Bears, Bikes and Beers.

Words by Reese Ruland

Photos by Ian Hylands

Mark Currie rides the Niner RIP 9 RDO on the Colorado Trail near Breckenridge, Colorado.

Photoshoots have never been my cup of tea. It’s a whole lot of out of the saddle sprinting, back and forth, on the same sections of trail, over and over and over again. You move a lot without really going anywhere. They always take place when the sunlight is ideal, which usually means before the rest of the world is awake or when everyone else is sitting down for dinner.  All that being said, I’d like to think that a RIP 9 RDO photoshoot is far more fun than other shoots. Largely due to the fact that they take place on remote trails and who doesn’t love that?

I was actually looking forward to this shoot because the location, Breckenridge, was one of my favorite places and I’d get to spend time with  Mark Currie and Ian Hylands. After moving away from Colorado, I hadn’t seen Mark in several years and was looking forward to catching up. Although I work with Ian at Niner, I hadn’t spent quality, fun time with him outside of the office in a long while. In a time where it’s easy to lose touch with friends because of work or because you only vaguely interact with people on social media, I cherish the moments I get to spend with people I care about. There’s also something special about seeing someone in their element, whether that’s behind the lens of a camera or navigating a technical trail.

I, however, was out of my element. While I do thrive in far away distant trails, I’m much better suited to moving through them on two feet as opposed to two wheels. From the very beginning, this shoot had problems. The plan and location of the photo shoot kept changing due to the fickle weather of Colorado, but the thing that remained constant was, I was going to run to the spot we were shooting. Which would have been ok, had we stayed with the original plan of hiking to the top of a mountain. It would have taken me twice as long to get to the top had I been on a bike and at least four times as long to get down, since that’s the part that scares me the most. But plans changed and we ended up choosing a spot on the Colorado Trail in the trees.

To get to this location, we drove down Tiger Road which quickly turned to dirt, then to loose, rocky, sandy, dirt. We chose to park about a mile and a half down the road from the actual trailhead since we weren’t sure the cars would make it any further. It quickly became apparent that I should have brought a bike for this section, as I’m more than capable of riding groads, but since we weren’t far from the trail, I told Mark and Ian I’d start before them and once they caught me we could all kind of just stick together.

I started up the road, doing a weird shuffle run of sorts. I was borrowing an ill-fitting Camelbak from Mark, who’s a good foot taller than I am, which made running awkward. It was too big for me and was filled with photoshoot essentials: beers and snacks. So it kept swinging around on my back, like an out of beat metronome, throwing off any sort of rhythm I was trying to maintain. The guys caught up with me pretty quickly and I nabbed a video of them pedaling by. After that, I tucked my phone away and started up after them. I tried to keep up, but every time there was a little dip in the road, they would get a little further away. As we continued towards the trail, I overheated and stopped to take off the hoodie I was foolishly wearing. This left us about five car lengths away from each other. I didn’t need to be right behind them or even see them since I assumed trailhead would be obvious and we’d all just meet there to regroup.

And then, unannounced and almost unassumingly, the biggest black bear I’ve ever seen in my life lumbers into the middle of the road. He was easily five times my size. Having been an avid ultramarathon trail runner for over 10 years now, I’ve seen some shit, but this stopped me dead in my tracks. My heart, even my lungs, sunk to my feet. The bear, with more ease and speed than anticipated, climbed up the embankment of the road and into the woods. But he didn’t go far. His eyes quickly met mine as I was still standing in the middle of the road, just 30 feet from him. He began walking towards me. At this point I did what I’ve done every other time I’ve seen a black bear, I made a lot of noise. I screamed at the top of my lungs for Mark and Ian, but they were too far up the road at this point. I clapped my hands and shouted, but coming in at 5’3″ I’m not the most robust creature and the bear picked up on that. It’s well known that you don’t run from a black bear so as he walked towards me, I began to slowly walk backward down the road, trying to come up with a game plan.

Now, it should be noted that just two days before this run in, I was listening to a podcast about hiking the High Sierra Route. The man being interviewed said that black bears are common along the trail and while they scare easily and are usually not aggressive towards people if they do attack they just tear you to bits. A grizzly, while more aggressive, is more likely to leave you alone if you play dead. (Though they have cruel intentions to come back later for you…) So all of this was running through my head as I tried to walk away from the bear.

Mark and Ian, ready to send.

As I backed down the road, I kept my eyes fixed to him. By some good fortune, the road curved just enough that I was out of sight for a few moments. I had weighed my options and if it came down to a fight, the bear would win. He would win at a foot race as well, but I figured it was my only choice. So it was then, during this brief lapse in eyesight, that I decided to high tail it down the road back to the car.

For 400 meters, I ran as fast as I could down that dumb, rocky and rutted out dirt road. The pack swinging all over the place, the beer cans digging into my spine. With my hoodie balled up between my right hand and elbow, I felt like the 3rd string running back trying to outrun the all-star defensive tackle. The odds were stacked against me. Eventually, I came to a stop when I didn’t see any sign of a huge bear barreling down the road. My plan was to wait there for a few minutes and then head back up the road. I assumed the bear would lose interest, wander back into the woods and I could meet up with the guys and knock this photo shoot out of the way.

A few minutes passed and I saw movement up the road. I ducked down and squinted through the trees to try to make out if it was friend or foe. Sure enough, that son-of-a-bitch had returned. He was still making his way down. He didn’t seem to have much urgency at the moment nor could he see me, so I again took off toward the car. This time I wasn’t going to stop until I got there.

I was shockingly clear-headed as I ran towards the car. I kept thinking that if this were a mountain lion, I’d be dead by now. I also was acutely aware that I was currently playing the role of damsel in distress in a horror film. I was running and looking back every ten seconds. Had someone been watching this scene on TV, they’d have slammed their palm to their forehead, yelling at me to stop looking back because “You’re gonna trip.” And that’s when the bear strikes.

Once I reached the car I threw the pack off and scurried across a narrow log that spanned a small stream. I felt safer over there, for no particular reason. My presence didn’t go unnoticed because I immediately heard a dog barking nearby. I followed the sound, knowing that I’d likely run into people, which to me meant safety. I was quickly proven wrong. I walked into a campsite, or rather someones makeshift home, and found two weathered souls starring blankly at me. It was fairly obvious that they hadn’t seen or spoken to anyone other than each other in a very, very long time. I informed them that a huge black bear was following me down the road and they might want to put their dog away. They made no attempt to respond or to acknowledge me, so I quickly walked back to the bank of the stream and waited for the bear or Ian and Mark to arrive.

Before we embarked on this journey, the three of us didn’t make a bear contingency plan.  I wasn’t sure what would end up happening. Maybe Mark and Ian would assume I got tired and went back to the car. But they both knew better than that. It’s been well documented that I don’t get tired. So while I was waiting at the car, the guys were having a small freakout themselves.

As they tell it, they waited at the trailhead for a few minutes before both of them got suspicious that something was wrong. They started cruising back down the road and stopped at the pullout where I took the video of them earlier. Having not seen me in about three-quarters of a mile, both of them were in a slight panic. Mark was screaming for me into a huge open field when out of the corner of his eye, he noticed something. The bear. He walked right between Mark and Ian, who were only about 20 feet apart from each other. They both assessed the situation: Our friend is gone and there is a massive bear, about five times her size, in front of us where we last saw her. This is not good.

Amazingly they scared the bear off the road and into the woods, but it proceeded to follow them as they rode back to the car, where they saw me drawing lines in the dirt with my foot. We were all relieved to see a friendly face and quickly shared our version of the bear experience. But we were there to get a job done and we need to head back up the road, back up to the trailhead a mile and a half away. So we were just leaving the car when the damn bear showed up again. What a relentless bastard. He barrelled down the road and we all threw up our hands and bikes in an effort to scare him. He plunged into a deep pool of the stream and bolted into the campsite that I had visited earlier. Within moments, we heard barking, shouting and pots being banged together.

Naturally, Ian got out his camera and began taking photos. A bear that isn’t afraid of humans is a bad thing for both parties, the three of us felt safer now that we were together. Now it was just a matter of capturing a picture of him, as proof that it really happened. It’s strange how the company of others can drastically shape your experience of a situation. Just fifteen minutes before, as I ran down the road, I was trying to figure out how not to die. But now, with Ian and Mark, we were just trying to figure out how to get a photo. The bear hadn’t gotten any smaller or weaker, nor had we gotten stronger or faster.

The bear charged one last time at the campsite before making his way back into the woods for good. At which point, Mark and I huddle around the small screen of Ian’s camera to get a glimpse at the images. Once our excitement and adrenaline had returned to baseline, we made our way back up the road to the trail, together of course. Mark was a true champ, riding back and forth on the trail, with zero complaints, even as dinner time sailed by and the sun sank low in the sky. It was awesome to watch both him and Ian doing what they loved. In fact, Mark might have inspired me to finally learn to mountain bike. Or maybe it was the bear incident. Likely a bit of both. And while we didn’t exactly get the photos we went there seeking, we did our best considering the circumstances.

This will likely be the wildest work trip and photoshoot I’ll ever be a part of. I’ll not soon underestimate the power and reassurance of company in trying times, nor will I forget that while seeing people in their element is fun and inspiring, sometimes seeing wildlife in theirs is daunting and has a way of putting you in your place.

 

Mood.
Ian Hylands
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