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Oct 2, 2019

The Wrong Way to Fight Off a Bear

Bear-human encounters are on the rise, in part because more people than ever before are heading out into bear country. (Photo: ZU_09/iStock)
Bear-human encounters are on the rise, in part because more people than ever before are heading out into bear country.

The odds of getting seriously injured by a bear in North America are slim. There are just a few dozen bear attacks on the continent every year, and only a handful of them put someone in the hospital. But bear-human encounters are on the rise, in part because more people than ever before are heading out into bear country. This year in particular there have been a lot of stories of people fighting off attacks in dramatic ways, including that guy in British Columbia who ended up killing a black bear with a hatchet. But Colin Dowler has the most incredible story of them all, and his tale offers potentially lifesaving lessons for anyone venturing into the wild.

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

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EPISODE BEGINS 

Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, these are dispatches: stories from our writers in the field.

Colin Dowler: When I moved, it seemed to draw his attention a little bit, so I didn't want to do too much moving. But I'm looking at the situation thinking, you know, I'm dying, he's dying and I don't have much time here. 

Peter Frick-Wright (Host): The odds of getting seriously injured by a bear in North America are vanishingly small.  There's just a few dozen bear maulings in the continent every year, and only a handful of those put someone in the hospital.

But bare human encounters are on the rise in part because more people than ever before are heading out into bear country. And this year in particular, there've been a lot of stories of people fighting off bear attacks in dramatic ways.

There was the guy in British Columbia who stopped an attack with a hatchet. Or the couple in Colorado who beat a bear out of their kitchen with a baseball bat. Or the moose Hunter in Alaska whose hunting partner shot the bear in the head while it was mauling him. And then there was Colin Dowler. 

Dowler: Uh, yeah, so I'm Colin Dowler and I grew up on Quadra Island. 

Frick-Wright: Colin's story is maybe the most dramatic of them all. Outside contributor Stephanie Joyce takes it from here. 

Stephanie Joyce: Sometimes it's the decisions we don't even think about that end up saving our lives. Colin still lives on Quadra Island. He's married and has two kids, 15 and 21. He's an electrician by trade and manages maintenance for the Island Health Authority. On a Saturday morning in late July, he left his house headed for a remote stretch of the British Columbia mainland. On his way out, he stashed a two and three quarter inch buck knife in his pocket. It'd been a gift from his dad just a few weeks earlier. 

Dowler: Um, I mean it with the utmost respect, and uh, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree here, but he's a pretty cheap guy. And I think that might be the first random gift he's ever given me, uh, certainly in my adult life. And just, he stopped by randomly and says, ‘Hey, you want a buck knife?; And I said, ‘yeah, sure dad.’

Joyce: So Colin had the knife when he headed out for the weekend. His 45th birthday was coming up on Monday, and he wanted to go on an adventure. His plan was to scout a route up to the alpine of Mount Dougie Dowler—the mountains named after his grandfather who owned the general store on Quadra Island for decades. It's a serious mountain—almost 7,000 feet tall straight from sea level—and it looks a little bit like a snow-covered cowboy hat.

Colin had tried climbing it years before with his dad and a couple of friends, but they'd gotten weathered out from the summit. This time he wasn't trying to make it the whole way up, but he wanted to find a different approach to the alpine, and he'd be going solo. 

Dowler: I don't usually let not having anyone with me, uh, stop me from a good adventure, and there's not really a whole lot of glory in the, uh, spending the time it takes to, to find a route to get into the alpine. So my, my, my most likely friend to do the, uh, the trip had denied, and I didn't bother asking anyone else because it just, yeah, it was more of a labor of love than a, some kind of glorious hike, right? 

Joyce: Traveling solo in bear country is always a gamble. Virtually every documented bear attack in North America has been on people who are alone—whether traveling by themselves or just spread out in a group. But bears weren't top of mind for Colin as he got ready. He was more focused on the risk of falling or getting lost.

There are no towns anywhere near Mount Dougie Dowler, but there is a logging camp about 10 miles away down a valley. Colin figured he could boat over to the camp, then ride his mountain bike up a logging road before setting out on foot, so he threw his mountain bike onto his boat and motored the 15 miles from Quadra over to the camp. When he got there, there wasn't anyone around except the camp cook who offered to drive him a ways up toward the mountain so he wouldn't have to bike so far. 

Dowler: Which is pretty typical of, uh, logging camps, right? They're pretty good to be on time when, uh, locals pop by to, you know, see the sites.

Joyce: After getting dropped off, Colin ditched his bike on the side of the road and started uphill. He was walking through tight brush. 

Dowler: You know, like I, I couldn't always see my feet in front of me. 

Joyce: It wasn't long before he ran into bear sign: some elderberry bushes that had clearly been pulled over by a large animal. 

Dowler: I've got enough bear awareness to know that, uh, you know, you don't run from a bear. You don't sneak up on him. So, uh, when I'm starting to see bear sign and whatnot, I typically, uh, you know, just try to be noisy, and I might, you know, talk to myself or make some sort of, you know, goofy rhymes or something and, you know, I'll, I'll, uh, not yell but loudly say, ‘Hey bear.’

Joyce: Colin was carrying bear spray too. But he didn't really expect to need it. His previous run-ins with bears had been entirely civil, and most of the time he just didn't see them at all, which is pretty typical if you're making noise in the backcountry. For the most part, bears want to avoid us as much as we want to avoid them. 

Maybe because he was making noise, Colin didn't see any bears on his way up the mountain despite the bear sign. He camped overnight up in the alpine. And then having done the scouting he wanted to do, headed back down to the road in the morning. 

Dowler: So I made it through all of that uneventfully, and, uh, found, found my mountain bike on the side of the road. Now once I've, you know, got out of the bush, and I got on my mountain bike and, uh, you know, I wasn't really thinking much about bears, and I wasn't being vocal—I was thinking, ‘man, I'm on the logging road. I'm on my home stretch now and was kind of getting excited about celebrating my birthday the next day.’ Um, but I was paddling away, and I came around a bend, and there, about a hundred feet in front of me, uh, was the grizzly bear, uh, walking in my direction. 

Joyce: Colin stopped his bike. The bear stopped too.

Dowler: He looked into the bush, and then he looked back up the road and started walking my way. 

Joyce: This is the moment when bear experts would tell you to get out your bear spray. Ideally, it would be somewhere really accessible, but also secure—like a holster on your hip or chest harness. But Colin had been carrying his in an outside pocket, and somewhere on the way up or down the mountain, he lost it. He thought briefly about trying to bike away, but what if the bear chased him? Grizzlies can run up to 35 miles an hour, which is a whole lot faster than a mountain biker on a dirt road. 

So Colin decided the only thing to do was to stand his ground and hope the bear would duck off into the bushes before it got to him. Experts usually recommend backing away slowly from a bear to let it know you're not a threat. But if that's not an option, standing your ground is actually the next best thing. Bears will often break off a charge just because someone doesn't move. Of course, it's easier to convince yourself that it's a good idea to face down a grizzly if you happen to be holding a gun or a can of bear spray. Colin's best weapon was considerably less confidence inspiring.

Dowler: I took my pack off, uh, and grabbed one of my hiking poles off the pack and extended the pole as if I might be able to use that as some sort of deterrent measure. Uh, then he ended up getting pretty close, so—I want to say maybe 20 feet away, and that got me pretty nervous that he hadn't left yet—and pretty sure at this point I'd kind of clammed up—like I was, wasn't talking to the bear anymore. I probably still should have been. And he just continued, uh, walking along and he got up to, you know, where his, uh, head was parallel with my front tire, and, uh, as he walked past my bike—it was right about there—he, he like dipped his head lightly, um, and then went back to where he would normally held it. Then he dipped his head again. Uh, we made a little bit of eye contact, and I looked away, uh, cause eye contact didn't really seem like something I wanted to do. 

Joyce: Then all of a sudden the bear was past Colin. For a second, he thought that was it. The bear was just going to continue on its way down the road. 

Dowler: I remember thinking as he was, you know, walking by thinking, ‘man, this would be cool to be filming this because I'll have footage of a bear walking just clean by me and carrying on his way.’ Uh, so then he ended up walking by, so his rump was, uh, like almost just past or maybe just past my rear tire. And then he did a 180 degree turn, and I hadn't, I hadn't really moved yet. I was just standing, uh, with my bicycle between us, my mountain bike, and then, uh, started walking towards me, and I started backing up, and I started talking to him at this point for sure. Just, you know, basically explaining to him like, ‘you know, we, we can just part our ways, right? We don’t have to do this. I don't have a problem with you.’ 

Joyce: When talking didn't work, Colin tried to keep the bear at bay with his hiking pole, and when that failed, he threw his backpack at it, hoping the bear might smell food inside and lose interest in him. It didn't. 

Dowler: He swatted, you know, simultaneously I, I threw my bike at him, and he got like really briefly sort of hung up on the bike, and he stepped through it and, uh, lunged forward and, and grabbed me on, on my flank, on my, uh, left abdomen. And that's when, uh, really all sunk in how much trouble I was in. 

Joyce: Suddenly Collin was on the ground getting dragged down the road. 

Dowler: I remember thinking, if he carries me into the bush, I'm, I’m a goner for sure. So I went to eye gouge him, and in my head I had like, you know, something from the movies where I was going to do this eye gouge and hang onto him and that would be that. But, uh, his big Brown eye there, the poke lasted about the snap of a finger. And uh, then I got a moment where I don't really know what happened, but my guess is that he didn't like getting poked in the eye, and he shook me, and I spun 180 degrees cause the next thing I knew my legs were in the ditch, my upper body was in the driver part of the road. And uh, he had done, uh, now, uh, gotten on me and, uh, started chewing on my left thigh, and then like he would bite and then stop and then bite.

So I tried playing dead, and, but again for the pain I couldn't play dead because he would bite in—I’d start screaming again, you know: ‘Ahhhhh!’ Uh, you know, I had all the classic things flash before me, like, my, you know, wife and kids, or, ‘Is this how it's going to end? Is he going to eat me alive, or is he just going to do so much damage that I'm going to slowly die?’ 

Joyce: Colin had wounds to his abdomen, his legs, his hands. He could hear bone grating in his left leg every time the bear sunk its teeth in. The pain was unbearable. In most grizzly attacks, the bear is just trying to neutralize a threat. The best way to end the attack is to play dead. In the best case scenario, you have a backpack on, protecting your vital organs, and you just lie there on your stomach until the bear leaves. But this was not a best case scenario kind of situation. And Colin knew he was running out of time. Then he remembered the buck knife in his pocket. 

Dowler: And I, you know, sort of crawled my fingers through my pocket and uh, pop my, my little knife open. It's got a two and three quarter inch blade. And my dad measured the blade length. Uh, and then I leaned up a bit, and I looked at what would be a, uh, like a, like a proper stab and got the knife, you know, maybe four inches away from his neck, and I gave a really good heave. He relented immediately, stopped biting. And, uh, he lifted up off me a little bit, and I remember being disappointed that he moved far enough away that I couldn't stab him a whole bunch of times cause that was my intention.

And a big gush of blood came out of his neck and spilled all over me, largely spilled on, on like, the same place he was chewing. And I said aloud at that moment, I got a charge of adrenaline. I said aloud, ‘now you're bleeding too bear.’ Sorta, you know, meandered around a little bit, you know, looked at my bike and he was gosh, and bloody bled all over my pike. And then he, uh, pooped at least twice there and peed, so it was clear he was suffering some trauma as well. And, uh, then he walked back down the road past me again, uh, walked past about 50 feet past me, and he was looking at me and looking into the Bush. 

Joyce: Every time Colin moved it attracted the bear's attention. So he tried to stay as still as possible. But pretty quickly Colin realized that if he didn't stop the bleeding from his leg, it wouldn't matter if the bear came back or not. 

Dowler: And so I thought, ‘oh, I can do a tourniquet,’ So I used my knife to try—thank God I had a long sleeve shirt on. I cut my long sleeve shirt off, and I, uh, pulled the tourniquet up around my leg and started trying to tie it, but I felt like my clothes were all bunched up, right? Like my pants? So I looked down, and I went to pull my pants down, um, and they were ripped all to shreds. And what it actually was was a, um, like the meat sticking out of my flesh. So that was pretty disturbing.

So I just pulled the tourniquet up past all that, cinched it down tight, and I'm pretty sure at this point the bear was gone. I remember looking at him at one point and thinking, man, he's not bleeding as fast as he was before. I was a little bit nervous cause I just wanted to see him fall over so I didn't have to worry about him anymore. 

Joyce: Colin couldn't walk. His left leg was useless. So he used his right leg to scoot himself along the road to his bike, praying that the bear wasn't going to come flying out of the woods again. 

Dowler: And, uh, I got onto my bike, uh, which was a huge struggle, and I went to do my takeoff and, uh, and I fell over onto the other side, and I crashed. So that was pretty scary, and again, I'm telling myself, man, you gotta get it this time, right? It's your last chance. 

Joyce: The bike really was Colin's last chance. There was no cell service in the area, and he was four miles away from the logging camp. If he couldn't get back on the bike, there was no way out. 

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Joyce: After failing to get onto his bike the first time, Colin lay in the road for a minute, wondering if he had it in him to try again, or if he should just stay there until a logging crew came past. But it was noon, which meant that even if there was a crew out that day, it would be hours before they headed back to camp. And with the amount of blood he'd already lost, Colin knew he didn't have hours, so he heaved himself up and tried again. This time he managed to get onto the saddle. 

Dowler: I used my, my right paddle to, to push with force, and then my left leg was simply a weight or as little force as I needed to get my right pedal back up. Uh, then I coasted. Every opportunity I had, I coasted. Um, man, I remember, so there's kilometer markers, uh, as you go. And that's why I know I got mauled really close to the seven kilometer mark. And when I saw the five kilometer mark pass, you know, my, my heart sunk a little. I had the thought on the, on my ride back and, uh, you know, ‘I might be an amputee when this is all over, but I'm still going to try to make it, right?’ I didn't, I didn't think that I was gonna make it for sure, because I didn't know how I had left in me. 

Joyce: After the longest ride of his life, Colin finally made it back to the camp. He'd planned to scream for help and hope the camp cook heard him. But it turned out there was an entire logging crew there that day. Five guys. 

Dowler: So I came crashing down into the, uh, the stairs to the, to their mess hall. Um, and they had the, the door open, like the sliding door open with just the screen shut. And I landed my bike, like right in between, uh, the railings of the three or four steps to the landing. And I just yelled ‘help!’ And uh, they came out, and, it took them a moment to get over the shock of, uh, uh, the condition I was in. But then they rallied together and, uh, yeah, dragged me into their building and saved my life.

They got my leg all wrapped up. We got the tourniquet off. Then they would, uh, uh, just take turns, like, kneeling and putting pressure, uh, on, on the wound on my, um, on my flank there that, uh, in the words of Vito, their, like, official first aid attendant and camp cook, he said, ‘you, you could see things you're not supposed to see.’ 

Joyce: The loggers called in a helicopter to fly Colin out. By the time it landed, almost two hours had passed since the attack. And despite the crew’s best efforts, Colin had lost a lot of blood. 

Dowler: They got a couple of IVs going. I don't know exactly what type. Uh, they said to me, uh, that I am incredibly lucky that they have just recently, uh, been given permission, uh, to bring blood with them, to give transfusions on the spot. And they gave me two units of blood and said that without those units of blood, uh, that my odds would have been very poor of, uh, making it back to the hospital alive. 

Joyce: By midnight, Colin was in an operating room in Vancouver. His first surgery took six hours. A month later, he was still in the hospital dealing with infected wounds and nerve damage. The day after Colin's attack, conservation officers from the province went out to find and kill the bear. 

Dowler: They went to the spot, um, which they said was pretty freaking obvious, uh, where the spot was. And it had rained through the night. It was raining when they got there, but there was still enough blood that, um, they could see where the bear entered the bush. 

Joyce: They followed the blood trail into the woods, but after a while it petered out. So they regrouped and were headed back to the logging road when one of the officers smelled the bear. 

Dowler: And, uh, there's the bear 12 feet behind them. So he shot the bear and killed it. It was like, it was right there the whole time, uh, playing cat and mouse with those guys. Uh, the Sergeant told me, um, that from the description of my attack, and the way that bear behaved when they were looking for him, that he believes it was a predatory attack, uh, which is really rare for grizzly bears. 

Joyce: Knowing that, Colin feels super lucky just to be alive, but it's also hard not to think about what he could have done differently. 

Dowler: Should I have dropped my bike and backed away? Or would, uh, you know, me leaving my bike there encourage him to be further curious and continue to pursue me? Or do I get on my bike and try bicycling away or does that get him to start chasing me down? Like I just, I'm not sure that there's a right answer. I just know that I did get malled. Um, so if I could, if I could do it again, and I knew the outcome wouldn't be any worse, I would definitely try something different. But man, yeah, I wish I had that pepper spray. That, uh, that might've helped. 

Joyce: Stabbing a bear with a knife is dramatic. But bear experts say that focusing on the survival part of a story like Colin’s misses the bigger picture. Tom Smith is a wildlife biologist at Brigham Young university who studies bear attacks. 

Tom Smith: People that knife bears, that run from bears, that play dead, that climb trees—that's their only play because, what, they did not bring any kind of deterrent with them, and they have no other option. And you will see, ‘I think I'll outrun an animal here that can outrun the fastest Olympian,’ or, ‘I think I'll out-climb an animal that could out climb any human two to one. I think I'll, you know, I'll punch it—an animal that can, you know, shear off nine millimeter bolts with its teeth.’ These are bad choices. Not good choices. But they’re desperation moves by people that don't have any other play. 

Joyce: For someone who spends a lot of time in bear country, Tom doesn't have many crazy bear stories. He hasn't been mauled. He hasn't had to fight off a grizzly chewing on his leg. And sure, there's probably a little bit of luck to that, but there's also a science to staying safe in bear country. Don't hike alone. Make lots of noise. Avoid broadcasting strong smells. And most importantly, carry a deterrent. Tom says a lot of people want to argue with him over whether guns or bear spray are more effective. In response, Tom likes to tell a story. Back in the 70s when he started frequenting bear country, the only proven deterrent was a gun, which is effective if you have the skill to use it in a life or death situation. 

Smith: When I first came to Alaska in 1979, you know, some people I met, we were all hikers and out—back country people. I was going to take off on my own, and a guy shoved a .45-70 in my hand, and said, ‘Oh, you got to have this.’ And I said, ‘geez, I've never used that thing.’ And so he gave me like a two minute version like, you know, ‘here's where blah blah, blah.’ I mean, do you think that's really a good idea? Um, arming totally naive people in the ways of firearms, And sending them out? I, I don't think so. 

Joyce: But there weren't a lot of other options until the mid eighties, when it occurred to some researchers to try testing pepper spray on bears. Pepper spray had been around since the 60s, but people mostly used it for stray dogs. The researchers tweaked the formula and tried it on bears. Tom first encountered it not long after that, again up in Alaska. 

Smith: You know, I was there to mop up oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill. And the first time I ever heard of this stuff was when Exxon put bear spray in the hands of their workers on the [inaudible] coast. And then the, the, the stories, the kind of events—incidents—started trickling in that, uh, people were turning, you know, 800, 900 pound Brown bears with this stuff. 

Joyce: Bear spray, unlike a gun requires very little user skill. On most canisters, you just pull the safety tab, aim the can at the bear, and squeeze the nozzle. 

Smith: It's a very obnoxious chemical that's very, uh, you know, uh, overwhelming. And so the bears all of a sudden have been given the new mandate by you, which is to try to breathe and control their life, you know, and so you can get away while they're dealing with that. 

Joyce: Tom has actually studied how well bear spray works in encounters out in the wild, and the numbers are impressive. When bears are sprayed, they fully leave the area 90% of the time, and no one in the 80 some incidents Tom studied was seriously injured in an encounter when they used their spray. So, yeah, having bear spray probably would have helped Colin. He's still recovering from his injuries, and it's not clear if there's going to be lasting damage. The doctors told him he may never fully regain his ability to use his left leg, but he's determined to prove them wrong. Either way, it's going to be a long time before he's able to get back out in the woods. But despite the trauma that he's been through, he's still willing to entertain the idea of someday summiting the mountain named after his grandfather. 

Dowler: Well, I'm not, I'm not sure I'm, I'm, this might be enough for me to say, ‘I'm putting, putting Doogie behind me,’ or if I have a full recovery, you know, there's a chance that I say, ‘I'm going to do this,’ but I dunno. It might, it might not be worth it. It might be nice just to look at it from the view. 

Joyce: One thing is for sure though, if Colin does do any more adventuring in bear country, he'll be packing his bear spray. And not in an outside pocket .

Frick-Wright: That’s Stephanie Joyce. A huge thanks to Jason Daley, Outside survival columnist, who interviewed Collin. This episode was produced by Stephanie Joyce with editing from Mike Roberts. Sound designed by Robbie Carver. This episode was brought to you by Bob's red mill, making ingredients that are the backbone of proper nutrition for athletes. More at Bobsredmill.com/outside where you can enter to win prizes. The outside podcast is a production of Outside Magazine and PRX. We'll be back next week.

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.