Empty Days

Monday, September 06, 2004



Cyclist attacked by Grizzly Bear.

JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) - A mountain biker on Togwotee Pass fought off a grizzly bear that repeatedly charged him until a companion drove the animal off with pepper spray. Kirk Speckhals escaped his encounter without a scratch; he had only four dirt marks from the bear's claws on his forearm, a punctured bicycle tire and a bent rim.

He said he hopes others learn from the mistakes he made during his ride around Pinnacle Buttes - 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 was persistent and backed away 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 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 the day started innocently enough when they left for the loop ride on Aug. 29 with another friend, Mark Wolling, near Brooks Lake. The route traverses a couple of passes on the Shoshone National Forest at the 9,500-foot level. The area is near the Teton and Washakie wilderness areas and core grizzly habitat in the Yellowstone ecosystem. Speckhals, a ski patroller and quality controller with a construction company, said he had ridden the loop several times before but had never carried bear spray. Before taking off, Foley offered his extra can of spray. Wolling took it, figuring if anybody got in trouble, it was more likely to be him since he was bringing along his dog. Speckhals said he had been ringing his bicycle bell at regular intervals to warn bears of his approach. 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. "I got off my bike and put it in front of me and started yelling 'Bear! Bear!''' he said. Foley, some distance back, heard the cries but could not 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 thought.

From the screams and sounds of the struggle, Foley realized Speckhals was wrestling with a bear. Said Speckhals: "I lunged my bike out at him and yelled and he stopped.'' The bear moved in again. He charged "six or seven times,'' Speckhals said, each time deterred at the last moment by the bicycle. "Finally, he grabbed my bike out of my hands,'' Speckhals said. "He started stomping on it.''

With the bear distracted, Speckhals started creeping away, but the bear immediately left the bike and put its front paws on Speckhals. In a Greco-Roman wrestling stance, Speckhals sensed he was going down. "This time he just took me out - drug me to the ground,'' he said. "I knew I was in trouble. I rotated and got on my chest.'' Foley arrived to see the bear sitting atop his friend. "Immediately, I knew I had to get over there, see what I could do,'' he said. With pepper spray drawn, he advanced to within 15 feet and fired. The bear got off his friend but turned and began circling Foley who was still spraying in the animal's face. "That's when I got scared,'' Foley said, adding that the bear's eyes were very large. "They were full of bear spray - not a blink.''

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. The dog rushed up, barked twice, then retreated down the trail "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. "I could tell his eyes changed,'' Foley said. "I knew it was over. All of a sudden he took off.''

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