Our first encounter with a brown bear

Disclaimer: the featured image is not from our encounter; read on for why we weren’t capable of getting a photo!

I have long been aware of the existence of bears, wolves and wild boar in much of central Europe, so I was pretty excited when we struck off the touristy coastal roads in search of rural adventure. Here, in the quiet, windy roads of Croatia we would certainly get our first taste of unfettered wilderness – at least compared to the tame countryside we were familiar with in England.

With such high expectations, I was bound to be disappointed. Animals don’t just run out on to the road to greet cycle tourists; they’ve learned to avoid humans at all costs. Our most exciting interaction with an animal had been with a snake crossing the road in Croatia, but the snake was completely out of its element on a tarmacked road and looked almost helpless as we waited patiently for it to cross the road.

After crossing the border from Croatia, a glimmer of hope came about when we spotted the sign: “Slovenia: Land of the forests”. Ancient-looking trees towered above us on both sides and definitely seemed capable of hiding the kind of wildlife we had been hoping to glimpse. However, as in Croatia, the animals were elusive and I soon felt silly gazing deep into the forests in the hope of spotting a large creature.

Then, this morning, the unthinkable happened. We had a close encounter with three bears, one of which was a fully-grown mother bear. It happened like this: an hour into the day we were preparing ourselves for a big climb out of a river valley into the hills when, only 80 metres away, I spotted a small animal ‘bucking’ across the road ahead. It didn’t look like a dog; dogs don’t rock at the hips like this animal did, and with immediate clarity we recognised it as a bear. A small bear, maybe only a few months old, it stopped halfway across the road, reared up on its hind legs and made a sound which was inaudible from our distance. By this time Katie and I were frozen in place, astonished at what we were seeing. It resumed crossing the road and disappeared into the bushes on the side of the road. We looked at each other, beamed massive smiles and a thought crossed my mind: “what is a baby bear doing moving about on its own?” The answer immediately came when a large bear burst out of the bush and crossed the road without even glancing in our direction. Its two cubs followed afterwards and the three disappeared for good.

We took some time to reflect on our good fortune: firstly, that we were a safe distance away and were not perceived as a threat by the mother bear, and secondly that we had just seen not one, but three wild brown bears in the first month of our tour. We didn’t get a picture of the bears; we were both too shocked for that thought to cross our mind, I was also busy wondering how quickly I could make a U-turn and a hasty exit.

It reminded us that we should always be ready to deal with the unexpected; we humans, with our roads and towns, are constantly trespassing on territory which once didn’t belong to us. Respect and care is always to be exercised. On our trip, we will undoubtedly find ourselves in locations more wild than central Europe and a plan for dealing with extreme situations would be prudent. If we had been any closer to the bears, we could have been perceived as a threat and what on earth could we have done against that? I’m a city-kid and often hopelessly out of my depths when it comes to solving problems in nature, but that’s partly what this trip is about; hopefully by the time we reach Alaska we’ll have more knowledge and experience to help us deal with the next bear encounter.