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Bikers battle grizzly bear
Rider fends off repeated charges with bike before friend fires pepper spray in nick of time.
By Angus M. Thuermer Jr.
A mountain biker on Togwotee Pass fought off repeated charges by a grizzly bear Sunday until a companion drove the animal off with pepper spray.
Kirk Speckhals escaped his encounter with the grizzly without a scratch; he had only four dirt marks from the bear's claws on his forearm, a punctured bicycle tire and bent rim. He said he hopes others learn from the mistakes he made during his ride around Pinnacle Buttes and past Kissinger Lakes including not making enough noise to warn bears, not riding together and not carrying pepper spray.
Speckhals, 46, and companion Tom Foley, said the grizzly they battled was persistent and backed off only when there was about a second's worth of spray left in the can of deterrent. Speckhals gave credit to Foley, who carried his can of spray on his hip, for rushing into the fray and saving his life.
"I was on the ground with the bear on top of me," Speckhals said. "I was waiting for a bone-crunching bite. I was ready to die."
Speckhals and Foley said their day started out innocently enough when they left for the loop ride with Mark "Big Wally" Wolling near Brooks Lake. The route traverses a couple of passes on the Shoshone National Forest at approximately 9,500 feet. The area is close to the the Teton and Washakie wilderness areas, is known grizzly country and is considered part of the species' core habitat in the Yellowstone ecosystem.
Speckhals, a ski patroller and quality controller with Evans Construction, said he had ridden the loop several times before but has never carried bear spray. Before taking off, Foley offered his extra can of bear spray. Wolling took it, figuring if anybody got in trouble, it was more likely to be him since he was bringing along his dog, Sir Charles Winston VI.
The day was idyllic, both Foley and Speckhals said, and the ride over the first pass to Kissinger Lakes fulfilling. Speckhals said he had been ringing his bicycle bell at regular intervals to warn bears of his approach and not surprise them. As he climbed to the second pass of the trip, he pulled away from his companions and stopped making his regular warning.
Speckhals said he crested a rise and heard a noise he knew meant trouble.
"In the woods, 300 feet away, he was in full charge, coming right at me," he said. No question the bear was a grizzly, Speckhals said.
The mountain biker figured he'd start out on his feet, confront the bear, defend himself with his bike rather than play dead.
"I got off my bike and put it in front of me and started yelling 'Bear! Bear!'" Speckhals said.
Foley, some distance back, heard the cries but could not yet see the confrontation. Wolling was farther behind.
"All of a sudden I heard 'Bear! BEAAAR!!'" Foley said. "Whoa, God, I better get up there," he said he thought.
Foley rode toward the fight.
"His voice was getting more terrified," Foley said. There were grunts. "He sounded like he was fighting something. His screams were dramatic and scary."
Foley said he came to the obvious realization "Oh my God, he's wrestling with a bear."
Meanwhile, Speckhals was battling.
"I lunged my bike out at him and yelled and he stopped," Speckhals said. That wasn't good enough. "The bear seemed like he wanted to meet someone up close."
The bear moved in again. He charged "six or seven times," Speckhals said, each time deterred at the last moment by the bicycle.
An ominous calm
"Finally, he grabbed my bike out of my hands," Speckhals said. "He started stomping on it."
The bear used both front paws to bounce up and down on the bicycle wheel. "It bent my wheel and burst my tire," he said.
With the bear distracted, Speckhals said he decided to make a move.
"I started kind of creeping away," he said. The grizzly wasn't after just a mountain bike.
"The bear immediately left my bike alone," Speckhals said. The bear "put its front paws on me."
In a Greco-Roman wrestling stance, Speckhals said he sensed he was going down.
"This time he just took me out drug me to the ground," Speckhals said. "I knew I was in trouble. I rotated and got on my chest."
Foley, cycling madly, was worried because an ominous calm had settled over Basin Creek Meadows.
"All of a sudden he got quiet," he said of his companion.
Foley arrived on the scene to see a bear sitting atop his friend.
"Immediately, I knew I had to get over there, see what I could do," he said. "There was no fear."
With pepper spray drawn, he advanced to within 15 feet and fired.
"The bear walked off Sparky," he said, using his friend's nickname. The griz wasn't heading away, though, and turned and began circling Foley who was still spraying in the animal's face.
"That's when I got scared," Foley said. "His eyes were that freaking big," Foley said Monday, creating circles larger than silver dollars with his index fingers and thumbs as he told the story. "They were full of bear spray not a blink."
Now Foley was in the crosshairs. The bear continued to circle as he backed up, yelling for Wolling.
Foley's can of spray was running low; "I knew I was almost out," he said.
By now Wolling had made it to the site, along with the dog, and fumbled with his pack trying to find the second can of spray.
"I thought I was going to see a bloody mess of Speckhals around the corner," Wolling said. Instead he saw a standing bear and a retreating Foley.
Into the fray went Sir Charles Winston VI, who rushed up, barked twice, then retreated down the trail at about 30 mph, "as fast as his little legs could move him," Wolling said.
With perhaps a second's worth of spray left, Foley tried a new tactic. He yelled at the bear at the top of his lungs. He said Monday his vocal chords still hurt from the shout.
Something clicked in the bear.
"I could tell his eyes changed," Foley said. "I knew it was over. All of a sudden he took off."
Foley was so certain the conflict was over that he turned his back on the bear to check out his friend.
"I couldn't believe it," he said of Speckhals' condition. "There was nothing four dirt marks."
Foley remains astounded at the intense glare of the grizzly: "You could tell he's thinking. He was giving it thought. There was huge intelligence."
Speckhals said he didn't see cubs and doesn't know whether the bear was male or female. The group wonders whether the bear spray, about five years old, might have lost some of its punch. It stung their eyes nevertheless.
Vendors at Teton Mountaineering say their brand of spray has a three-year shelf life and has expiration dates printed on each can.
All the cyclists took home lessons they are eager to share. Not making enough noise and not having bear spray were two mistakes, they said. Being in a tighter group might have made a difference. They also wonder whether the speed and motion of a rider on a bicycle attracted a bear possibly looking for a meal.
Wolling knows the group was in prime grizzly country. "We were right in the middle of the whitebark pine forest when it happened," he said. "Typical grizzly habitat."
Both Speckhals and Wolling said they're likely headed to a store to buy their own cans of bear spray. They recommended larger cans, like the one Foley had, rather than small varieties a couple of inches tall that appear more useful against a human attacker.
"You want the big can," Speckhals said.
"The one can was basically not enough," even the larger size, Wolling added.
Wolling said he remains astounded at the experience.
"Tom definitely saved his life," Wolling said. "The bear had him down and was ready to chomp on him. If [Tom] hadn't gotten there in the millisecond that he did, Sparky would have been toast."
Speckhals was able to patch his flat and straighten out his wheel enough to ride the bike the few miles to the end of the loop, albeit without one set of brakes. He said has no bad feelings toward the bruin.
"I was in his world," he said. "I don't want anyone to go remove it or kill it. I have no ill feelings toward the bear."
Wolling said the trip will remain memorable: "That was a little more excitement than we had in mind."