Gee Point

While browsing a map of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, I spotted what appeared to be a little used trail in a tract of the forest south of Skagit River. I quickly assessed whether it was worthy of my short list for exploration: Is it interesting and is it within cycling distance? With an affirmative yes to both criteria, I set off with my bike, Rocinante, to Gee Point.

I pedaled about eight miles south on the usually quiet Concrete-Sauk Valley Road. Only slightly rolling, this road was a good warm up for the rest of the day, which I knew would require a lot of climbing. Upon reaching the Finney Creek Road, I began a slow ascent through a mosaic of forested land—fields of stumps in recent clear cuts, thick second and third-growth stands, and occasionally a pocket of old growth forest.

view of forest area with maturing trees and recently clear cut areas

In contrast to younger forest, old-growth stands are characterized not only by large and tall living trees, but also by a complex, uneven canopy and a relatively high amount of dead standing snags and down trees. Even from a distance, the old-growth can be easy to spot once you learn to look for these signs.

view of forest with tall trees on horizon

Large trees with an uneven canopy reveal a stand of old-growth trees on the edge of a former clear cut.

Most of these old-growth trees were inaccessible from the road (perhaps the only reason they remain standing), but a few other giants were spared the chainsaw. Perhaps too dangerous to cut, or perched precariously on the edge of a cliff, or already dead, these trees stood as the last remnants of the forest that used to be.

bicycle leaning against bole of large dead tree

A few miles up the Finney Creek Road stands a giant dead Douglas-fir tree. These trees remind me that, with the exception of fire-maintained prairies and frequently flooded areas, nearly all of the Sauk and Skagit river valleys were covered with old growth trees.

Specific trees, like Sitka spruce, along Finney Creek also indicated this was often a wet place. Sitka spruce is typically found in areas with cool summers and high rainfall.

silhouette of Sitka spruce

The North Cascades, however, experience a bi-modal climate. Its cool, wet winters stand in start contrast to hot and droughty summers, and I was soon reminded of the region’s aridity even as I cycled underneath a thick canopy of needles. As the road transitioned between gravel and broken pavement, the dirt was so dry I kicked up a rooster tail of dust anytime I gained appreciable speed and each pickup truck left a cloud in their wake. (I saw about a dozen motor vehicles in this stretch of national forest. With the exception of one ATV, all were pickup trucks.)

By the time I reached FS Road 1720, I was within a few miles of Gee Point, but I still had most of the climbing ahead of me.

view of dirt road lined with thick forest

It’s a lot steeper than it looks.

The road, now completely dust and gravel but pleasantly lacking washboards, switch-backed through young, even-aged trees as it gained elevation. The terrain was changing as I climbed and signs of winter’s harshness began to appear. I crossed through an avalanche chute at least three times, which gave me an excuse to stop and catch my breath as I admired the power of snow to snap trees in half.

view of short trees caused by avalanche

Winter and springtime avalanches are a frequent occurrence in the North Cascades area, pruning any plant too tall or any too stiff to flex under their tremendous force. In summer, the brushy chutes are prime habitat for bears and I caught a glimpse of a black bear in this one.

The bright, hot sunshine and steepness of the road slowed my speed dramatically and I accumulated a sizeable escort of biting flies, but the views kept getting better, even with a slight haze from wildfire smoke.

dirt road leading toward mountain peak

To reach Gee Point though, I had to hike, so I locked Rocinante to a convenient fir tree at the end of the road and started walking. About a half mile in, I entered a beautiful, uncut forest dominated by large western hemlock and Pacific silver fir. At over 4,000 feet in elevation, which is not particularly high for the Cascades and in stark contrast to the tired burned out green of lower elevations, the forest floor had a noticeably fresh appearance.

The trail soon gained a ridge line and swung to the top of Gee Point where I was rewarded with a panoramic view.

 

The air, so calm and comfortably warm, easily could’ve induced a nap, but then I remembered that I was running low on water and time, so I reluctantly retraced my steps to the trailhead. After taking one final break to filter drinking water from Little Gee Lake, I bombed down the mountainside.

view of alpine lake and basin

On the rapid descent, I was glad to have wide 700x38cc tires to handle the rough surface and working brakes to check my speed. The ride home was quick, taking me half the time to ride back compared to riding there. When I reached home, my lower legs were caked in a fine powder. They felt worked too, but it was a good kind of tired.

Spring cycling along the North Cascades Highway

Last June, I wrote about cycling to Rainy Pass on the North Cascades Highway. For half the year, however, this road is closed as snow accumulation and avalanche danger, especially, become too great to keep it open. On weekends in spring, when road crews pause their work to clear snow and avalanche debris, the highway opens to bicyclists, so last Friday I took a rare opportunity to ride a car-free road. I found springtime fully fledged at low elevations in the North Cascades and winter’s legacy still holding a firm grip on the high country.

At low elevations, near the town of Newhalem, the weather and vegetation reflect mature springtime conditions. Hummingbirds seek nectar from red-flowering currant, deciduous plants are nearly fully leafed-out, and the ground is snow-free.

pink flowers on shrub

Red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum)

Heading east through Ross Lake National Recreation Area, the road climbs most steeply where it skirts the three hydroelectric dams on the Skagit River. Even here, at elevations below 1000 feet, avalanches will sometimes crash across the road when winter conditions are right.

gully on mountainside

In February 2017, a large avalanche crossed the highway at this location, trapping a few dozen people on the other side for several days.

view of avalanche snow on road

An avalanche covering the road at the same place on February 25, 2018. Photo courtesy of Washington State DOT.]

After fifteen miles of riding, beyond Diablo Lake…

View of lake and mountains

…I reached the Ross Dam trailhead where the highway remained closed to cars.

gate across highway. sign reads "Active slide area proceed at your own risk" and "Stop"

Freed of the stress of close encounters with cars, cycling on car-free roads is wonderfully relaxing. Even as I remained reasonably alert for hazards and other cyclists, I was able to do stupid things I’d never try when sharing the road with motor vehicles—like riding down the centerline while recording video.

GIF of road and surrounded by mountains and trees

For me, the car-free environment also promotes stopping where anything catches my attention. Ascending higher into the mountains, I watched as the vegetation became less and less green. From a certain phenological perspective, I was moving backwards through time. By the time I reached 2,500 feet in elevation, most of the raucous birdsong of the Skagit lowlands disappeared and deciduous plants were just breaking bud.

green flowers at the end of a maple branch

Big leaf maple has already finished blooming at low elevations along the Skagit River, but it was still in full flower around 3000 feet in elevation along the highway.

Around highway mile 150, about 15 miles beyond the gate at Ross Dam and 4,000 feet above sea level, snow continuously covered the ground. It only became deeper as I pedaled farther. Just a couple of miles shy of Rainy Pass, where state road crews had halted their work for the week, snow remained five feet deep on the road.

bicycle leaning against snow bank with one lane of plowed highway

 

bicycle leaning on five-foot high snow bank

The end of the plowed road on May 4, 2018.

As it melts, the snow provides much needed water to streams and rivers in a mountainous region where summer drought is common. For many plants though, the deep snow hinders growth well into summer. On the day of my ride, temperatures hovered in the 60s˚ F, certainly well within the temperature tolerance of plants in the Cascades, but the deep snow keeps the underlying soil cold and dark. Under these conditions, most plants have to lie dormant until growing conditions improve. In the North Cascades, where snow accumulation is so deep and extensive, this set of conditions creates a perpetual spring season on the margins of the snow pack. This gives wildlife like deer and bears the opportunity to eat young and nutritious plants through July and August.

yellow-flowered lily

Yellow avalanche lilies (Erythronium grandiflorum) are currently blooming in the Diablo Lake area. More commonly associated with meadows at higher elevations, these perennials have a short growing season. They begin to grow from a perennial bulb as soon, and sometimes even before, snow cover melts away to take advantage of ephemerally moist soils. By late July, the soils where this specimen grows will have become powdery dry, but at higher elevations this species will still be in flower.

new leaves at the end of small twigs in shaded forest

Late last July, long after I began to feast on blueberries at low elevations, blueberry plants in a snowy portion of Pelton Basin has just begun to leaf out. Late season berries are an important food source for bears this area.

Even during this ride into the middle elevations of the North Cascades (the highest non-volcanic peaks here top out over 9,000 feet tall), it was easy to see how snow exerts a significant influence on the landscape. The week of my ride, road crews reported nine feet of snow at Rainy Pass (el. 4,855’). In a couple of months, when tender plants like yellow avalanche lilies have withered and dried at lower elevations, I can ride up here again and find a microcosm of spring along the edge of the remaining snow.

view of snow-capped mountains and coniferous forest

Burpee Hill

Dry weather has been infrequent in western Washington this fall, so when a clear day dawned earlier this week I couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a wandering bike ride, one of my favorite pastimes. Over the last several years, my bicycle rides and hikes have become far more leisurely since I have become more prone to distraction. Without a fixed agenda though, I’m more open to discovery. Why, for example, would anyone pass on the chance to see a baby snake?

tiny snake in palm of gloved hand

This tiny garter snake was basking on the side of the road on a warm fall day in late October. Concerned it might become road kill, I moved it off of the pavement.

With temperatures near freezing on Monday, I wasn’t going to find any snakes, but over a fifty mile round trip—from Skagit River to the end of the road near Baker Lake—I found more than enough to hold my attention. After a mere two miles of pedaling, I found a reason to pause.

I began at the old concrete silos in Concrete, a small town along the middle reaches of Skagit River…

Concrete silos. Text on silos reads,

Why was Concrete named Concrete? You only get one guess.

Cycling route profile from Google Maps.

No, I didn’t ride the hill as slowly as Google Maps says it will take.

…and immediately began a steep climb up Burpee Hill. In two miles, the road gains over 800 feet of elevation, although I didn’t mind the opportunity to warm up with frost lingering on the grass.

The North Cascades region is the sum of a complex geologic history. Large-scale mountain building, volcanism, and extensive glaciation created and shaped a landscape of unparalleled ruggedness in the Lower 48 states. This area’s geology is, well, complicated. Just take a look at the geologic map.

screen shot of geologic map of Mount Baker and Baker Lake area

Yikes.

On a bicycle, unlike in a car, stopping to check out roadside curiosities—wildlife, road kill, trees, wildflowers, rocks, scenery—is very easy and is an important reason why I enjoy it so much. About half way up the Burpee Hill climb, I stopped to ponder some interesting sediments exposed in a road cut. The coarse to fine grained sediments were well sorted, indicating flowing water had deposited them, and were capped by a mix of unsorted rocks. This is one piece of a grander glacial puzzle.

view of road cut

A few exposures of loose and coarse sediment can be found on the Burpee Hill Road.

Maps that outline the last glacial maximum in North America give the impression that ice flowed largely north to south. While generally true, the story is a bit more complex on a local scale, as Burpee Hill illustrates.

Glaciers are masses of ice that flow and deform, and they behave differently than ice from your freezer. Set an ice cube on a table and strike it with a hammer and it will fracture. Ice in a glacier’s interior, however, is under tremendous pressure. Ice crystals are altered and deformed like plastic putty, so much so that only the upper 30 meters of temperate glaciers are brittle. (The relatively consistent maximum depth of crevasses reveals this fact. Below 30 meters, deforming ice seals any crevasses. Cavities at the base of glaciers have been measured to seal as fast as 25 centimeters per day.) The ice is not impervious to liquid water though. Within temperate glaciers, ice remains at or slightly above freezing, which allows meltwater to percolate to the glacier’s base. Pressure from overlying ice also causes some water to melt at the bed. Once there, meltwater acts as a lubricant helping the glacier slide. These factors, combined with gravity’s pull, drive glaciers along the paths of least resistance, and sometimes these paths lead uphill.

Between 19,000 and 18,000 years ago, a broad lobe of the cordilleran ice sheet invaded the lowlands of Puget Sound. Fingers of the ice sheet reached into the North Cascades as it continued to advance southward. Around 16,000 years ago, the ice sheet reached its maximum extent in western Washington, reaching south beyond Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia.

On the margin of the ice sheet, lowland valleys like the Skagit offered ice easy passage as it advanced. About 18,000 years ago in the lower and middle reaches of the Skagit valley, ice flowed in the opposite direction of the modern Skagit River. Burpee Hill is largely the result of this process. It’s a 200 meter-thick layer of glacial outwash, glacial lake sediments, and glacial till deposited at the front of ice as it advanced up the Skagit valley. The features are clearer in a LIDAR image.

LIDAR Image

Burpee Hill is the wedge-shaped feature in the center of the image.

LIDAR image with labels. From left to right:

Glacial ice from the Puget Sound area flowed east over the current location of Concrete. The sediments that make Burpee Hill were deposited in front of the advancing ice.

Since its formation, erosion and landslides have eaten away at Burpee Hill, and it is easy to overlook when the lure of craggy peaks and snow-capped volcanoes always dangles ahead. If volcanoes and orogenies are architects of this landscape, then glaciers are certainly its sculptor, reshaping landforms in profound ways. Stories like this are tucked away everywhere. Landforms are rarely ordinary.

Epilogue:
I continued my ride, which (in case you’re wondering) was wonderful even though temperatures remained near freezing. As I expected it to be on week day in early December, the road was quiet. The views of Mount Baker, pockets of old growth forest, and Baker Lake were worth the effort.
view of snow capped volcano and creek valley

Cycling North Cascades Highway

Last week, clear weather and a day off combined to allow Rocinante (yes, I name my bicycles and you should too) and I to ride the North Cascades Highway through Ross Lake National Recreation Area and Okanogan National Forest to Rainy Pass. This road, also known as Washington Route 20, is the last major highway constructed over the Cascades in Washington. It bisects one of the largest roadless areas in the Lower 48 and traverses a densely mountainous region that repeatedly confused 19th century explorers.

So many roads skirt mountains, but on this one I felt like I was truly in them. The highway, while never extremely steep, climbs considerably from Seattle City Light’s company town of Newhalem to Rainy Pass and beyond. For someone who is easily distracted by scenery, wildlife, and plants though, it also offers many excuses to slow the pace of travel. Just east of Newhalem, for example, lies the remnants of the Skagit River gorge.

narrow mountain valley

The Skagit River gorge

Beginning in the 1920s, the Seattle City Light harvested the energy of the Skagit in a series of dams. Collectively, these dams provide twenty percent of Seattle’s electricity.

mountain valley with dam and lake

Gorge Dam is the first of three hydroelectric dams on the Skagit River. Skagit gorge runs empty almost always because the river’s water is diverted from Gorge Dam through a tunnel to a powerhouse in Newhalem.

Before these dams were constructed, no road penetrated this section of Cascades. Miners and homesteaders had to navigate the gorge’s cliffs along a precarious “Goat Trail” above the raging river. My journey via bicycle was a bit easier than the Goat Trail despite the elevation gain. The road climbs up and down through the gorge then ascends again before skirting the southern shore of Diablo Lake, the second reservoir on the Skagit. This stretch of road combined with the continued climb above Ross Lake, in my opinion, is the toughest section for cyclists along the highway.

view of mountains and lake

Diablo Lake is deep in the heart of the North Cascades. Its aquamarine color is the product of glacial flour backscattering blue and green wavelengths of light.]

view of mountains and lake with coniferous trees in foreground

Ross Lake is the highest and largest reservoir in the Skagit watershed.

Even though Diablo and Ross lakes’ water flow west into Skagit River and Puget Sound, the reservoirs lie east of the Cascade crest. Here, a drier forest grows compared to the wetter lowlands downstream of Newhalem. The contrast is especially apparent on sunny slopes where snow doesn’t linger in spring. Douglas-firs and lodgepole pines tolerate these conditions well. At lower elevations along southern Ross Lake, pockets of ponderosa pines, a species much more common on warmer drier soils to the east, also linger.

Above Ross Lake, the road grade lessens easing the burden on my legs and lungs. Sight lines and road shoulder widths increased too, making the highway safer for bicycles. With increased elevation, the forest composition shifted to include some western white pine then lots of mountain hemlock and subalpine fir. With a moderate tailwind, I could pedal uphill and still enjoy views of the montane forest and craggy, snow-covered mountains bordering each side of the highway.

view of mountain peak and conifer treesAfter 35 miles of cycling and over 5,000 feet of cumulative elevation gain, I ate lunch at Rainy Pass (el. 4,855 feet). Fifty-three weeks ago, I cycled over this pass as part of a larger bicycle trip around the North Cascades area. That day was chilly and wet. I encountered frosty conditions and fresh snow from the previous night.

montane forest with light snow at higher elevation

Forest at Rainy Pass on June 14, 2016. Note the light snow on the trees.

On this ride however, I needed only a light windbreaker.

view of road surrounded by coniferous trees and mountain in background

Rainy Pass on June 21, 2017.

The North Cascades Highway is also part of Adventure Cycling’s Northern Tier route. I knew I’d see touring cyclists pushing to the pass and beyond and I knew they’d be hungry so I brought candy bars to give away to those out for the long haul. When I rode across the country on my bike in 2004, there were many days where I felt like I couldn’t eat enough and many people offered food, a lawn to camp on, or even a room in their home. My free chocolate was a very small attempt to reciprocate a bit of that generosity.

A little surprisingly, almost all the touring cyclists I encountered before Rainy Pass kindly rejected my offer of empty calories. If they were creeped out by a stranger peddling candy, then they hid their concerns well. (Maybe my approach was a little off—“Hey, want some candy bars?” said the weirdo who approached you on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere.) More likely though, my offer came too early in the day when energy from breakfast still lingered. At Rainy Pass, the same cyclists gladly accepted the treats.

I spoke with cyclists from Germany, Great Britain, and a group from Massachusetts raising awareness of epilepsy.

Charlie's group at Rainy Pass_06212017

Clif Read (center) and some of his riding companions pause at Rainy Pass on their tour to raise awareness of epilepsy. Follow their journey at c2c4charlie.org/.

As unprepared as I was, carrying little more than a windbreaker and some peanuts, I felt an urge to continue my ride, joining the others heading east toward the Atlantic Ocean. I suppressed that travel bug though and let the long-distance cyclists continued on their way while I turned back west to enjoy the mostly downhill ride into the Skagit Valley.

 

 

Of Bears and Bicycles

bear tracks on dirt road. bike wheel in right foreground.

Sometimes bears like to use roads as much as people, giving new meaning to the “share the road” concept.

While enjoying a quiet bicycle ride on a remote road you surprise a large animal in the brush. A split second later, you realize the seriousness of the situation, because you didn’t surprise just any animal. You surprised a bear. Would you be prepared to respond appropriately? What can cyclists do to reduce risky bear encounters?

Some of North America’s most amazing cycling destinations are located in bear country—Alaska, the Rocky Mountains, the Appalachians, Cascades, and Sierra Nevada, and the Great Lakes region. I’ve lived, worked, and cycled extensively in bear country and I love it. I’ve commuted by bicycle at Yellowstone National Park. I’ve toured in the Appalachians, Rockies, and Cascades where bears are frequently seen. When I worked at Katmai National Park, Alaska, I had hundreds of encounters with brown bears, and I frequently saw them while riding the park’s Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes road. Each experience taught me to fear bears less and respect them more. Cyclists can safely enjoy riding in bear country, but there is risk involved. However, the risk is manageable with the right knowledge, prevention, and preparation.

bear walking on dirt road through forest

Cyclists need to be prepared for bear encounters. I found this bear walking toward me while I pedaled the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes road.

Cycling in bear country creates two main issues. First, bicycles are usually quiet and often travel at high speed increasing the possibility of surprising bears. Secondly, many touring cyclists prefer to camp, and while camping isn’t the problem, if you’re camping in bear country then the good campsite you found is often located in good bear habitat.

Warning noise is one of the easiest precautions to take in bear country. Given enough notice, many bears will avoid people. Noise is not a safety net though, just a preventative measure so you don’t surprise a bear. It must be made appropriately and for the right reasons. It’s especially useful in areas where visibility is limited, and it’s easy too. Use your voice or a loud bike bell. Those cheap bear bells may save your vocal chords for campfire songs later in the evening, but they aren’t nearly loud enough in most situations to adequately warn bears. More importantly, bears may not identify any bell’s sound with people. You need to make noise to warn bears of your approach and identify yourself as human. No bell is as effective as the human voice. It’s no fun to shout all day, nor is it an action that fits well in all settings, so vary the amount of warning noise as necessary.

If you need an excuse to slow down during a ride, bears can be it. Excessive speed was one of the main factors that led to a fatal mauling of a mountain biker in Montana. Ride cautiously where bears are frequently seen, avoid biking during hours when bears are less likely to expect encounters with people, and pay attention to your surroundings. On the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes road, a road that averages less than five vehicle trips a day in summer, I’m forced to ride slowly because too many bears use it to allow for a purely fitness ride. This is torturous for certain cyclists, myself included on occasion, but bears necessitate it. If I want to ride responsibly here, I must slow down.

Take the time to assess the terrain. Are you approaching the crest of a hill, a sharp bend, or is the road carved through thick brush? Will you be traveling through areas with food sources, like berries or salmon, that attract bears? This may seem like a mental burden that will cause a headache by the end of the day, but cyclists practice this risk assessment all of the time. While riding in traffic we identify and respond to unsafe situations routinely. Bears pose different challenges than cars, I realize, but trust your instincts. Slow down and give yourself time to use them.

Bear walking on dirt road through forest.

This bear in Katmai was intent on using the road. To safely avoid a stressful encounter with him I stopped, picked my bike up, carried it off of the road and well into the forest to let the bear pass. Had I been traveling too fast, I would have risked surprising the bear at a very close range.

black bear walking on dirt road through forest

I let this black bear in North Cascades National Park know I was human by talking in a normal tone of voice. Once the bear realized I was human, he walked calmly into the forest.

Statistically speaking, groups of four or more people are very safe in bear country. So if the thought of encountering a bear alone is too intimidating, then join a group ride and stay close together. Group size is not effective if the group is spread so far apart that a bear only recognizes individual persons. Groups tend to be noisier and have lots of eyes to spot wildlife. Plus, during a bear encounter, a mass of humanity is intimidating to even the biggest bear.

With that being said, what should you do during a close encounter? Things can get complicated quickly and adrenaline will certainly rush, so prepare yourself mentally before you leave home. The key, according to Tammy Olson, a former wildlife biologist for Katmai National Park, “is to not behave in ways that are likely to be perceived as threatening when responding to a [defensive] bear at close range.”

How close is too close? The answer depends on a variety of factors (the presence of cubs, the vicinity of food like animal carcasses, the bear’s human-habituation level and disposition, surprise, and more). There are general recommendations to follow, but each bear is an individual and each situation is unique. A Yellowstone grizzly shouldn’t be treated like a Pennsylvania black bear. Talk with local officials about the general patterns of bear use and behavior in the area you plan on traveling through. Some areas, especially national parks, have regulations that define the minimum, legal distance to keep between yourself and a bear (50 yards at Katmai, 100 yards at Yellowstone, and 300 yards at Denali). These can be a useful, but not absolute, starting point to determine if you are too close. As a general rule, if you are altering the bear’s behavior, then you are too close.

Any time you find yourself in close quarters with a bear, stop riding and take a few seconds to assess the situation. Position your bicycle between you and the bear. As well as possibly adding a modicum of physical protection, the bike makes you look larger in a non-threatening way. Size matters in the bear world. This is why groups of people are generally safer in bear encounters than a lone person.

If you surprise a bear while bicycling, quickly assess the situation. What is the bear doing? Is it resting, feeding, approaching you, or showing signs of stress? Do you see or hear cubs? Is the bear vocalizing? Were you charged? Your behavior in these situations goes beyond the scope of this post, but what you see, hear, or think the bear is doing will influence your decision on how to react. (Please see the references at the end of the post for more information on bear behavior, identification, how to differentiate between defensive and predatory encounters, and the recommended responses.)

When you’re on a bike, you’re moving swiftly and you have less time to react than someone who is walking. This is more likely to provoke a charge from defensive bears, especially grizzly bears. If a bear charges you in a defensive, non-predatory situation, it is usually a bluff. Even so, this is a frightening experience. Hold your ground. Running or pedaling away may trigger the bear to chase you, and you can’t outrun a bear. Keep your bicycle with you if possible. Abandoning the bike, especially if there’s food in your panniers, can teach bears to approach people for another food reward.

Yelling at a defensive bear may provoke it further. Instead, talk to the bear calmly and back away slowly until the bear resumes its normal behavior (resting, feeding, traveling). Contact is rare, so only play dead if a bear makes physical contact with you. If it does, lie face down and cover your head and neck with your hands and arms. Remain still and quiet until the bear leaves the area. (Black bears attacks are very rare, but are much more likely to be predatory, so most bear behavior experts recommend you fight back if a black bear attacks.)

Sometimes you may see a bear before it is aware of you. If this happens, move away quietly the way you came and give the animal the room it needs. Find an appropriate place to observe it, where possible, and enjoy the moment. It’ll certainly be one you won’t forget.

Your goal should be to prevent close encounters. This is just as important when camping as it is when riding. At the end of a long day of bicycle touring, is there anything more satisfying than a beautiful campsite with a hot meal? Maybe not, but before you commit yourself to that wonderful campsite, take a few moments and search for signs of previous bear activity. Is there garbage scattered about from previous campers? Is the campsite near natural food sources that attract bears? Do you see fresh bear scat with human food or garbage in it? If so, consider moving on. You don’t want to risk a food conditioned bear coming into your camp at night.

Bicycle handlebars leaning against tree. Bark has bear fur attached to it.

Look for signs of bears like scat, tracks, and marking trees when you choose a campsite. Move on if the area seems to be frequently used by bears. The bear fur on this marking tree indicates plenty of bruins use the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes road.

Most problems with bears while camping can be avoided if bears aren’t attracted to your campsite in the first place. Outside of developed campgrounds, cook and eat well away from your sleeping area (at least 100 yards). This is a Leave No Trace principle everyone should follow, but it also disperses food odors away from your sleeping area.

Consider where and how you plan on preparing your food in the backcountry. Are hot meals important, or would cold dinners and snacks suffice? Eating cold meals and eliminating the need to cook is one easy way to substantially reduce food odors around your camp. There is less to clean and less garbage at the end of the day. If you choose to cook then consider meals that require little field preparation. Touring cyclists don’t normally carry and cook perishable, odorous items like bacon, but anything strongly scented or should be avoided.

Before you leave home, decide how you will store your food and other odorous items like soap and toothpaste. Bear resistant containers (BRCs) are the best and most portable way to keep bears from your food, and in some areas they are required. BRCs lack creases or hinges that allow bears to open them. Yes, they are heavy and bulky, but their effectiveness has been proven repeatedly and backpacking-style BRCs normally fit into a large, rear pannier. The most common alternative, hanging food in a tree, is time consuming and risky. Some bears, especially in the Sierra Nevada, have learned to ignore BRCs but specialize in stealing food hung in trees. Occasionally, developed campgrounds in high bear use areas provide food storage facilities as an alternative to BRCs, but many do not.

Lastly, some people prefer to carry a bear deterrent like bear spray (not self defense spray) or firearms. Neither firearms nor bear spray are 100% effective against bears. I carry bear spray since it is non-lethal, non-toxic, and easy to use. It is intended only for close encounters (generally 30 feet or less) on aggressive or attacking bears. This stuff is potent too, so be careful. I know enough people who have accidentally discharged their bear spray to know you don’t want it in your face or in your pants, as one unfortunate individual at Brooks Camp discovered. Wherever you choose to keep it, bear spray needs to be quickly accessible. When necessary, I carry bear spray in my bike’s handlebar bag. (Thankfully, I’ve never had to use mine.)

There are many bear deterrents, but the greatest of all is your brain. No matter what you do in bear country, where you ride, or what you see, there is no substitute for common sense. We empower ourselves with safe cycling practices in traffic, and we can do the same around bears. The scenario at the beginning of the article isn’t fiction. It happened to me, and it’ll probably happen again. Traveling in bear habitat requires responsibility. Sloppy habits and dirty campsites can endanger future visitors and the lives of bears.

I always look forward to bicycling in bear country, which is some of the most scenic and inspiring land imaginable. Knowledge of and respect for these animals can turn what would be a dangerous and fearful encounter into the highlight of the trip. Given the opportunity, humans, bears, and even bicycles can coexist.

More Bear Safety Information

You can never know too much about bears, but an action appropriate in one region may not be appropriate in another. Talk to local officials about what works and is expected in their area. There is also plenty of contradictory information available about bear safety available online. The information provided in the resources below generally follows the consensus of leading bear biologists and public land managers. Besides learning behavioral techniques that may keep you safe and give you peace of mind, learning about bears and their ecology is fascinating and can open up a world of wonder into their complex lives.

Websites:
Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee: The IGBC was established in 1983 to help ensure recovery of viable grizzly bear populations and their habitat in the Lower 48 states.

Leave No Trace: The seven guiding principles of LNT ethics not only reduce our impact on the outdoors, but also correlate to the best camping practices in bear country.

Yellowstone National Park Bear Safety Pages: These may be the most comprehensive bear safety pages on the web.

Get Bear Smart Society: This organization is dedicated to reducing conflicts between bears and people.

Literature:
Bear Attacks: Their Cause and Avoidance by Stephen Herrero: This is not your typical bear attack book. It written by a wildlife biologist who has statistically analyzed bear attacks across North America. It offers scientifically supported advice for travelers in bear country.

Backcountry Bear Basics: The Definitive Guide to Avoiding Unpleasant Encounters by Dave Smith: Although less academic than Bear Attacks, this is another readable, common sense look at bear identification, behavior, avoidance, safety, and it includes a brief section on mountain biking.

DVD:
Staying Safe in Bear Country: If there was just one resource you could choose to educate yourself on how to behave around grizzly and black bears, this video is near the top of the list. In a no-nonsense fashion, it clearly and accurately explains bear behavior and how people can minimize the chance of bear encounters and attacks. It also provides insightful footage of bear behavior that may be hard to visualize. A transcript is available too.

Short Ride Up Stehekin Valley

October has been a wet month here in Stehekin. So far, seven inches of rain have been recorded. Today brought a break in the weather though. When I saw clear skies this morning, I ate a quick breakfast and hopped on my bike for a ride up the Stehekin Valley Road through Lake Chelan National Recreation Area. I wanted to casually revisit different habitats along the way while enjoying bold fall colors.

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Snow-capped mountains over Lake Chelan

For the first mile the road hugs Lake Chelan’s rocky shoreline. The shallow areas near the head of the lake are popular with waterfowl right now. With the birds and the view of the mountains, I could’ve spent the whole morning near the dock at the Purple Point Campground. But, I probably would’ve chosen a different spot to linger, since I don’t necessarily enjoy the smell of rotting kokanee (land-locked sockeye salmon).

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Many dead and dying kokanee salmon are flushed from Stehekin River into Lake Chelan. This one, and many others, accumulated at the dock for Purple Point Campground.

 

The road quickly leaves the lake and roughly parallels Stehekin River for the next 12 miles.

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Stehekin River rises and falls considerably from peak runoff in late spring to its low point in late summer. It’s come up at least a foot since rain returned to the area, but is still several feet below its seasonal high.

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Stehekin River

The river is fed by several tributaries. Rainbow Creek is probably the most well known. From a hanging valley, it pours over 300 foot high Rainbow Falls onto an alluvial fan.

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Many small tributaries of Stehekin River form alluvial fans where they encounter the valley bottom. Rainbow Falls is tucked back behind the trees at upper center.

Alluvial fans on the side of the valley are typically dry, fire prone habitats. Around Rainbow Falls, fire is managed through controlled burns, which keeps the understory clear and trees well spaced. Usually, only plants with very high tolerances for hot, dry soils live here. The soils on the alluvial fans aren’t particularly rich either, which is one reason my garden, located on the toe of one these fans, sucked this year.

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Several species of manzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.), also called kinnikinnik or bearberry, inhabit the area, especially in dry sites. Black bears feed on the berries, but I find them mealy and almost flavorless.

 

Shortly after Rainbow Falls, the pavement ends next to a talus slope….

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…and the road weaves its way on top of more alluvial fans and down to the floodplain.

Areas that are prone to flooding or have wet soils have a far higher proportion of deciduous trees, like black cottonwood and red alder, than the adjacent uplands.

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Along the whole route, I stopped frequently just to enjoy the scenery.

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At the boundary between Lake Chelan National Recreation Area and North Cascade National Park, the river flows through a narrow valley where wet and dry microhabitats can exist within feet of one another. Plant life here is fairly diverse. Most of North Cascades tree species are found growing in the upper Stehekin watershed, and it’s a good place for animals too. Often I find fresh bear scat and tracks on the roads and trails.

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Tracks from a black bear that had walked on the road not long before I passed through.

Near the end of the road, I was forced to cross the river on this rickety down tree.

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Just kidding. I crossed on a sturdy bridge.

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But, within a few more minutes was met with an ominous sign.

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Impassible Beyond Here

Habitats along Stehekin River are subject to change, especially when the river floods. Just beyond the sign, the road is washed away.

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Road’s End: A 500 year flood washed away large sections of the Stehekin Road in 2003.

Here, I turned back to enjoy the mostly downhill ride home. Of course, fall colors and scenery kept distracting me, so I didn’t ride too fast, just enough to remain comfortably warm.