Ursus Horribilus……even the Latin name sounds sinister. If there is one clear and present danger in sheep country it’s the grizzly bear. The high mountain habitat where rams live is also a grizzly feeding zone, full of berries, ground squirrels and larger prey. During my first season as a horse wrangler I witnessed a sow take down a ewe and later share the meal with her cub. The brute strength and speed of this attack was stunning and forever imprinted in my mind. From that moment on I became more vigilant and “bear aware” in the mountains.
Close encounters with grizzly are often a complete surprise. In August 1978 I was guiding a famous Mexican hunter for stone sheep in the Cassiars. Crossing a high rocky pass with absolutely no vegetation something caught my eye. We dropped our packs to witness a huge, dark, furry beast just coming into view at about forty yards. Grizzly….I needlessly hissed. Hector had a bear tag and wasted no time putting a shell in the chamber. The wind was in our favor and one shot stopped the boar in his tracks. Despite my protests, Hector dropped his rifle, grabbed his camera, and walked up to the comatose bear to stroke his fur. This is when things got real interesting. I was nervous and not sure the bear was completely dead. Sure enough…..a paw moved. Hector jumped away and was no longer smiling as he administered the final shot. Never take anything for granted in grizzly country!
Fast forward twenty one years and I was walking ahead of a pack train, heading back to base camp after a successful dall sheep hunt in my Yukon outfitting area. Two hunters and their wives, along with another guide rode contentedly some distance behind me. It was a cold morning with light rain falling. Starting our descent down toward the Snake River along a small creek with waist high willow I heard a muffled “woof” off to my left. There she was…..a blondish grizzly with a small cub standing upright at forty yards. Nothing shocking about this as it is just what a guide should always expect. However, I instantly knew it was a bad situation…..sow with young cub, no rifle, on foot, hunters and horses some distance behind me. The amygdala portion of my brain kicked into high gear, flee or fight?
My survival instincts told me to flee. Safety was behind me, five people with rifles and twelve horses. I yelled grizzly several times hoping to warn those behind me. Then I turned and ran at an angle back toward the pack train. Apparently I ran pretty fast as the hunters later called me a white Carl Lewis. After about fifteen steps I glanced back to see the sow barrelling through the brush toward me. So I picked up my pace in the muskeg toward the hunters and horses. Very soon I could hear her right behind me huffing loudly and clicking her teeth. Time to stop and fight. I turned around facing the bear at about five paces. She was a small sow and her fur was matted by the rain. Her size didn’t intimidate me, but one look at her angry yellow eyes, flattened ears and clicking teeth did. I screamed as loud as I could and tried to make myself even bigger. I got into a protective stance with my hands in front of me. All to no avail, as she lunged at me, bit through my right hand and grabbed my face in her jaws. I am very familiar with the term “bear hug”. The attack lasted no more than two minutes and I was fully conscious throughout. A rifle shot eventually scared the bear away. I suffered extensive facial injuries, crushed orbital bones, mangles nose, loss of sight in my left eye, a broken leg, and very deep claw marks on my upper left thigh. Struggling to my knees with blood poring from my face, I thought “this is not survivable”.
Everyone soon pitched in to change my attitude. They applied basic first aid, a warm tent shelter and wonderful moral support. Someone was always with me in the tent over the next twenty hours to keep me conscious and supply me with basic painkillers. There were no portable satellite phones available in 1999. We were 150 miles from the nearest road and medical help. The other guide and a hunter rode for eighteen hours to make a radio call from base camp for helicopter evacuation. Sheep guiding was abruptly over that season for me. It would take many months and numerous surgeries to get back on my feet. The next season I was back in the saddle again, glassing green alpine slopes, following sheep trails and keeping one eye open for grizzly!