Our bike brakes squealed. Nancy and I stopped next to the overly large pile of bear shit.

There is something perversely thrilling about messing around in country where there are critters that can eat you.

The pile of bear droppings were the first of several piles we passed on another adventure on the Alligator Lake road. They all were fairly fresh.

Without a television in the Yukon, Nancy and I have to create our own adventure channel.  On this day it meant packing lunches, water bottles and cans of bear spray for a mountain bike trek.

Even though the locals call it the Alligator Lake road, it is not really a road. There are a couple of rusted vehicle remains pushed into the bush alongside the trail. Foolish folks who chose to drive the dozen or so miles back to the remote Alligator Lake left behind these artifacts.   The jewel of a lake nestles in a phalanx of mountains. It is named for the nearby gator-shaped Alligator Mountain.  Dall sheep and caribou look down on its waters. Earlier this summer a friend cycled back to camp overnight and had three wolverines pass closely as they loped through their home range.

The road is really an overused, eroded quad (ATV) trail.  It has sections of softball-sized rocks, deep mudholes the color of last week’s coffee, sand that sucks your tires out of sight, and exposed lengths of spruce roots that rattle your teeth as the bike flies over them. Oh and you also have to cross a numbingly cold Two Horse Creek that demands you get off your bike and wade.  A day pedaling on the Alligator Lake road is guaranteed to loosen up your joints, shake your insides, demand keen reflexes, work your lungs and heart and give you a surge of adrenaline.

Our adrenaline factor spiked when we pedaled past several heaps of bear shit.

We examined the first tar black pile, shiny with mossberries. The size of the pile made it clear that it was grizzly and not black bear.

Mossberries, more commonly known as crowberries, are profuse this year. This is good news for bear and human berry pickers.  The low matted shrub, common in tundra and rocky soils, is said to be the most popular wild fruit among the Inuit. Two nights ago I had a fine piece of white frosted cake laced with mossberries.

These berries are full of fiber and tiny seeds. Consequently, the fruit makes its way through a bear’s long digestive system and are left in telltale piles of waste. And no, there were no bear bells, no shreds of clothing in the feces, just the shards of hundreds of mossberries.

The grizzly is an iconic feature of the Yukon and Alaska wilderness. Along the Alaskan coast, grizzlies are known as brown bears and feed heavily on salmon. With this high protein diet, the grizzlies living there are over-sized. The diet of interior grizzlies, like those in the Yukon, can be up to 90 percent plant material.

It’s the other ten percent of their diet that makes me nervous.

I know I need to be bear aware and as I travel and camp in bear country. Statistically, I am more likely to be struck by a bolt of lightening that be attacked by a bear.  But I still know I should hike or bike in groups, make noise to avoid surprising a bear and stay at least one hundred yards from a bear. Further is better.

Passing piles of fresh bear scat gives me sharp focus. Nancy and I simultaneously pedaled and sang or loudly chatted, not an easy task on an uphill stretch. Making noise is probably the best bear deterrent there is. Let the bears know that you are coming and they generally will bid a hasty retreat. As a habit, they don’t go around looking for conflict.

When we stopped to have a much-needed lunch, only a mile or so from Alligator Lake, we were surprised to see two quads drop down a steep pitch towards us. They slowed, pulled up next to us and turned off their machines. The first fellow pulled off his helmet and asked if we were okay. I noticed the rifle scabbard fastened just ahead of his handlebars.

We must have looked like a bad accident as they drove up. We were sprawled on the hillside, resting and eating and the bikes were lying next to us.

We affirmed that we were okay. After commending us on our workout to get back into this rugged country, he asked if we had seen any wildlife. Other than a pair of spruce grouse and a few dashing red squirrels, we had seen nothing. “Oh,” I added.  “We did pass a few big piles of fairly fresh bear droppings.”

Looking far off to his left and pointing, the middle-aged man said, “Yeah, there is a big old grizzly that runs the Coal Lake area.” Coal Lake is not more than a ten- minute bear trot east of Alligator Lake.

After a few minutes of friendly chatter, the two motorists fired up their quads and drove away. I watched the cased rifle disappear and glanced down at the can of bear spray tucked into the easily accessible side pocket of my pack. A recent study in Alaska shows that statistically bear spray is more effective than firearms when defending oneself from a bear attack.  But for the spray to be effective, the bear has to be no more than twenty feet. http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/mammals/grizzly/bear%20spray.pdf

What did the quad driver mean by his choice of the verb, “runs?” Did he mean that the bear runs through the Coal Lake area or does he run, as in manage, the Coal Lake area? And if he is he manager of this domain, is he a friendly manager?

We finished our sandwiches and noted the late afternoon sun. We would be negotiating the hazards of Alligator Lake Road in the dark if we didn’t start back soon. Neither of us said a word about what was really driving our decision. We didn’t want to bump into the back end of a certain grizzly that runs the mossberry route.

*Note: the photo used with this blog entry is one of a black bear hind foot. . . also from the Alligator Lake Road. The tire tread is from my mtn bike “bush pony.”


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