Bears And Bicycles Do Not Mix

Black Bear In Tree


Some stuff you just can’t make up. Still, the same stuff is often difficult to believe. People will scoff when hearing such stories, delivered in an animated fashion full of relived emotion by a person who is confounded by their luck.

One of these “truth is stranger than fiction” moments happened to me the other day. I was riding in a place I’ve ridden — and walked — a million times before. It was a time between the times I’m normally found in that area.

My day had been proceeding along a bizarre course, so I made a concerted effort to force it back on track. Typically, I would have been sitting at my computer, putting the final touches on work done the previous night.

Just as I was about to upload an important file, the wild flashing of green, blue and orange lights caught my eye. This kindling disturbance was none other than my modem caught in the throes of a broadband seizure. My Internet access was down.

Neither 3G nor 4G were viable options between the file size and the recent lackluster performance of the closest cell tower. So off I went in search of greener Internet access pastures.

An overcast sky promised to give way to sunshine; I dressed with the latter in mind. The sun sat in an odd spot for a weekday bike ride. It was well past 8:00 a.m. when I mounted my bike and cruised onto the road.

Early on, my ride was uneventful. Traffic was moderately dense, with just enough room for maneuvering around cars to maintain my momentum.

As I crossed a major intersection onto a primarily residential road, more flashing lights caught my eye. The red and blue pulses could mean nothing other than police. I was forced to slow down as I approached a herd of cars lined up on the road.

I couldn’t decide whether to try to pass on the left, which would have put me in the middle of the road, practically on the double yellow line, or go onto the sidewalk where I would be impeded by pedestrians.

Once I was close enough to take in the scene, I noticed a row of television cameras along one side of the road. By a row, I mean at least a dozen cameras. Glancing around, I observed vans covered with the logos of all the major stations.

Usually, I’m not one to gawk at accidents or public interest events, but something about this scenario seemed particularly odd. I decided to dismount.

With my feet on the ground, I scanned the scene. All of the television cameras were pointed upward. Nearby stood an animal control van. My sharp as a tack cyclist’s mind put all of this together in an instant and concluded that this must be the next scene in the saga of the traveling bear.

The night before, I had noticed a number of tweets about a bear having been spotted in Dedham, Needham, Newton and Brookline, Massachusetts. Instinctively, I looked up into the trees, in the direction the camera lenses pointed to, and lo and behold, I spotted a bear perched on a branch halfway up a tall tree.

I thought of all the times I’d ridden on this road at dawn, at dusk, in the dead of night. Through the silence I occasionally heard the rustling of nocturnal animals. Sometimes I spotted a coyote or deer or the famous South Brookline wild turkeys, but never something as threatening as a bear. This called for parking my bike to get a better look.

One side of the road was active with reporters, camera operators, and casual observers milling about, talking among themselves and shaking their heads in wonder. The other side was abuzz  with local police, environmental police and assorted unidentifiable official-looking people.

I positioned myself so as to get a good look at the bear. He had planted himself on a branch quite high up in the tree where he seemed content to stay. Despite all of the commotion on the ground below him, he neither attempted to climb higher up the tree or come down to the ground to make a run for it.

If he was afraid, it didn’t show. In fact, he looked surprisingly calm and not at all perturbed by the fact that dozens of humans were gathered around the base of the tree and across the street gaping at him. After sizing up the humans, he had apparently decided to wait it out. Perhaps if he sat in that tree long enough, the humans would give up and go away.

Other than a growing influx of observers, nothing much happened for a while. I ran into a few people I knew from the area and we shared our amazement over seeing a bear in this neighborhood.

Perhaps the bear was working his way up in affluence as he made his 100 mile trek from Central Massachusetts (where they dropped him off after the last time he was caught in a residential area) back to Eastern Massachusetts. He had picked a nice tree. It stood on the grounds of a multimillion dollar home. Maybe he was hoping the owners would take pity on him and let him stay.

Nonetheless, the authorities planned to tranquilize him and take him away. An environmental police officer warned us that if the bear came down from the tree before he was rendered unconscious, we would all be required to get into our cars immediately and leave the scene. I, of course, did not have a car. But out of pity for the poor animal, and out of a call to duty, I retrieved my bike and moved on my way.

As I rode off, I began to think about what would have happened if I had been riding down that road earlier in the morning, as I often do, before many people were up for the day. I might have encountered this bear while he was wandering around on the ground.

It occurred to me that I didn’t know anything about bear behavior or what to do if I had a run-in with one while out walking or riding my bike. Although I would never have imagined myself doing any such thing, as soon as I had a free moment, I researched human/bear interactions.

Surprisingly, some of the advice was contradictory. All of the sources agreed on the point of staying away from the bear.

Bears need room, I learned. They have a personal space and don’t want humans to get too close. I read that “If you get too close to a bear, it may slap the ground, huff, blow and chomp its teeth or rush you (this is referred to as “bluff charge”) in an attempt to get you to move a more comfortable distance away.”

They also don’t like surprises. To keep them from becoming surprised by our presence, we humans are supposed to inform them that we are human. This is done by calm talking or singing. Bears identify us as human by our voices. We are also supposed to make ourselves look large by waving our arms around.

In the face of a 200 pound wild animal we are told not to yell or shout or look the bear directly in the eye. I got the part about not yelling or shouting, but what would happen if one of us looked a bear directly in the eye?  Would the bear see this as a challenge and attack? I hope I’m never close enough to a bear to find out.

Some experts advise humans to play dead if a bear charges; others say fight back as hard as you can; a few say play dead to see if the bear will go away, and if not, then fight back. The last one makes the most sense. But, we can’t make any assumptions because bears have individual personalities and are unpredictable. Consequently, we must improvise, with little experience to draw upon.

What worried me most was the warning never to run away from a bear. Bears can run faster than humans. They’ve been clocked running as fast as 35 mph over short distances.

Runners would probably do best by slowing to a walk and trying to back away from or circumvent the bear. Pedestrians could try the same tack.

Cyclists, on the other hand, would have a unique problem. We don’t really know what a bear would think of a human coming towards him at a high rate of speed. Perched upon a bicycle seat, with rolling wheels below, the bear might not recognize the creature as human, even if the rider began to sing in an attempt to enlighten the animal.

The cyclist would have a couple of choices. One would be to slow down and gauge how the bear was reacting to his or her presence. Another would be to stop and see if the bear would go away. Standing still may be the safer course of action. Dismounting might help, too. This way, the bicycle could be used as a shield between the rider and bear to make it harder for the bear to maul the cyclist.

So far, none of the experts have provided research results showing how bears react to bicycles. Now that bears have begun to move closer to urban areas, we need this information.

If such an encounter seems implausible, consider the case of a man in Florida who was smacked off of his bicycle by a black bear. The back tire of his bicycle was also ripped off.

After reading this story, and seeing a bear on a route I frequently ride, I’m working on a bear encounter plan — just in case. When it comes to bicycle safety, one can never be too careful.

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One Response to Bears And Bicycles Do Not Mix

  1. Pingback: Cyclists Encountering Aggressive Turkeys | IsolateCyclist

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