Widrig’s Story

Story by G. Calef
Big Game Adventures Magazine
Summer 2000

The jaws of a grizzly bear had crushed his face. He was blind and had no idea whether he’d ever regain his sight. He had just endured 24 hours of agony and fear in a remote wilderness 100 miles from the nearest human settlement, not knowing whether he’d live or die. Now, as outfitter Chris Widrig lay in a nursing station waiting for a plane to medi-vac him to Vancouver for emergency surgery, he heard a voice in his ear, the voice of the local conservation officer. “Chris, normally in these circumstances we deal with the bear lethally.” Widrig’s first words were, “I don’t want that bear shot. She was just doing what she was supposed to do – defending her young. Just leave her alone; she isn’t going to hurt anyone else out there in that wilderness.”

When I first heard that story on the radio in Whitehorse it actually brought tears to my eyes I thought “That’s a real northerner, a real mountain man, someone who has the strength of his convictions”. What a contrast to the urban “environmentalists” of Whitehorse who are all for saving the “endangered” grizzly bears until one happens to knock over a garbage can in their “wilderness subdivision” or walk within ten miles of their child’s school ground. Then they’re on the telephone to the conservation officers to come and “deal with it lethally”. A dozen or more grizzlies were killed in that manner around Whitehorse recently in a single autumn. If you want to have grizzlies around, then you have to be willing to let them live around you. I decided then and there to look up Chris Widrig and tell the story of such a principled man. So one bright spring morning just before he headed out for the spring bear hunt, we put on the coffeepot and this is what he told me:

It all happened on the first hunt of the season. We started at our Goz Lake base camp, an absolutely beautiful spot near the headwaters of the Snake River in the northern Yukon. Our outfit consisted of two couples and one guide and me, and interestingly enough, the two women were sisters. Right at the beginning we had two little coincidences that seemed minor at the time, but these seemingly small factors played a big role in what happened later. The first problem was everyone had too much gear. I’d planned to have a horse, but at the last minute everyone put all their gear out and there was just too much to fit on all the packhorses. We had 11 horses, and believe it or not I didn’t have a horse. Second, we had six hunters in camp and two of them arrived without their rifles because the airlines lost them. So the rifle I had intended to bring myself on this hunt I had to lend to another hunter who was going to a different camp.

So I walked the whole way, some 60 miles, and I planned to walk all the way back too – I like walking anyway, so it didn’t bother me – I’ve done it before. So it was quite an adventure even before I got hurt. It was a three-day trip to get over to Delores camp where we took two sheep. On the third day we ran into a grizzly with a small cub of the year, right on the trail She stood up, looked at us – about 100 yards away.

Of course I had no gun, so I yelled to the hunters and the guide behind me, “Get off your horses and get your guns”. The guide came up and handed me his rifle. At this point one of the hunters made an interesting comment.

“Well, I don’t have any bullets in my gun. Should I?” That’s what he said.

And I said, “Yeah, you should have bullets in your gun”.

The bear stood there watching us for about ten minutes and then we finally made a big detour to get around her and continued on. She didn’t harass us.

Now just to jump ahead to the second where I got attacked. The same fellow, who didn’t have any bullets in his gun, still didn’t have any bullets in his gun! He was the first hunter to get his rifle out of the scabbard and no bullets! It might not have made any difference, but he just never did learn.

Anyway, from Delores camp one hunter took a beautiful 39-1/2″ ram that was only six years old! The second sheep was smaller at 35″, but he was broomed and much older. We’ve taken sheep up to 43″ with 15″ bases in this area. Then on August 9th we packed up and headed down to a camp on the Snake River, which would be about halfway back to Goz. But we never made it.

We weren’t hunting because we don’t hunt moose in August. We were planning to maybe try for caribou around Goz Lake but it wasn’t a big issue because we already had our sheep. We weren’t hunting Grizzly at all. August 9th was the first day the weather started to come down a bit. In fact there was ground fog; it was really eerie. Up until then it had been sunny and hot, almost too hot to hunt sheep. We packed up the horses and got away about 10:00 in the morning. We couldn’t see more than 100 yards for part of the day. It was drizzling and raining lightly too. The country is essentially all above timberline. We stopped our horses and had a sandwich at noon, maybe about half a mile from where I was attacked.

When we continued after lunch 1 was walking maybe 100 yards ahead. At this point I was daydreaming; I wasn’t paying as much attention as 1 probably should have. The two hunters with their rifles were right behind me, followed by a bunch of packhorses, and the wives and the guide were right at the end. In fact the guide and one of the women never even saw the attack because they were so far behind.

I almost walked by the bear. I didn’t see her – I just heard something off to my left, like a “woof”. I glanced over and immediately saw her. She stood up on her hind legs and I saw the cub very close to her. It was a two-year old cub, a fairly big cub. She was close, really close, maybe 30 yards. I knew I was in trouble right away. I knew how far away I was from the horses, I had no gun, and there was a sow with a cub right there. My worst nightmare; it had never happened before. I’d never been that close to a bear. The reason I hadn’t seen her was she’d been feeding in the willows by that little creek. The willows were only about up to my waist, but she had her head down and I didn’t see her. She heard me, “woofed”, and stood up.

You know you hear all these things from the bear biologists about what you’re supposed to do in this or that situation, but you just do what your instincts tell you. You can’t feel bad about not following the rules. The first thing I did was yell, “BEAR BEAR!” I was trying to alert the people behind me, but I wasn’t as concerned about them as I was about myself, because they were well behind. So I screamed and I turned and ran, directly away from the bear, not back toward the horses because I’d almost passed her already. And I ran fast! One of the hunters said I looked like a white Carl Lewis streaking across the tundra. They all mentioned it; they said they’d never seen anyone run so fast.

But I only ran about ten steps before I looked back. I wanted to see what the scenario was going to be, whether she was going to run away or what. I glanced over my shoulder (I was still running) and at that point, just for a fraction of a second, she was going to her cub. I thought she was going to push the cub away and go, and I’d be alright. Then I took maybe ten more steps, and again glanced over my shoulder, which is hard to do because it’s spongy tundra. This time she was coming right at me. I was probably 50 yards away because I’d put some distance between us, but I started running even faster. At some point I also looked back at the hunters. I could only see one hunter and the white horse, Duffy. From what I could see, in that fraction of a second, they were having a hard time with the horses. The horses were rearing up and going berserk.

Next time I looked back she was right behind me. Man they’re fast; it’s unbelievable! So I had to make a decision: “Do I want to keep running and have her nail me from behind?” Again my instinct told me to stop so I turned around and faced her. I really started to scream. I tried to bluff her; I tried to make myself look big by holding my arms out. “I’M A GREAT BIG BEAR!” I growled at her. I did whatever I could think of. I tried everything. She wasn’t a huge bear, perhaps a medium size bear that for a mountain grizzly is about a six-foot bear. When she stood up she was probably not much taller than I was.

I can still remember every single detail of the attack. She was maybe ten or 12 feet away when I turned around, and for just a fraction of a second when I was yelling, she veered off to the left. The main thing I remember was her eyes, those yellow eyes. They were small but I was looking right at her and I could see into her eyes. She was also making a noise, halfway between a growl and gasping for breath, and snapping her teeth. Her ears were absolutely flat, and she was pissed off. I don’t know why; I was trying to run away from her!

Then she came right for me. I put my hands out and when the bear hit me I thought she broke my hand. She bit right through my hand and then she went immediately for my face – for my eyes. It was extremely painful. One of the hunter’s wives said she’d never heard such screaming. When she came for my face I could see her teeth wide open, and that was it. After that I didn’t have my eyes open for about three days, and one eye is still not working properly. Actually, I’m legally blind in my left eye. When she went into my face I could feel the bones crunching. Her jaws made about three bites across my face. Crunch, crunch, crunch! You can draw a circle around where the damage was – my eye sockets and nose. I think she had me in a bear hug, with her paws around my back.

I fell backwards. I had a Gore-Tex raincoat on, and I think that it actually saved me a lot of grief because after that she started to bite my back (around my kidneys) and actually broke my left leg below the knee. This was extremely painful. I do believe the Gore-Tex saved me; she couldn’t get through to damage the spine. After the bites in the face I was totally helpless – there was no more fighting back. I was just trying to deal with the pain, and I think I went limp. She stopped for maybe three seconds and then there was a tremendous blow. This was the only time she ever used her claws and raked. She really swatted me one. There are four deep scars on my thigh, just a fraction of an inch from my groin. And then I heard the shot. I found out later that the bear actually ran off after she clawed me, and the hunter just fired the shot to scare her and keep her moving. He didn’t hit her, and she was already going when he fired. The whole thing didn’t take more than two minutes, if that. I was soaking wet because I’d been walking through the wet brush without rain pants. So I was soaked to the waist, and I was lying in a wet muskeg. I rolled over on my elbows and the blood was just pouring out of my face. My eyes were shut, and I thought I was dead. I thought, “There’s no way; this is non-survivable”. Believe it or not, I’ve never had a stitch or a broken bone before. I’ve told my wife this over the years, and she always says, “You know that’s the wrong thing to be saying. That’s bad karma!” So I’ve never had to deal with trauma or shock before this point, but this felt pretty damn bad. We were so far away from help I just thought, “I’m not going to make this”.

There are a lot of things that go through your mind, but my biggest worry was that she’d gotten into my brain cavity. When she was chewing on me I thought, “She’s crushing my brain!” So I thought I was dead – I’d never see my family again. Then I heard two voices. The two hunters were walking down, and one of them had a gun without bullets. All the bullets were in the pack boxes.

But what I heard was, “Do you see the bear, David?”

“No, she’s gone.”

The first thing one of the hunters started to do was apologize.

“I’m sorry, Chris. I’m sorry, Chris -I couldn’t get my gun.”

I said, “Forget about it. It doesn’t matter.” And then I started to say, “Dave, this is not survivable. I’m not going to make it.”

Dave handled the situation extremely well. He calmed me down immediately and told me to just lie down. He put a jacket under my head and then proceeded to examine me.

“You know, nothing looks life threatening. There’s a lot of superficial wounds on your face.” This might have been a lie but it sure helped me because I thought there was bloody brains oozing out of my head! You have to remember that I couldn’t see. They did a tremendous job of calming me down and stabilizing me.

The immediate problem was I was shivering and thirsty – signs of shock. They put jackets over me but that didn’t do much good. It was windy and still drizzling. We had no packhorse, no tents, no sleeping bags – the horses had all disappeared, and it took two hours for the guide to round them up. The hunters dragged me to dry ground and then one of them (the one who never had any bullets in his gun) did something that probably saved my life. He took all his clothes off and all my clothes off, and put all his dry clothes on me. He was just standing there naked. There was no wood to build a fire. They put all their jackets on me and then huddled around me to keep the wind off. And it worked. I stopped shivering.

Then a crazy thing happened. In all the years of guiding up on the Bonnet Plume and the Snake, I had never seen another person who wasn’t a member of our party – this is total wilderness. But as I was lying there surrounded by one naked guy with his wife standing nearby, I suddenly heard a voice calling, “Do you need any help?” Four canoeists had just walked up from the Snake River. They had come from the exact direction the sow had disappeared and none of them had a gun. I couldn’t believe it. I heard my hunters ask.

“Is there a doctor with you?”

“Do you have any radio equipment or an ELT?”

Then they told them that I’d been attacked by a bear, and they promptly turned around on their heels and walked right back to the Snake River. They didn’t try to help or even offer to go get a sleeping bag or anything. I don’t even know their names.

Eventually I heard the hunters say, “Here come the horses,” and I could hear the bells. They immediately unpacked and set up the tent, got out the sleeping bags and mats. They got me in there, and I actually started to warm up.

Now we had a decision to make. It’s an 18-hour ride from where I was to base camp, where we have our satellite telephone. We had no other communication equipment with us. Despite my injuries I was still in charge.

I said, “Send Stacey (the guide) and one of the hunter’s wives” (who was a good horsewoman). If something happened to him and he was alone we’d be screwed. So I told them to send two people and four horses so they could trade off horses halfway through. My guide was in panic mode – he took one look at me and freaked. He didn’t even know where in the hell he was; he’d never been in that part of the country before. One of the hunters had a GPS so he sat down rationally, got out the map, plotted the exact location, and wrote a note about my condition. The note said there were no life threatening injuries, but that I’d need eye surgery. They thought I’d lost an eye. So it wasn’t as though they just took off; we planned it through.

Meanwhile, the other hunter and his wife were with me performing first aid. They had kits, and gave me painkillers, and then stopped the bleeding with bandages. It was very important that someone stay with me all night, and there was always someone there to talk to me, and give me a drink when I needed it. I was totally dehydrated. It was a long night. Probably every couple of hours I’d ask what time it was because I kept trying to figure out how close the guide might be to getting back to camp.

My big concern after midnight was the weather, since one of the hunters came in then and said the clouds were coming down. The fog was hanging just above the tent level, and I thought, “My God, I’m going to be lying here in this tent for a week, and I don’t think I can survive that.” But about 9:00 the next morning I heard the chopper. One of the hunters was a bit of a pessimist and he said, “It’s coming from the wrong direction”. I said, “It’s them, don’t worry – just get the flare”.

Will Thompson, an excellent pilot had to fight weather all the way from Mayo. What normally would be a one-hour trip took two hours. He had to dodge and weave through various passes. When the chopper landed everyone was cheering, me included. The tent zipped open and believe it or not they’d brought a doctor.

She checked me all over and said, “Well, the thing you’ve got going for you is that you’re a young man”. I said, “You’re so kind!” Then she put in an IV, gave me some morphine and Gravol, and put me on a stretcher and into the chopper. They didn’t waste any time, because the weather could come down at any time.

I remember the last thing I said was, “We’re going to send the chopper back in with some guides to bring back the horses”. We also had to fly the hunters back. So there was a whole bunch of logistics that I was still dealing with in my head.

With the weather so bad the pilot decided to go to Goz Lake and use the Sat phone to call the medi-vac plane, because they won’t take off until they receive phone confirmation. When we landed at Goz my head guide came over and he was pretty upset. He’d called my wife and told her what had happened, but assured her that my injuries weren’t life threatening. But when she called the Mayo nursing station they told her to be prepared for the worst, which isn’t exactly the right thing to say.

We landed right at the nursing station and the first thing I did was to call my wife; the nurses told me to reassure her that I wasn’t going to die.

I said, “So how’s it going”.

She said, “That’s you? – You sound so normal!” Then they transferred me to the airport to the MediVac King Air to Whitehorse. By another stroke of luck the eye specialist, who only comes up once a month, happened to be in Whitehorse. He immediately decided my tear duct was gone and I might have a detached retina on the other side and this was something that needed to be taken care of in Vancouver. Eleven thirty that night I was in Vancouver which is quite a while after the attack considering the severity of the wounds. I was very lucky that they weren’t infected. One of the surgeons said, “The wounds are really dirty,” and I said that it been 36 hours since the attack and I hadn’t exactly been in a clean room the whole time.

They did a good job at the hospital because the first day I looked like hell. My face looked like hamburger. I had 11 hours of plastic surgery and reconstructive surgery after that. They put titanium plates where my eye sockets were crushed, and replaced my torn off nose. The left eye damage turned out to be not a detached retina but rather damage to the optic nerve itself. I spent nine days in the Vancouver hospital, two more days in Whitehorse and then went home. Now eight months later, I’m ready to go hunting again.

LESSONS TO BE LEARNED:

When Chris had finished his story, I asked him whether he now had second thoughts about what he should have done differently, any advice that he would pass along to other big game hunters to avoid the terrible experience he endured. He said not really, and emphasized again that, when the real thing happens, all your book learning just goes out the window and your instincts take over. If a man of Widrig’s vast experience (he has been guiding for 27 of his 43 years) says that, how much truer would it be for the rest of us who spend less time in the wilderness and have less experience around bears? That should be a sobering thought. I also wondered whether he thought that when the bear caught up with him he should have dived on his stomach, put his hands over the back of his neck and played dead rather than turning to face her. Chris admitted that making such direct eye contact was probably a mistake. “She no doubt perceived it as a threat.” But he said his instincts told him to try to bluff the bear. He also pointed out that had he exposed his neck and spine first, the bear might have killed him by biting there.

The year before Widrig was mauled, a young woman was killed by another grizzly in the Yukon’s Kluane National Park. She and her husband were hiking along a park trail when they saw a grizzly approaching. The bear had its head down and didn’t appear to have seen them, so they slipped off the trail and about 30 yards into the woods. When the bear hit their scent trail he followed them into the bush. They continued to retreat until they came to a treeless area and there decided to drop their packs. The griz sniffed the packs briefly and then kept after them. At that point they decided to lie down and play dead.

The bear made curious approaches to both the man and woman, cautiously sniffing them before tentatively pawing and nipping the woman. Her husband then tried to scare the bear off by kicking at and hitting it with a stick, but the bear turned on him and bit him and knocked him over, then returned to the woman. At that point the couple agreed that the husband should run for help. When he and the park wardens arrived back, the woman had been killed, and buried by the bear. Afterwards, the experts agreed that if the couple had kept moving away when the bear first approached, or been more aggressive, the woman might well still be alive, since the bear, a 3 year old male, was apparently just looking for food. Ironically, the couple had read Dr. Steve Herrero’s book, Bear Attacks, Their Causes and Avoidance, which scientifically analyses bear attacks and bear behavior, and councils never to run from a grizzly, but to play dead instead. That is exactly what they did, and the result illustrates that no rule of conduct is ever effective in all situations.

I also asked Chris why he wasn’t carrying bear deterrent pepper spray, and he said he should have been, and will in the future. He obviously had plenty of time to use it, as did the couple in Kluane, and could have fired it at close range when the bear charged in. Having pepper spray might have given him more confidence in standing his ground. However, he feels that anyone who carries pepper spray should practice with it so that employing it becomes second nature.

My reading as a wildlife biologist, and my experience as a big game hunter tells me that pepper spray is by far the best protection from bear attack, better even than a powerful rifle. Unlike a long gun, you always have it with you (in a holster on your belt) rather than leaving it behind if you are using your hands for something else, like fetching water or pitching a tent. Since it is a short range weapon there is no danger of unnecessarily killing (or wounding) a bear at long range which might prove to be no threat, as was the case in Widrig’s encounter with the first sow and cub. Finally, you can use it even at very close quarters, in thick brush or even if bear has a hold of you, which isn’t true of a firearm. Best of all, it does no permanent damage to the bear.

And it is effective. I talked to a forester in the McBride Valley in British Columbia who had shot a charging grizzly sow full in the face at point blank range (as Widrig probably could have). He said it literally knocked her off her feet, and she started rolling around screaming, and pawing at her eyes and mouth. Furthermore, the effect lasted for over half an hour. He knew because he had to stand around that long because her two three-year-old cubs were hanging around on the edge of the commotion and he was afraid to leave while they were around.

So, rather than an American Express Card (which won’t do you much good in the northern wilderness) get a can of bear spray, and don’t leave home without it.