But first, a little background:
Photo of a grizzly triggered by remote camera on the property of a host of mine near Jasper National Park, Curtis and Bonnie Culp
Bear spray, or pepper spray as it’s sometimes called, is a small canister of a highly potent irritant to skin and eyes for use in deterring imminent bear attacks. While its effectiveness is certainly debated in many circles, it has become known as an essential safety item when traveling through any bear-populated country by foot, bicycle, boat, or ATV. According to the bear training I took in order to get a backcountry camping permit in Denali National Park in Alaska, one should not bother using the bear spray unless the bear continues to charge you at very close range.
In order for it to work, ideally you happen to be upwind of the bear (so it doesn’t get blown back at you), and in close enough range to actually get in the bear’s eyes and mouth. t keep mine within reach in my backpack whenever I’m in an area where there may be bears. As you can see on the handle, there’s a safety mechanism that prevents accidental discharge of the spray, so when it’s time to really use it you pull of the safety and fire away, hoping for the best.
Back to the story….
So there I am, my third day on the Continental Divide route out of Banff, Aberta, Canada. Having ridden about 4200 miles so far, I’d been feeling confined to the limited roads available in Alaska, the Yukon and Northern British Columbia. Too much time on pavement, sharing the roads with too many cars, RVs and tractor trailers. The moment I got onto the backroads and trails of the divide route, I felt a sense of relief and peace. Instead of a continuous flow of cars all around me, I’d hear one every hour or two. Sometimes even less.
Quite a difference in feeling riding under the mountains on a road like this, versus…
… A road like this!
The dirt roads and trails I was riding in Canada South from Banff curved through beautiful forests, under gargantuan peaks of the Canadian Rockies. I’d never know what view would open up around a bend, nor would I know the conditions of the roads as I approached them. For example: 10 miles down the road right out of Banff, I saw a sign that the bridge I needed to take across a small river was closed to all use. I had to take my shoes off and carry my bike through the swift water (only knee deep) to the other side. I quickly got used to this type of thing as a regular occurrence which I’d experienced all last Summer riding the Continental Divide Route down to the Mexican Border. Most often when I’d see a sign that said a road was closed I assumed that it meant the road was not drivable, but likely passable by bike or by foot. This approach to signage was well tested on my 3rd day out.
I saw the familiar sign about 10 miles into my day, on a backroad outside of Elkford, BC. It read, “Road closed due to washout ahead”. So I puttered on through the closed gate, assuming there had been an avalanche of some sort in months past and i could ride through as usual. A few miles further, I arrived at this sight:
The road, which was at the edge of a 50 foot cliff over a river, was washed completely away down a very steep embankment. At first I tried to hike up and over the slide, as I’d seen a few prints ahead of me attempting as well. When the loose gravel gave out beneath me and I almost slid down off of the cliff into the water, it became clear that this route would not work, especially dragging a 100 pound bicycle behind me. I looked down at the river and realized there was a tiny bit of space between the water and the steep rocky cliff above.
I rode back around to a point where I could carry my bike down to the water’s edge and ford through the shallow water underneath the washout. The large rocks, sticking out of the loose gravelly terrain, looked like they would fall down and crush me at any moment. Needless to say I made haste.
What I didn’t account for was the challenge of getting my bike back up the very loose and steep embankment on the other side of the washout. For those who’ve not done this, carrying a 100lb bike is extremely awkward, especially when you keep getting the panniers caught on you and losing balance on the loose gravel, falling back down from 4 out of every 5 steps. I decided to pull the bags off of my bike to make this process go easier and carry them up in parts, which was significantly easier. I was however exhausted by this whole process. Crossing a 150 foot gap in the road took me an hour and a half, and it was a frustrating 90 minutes at that!
As the flies began to discover my location on the far side of the washout, I hurriedly began repacking my panniers onto the bike and strapping everything down. Noticing that my bear spray had fallen out of my backpack sometime during this challenging ordeal, I shoved it back into it’s sleeve, and ….
I saw a small yellowy/orange cloud emanating from my backpack. It did not take but a split second to realize what had happened, and I quickly turned away and ran from it. But it was too late. My eyes started to burn, my throat tightened as every breath caused a spicy sharp pain in my lungs and throat. “Seriously?!?!” I screamed out load as I understood what had transpired: the safety mechanism on the bear spray had fallen off during all the dragging and lifting of my gear without my noticing and I’d triggered the spray. It’s funny because on numerous occasions I thought, “If I’m going to use this product on a bear, with the hopes that it’s non-lethal and only causes temporary damage, I should know how it feels on me”. I’d done the same with a pinch collar I used in training my dog, needing to know for myself how much it would hurt. I’d never gotten up the nerve to actually test out the bear spray though… Luckily I didn’t inhale too much or get it very directly in my eyes. 15 minutes later I was okay to ride away. I washed my gloves in the creek, which had received the most direct contact from the spray, and that was that.
Not so. As it turns out the chemicals in this product are designed to leave a sticky residue which is incredibly hard to remove. Wiping the sweat from my brow to this day still brings a spicy tingle to the skin around my eyes, even after washing the gloves 4 or 5 times since the event.
Bottom line: If you are unfortunate enough to be the unlucky recipient of a direct application of bear spray, I’m so sorry for you. I don’t wish it on anyone! Hopefully that spray stays safely in it’s holster from now on!