High in a remote corner of the Swan Valley we roll around a bend in the trail—11-year-old Silas, 7-year-old Jonah, and me on one colossal mountain bike we call the Teasdale Train—when suddenly it's there, not more than 30 feet away: a grizzly bear on its hind legs. I grab the brake levers of our rolling 200-pound behemoth and, in a motion practiced countless times, whip bear spray out of my pack's side pocket the instant my feet hit the ground. As the boys would later revel in telling friends and family members, "Then dad said the 'S' word!"
The bear, it turns out, is tiny—which is even scarier than being huge. As the kids stare wide-eyed at the bruin, I twist my neck from side to side and scan the greenery for sound or movement. There is only one electric thought in my mind: Where's mom?
A few moments later my wife, Jacqueline—not the mama I'm worried about—rolls up on a single bike behind us. I whisper-yell back to her, "Get your bear spray out!" and point at the cub as it scampers into the forest. Then we wait in silent anticipation of a wrathful grizzly sow lunging at us from the foliage.
This isn't the first time I've doubted the sanity of this trip, my grand scheme to immerse the family—or sink it—in a summer-long bicycle odyssey through the Rocky Mountain wilds. It's either going to be the biggest adventure of our lives, or my biggest failure as a father. Now that a bear attack seems imminent I'm afraid I know the answer. As Jacqueline put it a few days earlier, "What the hell have you gotten us into?"
It all started last winter in Missoula, when I took stock of our lives and concluded I worked too much and none of us got outside enough. We'd moved here a dozen years ago to live in Big Sky country, not Big Computer Monitor country. It sounds obvious, but it hit me like a charging bear: This, right now, is our one shot at life. If we didn't break out of the suffocatingly civilized comfort zone, I knew it would haunt me forever.
So I quit my stable job as a desk-hugging magazine editor, became a freelance outdoor writer-photographer, and began plotting how to break us out. The problem was, while I longed to be Jeremiah Johnson, I'm from the wilds of inner city Minneapolis. I know hip-hop, not hunting. But there's something else I know: bicycle travel. For the past decade I'd been melding backpacking and mountain biking into backcountry "bikepacking." The family had also recently acquired a hand-me-down tandem mountain bike, which we rigged with a trailer-bike to create a three-person, 12-foot-long mega-cycle—the Teasdale Train.
The solution to my malaise was clear: take the family bikepacking for the summer. Or at least it seemed clear to an adventure-loving, 38-year-old father in the throes of an early-onset midlife crisis. So I charted a six-week ride from Glacier National Park to Banff, Alberta, along the northernmost section of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route (GDMBR), a 2,700-mile track created by the Missoula-based Adventure Cycling Association.
Just to make sure this was actually, you know, physically possible, I decided we should all take a five-day test ride along a rugged stretch of the route from Seeley Lake to Holland Lake in the Swan Valley. The GDMBR, which climbs mountain passes through some of the most remote country in Montana and British Columbia, is typically ridden by young bucks on mountain bikes. Suffice it to say, no one had ever tried it with two kids on a bike like the Teasdale Train.
"We're off!" I cry triumphantly on the first day of July as our tires launch across the gravel of the Morrell Clearwater Road into the Swan Valley. Everything our family needs to survive for five days is stuffed in a small trailer rolling behind Jacqueline's bike.
"Woohoo!" Silas says from the seat behind me.
"Finally," Jonah says from the seat behind Silas. "I feel like I've been waiting for days."
Which, of course, he has. Our success hinges on being well fed and prepared for any peril, but with the lightest and least amount of gear possible. For days, our lives have been a frenzy of packing, shopping, researching gear, adjusting bicycle brakes, tabulating caloric needs, and putting chain lube, liquid soap, and electrolyte fluid into tiny dropper bottles. I'm now convinced the complexities of preparing for an extended wilderness bike trip with kids are rivaled only by quantum string theory and nation-building in the Middle East.
We've ridden four miles when things start falling apart.
"I'm tired," Jonah whines. When a hill forces us to push the bikes, he sits down rebelliously in the dirt.
This is where I would start pulling my hair out if I wasn't wearing a helmet.
There are three more miles of dirt road and three miles of trail between us and where I've planned to camp. Fortunately, I'm prepared for this very predicament with a secret weapon: a yummy orange electrolyte drink. With caffeine.
"Now guys," I say, handing it over, "this is a special energy drink."
Suddenly, Jonah, all seven years and 50 pounds of him, tilts the bottle back and chugs it like he's just been rescued from the Sahara.
"Mmmm, this is good!" he blurts. "I could drink this whole bottle!"
Half the drink is gone before I manage to wrestle it back from him. Meanwhile, Silas is off banging rocks together trying to make arrowheads.
"Silas, let's go, you can do that at camp," Jacqueline says. After being told it's time to go approximately 3,000 more times, Silas puts the rock in his handlebar bag.
"Nooo," I say. "I did not just spend weeks trimming our gear weight so you could carry rocks."
"But Mom said we could do it at camp!" Silas cries desperately.
I look at the pleading in his eyes and sigh. I really want the trip to be fun for the boys.
"I snapped the handles off our toothbrushes to save a few ounces, and now you want to carry rocks," I tell him as I give in.
Jumping back on the bikes, we crank our way to the Morrell Lake trailhead, aided greatly by the fact that Jonah has been transformed into a pint-sized, pedal-pumping lightning bolt on the third seat. I'd expected to walk much of the root- and rock-infested trail, but to my amazement we power up most of it. Jacqueline, who is not a mountain biker, struggles with her loaded trailer and Silas frequently runs back to help her push up the steep sections.
There are high fives all around when we reach Morrell Lake, where the roar of nearby Morrell Falls carries from the forest. The boys skip rocks into the water and gather firewood while Jacqueline and I set up camp. Our legs may be tired and our pace may have been glacial, but our first day was a success. As we eat dinner around the campfire—sandpipers whistling, beavers swimming, late-day sunlight gilding the cliff bands above the lake—I smile victoriously and think, "Welcome to the next six weeks."
We wake to rain the next morning. My legs feel like they weigh 100 pounds each. A screw and lens fall out of Silas's eyeglasses on the walk to Morrell Falls. Suddenly the thought of civilization doesn't seem that suffocating.
After spending an hour MacGyvering Silas's glasses back together with baling wire and super glue, we ride back on the same root-lined trail (to the amazement of a few hikers) and turn north up Morrell Clearwater Road toward the little-traveled head of the valley. At an old, grass-covered logging road, we turn off and make camp in a small clearing.
"This is nice, isn't it," I say to Jacqueline. "Just being out in the woods right now instead of at home."
My wife pauses to look around at the trees for a moment, and smiles.
"Yeah, this is better," she says.
The ride in and out of Morrell Lake has proven something important—the Teasdale Train can go off-road. We've passed the first test. The next one starts tomorrow: a 2,000-foot, 8-mile climb to a saddle beneath the Swan Crest, the magnificent mountain wall that forms the high spine of the Swan Range. If we can muscle up it and safely navigate down the other side, I figure we have a fighting chance of reaching Banff. If we can't, then I've just quit my job and spent the last two months planning a fool's quest.
More rain drums our tent the next morning. We consider taking a camp day and waiting out the weather, but we only have food for two more nights. Staying here would leave us with a herculean push over the saddle and down to our van at Holland Lake. When we see fleeting patches of blue sky at midday, we say to heck with it, we're rolling.
But pretty soon we're trudging. There's just no way I can pedal the leviathan up these steep hills, or even the not-so-steep hills, without rupturing every muscle in my legs. Jacqueline, who's pulling the trailer with growing finesse, slogs with us up the dirt road. The tree-carpeted valley slowly drops away and the serrated ridge of the Swan Front carves the sky to our east.
"See waaaay up there guys? That's our road!" I say. "And see even farther and higher? That's where we're going!"
"Whoa," the boys say in unison, clearly awed by the scale of the landscape. Even Jacqueline's eyes widen. It occurs to me that pointing out how dauntingly far we have to climb might not be the best motivational strategy, but fortunately it's soon forgotten as the boys become enthralled by the sight of Morrell Falls, a white slash below. We may be moving slowly, but seeing the falls beneath us shows we're really getting somewhere. Even if that somewhere is deeper into nowhere.
To my surprise and delight, the kids issue no complaints. They've realized that we're on our own out here: There are no warmer-dryer-more-comfortable places to go. We'll be moving across this mountain until we reach water and a spot to pitch the tent.
Silas says the sharp summits of the Swan look like giant's teeth. We all sing made-up songs about, what else, pushing bikes up mountains. And after a couple of hours, the road narrows into a trail. Almost immediately there is a spectacularly large pile of wolf scat. I crouch down to show it to the boys.
"From here on things get wilder," I say with relish.
A mile or so later we come to a brook amid old-growth larch trees. There's just enough of a clearing for a tent and campfire.
"What do you think?" I ask.
"Great!" the boys say in unison, and they start running around gathering wood before I can even lay the bike down.
The next morning, Silas and I step out of the tent to find another pile of wolf scat.
"We're way up in the mountains now!" he says, looking at the peaks beyond camp. I proudly announce that the top of our climb is only three miles away.
Determined to make it there before another deluge, we push and sometimes ride up the narrow trail, hoisting the bikes over massive fallen trees, the mountain falling steeply away below us. By early afternoon we reach a saddle at the toes of the Swan Crest, with mountains upon mountains stacked to the horizon.
"Is this the top?" Silas asks.
Yes, I tell him, happily flopping down in the bear grass.
"Yay! Jonah, Mom," Silas yells, hopping up and down, "this is the top, this is the top!"
Our jubilance is short-lived, however, as black clouds surge towards us. We'd planned to make the long descent to Clearwater Lake and set up camp that afternoon, but now the only question is do we pitch the tent right here, or see how far we can get before the storm hits?
"This doesn't look good," Jacqueline says.
"We're going to get walloped, aren't we Dad?" Silas says.
"We're getting ourselves to lower ground is what we're doing," I say, while grabbing our rain gear from a pannier.
"What's getting walloped mean?" Jonah says.
Minutes after we ride off, the trail falls off the mountainside. Only about two feet of tread hangs onto the slope. Beyond that is a 100-foot drop.
"There's no way I'm riding that!" Silas exclaims.
We'll be fine, I promise. "We haven't fallen yet and we're not going to start here."
I squat down, put my hands on his shoulders, and say, "Silas, when you're riding a bike in the mountains you can't focus on what you don't want to happen. You have to look ahead at where you want to go, and if you focus your whole mind on it, you'll go there."
I smile. He grimaces. But he gets on the bike, along with Jonah, and we ride the trail, no problem, while Jacqueline—who walks it—nervously snaps pictures.
"That wasn't so bad, right?" I say when we stop for a rest. I'm hoping I've instantaneously become more cool and more trustworthy in Silas's eyes.
And that's when we run into the bear.
We stare into the eyes of the grizzly cub. I drop the S-bomb, the bear runs into the forest, and after an adrenalized pause the four of us start calling out "No bear, no bear!" in a full-throated wilderness chorus.
"We come in peace!" Jacqueline adds, reassuringly.
When no maternally deranged griz appears, we slowly try walking forward. The kids, strategically placed between our bicycles, sing, "Bears, bears, go away, come on back another day."
Unfortunately, their song has no effect on the rain, which begins pelting us when we start riding through the woods. When I see an old logging track leading to a clearing 15 minutes later, we call it a day.
With the boys' help, I miraculously manage to set the tent up without it blowing away like a kite. A few minutes later, while Jacqueline and I cook in the meager shelter of stunted, 5-foot fir trees, exhausted from the day's effort, she says Jonah told her the trip was harder than he thought it would be.
"I think he expected more downhills," she says.
"There are three big climbs like this one between us and Banff," I tell her. "And I needed to see if this whole plan was completely insane or not."
"Well, what's the verdict?"
We're cooking in a storm; the tent, with our children inside, is clinging to a mountainside; and we've just seen a grizzly bear.
Before I can answer, Jacqueline turns back to the camp stove. "We're insane," she says.
The wind and rain blast our tent that night, and I get nervous at the sound of thunder. We're not exactly sheltered and we're all lying around a 6-foot metal pole. I step out of the tent to check the sky—pocket showers, but no lightning. To the northwest, between the midnight-blue mountains and gray-blue clouds, there's a glimpse of a distant sunset where a jagged blaze of orange cracks the sky.
"Whoa, guys, you have to come out and see this," I call out.
Moments later, while the boys and I stand side by side by side, peeing over the avalanche chutes and marveling at the sweep of our perch, I notice something flashing far below. That wasn't thunder I was hearing.
"Fireworks!" I shout.
Jonah jumps up and down, and Silas says, "It's like our own fireworks show!"
I'd almost forgotten it was the Fourth of July.
Our brakes shriek as I steer the plummeting Teasdale Train down the switch-backing ribbon of dirt toward Holland Lake the next morning. Everything is splattered with mud; wet grit coats our wheels and I'm afraid the brake pads are disintegrating by the second. A long, steep descent down a muddy road is something I'd worried about—our rig puts tremendous weight and force on decade-old brakes. I don't want to think about what would happen if they fail.
But they don't fail, and as the kids excitedly point to snow patches and waterfalls in the avalanche chutes, I realize I've worried about too many things on this trip—our brakes, the lightning, the kids' enthusiasm, my tired legs, making it over the pass—but here we are, in terrible conditions, pulling it off.
I look over at Jacqueline, whose burgeoning bike confidence and all-weather cooking skills have transformed her into a superhero mom, and she smiles the kind of smile I married her for. Silas sings nonsensical songs. Jonah, finally getting his downhill, laughs maniacally.
What I told Silas about riding bicycles in the mountains has greater truth than I'd recognized—focus on your goals, not your fears. Put all of your effort into where you want to go, and you'll get there.
I have mud on my teeth, my forearms strain to steer our mammoth bike, and we're still miles from our van, but a feeling of well-being washes over me. We're actually going to do this.
As we descend into the belly of the Swan Valley, I look back for a moment and say, "Goodbye mountains!"
"Goodbye mountains. Goodbye!" the kids cry together. Then they wave at the peaks rising higher and higher as gravity pulls us onward into the adventure of our lives.
The Teasdale Train rolled into Banff seven weeks after the ride in the Swan Valley. Silas wanted to keep riding to Alaska. Jonah was ready to go home. Jacqueline vowed to never eat a freeze-dried meal again. Aaron is convinced it's the best thing they've ever done.