I never carry a second shot in my pocket but I did that day thankfully. With no bear spray or other means of defense, my last chance came down to reloading my bear banger and firing a second shot. This was no bluff charge. I was nearly 500 metres away when the bear spotted me. In the time that I drew my bear banger from my right pants pocket, the animal had already sprinted down through a cliff band and through a shallow creek, water bursting into the air.
The first shot was flawless: it exploded above the ground with a loud blast between me and the grizzly. The bear should have run away. Instead, it crouched with its belly on the ground, ears back and eyes intently fixed on me. Within a heartbeat, the animal – now clearly a predator – resumed its sprint toward me.
There is so much to tell about those precious few seconds before contact that I cannot adequately express here. The most pressing task was to reload and fire again. Sounds simple. I’ve used bear bangers for 25 years. Now consider that I had forded the icy Akai River countless times that morning. It was raining. I had just taken off my soaking gloves to take some pictures of the vast meadow. In short, I was really cold and could barely use my frozen hands. However, this wasn’t my only challenge.
When the grizzly bear jumped up and started running for me again, my brain must have unleashed a tsunami of adrenalin. My perspective changed. Suddenly, it was someone else who desperately needed to reload their banger. The rain stopped. Time became unimportant. I noticed that this other person removed the spent shot but couldn’t thread the next one. Again and again, they fumbled with the device. I became aware of my daughter’s face and recognized that she was pleading with me to come home. I noticed, as though from a great height how beautiful the alpine meadow was with the clouds starting to break up, and how amazing this place truly was! A feeling of acceptance flooded in.
Heat emerged from the centre of my chest and sprung out through my hands and in a flash there was only one perspective again and I realized that I hadn’t pulled the firing pin back. In one smooth movement I pulled it back, threaded the second shot, and discharged the banger right over the bear’s head. The bear was a few breaths away when the shot detonated behind and startled it.
As the bear turned and ran, I realized that I had just saved my life for the time being but that this aggressive bear would likely return in a moment. I sprinted toward higher ground and retrieved my last two shots out of the top of my pack at the first opportunity. Fortunately, the grizzly bear didn’t return but I knew that I had to alter my trip plans with only two bear banger shots remaining and 15 days to go. Instead of continuing northwest to resupply at an outfitter’s camp, I decided to packraft down the Prophet River to reach the Alaska Highway within 5 days – the quickest way home (to see my daughter).
Jay Honeyman, Biologist and Executive Director of Bearconflict.org, tells me that each encounter can be as individual as the bear itself. You never know; it could be a well behaved bear but that even they have their bad days! The banger wasn’t a poor idea but they can have unpredictable results including fire hazard. They aren’t the best option for close distance encounters either. If I had bear spray ready to use in this instance, I could have given the bear a good blast before any contact. With its momentum, the bear may have run into me but would have quickly broken contact with burning pepper in its senses. Since I was able to use a bear banger twice, I’m sure I would have been able to effectively use bear spray in this encounter.
This was a good lesson for me. I no longer travel in bear country without at least carrying pepper spray. I work and recreate alone in bear country. Traveling in a group isn’t always an option but I do make more of an effort now to join others. Since this incident, I have encountered another grizzly bear while on a solo trail run. This time, as soon as the bear huffed at me, the spray was ready in my hand. I spoke firmly to the bear and backed off but I think it was more interested in the square kilometre of ripe buffaloberry that surrounded it.
For research on the effectiveness of bear spray click the following link: Efficacy of Bear Deterrent Spray_Smith et al_JWM_2008