Within minutes of rolling out on our fat bikes from the safe haven of Whitefish Bike Retreat, just outside of Whitefish, Montana, we were mugged by an ominous mob of inky-black clouds. The storm had clearly been waiting for us, lurking behind the trees to the west. It rolled over us with a bluster and fury, bursting with thunderous cymbal claps, streaks of theatrical lighting and a thrashing of percussive rain. It was indeed an auspicious start, yet, one we had grown accustomed to on our family bikepacking trips. It seemed no matter what the weather, rain was always in our forecast.
With a shared glance of commiseration, my wife Sarah and I pulled up our GORE-TEX hoods and slung the protective, rainproof cover over our son Oliver’s bike chariot before riding on in hopes of ducking and weaving our way out of the storm. On the trail, time was often the only reliable solution for handling in-climate weather and ours was limited.
Our plan was to squeeze in a 3 to 4-day, family bikepacking loop in the mountains between Whitefish, Montana and Glacier National Park with Sarah and I riding our trusty Mukluk fat bikes, towing our son Oliver behind in the chariot. This would be the prelude to my upcoming bikepacking race, the Alberta Rockies 700, starting in Canmore, Alberta.
All of it seemed logical and efficient. With summer coming to a close, the end of my wife Sarah’s one-year maternity leave was approaching, signaling her return to work and Oliver’s first birthday at the end of the week. I decided, the hell with it, I would have Oliver’s cake and eat it too. In other words, according to those around me, I was biting off more than I could chew. But I was willing to take the risk. Sure, it was a lot to jam into one week, but I wanted one more trip with my family, to celebrate my son’s milestone in the wilderness and compete in a long distance bike race I had been preparing for throughout the summer.
So here we were, the rain pouring, only a few hours into our week of adventure.
We dove down a narrow trail, indulging in a shortcut from our original route that carried us over a narrow, root-filled trail through the forest. I hoped our little maneuver would shake the storm but it seemed instead to hone in on us. The trail spat us out at a gate blocking a railroad track. The steel, yellow fence was logically built so most things couldn’t pass through, including our chariot. No matter how we mentally reshaped or reconfigured its dimensions, there was no getting through any of the gaps. We quickly improvised, disconnecting the arm to my bike and popping off the wheels so we could jam the body of the chariot under the gate. It was a tight squeeze ‘but if Santa could do it, so could the Grinch’. Inside the trailer, as was the norm on all our biking trips, Oliver slept through it all. He had made it clear, in not so many words given he had none yet, that he should only be disturbed at mealtimes or in the moments of least convenience to his parents.
We pieced Humpty back together again and continued up a steep, gravel road toward Red Meadows, our target destination for the evening. With the weather and the usual last-minute tinkering we had already left late and our prospects of reaching a campsite before dark were diminishing. We kept a steady pace, stopping only for a few feeding breaks when Oliver wailed his dinner bell. Some of the sharp grades up the gravel road were a quick reminder of just how much our son was growing as the load behind me got heavier and heavier with each outing. I glared at his smug face as he selfishly guzzled more calories from his formula bottle.
The campground at Upper Whitefish Lake would have to do for the evening as that was about as far as we would get in daylight. The rays of sunshine held the rain at bay just long enough for us to set up our tent and transfer essential items inside for safe keeping. I wandered off to filter some water from a nearby river for our dehydrated dinners and Oliver’s formula, while Sarah facilitated a much-needed diaper change.
In the morning, after a bit of a rough sleep, we woke to persisting rain. We took refuge under a giant fir tree to pack our gear and down some oatmeal.
It was a relatively short but steep climb to the peak elevation of Red Meadows where we stumbled upon a few other bikepackers shaking off the rain and stuffing their bags with damp gear and cookware. As much as the previous solitude was appreciated, crossing paths with other cyclists was reassuring and invigorating. These trips were certainly an opportunity to escape but it was nice to relish in the shared habits of our backcountry species.
After a long descent, we sauntered into Polebridge and hitched our bikes for a lunchtime break. The facade of the Polebridge Mercantile, as it was known, had the immediate vibe of a western frontier town straight out of Disneyland. Just swap out tumbleweeds for rental cars and cowboys for tourists. But a little blast of civilization, albeit canned and gift wrapped, was a welcome site, especially as they have a reputation for world-class baked goods and also provided the opportunity to pick up a few local IPA’s to stash away for the next campsite. I relished in this little oasis along the trail; it was one of the dangling carrot cakes.
With the midday sun peering out, we hung the gear to dry and worked our way through the pastry menu including a free Danish awarded for arriving via human-power (bike or foot). I couldn’t help but feel this was the owners little #$@! you to the parking lot full of dust-kicking cars.
With our stomachs full and panniers loaded with fresh supplies, we set off towards Glacier National Park. Only a few minutes down the road from Polebridge, we passed through the park gate and followed a scenic, narrow road weaving through pine forest to our first campground option. It was a little early in the afternoon to stop but we figured we should give it a look to be sure.
We were immediately greeted by a pleasant, albeit twitchy biker out for a patrol of the campground. His overgrown beard and baggy clothing suggested less fixie-hipster and more hippy-randonneur. His shaky hand anxiously grasped at his bear spray canister, an itchy trigger finger caressing the holster. He immediately scrutinized the placement of our own bear spray as though we should be expecting some sort of impending shootout. Sure, we were in prime bear territory and the canisters weren’t slung at our hip like gunslinging fugitives but we weren’t exactly reckless. Sarah’s spray was in her bottle holder and mine was in the side pocket of my frame bag. Besides, deep down I was a fatalist when it came to wildlife encounters; like a patron at the deli mart, it is only a matter of time before your number is up.
Tensions eased after a little shared route knowledge and sentimental reflection on family bikepacking, but we decided to continue to roll on, eventually hunkering down along the banks of a picturesque river for the evening.
The next morning, we crossed the threshold into a section of bike-and-hike only trail through Glacier National Park. For some reason things almost immediately felt different. Rolling along the trail I couldn’t help but eye each burnt out stump or dark clump of trees with suspicion, expecting any one of them to animate into a lunging bear. Maybe we were taking the reputation of Glacier National Park and its record grizzly population too literally. Never-the-less, it was better to be safe than sorry, so we broke into trail karaoke, unabashedly pumping out a slew of greatest hits we actually knew the lyrics too (sadly, mainly amalgamated nursery rhymes and Christmas tunes).
And that, that is precisely when a massive grizzly bolted across the trail ahead of us. It crashed out of the bushes from the right, disappearing to the left.
It wasn’t clear what the bear had responded to; my tuneless, baritone of the made-up song “Smokie The Bear” or Sarah’s repetitive Soprano of the two-word, classic “Marco Polo”? Perhaps it was the unexpected solo of Oliver’s high octave squawks from inside the chariot. Truth was, it didn’t matter. I was just happy the whole terrible composition broke the grizzly’s will, enticing a 700-pound apex predator to drop huckleberry crumble and flee, rather than indulge in a three-course meal of us.
I came to a stop and Sarah instinctively did the same. I turned to her, clearly articulating an expression of “Did you just see that?” as she took a casual pull from her water bottle. Her oblivious, side-glance back confirmed she hadn’t. I calmly explained my bear sighting and it wasn’t until later that day that my wife would admit the full extent of internalized, nervous wreckage. She disguised it well, only hinting at any real concern by the sudden rise in tempo and volume of her singing.
For the remainder of the day, “MARCOOOOO. POLOOOOOOO,” echoed through the pristine pine forests.
As we tentatively rolled forward, tracing the bear’s path, we took the time to rehearse our defensive strategy. Our plan was an old Western, circle the wagons approach. I would quickly steer my frame in one direction to create a sort of arrowhead with my fat bike and the attached chariot while Sarah would close the back of the perimeter with her bike creating a carbon barrier between us and the aggressor. Fortified, we’d then draw our bear spray in one hand and an axe in the other, ready to make a stand. The reality was, all of this would take way too long unless the bear politely made its aggressive intentions known to us well in advance. Regardless, a plan…any plan…provided peace of mind and replaced visions of mauling with delusions of heroic ingenuity. Thankfully, it never came to that.
With our safe exit of the park and our vocal cords severally frayed, our route descended down through stands of charred pine; a regular reminder of the ever- growing reality of forest fire. Gravel gave way to pavement as we approached Apgar, the southern entry point to Glacier National Park and a sort of transitional zone to, or from, nature. In a way, I felt like an apparition passing through these touristy places. They seemed a necessary evil, the National Park purgatory with the heaven of vast wild environments on one side and the hell of urban sprawl and strip malls on the other. This is where the two worlds came together to feast on ice-cream and french fries. But don’t get me wrong, I was the first to indulge in such urban pleasures.
END OF PART ONE...stay tuned for Part Two...
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As a bikepacker and cyclist I am always learning. Riding my bike takes me to new places, teaches me new things and introduces me to an incredible community of wonderful people. My passion is to combine my love of creative storytelling, with the physical challenges of exploring new and wondrous environments and cultures.