That’s not a grizzly story, this is a grizzly story
For a bloke who has a grizzly story too, I’m paying close attention to the case in which two Australians, Andrew Brodie and Owen Hereford, are suing the Canadian Government for $75,000 each over a 1995 grizzly attack.
They were camping at Lake Louise when they were attacked in their tent by a bear. The basis of their lawsuit, currently before the courts and expected to last three weeks, is that authorities were negligent in ensuring the safety of campers.
There is no question that Brodie, now 36, and Hereford, 37, would have had no chance to defend themselves, given that the incident took place at about 3.30 in the morning. If they were asleep, the grizzly attack would have given them no time to grab a can of bear spray, a capsicum-based aerosol spray that is part and parcel of venturing into much of Canada.
Back in 1999, I was in the Yukon when a flinty chopper pilot told me how he had to tranquilise a grizzly in order to tag it for Parks Canada. After he had located the bear and fired the tranquiliser dart, he waited until he thought it was safe to land. But things did not go exactly according to plan.
As he brought the chopper down, the grizzly somehow dragged himself upright and began batting his front paws in the air. The pilot took rapid evasive action. The way he told it, the grizzly’s paws just missed the Bell JetRanger’s skids - and if they had made contact, the chopper would probably have crashed.
I asked him how he had tagged the bear and his reply was candid. ``Quickly,’’ was his only comment.
On another occasion I was told the story of a gifted university-level athlete who was charged by a grizzly while hiking with a mate. Both men turned and ran, despite knowing that it is futile to try outrunning a grizzly. The athlete had almost made it to safety when he heard rasping breath behind him and thought it was his mate - until the claws of the bear raked his back.
When the bear picked him up, he could hear someone screaming and thought it was his hiking mate, but it was a few seconds before he realised he was actually the person screaming. He had the presence of mind to stop yelling in terror. The bear then threw him to the ground and he lived to tell the tale, despite needing extensive surgery.
In 2005, on another trip to Canada, I was told the story of someone who was charged by a bear. The hiker had time to reach for the bear spray and use it - but the bear kept coming and mauled him nonetheless.
So two years ago, when I was part of a seven-person group hiking through Kluane National Park in the Yukon, I took heart from the fact that our guide, Brent Liddle of Kluane Ecotours, told us that he was armed with bear spray.
He briefed us well before we set off from the car park at Lake Kathleen, surrounded by birch, spruce and aspen in stunning autumn hues. We were told never to run if we did encounter a grizzly. ``I’ve hiked these mountains for 30 years,’’ the avuncular Liddle told us, ``and I’ve never had to use my bear spray.’‘
The most sensible thing to do in a grizzly confrontation, he told us, was to stand as a group. The rationale was simple but effective. Because bears have bad eyesight, chances were that the animal would see a huge mass instead of terrified individuals _ and decide not to attack.
Of course, I had to ask what one did if a solo hiker came face-to-face with a bear. I said it with a grin on my face - but there was serious intent behind my query. We were about to spend several hours hiking through beautiful countryside and I knew I would always be several metres behind my fellow hikers, simply because I would be stopping constantly to take photographs.
I would also be slower than anyone else to react, because I had two digital SLR cameras around my neck, one with a 70-300mm lens and the other with an 18-125mm lens. Even Usain Bolt wouldn’t run too quick with that sort of bling.
I’m glad we discussed the solo option, though. Liddle’s advice was simple. Raise your arms immediately. The bear, quite naturally, will think you’re much larger than you actually are and will probably think twice about attacking you.
Hours later, all that advice was forgotten in my quest to get a wildlife shot I knew I would never confront again.
For most of the day, I had trailed the rest of the group by several metres because I constantly stopped along the way to take photographs. There was no shortage of subjects, but we saw no bears.
All that changed quickly, and dramatically, as we approached the car park. I had just switched off both cameras and was down on my hands and knees, refilling my water bottle in a mountain stream, when I heard a whispered but very urgent warning.
Grizzly up ahead.
Grizzly? Here? I was convinced they were kidding me just to gauge my reaction. There was no grizzly, not as far as I could see. And we were less than 40 metres from a paved pathway.
Highly skeptical, I moved to the front of the group. Not the smartest thing to do if threatened by a grizzly, but as far as I could see there was nothing there.
The funny thing about life-defining moments is that you never know they’re coming until they hit you square between the eyes.
That’s when he appeared. What happened next took no more than five seconds, but I can still see it like a series of freeze frames.
He was close enough for me to notice his patchy brown hair. He was on all fours, which I guess indicated he was about to challenge us for sovereign rights over this patch of Canadian turf.
Instinct took over. I knew I’d never have a photo opportunity like this. How often in your life do you get to photograph a grizzly in the wild?
More importantly, how often does someone photograph a grizzly charging in their direction?
There was no sound at all when he charged. No roar. No blood-curdling snarls. Most of all, there was no warning.
He just launched himself at us. I’d been told just how rapidly a grizzly can move, but I was astounded at how quickly he covered the 25-30m that separated us.
That, and how deathly silent it was.
I snatched for one of my cameras when the grizzly began his charge. I was standing in the prime danger zone, between him and the other hikers.
Things happened so quickly there was no time for anyone to reach for the bear spray.
In the split second while I trained my camera on the charging bear, I only had time for one thought. Incongruously, it was photography-related. There were vibrant splashes of autumn hues all round us, patches of orange, yellow and red, but the grizzly had chosen to launch himself at us in a zone that was devoid of colour.
I only had the time to hit the shutter once as he charged. Then he was gone. He veered left into the undergrowth. For three or four seconds, we could not see him. Then he reappeared on our right, looked at us briefly and wandered away.
I immediately asked each hiker if they had been scared. Each had the same answer: things had simply happened too quickly for anyone to be gripped by panic.
But that night, as I reviewed my photographs, the fear gripped me. For the first time in my life, I understood the true meaning of the phrase “spine-chilling”.
Why? Not just because of the amazing confrontation and the once-in-a-lifetime photograph. Not, not solely because of that. But also because the grizzly had chosen to retreat up the narrow pathway that I had just come down, entirely on my own.
But why is this experience relevant to the court case involving Brodie and Hereford, the Australian tourists attacked by a bear at Lake Louise? Probably because it shows that even when you do take all relevant precautions, these confrontations still take place and - probably more pertinent - no amount of warning / awareness will prevent them.
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