Updated: Sep 6, 2020
We first tried pedaling a portion of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route- (the GDMBR) in September 2017 with one borrowed bike and a Bob Trailer. Three days of riding brought us to Lima, Montana where we rolled into the local motel. Before we were off the bikes the owner told us a story of bikers being chased by bears just up the road. Thanks ma'am, I said; I think you just ended our trip. See the photograph above for Karen's feelings about traveling in bear country.
Luckily, for our decision making process, it snowed several inches that night and we gave up and headed for the desert in Vanna - our new camper van. Looking back on that attempt, we were too heavily loaded and not quite ready for the demands of the GDMBR.
Our next try was in July 2018. I was a brand new pensioner and we planned a 700 mile route from Ovando, Montana to Jackson, Wyoming. No more borrowed bikes and no more heavily loaded Bob Trailers. We left Vanna in Ovando in July and spent three weeks on the route. The GDMBR is largely dirt and gravel roads that follow the Continental Divide from Banff to the Mexican border at Antelope Wells, NM. The route zigzags wildly and in Montana seems to always be climbing an interminable forest road to a pass that suddenly opens up to high meadows on the southern aspects. Every day seemed to bring a WTF moment- as in WTF are we doing here as we push our heavily loaded bikes up yet another rough track with dust so deep it covers our shoes. But the long rolls down the other side gave some respite and we learned our own tricks, dipping in every creek and making sure to take rest days, staying in motels as needed and not letting the WTF moments linger too long. After three weeks on the road we made it to Jackson.
One of the great things about the GDMBR is that you go through towns and there are places to stay and places to get food. Sometimes it is just gas station food but it makes it is easier to push on through 90 degree heat into Butte when you know there is an adult beverage and some dinner at the end of the road.
Back in Bear Country in the time of Covid
After pedaling around Europe in 2019, we arrived back in the USA and immediately moved to Durango, CO. The spring pandemic shutdown caught us living van life in the desert but eventually we slunk back to town and tried to figure out what we might do next. As masks and nasal swabs and eternal Wednesdays became the new normal we gradually came to the decision that riding bikes was still okay and we were not risking our lives or putting others at risk while bikepacking. At least the risk seemed less than living in a town and socially distancing is pretty easy on the route. So we decided to try to ride the next 700 mile section of the GDMBR from Colter Bay, WY to Salida, CO.
The logistics of packing and getting to Jackson with our loaded bikes were complicated, but eventually Vanna was left at our end point in Salida and our rental minivan was deposited at the airport in Jackson and we were free to ride.
After seeing 9 bears from the roadside, including a grizzly mom with 4 cubs, we started up Togwotee Pass with our senses alert and bear spray ready. The day started with an expensive breakfast ($43.00!!) and ended with a slow leg burning climb up to the pass. At the top we found the source of the Wind River and contemplated the idea of the water in the tiny creek going all the way to the Atlantic.
Since 2018, Karen's Bear Avoidance Strategy has evolved toward camping in crowded spots, preferably with motorhomes and generators and bear boxes while in bear country. The most important component is bear boxes to store food and our first night out we were successful as Brooks Lake had everything we needed- including generators that ran into the night.
Saved by a Cowboy
On the afternoon of our second day of riding, we headed up a steep loose climb toward Union Pass. It was hot and we were getting dusted by a stream of ATV's. We had heard from a fisherman that there was camping near the top of the pass and that there were bear boxes as well. It was starting to feel like a WTF day, so I waved down a cowboy riding his ATV with an extremely cute dog on his lap. The dog was named Molly and the cowboy informed us that there were no bear boxes on Union Pass but that there were lots of bears who were scaring his cows. He was on his way down the road to find some of them that were fleeing from the bears. This was really good information for us and we turned around and rolled back down, thus preventing a WTF moment from getting a whole lot worse. We camped in a parking lot and stored our food inside the outhouse. Karen was ready to sleep there too if the bears showed up, but the only animals we saw were the cows who came down to escape from the bears.
In the morning we resumed our climb up Union Pass and encountered our cowboy friend once again pursuing his cattle. We were learning that an early start really helped with the WTF moments and soon enough were at 9600 feet before we descended to the pass. Union Pass is a high tableland where three different river systems begin and flow off across the continent. It is also some extremely rough and dusty road and it rolls up and down interminably before finally dropping off to the Green River. It was the weekend and the ATV's were out in force, coming by us with the sound of chainsaws. The drivers and passengers are like aliens with star wars helmets, goggles and body armor, but most of them at least give us a wave along with dust cloud. As the day wore on we finally reached the descent and plunged down three thousand feet on an even rougher road. We stopped at the first water source to fill up and possibly camp and were joined by another biker. His name was Mike from Boulder and he convinced us to roll on down to an actual Forest Service campsite. I jumped in the creek to cool off and Mike headed down to get us all a site. It was a great little spot by the water and we spent the night lulled to sleep by the cool sounds of the river. The next day we finally finished with the rough roads and glided into Pinedale in time for lunch and beer with Mike. Pinedale marks the end of the bear country and we celebrated by taking a rest day.