bear Hunt? We were living it, unfortunately.
I quickly got everyone turned around and we began a slow-mo rewind. I tried to maintain a calm pace so that no one fell or excited the bear.
The first problem was the Granddaddy mud hole yet again. Traversing it the first time without incident and one bear was one thing. Doing it a second time with two bears plus a shouting mother? This was the stuff (horror) movies were made of. But we pulled it off again, to my relief.
Back we went, around the fallen tree and over the next tree (style points were awarded for wheelies performed under duress).
I let myself glance back just once and saw that the mama bear was back, standing where we’d just turned around. She was facing away from us, looking for her cub.
“Faster, granny!” Nelson shouted.
Next the smaller mud hole. We shot through it as if it were dry pavement.
Finally, the huge fallen tree. Nelson jumped it with his bike in the air above his head. Friday bike rides were getting interesting indeed.
We kept going until we got to the two-track.
“Hang a right!” I shouted. I knew this was the quickest way back to civilization. Still, we had a couple of miles to go.
We didn’t stop until we got to the top of a hill where we could see behind us. We looked and saw nothing.
There was a party atmosphere at hand. I was I was shaking with adrenaline and laughter and relief that we were alive.
“Wouldn’t it have been cool if the bear had ‘clotheslined’ mom off her bike?” Nelson asked in glee. Kendall howled with approval.
I had to laugh, too, but in my guide-like voice, I simply said, “I told you there were bears out here.”