Story by Chris Widrig
from the book Of Man and Beast- edited by Manfred Hoefs – copyright 2004
I have spent all of my adult life in the Wilderness- hunting, guiding or trapping. I have seen bears on many occasions, and I have had many successful hunting trips with my clients. But I have never faced a really dangerous situation. I mean a close call, where my life was threatened, until this episode came about. In hindsight, this first head-on meeting could have been my last.
It was August 1st, 1999. I had two hunters with their wives, another guide and eleven horses in the pack-string when we left our base camp at Goz Lake, which is near the Snake River. The plan was to ride in a big circle. Proceeding from our base camp, we intended to ride north to Dolores Creek. We would hunt sheep in its headwaters. After hunting we would travel east over a high pass and descend into the Snake River valley. Following the Snake River upstream for perhaps 50 miles, we would then turn west to get back to Goz Lake. Everybody had a horse, except me. There was just too much gear, so my horse was used for packing and I walked the entire way, about 60-70 miles. I am in fairly good shape and I didn’t mind doing that. Walking towards Dolores Creek, we ran into a sow and a very small cub right on the trail about 100 yards ahead of us. She stood up and looked at us, and eventually we made a wide detour around her. Those were the first bears we saw. I did not have a gun on this trip either, but both hunters did. They were riding right behind me, and since the guide had a gun as well, I figured we had enough fire power. I did not really want to carry a gun walking that distance. Both hunters had enjoyable, successful hunts and bagged nice rams.
It was August 9th when we broke camp at Delores Creek, packed up, and started to ride toward the Snake River. For the past days the weather had been very warm, 80-90 F. A few days earlier the temperature had even risen to 99 F. But today was different. There was a low fog hanging over the landscape, visibility was restricted, and a light rain was falling most of the time. So we were heading out toward the Snake and had almost reached the summit of the pass. We would shortly begin to descend down to the river. I was walking about 100 yards ahead of the horses along a well defined trail. There are not any trees up there, just scrub willows up to about my waist. The willows were well spaced out- they weren’t thick. While I was walking along I suddenly heard a “woof” sound, and then there was a sow and cub standing up in the willows about 30 paces from me. Really close! I sized up the situation and I immediately knew that without a rifle I was in trouble. The horses and hunters were about 100 yards behind me, and their rifles were in the scabbards. I yelled “bear, bear” as loud as I could, and I immediately ran. I could not run back to the horses since I had actually walked past the bear and she was between me and the horses. I was in fact running uphill on this soft, spongy tundra. I ran for about ten, fifteen seconds, then looked back. The sow was with the cub and I thought they would move away. So I kept on running. When I glanced back again very quickly, I saw the horses were rearing up and panicking, with the hunters trying to get hold of the reins and get them under control, while trying to get their rifles out of the scabbards. I ran very fast and must have established a personal best, since afterwards one hunter made the remark that I was speeding away like a white Carl Lewis. They’d never seen anyone run so fast. While I was running I was glancing over my shoulder again and this time I saw that the bear was quickly coming after me. Then I could hear her right behind me. She was making a noise sort of like a cross between a growl and a snapping of teeth. I stopped and turned around and tried to make myself as big as I could. I saw the hunters and horses, but I was now focusing on her. At that time I did not know where the cub was. This was a big, two year old cub. The sow reared up and I faced her as she came closer, by then perhaps four steps away. She kept coming, lunging for me, going right for my face. I put my hands up to protect myself and she bit right into my left hand. She continued to come right for my face, for my eyes. She bit three times into my face around my eyes and nose. Just before she did so, I looked straight into her eyes. She was so close- yellow eyes, ears flattened back, hissing and snapping her teeth. She was not a huge grizzly. When she stood up, she was not much taller than me, perhaps six foot. A small mountain grizzly! Her fur was wet because it had been raining all day and she looked basically, like a big wet dog. The last image I actually saw was her gaping mouth and large fangs, and I could smell her foul breath. She made those three bites that were extremely painful. I remember every second of that attack, since I did not pass out. I could feel the bones being crushed and breaking. I fell backwards and I think she had me in some sort of bear hug. My eyes were closed for days after that and I wondered if I would ever be able to see again. From then on my recollections are based on what I felt, heard or smelled. When I was down she started to bite into my back in several places, but could not really get through my clothing to do any damage. I was wearing a Goretex rain coat and this tough material provided protection. But then she bit into my left leg, just below the knee. She actually broke that leg. I did not fight back anymore. I simply gave up. Lying on my back, I thought it was all over, but then she hit me again. This was the only time she actually used her paws. She hit into my upper right leg, very close to my groin. First I thought she bit me. But later the surgeons told me that these wounds were claw marks. Shortly after that I heard a shot and the bear left me alone. One of the hunters finally got his rifle out and fired. The whole episode took no longer than about two minutes. It happened so quickly, it was unbelievable! The shot did not hit the bear and she was gone. I heard the hunters talking to each other when they came to me and I heard them say that the bear had disappeared. I was convinced I was history, with all the blood pouring from my face. Besides losing my vision, I thought I had serious head injuries, perhaps even damage to my brain cavity, since the bear got into my head pretty good.
The hunters and one of their wives took good care of me. They calmed me down and assured me that my injuries did not appear to be life threatening. They were all trained in first aid and they patched me up to reduce the bleeding. I obviously was going into shock because I was shivering like hell! Then I was told that the horses had taken off. The guide and one of the wives had gone after them, returning two hours later. All our stuff was on the packhorses and what we had handy was basically our clothes. So they took me to high ground. I was shivering, thirsty, and showing other symptoms of shock, still bleeding quite a bit from my face. My clothes were soaking wet from walking in the rain all morning and then falling on the swampy ground. One of the hunters took all his dry clothes off, as well as my wet ones. He then dressed me with his dry clothes. This may have been a life saving idea. Huddling in a circle, with one of the hunters practically naked, they protected me from the wind. We waited two hours. Then I heard horse bells. What a relief! The guide and other woman had finally arrived. They took a tent off one of the horses, set it up, and got me inside. Now I had a mattress and a sleeping bag, and I started to warm up. I began to feel a lot better. I never took any painkillers or stuff like that, although they had some. I guess I had so much adrenaline pumping through my system that I did not feel much pain. My main concern was my eyesight and I worried about possible brain damage. We did not have a phone. We had to make a few decisions. The other guide had never been on this portion of the trail. It would be an eighteen hour ride from there to Goz Lake- about a day and a half. I decided to send the guide and one of the women, who was very good with horses. I think it was important to send two people, in case they ran into trouble. With four horses, they could alternate riding them and progress faster. They did! They made that trip in sixteen hours. They arrived at the lake about six in the morning.
During the night somebody stayed with me in the tent all the time, taking turns doing so. They would talk to me to keep me awake and give me water to prevent dehydration. But I wouldn’t have slept anyway. Another big concern of mine was the weather. While I couldn’t see anything, the hunters kept telling me that the fog had come down really low. We were at 5500 feet!
I was reminded of a story that happened in this outfitting area in the fall of 1960. A new outfitter (Fraser) had just taken on this concession and it was his first hunt. Three hunters flew into Bonnet Plume Lake and Fraser was supposed to meet them there, taking in the pack train from Keno. The hunters waited for two weeks and Fraser never arrived. An aerial search was conducted and he was located near Kathleen Lake, taking his outfit back to Keno. The hunters were brought out with a helicopter. Fraser claimed that bad weather, particularly thick, low fog, had prevented him from finding the trail to Bonnet Plume Lake.
Thinking of this episode I was really worried about being stuck here for a while and about my chances of surviving a longer period without medical attention. However, about nine o’clock in the morning, I think I was the first to hear the helicopter. One of the hunters said, it can’t be ours, it’s coming from the wrong direction. I said to myself what did it matter where it came from, there are not many helicopters flying across this part of the country. It was Will Thompson, who worked for Trans North Helicopters. He had to fight bad weather all the way in and it took him an extra hour to get to us. Lucky for me, a doctor (A. Williams) came along as well. She checked me out, hooked me up to an IV and gave me morphine. The whole works! They put me on a stretcher and I was ready for the flight to Mayo. I still had a lot of logistical stuff to deal with. The helicopter had to come back to bring new guides and take the hunters out, the horses had to be taken to base camp-stuff like that. Then they flew me to Mayo. When we got there and I was lying on the stretcher, having to wait about an hour for the plane to medivac me to Whitehorse, I heard somebody come and whisper into my ear: “Chris, normally in situations like this we deal with the bear lethally!” It was Brian Lacey, who was the conservation officer up in Mayo. I told him: “I don’t want that bear shot. It would be totally pointless to kill her; she was just defending her cub. She may never see another person again.” I made that point very clear and they did not kill her. However, they did fly in with the RCMP to do their investigation, as is standard procedure in situations like this. They flew me to Whitehorse and again I was fairly lucky. The Ophthalmologist, who only comes to Whitehorse once a month, happened to be in hospital at the time. He did an immediate, thorough check up and determined that the tear duct of my right eye was torn and in my left eye, there was most likely retina damage. Later in Vancouver, it was determined that actually the optic nerve was damaged. These were problems that could not be dealt with at the Whitehorse hospital and the specialist made arrangements to have me medivaced to Vancouver right away. I was in Vancouver by eleven o’clock that night, after being injured at one o’clock the previous afternoon, or about 36 hours later. And who says medicare in Canada is falling apart? I had two surgeries. The first was about four hours long and the one the following morning lasted for eleven- all plastic surgeries. Actually my face looks pretty good now, compared to what it did after the mauling. My wife saw me in the hospital and she said it looked like hamburger. There was much damage and they had to put titanium plates in to replace the crushed facial bones in the eyebrow areas. They put a glass tube on the right side to replace the damaged tear duct. I basically lost the sight of my left eye. I am legally blind there because of damage to the optic nerve. Other than that, I feel pretty good. I am still guiding and I got my pilots license back.
In spite of my injury and absence during much of that hunting season, there was no disruption in my outfitting business. Everything proceeded as planned. I have excellent people working for me; Charles Lightfoot, who used to be an outfitter in Atlin, his wife Pat, and his son Jamis. All the people working for me know each other well and get along fine. So they just took over and the season ran as usual, possibly better than with me. Charles is also a pilot, which is important in the outfitting business. He did an excellent job.
This episode did not affect me psychologically, as is often the case. In the Vancouver hospital they had a psychologist come and see me a few times for that very reason. In fact, they had just handled the woman who was mauled by a black bear in Dawson, before I arrived. She was dealing with a lot of trauma.
I have been in this business for 28 years, starting to guide when I was only 16 years old. I have seen bears on many occasions and have skinned my share. I have no problem with sows defending their cubs. That’s part of their nature. Guiding in a wilderness setting has its risks and has parallels to being at war. If you are a soldier, you have to count on the possibility of getting hurt or even killed. In our profession we should expect to occasionally face a bear attack, a charging bull moose in the rut, a drowning accident when crossing a river, or crashing with an aircraft. These are risks I take by being an outfitter.
I have told this story many times and just as often have I been asked whether I would act differently if faced with such a situation again. I have read many of the books that have scientifically analyzed bear attacks and made recommendations of what to do. No doubt they are useful if the bear is seen from some distance and a person has time to think and plan a defense strategy. However, this is usually not the case. It is the surprise attacks from very short range that are the problems and that may result in injury or even be fatal. In my opinion, in such situations when immediate action is called for, all our book knowledge goes down the drain and our reaction is governed by instinct or gut feeling. Man has evolved together with bears for thousands of years and during these millennia of co-existence we have acquired certain behavioral traits that have survival value. Responses such as running, climbing trees, screaming, staring down a bear, or even fighting back, depending on the circumstances, are part of our repertoire. When we have to act on the spur of the moment, we tend to revert to these ancient defense strategies because they are part of our genetic make up.