Bears are a fact of life in North America wilderness. You have your black bears, almost tame compared to the Grizzly. Then there’s the Grizzly’s big brother the Brown Bear. And finally the king of the continent’s bears, the Polar Bear.
You can’t outclimb them, you can’t outswim them, and you can't outrun them. You have to learn to avoid them and discourage them from seeing you as a meal. Noise is the most common tactic to discourage Grizzly bears. Bells hanging from your backpack are the dubious noise maker of choice. According to the old joke, you know whether you are in Black Bear or Grizzly Bear country by inspecting the scat: the Grizzly Bear scat has the bells in it.
We had thought about bringing just one can of bear repellent per canoe but decided not to, because if we needed it and were at the opposite end of the boat, we were in big trouble. So we were big spenders and bought one can per person stored within easy reach under our seats.
We met some folks just returning from a two-week trip in the bush and they gave us their bangers and whistling screamers, a fireworks version of bear deterrents. They didn’t see any bears during their trip. While grizzly bears were common on the Thelon river they aren’t used to seeing humans because fewer than a hundred people paddle the river a year. That was to our advantage because they didn’t see us as their next meal.
As I stood on the dock waiting to load our gear I remembered my previous foray to northern Canada. It was on the Churchill River and we had to bring rifles to protect us from Polar Bears. While only a couple of our party even saw a Polar Bear, our rifles were always at the ready. When walking around the town of Churchill at the end of our trip we saw a couple of natives who had survived Polar Bear encounters. Survival is rare … and not a pretty sight.
I also thought about my colleague Jeff Brown and his experience in Glacier National Park in the fall of 1986. Brown, who was 25 and his friend, Patricia Duff were on a twelve-mile day hike when they heard sounds just off the trail. They talked loudly in hopes of scaring whatever it was away, but then suddenly a grizzly bear came into view. Without warning it attacked them.
Patricia ran to a nearby tree and tried climbing it. The bear grabbed her by the leg and pulled her from the tree, nearly ripping her calf off. Jeff ran to her rescue yelling and punching the bear. It then turned and attacked him. He curled into the defensive fetal position protecting his neck with hands. The bear bit down on his skull, dragged him fifty yards down the trail, and suddenly for no reason released him. The bear left and the attack was over but the damage was done.
Jeff told me. “My guess is that the bear was hungry and stalked us. I heard and felt the grinding of its teeth on my bones. I think the bear got tired of gnawing through the three wool sweaters I was wearing. Strangely, what I remember most was that the bear’s breath was horrendous.”
Grievously wounded, they waited until they were sure the bear had left and then split up to find help. They both quickly found it and Patricia was evacuated with serious loss of blood. Jeff had over sixty puncture wounds on his arms. He spent a month in the hospital, receiving numerous skin grafts and over 1,000 stitches. It took four nurses six hours a day to change his dressings.
Ironically Jeff became the Executive Director of the Yellowstone Association, a nonprofit organization created to provide support to the Park and its Grizzly Bear population.
Jeff’s story was harrowing but I had traveled a fair amount in both Grizzly and Polar Bear country and felt we had taken the proper precautions and could handle any reasonable Grizzly encounters we might have.
For remoteness and wildlife viewing, the Thelon River is one of North America’s best. We caught 10 pound northern pike and delicious grayling. Plus, we saw numerous moose, bald eagles, wolves, caribou, signs of muskox, and enough black flies to fill a swimming pool.
The highlight, though, was ten days into our trip when high winds forced us to lay over. Doug Fitzgerald, my tent partner, and I had just finished thoroughly cleaning up after an excellent breakfast of bacon and pancakes with real maple syrup (Mark Twain Mapleworks of course). The wind was howling a steady twenty-five miles an hour, with gusts of forty, so I was happy to lie in my tent and read my book.
Doug had ventured up the shore where our companions Mark Wagstaff and Earl Davis were tented. They were sitting in the lee of the wind chatting. Suddenly Doug yelled, “Jack, come quick and bring your camera.”
I yelled, “What is it?”
There was a pause and then he added, “And bring your bear spray!”
I knew what it was.
I grabbed both and ran to them. Ed and Karen Hixson joined us and Doug said, “You just missed it! There was a Grizzly Bear about a hundred yards upriver along the shore!”
I was disappointed I missed it, but then looked up and less than 150 feet away through the alders was a grizzly bear standing on its hind legs towering above the shrubs. It was so close we could see it squinting at us, trying to figure out what we were. I had my camera in one hand taking photo after photo, while in my other hand I clutched my pepper spray. I thought of the Grizzly stories I had read but kept my cool.
Next the bear got down on all fours and lumbered out of the alders toward us. Our tent was a short distance from the bear. Doug said, “What do you think? If it touches any of our gear let’s shoot the bear spray?”
I said, “You bet. Mark, Earl, have those bangers and screamers ready.”
Once out of the alders, onto the sand and gravel, it sniffed around…and slowly turned and moseyed downstream. We watched it, staying alert, until it was well out of sight.
It all happened so quickly. After about fifteen minutes we breathed a collective sigh of relief and celebrated the unique wildlife encounter. I thought I had handled the entire situation with aplomb and congratulated myself. There I was just feet away from the bear and never lost my cool.
When my breathing got back to normal, and my pulse quit pounding I took a look at the dozen or so photos I took and realized that maybe I had been a bit nervous. Most of the photos were out of focus because my hand was shaking so badly. Maybe I wasn’t as cool as I thought I was.