This Man Fought a Grizzly Bear with a Pocketknife
After losing his bear spray, Colin Dowler was caught with nothing but a tiny Buck knife
Colin Dowler wanted to go on an adventure for his 45th birthday, so in July, he decided to scout out a route up Canada’s Mount Doogie Dowler, a distinctive, 7,000-foot peak as jagged as houndstooth overlooking Heriot Bay that is named for his grandfather, a longtime store owner and postmaster in the area. Colin boated from Quadra Island to a logging camp on the coast of mainland British Columbia, below the peak. From the camp, he biked his way up the remote two-track logging road as far as he could and bushwhacked partway up the mountain, where he spent the night in the wild.
The hike was uneventful, and he made it back to his bike the next day, ready for an easy ride back to his boat. Less than a mile later, Colin was standing face to face with a grizzly.
Here’s his story, as told to Outside.
Outside Podcast: The Wrong Way to Fight Off a Bear
As soon as I got out of the bush and onto my mountain bike, I was on the home stretch. I was excited about celebrating my birthday when I got back.
Peddling away, I came around a bend, and there was a grizzly bear, about a hundred feet in front of me. So I stopped and said, “Hey bear,” because that’s what you do when you see one.
He looked into the bush, looked back up the road, and started walking my way. I kept talking to him. I decided not to turn around to get out of there, but in hindsight, maybe I should have.
The grizzly was pretty close, and my bear spray was gone. It fell out of my backpack somewhere on the mountain. So I grabbed one of my hiking poles and extended it to use as some sort of deterrent. I was still straddling my bike in the hopes that the bear would just step off the trail.
It’s a logging road, so it was basically two tire marks with a bump in the middle. He continued to saunter up the road toward me but stayed in his lane. He ended up getting pretty close, maybe 20 feet away. It made me nervous that he hadn’t left yet.
I stepped off my bike, and he kind of shuddered, like he was a little bit jumpy in that moment. He kept approaching until his head was parallel with my front tire, and as he walked past, he dipped his head down. We made a little bit of eye contact, and I looked away, because eye contact didn’t really seem like something I wanted to do.
I remember thinking as he was walking by, Man, this would be cool to video. I’d have footage of a bear walking just clean by me and carrying on his way.
He kept walking by until his rump was almost past my rear tire. And then he did a 180-degree turn.
I spin around, standing with my mountain bike between us. He shuddered again and started walking toward me. I started backing up and talking to him again. I was just trying to speak nicely to the bear in hopes that he would change his mind.
I held out my hiking pole as he approached. I ended up poking him right in the top of the head. He pushed into it, did a flip move with his head that rolled off the pole, and got his mouth onto it. We had a tug-of-war, until he let go of it and started closing in on me again.
I dropped the pole and kept backing up. I flung my backpack between us, hopeful that some food in one of the outside pockets would keep him busy for a bit. He stopped and took a quick sniff, but after maybe half a second, he was coming toward me again.
Then he began doing very slow, deliberate swats at my bike. The first one was pretty mild, but then they got more powerful. As he swatted, I threw my bike at him, and he got briefly hung up on it, but then he lunged forward and grabbed me between my ribs and my left hip.
That’s when it really sank in—I was in trouble.
He picked me up by my side. It was painful and hot and weird. He carried me that way for about 50 feet. I remember thinking that if he carried me into the bush, I was a goner for sure.
He got me to the edge of the road and started to settle in on my abdomen, shaking me a little bit as he chewed. In my head, I thought of doing something from the movies, like gouging his eyes and hanging on. The eye poke lasted about as long as the snap of a finger. I don’t really know what happened after that, but my guess is that he didn’t like getting poked in the eye, so he shook me.
That spun me 180 degrees, so my legs were in the ditch and my upper body on the road. He started chewing on my left thigh. He would bite and stop and bite. I could see his big yellow teeth and his drool. I stuck my thumbs in his cheeks, gouging in and trying to peel his mouth off. I don’t think he liked that, so he bit my hand.
I tried to play dead, but I couldn’t, because he would bite in and I’d start screaming again. The grating sound while he chewed on my leg was like a dog chewing on a bone.
I wondered how all of this was going to end: Is he going to eat me alive, or is he going to do so much damage that I’m going to slowly die? Then I remembered that I had a knife.
It was the knife my dad gave me. I think that knife was the first random gift he’s given me in my adult life. I think they were 70 or 75 percent off at Canadian Tire.
I crawled my fingers into my pocket and popped open my little knife—a two-and-three-quarter-inch blade—and then slid it underneath the bear’s chest. Unbeknownst to me, I learned later, I had left a good-sized gash there.
Then I gave a really good heave and stabbed his neck. He immediately stopped biting. A big gush of blood came out of him. I had a surge of adrenaline, and I said, “Now you’re bleeding, too, bear!”
He got off me and walked down the middle of the road. I remember being disappointed that he moved too far for me to stab him a whole bunch of times. Then he pooped, at least twice, and peed. It was clear he was suffering some trauma, too. He walked down the road and past me about 50 feet, to where he originally came out of the bush.
I was thinking, I’m dying, he’s dying, and I don’t have much time here.
I used my knife to cut my shirt off to make a tourniquet. It felt like my clothes were bunched up on my leg as I tried to pull the tourniquet up—but that was the meat sticking out of my flesh. That was pretty disturbing. Finally, I pulled the tourniquet up past all that and cinched it down.
I’m pretty sure at this point that the bear was gone. So I skidded on my butt to my bike and got on, which was a huge struggle. I tried to take off but fell over. That was pretty scary. I was telling myself that I had to get it right, because it was my last chance.
Going down the road, I used my right pedal to push and my left leg as a weight to balance. I had to put a little force on it a few times to get my right pedal back up. I coasted as much as I could.
It was an effort of endurance, and I dug down deep. As I rode back, I thought, I might be an amputee when this is all over, but I’m still gonna try to make it.
Finally, I made it to the logging camp, where the crew called in an air ambulance. That saved my life.
I thought the bear might have been small and mangy. But when conservation officers caught him a few days later, they said he was a large, healthy four- or five-year-old grizzly. He played cat and mouse with them, too. The sergeant told me that, from the description of my attack and the way that bear behaved when they were looking for him, he believes it was a predatory attack, which is rare for grizzly bears.
There was a substantial gaping wound on my left leg. I’ve definitely got some nerve damage and have lost some muscle. It may take a couple years to figure out where I’m going to end up.
I don’t know if I should have done anything different. Should I have dropped my bike and backed away, or would leaving my bike there have encouraged him to pursue me? Should I have gotten on my bike and tried to ride away, or does that get him to start chasing me down?
I’m not sure that there is a right answer. I just know that I got mauled. I’ve got a feeling that my solo trips into grizzly country are behind me, depending on what my wife says.