A wildlife officer who rescued two tourists after a bear ripped apart their canoe in the NWT wilderness says help arrived moments before tragedy could have struck.
The married couple, from the United States, had their canoe and tent attacked by a grizzly bear at remote Hanbury Lake, 480 km east of Yellowknife in the territory’s barrenlands.
The pair used an InReach communications device – which sends an SOS to a global search and rescue centre – to summon help after the attack on Sunday.
RCMP and two Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) wildlife officers responded, arriving by helicopter on Monday.
“It was like a scene from a movie,” said Lee Mandeville, who arrived with fellow wildlife officer Taylor Summerfield.
“When we arrived at the scene, we saw the couple stranded on the point with rapid running water behind them, and the bear 30 or 40 feet away and pretty aggressive-looking. I think we arrived just in time.
“Food is scarce up in the barrenlands. The bear had an opportunity, went in, destroyed the canoe and the tent, took their food, and was eating it and watching them. They were using their bear spray but they ran out by the time we arrived.”
The canoe was of a canvas, fold-up variety, making it more easily destroyed, Mandeville said. He believes the bear may have imagined it to be a food container.
“It’s such a scarce area,” he said. “Bears around that area aren’t necessarily the same as those in BC or in the mountains. They are constantly on the search for food and they can get pretty aggressive when they have an opportunity.”
The tourists were not identified in an RCMP news release on Wednesday.
“The bear was successfully destroyed and the travellers safely brought back to Yellowknife,” said RCMP, who praised the tourists for having a communication device with them.
Police in the NWT routinely issue news releases about travellers without such devices as cautionary tales.
“The travellers were well prepared and had planned to bring a communication device with them on their trip, which definitely helped them with their misadventure,” said Staff Sergeant Yannick Hamel of the Yellowknife detachment.
“We can’t stress enough the importance to be prepared when venturing in the wilderness as anything can happen.”
Shooting bear ‘a last resort’
Mandeville, who can’t recall the last time he heard of a bear destroying a canoe, said the animal in question was destroyed in part because it was believed to have a track record of similar, aggressive behaviour in the region.
“That bear, we suspect, has been a problem animal for the past few years with other expeditions,” he said. “We decided we would put the bear down.
“If we have a problem animal that is undeterrable and you can’t get it away from your camp – that is causing a risk to human life or property – that’s when we decide to dispatch an animal. It’s a last resort.”
A file photo of a canoe in the NWT barrenlands. The bear had been a problem in the area before, wildlife officer Lee Mandeville said. Gerold Sigl/NWT Tourism
Mandeville said the tourists had no firearms with which to repel the bear once their bear spray was exhausted.
He said travellers planning similarly remote adventures in the NWT can contact ENR first for advice, including the correct equipment to use, and should always make sure “communications are number one” – as these tourists did.
“Have a point of contact,” he said, “and make sure people know what your plan A, plan B, and plan C are.”
Mandeville, who took the door off a helicopter in order to shoot the bear from the air once the travellers were safe, described acting through pure adrenaline in the moment.
“You do a lot of training and you have good coworkers to learn from, and good guidance,” he told Cabin Radio on Wednesday.
“To use all those tools that you’ve learned to do something like that is pretty rewarding.”