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.