“The hard life that never knows harness;
The wilds where the caribou call;
The freshness, the freedom, the farness--
Oh God! How I'm stuck on it all."
Ramshackled buildings with wooden boardwalks lined the streets as we pedaled into Dawson City, Yukon on a hot day in July. Stooped shouldered, craggy-faced prospectors shuffled along in the dirt without giving us a nod. Bowie knives hung from their belts and they gripped rifles in their hands as easily as a Chicago businessman carries a briefcase. Their faces reflected the rough life that hadn't changed since the days of Jack London.
Ever an optimist, but I didn't know how anyone could live in that place where the winter winds bit like driven nails.
My brother Rex purchased a gold pan and caught up with me at the Klondike Grocery Store. I crammed apples into my panniers.
"Ready to camp?" Rex asked. "I'm itchin' to hit the stream for some gold panning."
"The storekeeper said we could find a place a mile from here on a tributary of the Yukon,” I said.
"This buckeroo is gonna’ make the big strike," Rex said, joking.
We pedaled our fully loaded mountain bikes out of town to an abandoned path overgrown with bushes. The rutted trail led through deep woods and several times, we got off the bikes to hoist them over fallen trees. We followed the path down a ravine until it stopped at a wide, shallow stream. A sandbar stood in the middle of the slowly gliding current. It was one of those places where tranquillity kept a vigil and only the whisper of the wind broke the silence.
"This is the perfect place to start the next Klondike gold rush," Rex said, slapping his pan. "You want first chance?"
"Go ahead," I said. "I'll set up the tents."
Rex took off his shoes and waded into the water. I pulled the panniers from our bikes, pitched the tents and had camp set up in 30 minutes. After starting a fire with deadwood, I boiled some water for tea.
With a steaming cup in one hand, I grabbed my journal and walked down to the river's edge. Sitting against a rock with my socks off, I wasn't paying much attention to my gold panning brother. Overhead, white clouds skidded across the sky and a cool wind whispered through the pine trees. This was a serene place--the dark soil, the rocks, and a pine-scented forest--and beyond, a river that crawled between sandy banks like escaped quicksilver.
"You rich yet?" I yelled at Rex as he dumped another pan-full of muddy water.
"Any minute now," he said, standing up to rub his back. "This gold panning is hard on my back."
Rex continued his task while I wrote a few lines in my journal. That journal had been a part of my bicycling travels for 20 years, but every time I began writing, I still wondered what to write. That shatteringly beautiful waterfall we had seen last night, turned to molten gold by the sun? The slow dark glide of that bald eagle on his dinner patrol? The salmon lashing upstream toward birth and death?
So absorbed was I in my thoughts, I only partially heard the harsh crackling of nearby brush and breaking limbs. But what happened next brought me leaping to my feet and turned my blood to ice. The journal fell from my hands.
Terrifying roars and bellows filled the air, and sounds of snapping limbs echoed across the river. Whatever it was, it was BIG--and the battle was being joined.
"What the hell was that?" Rex shouted, dropping his pan and scrambling out of the water.
"I'm not sure," I said, as he stopped beside me, breathing hard.
"I don't think we should wait around," Rex said--and at that moment a bull moose stumbled into view, head erect and blood blackening on his torn shoulder. He lowered his rack, as an enormous grizzly rushed at him and swatted the antlers aside. The grizzly charged with his thick neck lowered and extended, and his jaws opened wide as he lunged for the moose's throat. Somehow, the moose avoided the grizzly's teeth, and dug in his haunches so that the muscles in his legs were cable-tight. He countered with a lunge at the bear's chest. Horn ripped through his brown hide, hit bone--and the grizzly roared, but the killing lust was on him.
In he charged again, half-rearing on his hind legs, both paws swatting at the moose like a boxer, staggering the animal. The moose bellowed, gave ground, came back again--and suddenly both animals reared, hooves to fangs, one desperate to live, the other intent on killing.
"Let's get out of here," I whispered. "Leave the gear. We'll get it later. This is not time to worry about the small stuff."
Rex needed no urging, and although every nerve in my body--and probably Rex's--screamed at me to run like hell, I forced myself to walk my bike into the tree line. There, back in the shadows, we watched the brutal drama unfolding on nature's stage.
The moose suffered the worst of things, yet he battled gallantly, keeping his antlered head low and catching the grizzly each time it charged. But the bear was the size of a VW Beetle, almost as heavy and as solid as the moose. He towered higher when he stood--so that he could strike downward with his razor sharp claws, ripping his prey's shoulders like a toreador lancing the forequarters of a bull to weaken it--and make it lower its head for the matador's sword thrust.
A bull moose weighs a ton and a grizzly can reach 1,500 pounds. These two seemed evenly matched in size--which meant that the bear, with his four-inch claws and two-inch teeth, had an advantage. Barring some stupid move, like allowing his jugular to be pierced by an antler, the grizzly's victory was a certainty.
From our hidden vantage-point, looking out between the limbs of trees, we saw bright rivulets of blood running down the bear's chest. The moose was now a pitiful sight, staggering with weariness, backed into the shallows where the water was turning reddish brown, and a large piece of antler was broken off by one mighty blow from the grizzly's paw. In came the bear again, roaring so fiercely it was almost a scream, and the exhausted moose bellowed back its defiance.
Now, however, the battle's balance had shifted. The bear's sharp claws ripped into the moose's ribs, laying them bare. Then the bear's teeth sank into the neck, and only by a supreme effort was the moose able to shake him off again.
I didn't want to watch any more, yet my fascinated eyes were ready for the final drama. After five minutes that seemed like hours, the bear made one last head down charge--and sent the moose sprawling into the river. The moose made a final bellow, a last exhausted attempt to rise, but it was hopeless. The grizzly had him by the throat, and the moose thrashed erratically for a minute, then died.
"Oh, my God," Rex whispered, gripping my arm.
The bear held his grip until the moose stopped quivering. Then, raising his massive anvil-shaped head, he let out a roar that shivered the forest air, and began feeding.
I felt as Rex did, as any human being would--it had been a frightening scene. Savage violence unleashed beside a beautiful stream in the wilderness. Yet no one had committed a crime. Life sustains life.
The grizzly, blood mixed with froth lathering his jaw, raised his head and looked right at us. Whether the wind had shifted or not, I was leaving.
"Come on," I whispered. "Let's get back to town, not that anyone there is going to believe what we saw."
In the morning, we rode back to find our gear still intact, but on the sandbar a partly devoured moose carcass was the only indication of the battle.
In silence, we folded the tents and packed our gear.
"I guess you're out of a gold pan," I said.
"I don't care," Rex said. "Money can't buy what we saw yesterday."
We pedaled our way out of the woods. The gravel road wound through the mountains like a lazy serpent, bending and slithering its way along the Yukon River. We pedaled our bikes up a long grade to the ‘Top Of The World Highway’. No telling what lay ahead. That's the way it's been for my bicycle and me--always the promise of a new adventure around the next bend....
Frosty Wooldridge has bicycled across six continents – from the Arctic to the South Pole – as well as six times across the USA, coast to coast and border to border. In 2005, he bicycled from the Arctic Circle, Norway to Athens, Greece. He presents “The Coming Population Crisis in America: and what you can do about it” to civic clubs, church groups, high schools and colleges. He works to bring about sensible world population balance at www.frostywooldridge.com He is the author of: America on the Brink: The Next Added 100 Million Americans. Excerpt from: Bicycling Around the World: Tire Tracks for Your Imagination. Copies 1 888 280 7715