An unexpected, momentary, heart-stopping gift
By Mitch Mode
Special to the Star Journal
Come days of summer swelter I take to the bike for solace. I top two bottles with cool tap water. For the first hour the water holds chill; by the second it warms to the temperature of the day. I ride the smooth blacktop out of the city, heat rising in waves, turn south to rougher surfaced county roads, ride them and, twenty-five minutes into it take a sharp right turn onto a gravel fire lane.
When I ride the paved roads I can regard the countryside at my leisure. I see the fields with fresh cut hay; the scent perfumes the air. I pass houses; see kids at play, their voices lilting as birdsong. I dodge turtles on blacktop, swing wide of walkers, watch roofers working without mercy under the summer sun. I am as a tourist passing by.
I turn onto the gravel roads and it all changes. The old logging roads are pockmarked with potholes and corduroyed with ruts. Hit one at full bore and you feel it in your hands and your butt. Hit it at angle and risk a fall. I ride the gravel as I used to downhill ski; my eyes picking the best line, two or three turns ahead of where I am, defining a narrow path as if a ribbon laid down for me to follow.
When I ride the gravel roads in the forest of the Northwoods I am in the woods but my focus need be on the dusty gravel road ahead of me, not to the sides of the road where the forest rises as a cathedral and small creeks babble and roil. The irony of it all is that in pedaling a bicycle one gets closer to the heart of things but on gravel sees less of what there is to offer up. For sightseeing I’m better off in my truck in a slow cruise with the windows down and the radio playing.
So it goes. I ride because I’ve loved to ride from the time I was a kid and I’ve not lost that love over the decades and the miles. I ride the gravel roads with my focus intent on the best line and all the while the woods to the side blurs into a kaleidoscope of green and sunlight.
There are times when I chance a quick glance, look for a splash of ivory-white early spring trillium; when I slow near a lowland to look for the thumb-size pink of Lady Slipper; when I look for the bog that, this week, is filled with iris, their blue-violet flags over slender stalks of green.
But mostly I look ahead and pick my line and in that line define my world for the short-term. Thus it is on my gravel rides. At times, if fortunate, I will see the unexpected and take that a gift.
Last week, ahead of me on the ribbon on which I picked to ride, something that caught my eye, something that for some reason looked out of place, a darkness to the side of the trail. I looked closer, saw movement but not form. I slowed the pedals; looked again, let the formless darkness take shape.
With bears, there is drama. In the instant of seeing a bear one cannot escape the childhood story of Goldilocks, cannot shake off images of ink-black bear of nightmare emerging from dim moon light, cannot, never! ever!, shake loose of fable and rumor and dark tales of bear as evil come under its sinister cloak of black-blue fur with ivory fangs and ember-red eyes. None of it true but all of it, all the emotion, very real.
I plead guilty to that. I lived that in that instant. I fully admit that my first thought at the recognition of dark shape as black bear was the realization that all that stood between me and bear was, at best, a bicycle chosen in part for its lighter weight and that perhaps that would not be enough of a deterrent should the bear come closer.
So there was the moment of truth; I saw the bear, took it in for what it was, a fully grown adult bear: the bear saw me, took in what I was, a human and in that a threat. In that moment, that instant, as I paused the pedals and coasted toward the bear and the bear slowed its deliberate walk down the firelane toward me, in that moment all that mattered was me, the bear and the 40 yards that separated us. That was all there was in my world and his. The bike rolled; thirty yards.
I believe it was a boar. There were no cubs, no yearlings crowding it, curious and careless. There was a lone bear, a large one, in the season when bears are mating and in that I assume an adult boar on the move. That all came later, that realization, that rational recounting of the moment when bear and rider stood on the old logging road under the heat of the day and locked eyes and nothing else in their respective lives mattered.
In that moment life became still.
Then the bear turned in a sinuous and graceful pirouette and ran, long legged and fast (faster than I could ride) ran for the cover of the woods on the side of the road. The woods closed behind him.
I gave power to the pedals, rode slowly to where the gravel was turned by bear paws, looked into the woods on the side of the road. I saw the rich greenery of summer, shadows and dappled sunlight, a jigsaw puzzle of forest. I looked hard to see if the bear was there.
He was not. The woods were quiet and mysterious. It was if the bear had never been there.
I looked ahead, picked my line in the gravel and rode into the summer day.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post, downtown Rhinelander. Call 715-362-5800.