Articles

Grizzled Gentleman

A yapping cur or a bullet in the chest will move a grizzly to murder. But he will let sleeping men lie

HOWARD O’HAGAN January 1 1949
Articles

Grizzled Gentleman

A yapping cur or a bullet in the chest will move a grizzly to murder. But he will let sleeping men lie

HOWARD O’HAGAN January 1 1949

Grizzled Gentleman

A yapping cur or a bullet in the chest will move a grizzly to murder. But he will let sleeping men lie

HOWARD O’HAGAN

THE GRIZZLY, stepping from the timber, moved confidently across the mountain meadow. There was no mistaking that he

was a grizzly. For one thing, it was grizzly country, high on the headwaters of the Smoky River in northern Alberta, above the usual range of black or brown bears.

More than that, he had the typical toed-in grizzly walk and the humped shoulders overtopping the flat head. He held his head low with its tufts of ears and its red, myopic eyes set in a dish-shaped face. Walking, he swung it from side to side, slowly, much like the weighted heads of animal toys that children used to have for their play.

As he walked, pausing now and again to sniff the air, the grizzled, shaggy coat rose with the tension of his shoulder muscles and when they relaxed fell back under its own weight. Scaling up to 800 or 900 pounds, he moved in assurance that nothing on four legs would or could dispute his passage. It was October and he was well-furred, full-fleshed, ready for his winter sleep. Still, he could do with another morsel, say a marmot or a gopher whose burrow he might scent here or there among the willows.

The long-jawed man with the rifle, watching the grizzly through glasses from the trail above, was Jack Brewster of Jasper, Alta. Had the grizzly

been given to reading outdoor magazines, he would have been uneasy, to put it mildly. Jack was a guide and hunter from away back. Mountain sheep were his specialty, but he would not turn down a good bear hide, especially if, as in the present instance, he had with him in Jus hunting party a doctor who had some vacant room for that hide before the fireplace of his home in Detroit.

The grizzly by this time had found his gopher hole and had dug himself shoulder-deep into it, scattering great clods of earth yards. Stalking the bear, Jack and the doctor were followed by Felix Plant, the second guide, and that was for the best.

The wind was coming up the valley from the grizzly who was still head down in his gopher hole. But as though he sensed a foreign presence, the grizzly backed out of the hole. Before the bear had time to look around, the doctor fired. It was not a good shot. It caught the grizzly in the flank, too far back to be mortal.

With a roar the grizzly stood up. He swiped at the air, then at his wound, with his mighty longclawed forearms. Instead of charging, and before the doctor could get in another shot, he dived into a nearby thicket. Jack and Felix, without their hunter, went after him.

Naturally, neither man wished to enter the thicket where the advantage lay with their quarry. Felix passed behind it while Jack Brewster knelt, rifle ready, in case the bear charged.

He did. He came roaring. Jack to this day remembers the open mouth, the white fangs, the froth flying from the lips. He saw into the very back of the grizzly’s mouth and it was there that he held his rifle sights. He squeezed the trigger. The rifle misfired.

Felix, with the roar, had rushed from the rear. He was now above Jack and a bit to one side. The bullet from his heavy Ross rifle slammed into the grizzly in front of the shoulders and broke his neck. He fell only a length from where Jack Brewster was kneeling.

This was the grizzly in his traditional role—hunted, wounded, coming in for the kill. But the grizzly is not tradition’s invariable servant. Obviously, a wounded grizzly will try to get away or he will attack. Here he did both.

A different sort of encounter came the way of Ed Macdonald in 1939, a year after Brewster’s experience. Macdonald is a national park warden out of Brewster’s home town of Jasper.

He was packing supplies

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for the summer to his cabin on the Rocky River.

A mile from his cabin, his horse shied and threw Macdonald from the saddle. His heavy, hobnailed boot caught in the stirrup and hung him up. Before he freed himself, his horse had kicked him, smashing his hipbone. It took 24 hours for Macdonald, dragging bis shattered limb, to crawl the mile to his cabin.

During that pain-wracked crawl, Macdonald learned the cause of his predicament. A grizzly was in the bush. The horse had smelled him and shied. Macdonald saw, as he pulled himself along, the outlines of the grizzly’s pads. All night, the bear stayed close. Macdonald heard his breathing and twigs snap beneath the grizzly’s weight.

Yet the grizzly, a true gentleman this time, did not attack. A man was down.

Nor is this account unique. Another man I know, Doug Jeffery, lying in the open in his blankets, had a grizzly walk over him in the dark. Rising up and lighting a match he saw in the light scuff the tracks beside him.

Again, I recall a September packpony trip I made into the Tonquin Valley, near the upper Fraser in British Columbia. We called at the cabin of Warden Goodair, an old-time cowboy and sourdough. We found his evening meal cold on the table, the fire burned to ashes in the stove and his watch stopped at 20 minutes after seven above his bed. We supposed Goodair had gone out to look after his horses. Because he had not returned we sent word in to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Jasper.

Two days later they found him under a spruce tree. They also found in the snow the tracks of a she-grizzly and her two cubs. Goodair’s ribs had been caved in by a terrific blow and, dying, he had held his handkerchief against the wound. The police reasoned that, during the foray after his horses, he had come between the grizzly and her cubs. After knocking him down, she did not further molest him.

The she-grizzly had attacked from fear, protecting her cubs. A black bear may leave her cubs, a grizzly never.

The Worst Killer

The grizzly is a boxer, not a wrestler. He stands up and lashes out. One blow of his massive forearm will sunder a man’s head from his shoulders or break the neck of a bull.

Old-timers in the Alberta foothills still tell the story of the English rancher who imported a prize Hereford bull. One morning he found the bull dead in the pasture. His neck was broken. Following a trail of blood to a creek bottom two miles away, the rancher came upon the body of a grizzly. He was deeply gored, his lungs punctured, but before he died he had left the field, a victor. One would like to be able to reconstruct the details of that epic of the green hills, fought beneath the stars, and of the bear, out-weighed by several hundred pounds, come down to test his mettle against this horned ruminant imported into his domain—for the foothills and western prairies with their buffalo herds had been a hunting ground of the grizzly until the white man came.

Many a trapper’s cabin has furnished further proof of the grizzly’s strength. Unable to enter through the door, barred in its owner’s absence, the grizzly will tear the logs from their

supports around a window to make room for his shoulders, literally turning the cabin inside out.

The grizzly has killed men, more men than any other quadruped on the North American continent. Most of these killings were in the early days when curiosity prompted him to haunt camp and trail. Then the hunter could often throw his fur cap at the grizzly, causing the hear to rear after it, thus exposing his vulnerable breast to a heart shot.

These tales have become legend. The Encyclopaedia Britannica lists the grizzly as “the most dangerous and largest of all living bears, its only rival being the polar bear.” This statement ignores the Alaska brown bear, not generally regarded as a grizzly, which scales up to 2,000 pounds, twice the grizzly’s weight. It ignores, too, the circumstance that the smaller black and brown bear, due to a propensity for frequenting garbage dumps, golf

courses, village lanes and campsites, is a more likely danger to humans than the grizzly who, though he may be found, as in Yellowstone, by the roadside, prefers the lonely reaches of the high country. There, in the tilted wilderness and under the snowy peaks of the Continental Divide from Mexico to the Yukon, he has his home.

“Ursus Horribilis”—the very name is fanged. It was given to him in 1805, after Lewis and Clark, sent West by John Jacob Astor, told of the “white (grizzled) bears” they had met in crossing the Rockies. Yet today there are, it is estimated, only about 600 or 700 grizzlies in the United States, mostly along the borders of Montana.

In Alberta, however, following the headwaters of the Athabaska and Smoky Rivers and on the adjacent upper reaches of the Fraser and Canoe in British Columbia, where I have known him since my youth, his numbers are not noticeably decreasing.

Weighing not much more than a pound and a half when in January or February he is born in a snow-choked cave or under a fallen log which his mother has selected for her winter sleep, he grows in three or four years to a maturity of 600 to 1,000 pounds.

Here in these mountains he lives as always, solitary and roaming, feeding off roots and bulbs, willow shoots and berries, mice, gophers and rock rabbits, only once in a while, through aberrant impulse or disposition, felling large game. In the fall, when the berries are gone, and snow covers the scent of his prey and frost impedes his digging, he goes into hibernation, and here I am speaking of the grizzly in Canada. In a warmer clime, some authorities claim, the male does not den up for the winter though the female may hole up to have her cubs. On the hibernation question many zoologists disagree. Some maintain that the bear simply rests for a few days at a time; others that he stays in a deep sleep most of the winter to escape conditions hard and unpleasant.

Like man, the grizzly appears to have a sense of property rights, to regard as his own the yield of the range on which he travels. Like man, he stands on his hind legs and surveys the world around him with a troubled brow. Indeed, the track of his hind foot resembles that of an unshod human.

Timid Not Cautious

He has a love of life, equalled by the strength with which he will fight to live. The late George Hargreaves, of the Hargreaves Brothers at Mount Robson, B.C., mountain man and hunter, told me that he had once caught a grizzly in a trap. When he reached the trap, the bear was gone. What remained, clamped in its steel jaws, was an entire foreleg, the shoulder tendons still adhering to it, wrenched from the body in a tremendous effort to be free.

Samuel Johnson, somewhat of a bear himself, observed that “women are timid but not cautious.” The remark, I think, also holds for the grizzly. I have in mind two instances.

Early one May, Benny Fournier, a French-Canadian trapper, took me up Cache Creek in central British Columbia. It was rough country where avalanches had cut wide swathes through the standing forests. On these slides we hoped to find our grizzly. Fresh from his winter den, his pads would be soft. He would be indisposed to travel far.

We found many signs and we hunted for eight days but the two or three grizzlies who had shared the valley had fled at the first scent of our approach.

To offset that there is the experience of Old MacNamara, a trapper, who lived across from me on Yellowhead Lake, B.C. It was in the spring, while he was fixing up a cabin. He slept in his bedroll on the earthen floor with only a sheet of canvas covering the doorway.

About midnight he was awakened by a draught of air. He had an odd feeling, a feeling of being crowded. He smelt what he described as “a warm beastlike smell.” The canvas in the doorway had fallen back into place but in the night’s dim radiance he could see a grizzly on hind legs, working his way around the walls, trying to escape again to the open air. MacNamara reached for his rifle beside him and pumped all six bullets into the dark bulk. The grizzly coughed. He clawed the logs. He worked himself between the wall and the stove where the old trapper’s last bullet found him. As n final gesture of defiance, he kicked over the stove,

emptied its hot coals onto the blankets.

After lighting a candle and dousing the smoldering blankets MacNamara examined the grizzly, a silvertip, an old fellow, his tusks worn down. He was poor, weighing less than 600 pounds.

The grizzly, though hungry after hibernation, had not tried to attack the trapper. And so I say the gentleman of the high country will “play the game” if offered half a chance. I will add that I, like untold others, have walked thousands of miles unarmed in grizzly country. I have not been attacked, though I have encountered grizzlies on and off the trail. Nor have I heard or read of any unprovoked attacks.

They React to Yappers

I would emphasize the word “unprovoked.” It is well to remember that, being a gentleman, the grizzly resents intimacies and annoyances.

One morning up the Snake Indian in Alberta a man whom I will call Gus went out to run his horses in. He took his small brown dog who flushed a grizzly. The grizzly took after this piece of yapping impudence. The dog made straight for his master and his master made for a tree, remembering that grizzlies, unlike their brown and black cousins, cannot climb. Their yellow claws are not curved but straight, their weight is too great.

The tree was not all it might have been but, as Gus said later, “I would have climbed a blade of grass.” The grizzly shook the tree in anger, and clawed at Gus. Now Gus carried a .22 revolver and he shot into the grizzly until, as he put it, “There was a collar of blood around his neck.” The grizzly kept after him half an hour or more, apparently not bothered by the lead in his neck and shoulders. Then he ambled away. When Gus got home the dog was waiting for him,.

Another hunter, who has been in on the kill of more than 80 of these bears, told me that never once had he known one to charge. Sometimes the bullet goes entirely through the bear’s body, tearing a great hole as it breaks out. It is then in that direction, away from the hunter, that the grizzly looks for his adversary.

Perhaps at this late date no reconciliation is possible between grizzly and man. Yet one day above the green valley of the Miette River I wondered. I came upon fresh tracks and saw where a grizzly had paused to kill and eat a porcupine. Of the animals of the forest only a bear can make a dainty morsel of the quilled waddler. He slips his paws under the porkie’s belly and flips it helpleas on its back. The porkie’s skin lay there before me, turned neatly inside out, like a glove discarded.

I followed on. The trail led out of the timber, across the alplands, into the sunset. There, on the very summit of the pass, the grizzly waited for me, upstanding ears outlined against the crimson sky, his grizzled coat fringed with its flame. He had reared up, arms hanging, from the gopher hole he had been excavating and a clod of earth was balanced on his nose.

I carried no rifle.

The grizzly waited. The trail led to within 60 feet of him. then turned away. His ear flicked, a forearm moved. His nose twitched and the clod of earth fell to the ground. Perhaps he did not like my smell.

As I passed by him, I looked over my shoulder. Still standing he stared into the sun with intent, beady eyes. He seemed puzzled, about to utter a word in question.

I swear that had I spoken, he would have answered. I lacked the faith, it