A First-Date Bikepacking Story: How a Polar Bear Caused My Head To Be The Target of a Skunk
I sleep deeply. Kurt awakens readily by any sign of critters. We knew this about each other going into our first-date-backcountry trip together. We knew this because we had spent the better part of a month co-teaching a bikepacking field course together, not long before. For this reason, I knew, through rainy-night tent-bound storytime that Kurt doesn’t sleep through critters scuttling around because of polar bears – or more accurately one polar bear.
Two summers prior, Kurt experienced a heart-thumping, time-stopping encounter with a polar bear on Baffin Island. It wasn’t his first encounter with polar bears, as every researcher on that remote island is bound to run into a few. But it was terrifying. So scary that now, even the scuttle of a mouse, the hop of a bug, or the soft steps of a skunk will awaken him, instantly.
That summer, Kurt and his research assistant were dropped off on the Qivitu Peninsula by two guides in motorcanoes. Kurt and Keith had a food for a few weeks, shovels for geology work, tents for sleeping and cooking, and an electric fence with an alarm to sound an alert should any bears come into camp at night. After a few days of seeing numerous bears each day and having two different bears come into camp overnight, the pair moved camp into one of the plywood hunting shacks that dot the coastline. Built and frequented by the Inuit, these shacks are understood to be available to anyone who needs them. Deeming the alarmingly high bear activity as a need for better shelter, they moved in. That night, banging awakened Kurt and Keith. Circulating the four walls of the shack, banging, clawing, and pushing each wall, was a polar bear. With some persistence, the bear eventually broke into the entryway room, just one plywood door away from the geologists. With frozen breath, gun in hand, and fixed stares at the door, they waited. After an eternity of thrashing, the bear left.
Come morning, Kurt managed to flag down an unexpected motor canoe. The young family had been fishing up in the fiord, and upon hearing the bear story, the parents suddenly looked uncomfortable and alarmed. “Bad bear. Let’s go quickly,” the father said. Within a few minutes, Kurt and Keith loaded up their critical gear and samples, hopped in the tiny boat, and retreated to the nearest village, some 70 kilometers down the coast.
Shared experiences and shared stories build connections. Connections form relationships; our shared experiences and stories formed a relationship, and to continue to foster it, we set out on a backyard bikepacking trip around the Bradshaw Mountains.
With many miles and little time, we packed lightly, planning on riding into the night and bivying under the stars until sunrise. About halfway around our loop, we stopped to sleep in the Agua Fria River drainage. A perennial and intermittent river, the Agua Fria south of Black Canyon City is mostly sand. A sandy wash in early October in Arizona is a lovely place to camp when there is no chance of rain and sleeping pads were left behind.
Sometime around 3 a.m., I awoke to a burning sensation in my nose. As I came to consciousness, I realized Kurt was sitting up and moving around. And my nose! It stung! A most rancid scent filled my nostrils and mouth. Right as that smell registered in my brain as familiar, Kurt leaned over, sniffed, and said with astonishment “It got you!!!”
A skunk had waddled by our sleeping bodies. Predictably, Kurt woke up with a start. His sudden movement startled the skunk. It turned and sprayed, nailing me squarely on the top of my head from about a foot away.
The situation stunk. Grabbing my sunscreen, the most potent of my two smelly-goopy things (the other was chamois cream), I sulked a few hundred feet upstream to the nearest puddle. Kurt followed, water bottle in hand. He poured water over my head as I scrubbed sunscreen through my hair. It cut the smell a bit. I used my sleeping superpowers to resume sleeping, nose-burning-stench and all, and Kurt tossed the rest of the night.
In the morning, we rode in silence. There wasn’t any problem, except that I stunk, so Kurt slowly drifted farther and farther behind. A few hours later, we rolled into the parking area of the Rock Springs Café. The café is famous for its pie and is a roadside attractions for travelers of Interstate 17, and more deservingly, of cyclists on the Black Canyon Trail. While Kurt went into the gas station next door to acquire some soap, I found a hose out back. There commenced a thorough head and backpack washing. On-lookers likely just saw two bikepackers rinsing off before breakfast. I, however, felt like the family dog thrown into the tub of tomato juice. Fortunately, the bar of soap that looked to be about 15 years old did a thorough enough job to pass Kurt’s assessment of whether or not we could sit in the vacant outdoor seating area of the café for some breakfast and pie.
The waitress didn’t seem to notice, or maybe she just associated the stench with our grimy, salty clothes. We happily gorged ourselves with a big meal before setting off to complete what turned out to be a very lengthy but quick two-day bikepacking trip.
Since that trip in 2013, we have been bikepacking across the West and in various parts of the world together. I still sleep soundly, and Kurt still wakes up to any movement. We have created countless shared experiences and stories to share, but that trip will remain so memorable in the evolution of our relationship, and I can now blame a polar bear for getting me sprayed in the head by a skunk while bikepacking.
Share this post: Tweet
I have shaped my life around exploring remote and wild places by foot, rope, raft, ski and mountain bike. I would rather be sweating than sitting, surrounded by trees than walls, and lost in a canyon than navigating a freeway. As I spend more than half the year sleeping outside, I’ve come to believe that life's full potential can be realized through seeking, enduring and relishing adventure.