A Scream In The Wild

Alone and pinned under a grizzly, Colin Dowler reached for a pocketknife and struggled for his life

Omar Mouallem Updated: Jan 11, 2021 14:18:15 IST
A Scream In The Wild Illustration by Ryan Garcia

Ever since he was a kid growing up on Quadra Island (approximately two kms east of Vancouver Island off Canada’s west coast), Colin Dowler pushed himself to do more, go faster and scale bigger heights, despite having a small physique and a nagging congenital knee disease. Jenifer, his wife of 16 years, often found herself telling him to slow down. When he skied, he raced the double-black-diamond runs. When he rode his mountain bike, it was on the bumpiest terrain. If he wasn’t a little scared doing something, he didn’t think he was doing it right.

In July 2019, to celebrate his 45th birthday, he booked off a week from his job as a maintenance manager for the Vancouver Island Health Authority in Campbell River on eastern Vancouver, Island, where he lived with Jenifer and one of their daughters. He planned to spend two days on his own, scouting a route he’d eventually use to climb Mount Doogie Dowler with his older brother, Paul. The peak, standing around 2,000 metres in the Coast Mountains in southwestern British Columbia, was named after Colin’s late grandfather. It had always been a point of pride for their family that Grandpa Doogie was immortalized in nature. But none of the Dowlers had ever climbed to its summit.

Jenifer didn’t like the sound of her husband’s latest plan. She was used to Dowler going on solo adventures, but this time he’d boat to an obscure bay, bike an unpopulated road, hike through grizzly-bear country and camp overnight, alone. There was too much room for disaster.

“If I’m not home by eight o’clock Monday evening, you should start to worry,” he said.

Jenifer laughed. It was practically her husband’s motto.

The night before his journey Colin packed sparingly. He ditched his usual tent to experiment with a bivvy sack—a person-sized portable shelter. He filled the remaining pockets of his bag with a handheld GPS, hiking poles, his homemade venison pepperoni and a few other essentials. Instead of his usual Swiss Army knife, he took a three-inch stainless steel pocketknife given to him by his dad.

Jeniferwho was planning her own overnight trip with some of her familyand their daughter were still in bed when Dowler left his home at 7 a.m., his bike and boat in tow.

The weather that Sunday, 28 July was nice, which meant the parking spots at Campbell River’s boat launches would fill up fast. Colin intended to stop at a tackle shop for bear spray, but as he thought about the time it would take, he drove past it, deciding the likelihood of a bear attack was small.

He knew he couldn’t completely rule out the possibility, though. He’d had two grizzly sightings and countless black bear encounters in the past. But he’d always escaped unscathed. Colin pulled into the Campbell River port and quickly launched and set off in his motorboat. More than an hour later, he arrived at Ramsay Arm, an inlet on the mainland, and found a spot to tie the vessel near a logging camp.

As a former worker in the logging industry, Colin knew it was good practice to check in at the mess hall. “Is there anything you need?” Vito Giannandrea, the camp cook asked him.

“Bear spray,” said Dowler. After finding a can, Vito offered him a ride, part way in. They trucked along an overgrown logging road until the forest got too thick. As Colin leaned his mountain bike against a bush to retrieve on the way back, Vito took a picture of him with his phone. “So we have something to put on the milk cartons if you don’t come home,” he joked.

With the bear mace in one pocket and the knife from his dad in the other, Colin started hiking. After traversing steep terrain and thick forest for about an hour, he started marking his trail with blue ribbons. He made lots of noise to ward off any curious creatures. Near the end of the day, he realized the canister of mace was gone. It must have slipped out of his pocket when he had stopped to rest and check his position.

But he didn’t want to risk getting caught in the dark looking for the spray. Instead, he spent an hour searching for a place to camp, eventually settling on a flat, dry surface with branches low enough to set up his bivvy sack. Colin strung his food and clothes high up in a nearby tree, and crawled into the bivvy by 9:30 p.m., satisfied with what he’d accomplished that day.

The next morning, Colin tried without luck to locate the spray on his way down the mountain. He gave up by the time he recovered his bike, then carried on, pedalling and daydreaming about getting home early to enjoy some family time and a beer or two.

As he passed a seven-kilometre marker for camp-bound logging trucks, he came around a bend and suddenly clenched his brakes—a mangy grizzly stood in the middle of the narrow road, 30 metres away. Colin immediately announced his presence, “Hey bear,” he bellowed. He then calculated his chances of turning around for a quick escape, but the bear could easily tackle him by the time he picked up speed.

The animal looked from him to the bush, back and forth, and then began heading in his direction. Colin flung his backpack off his shoulders, snatched a hiking pole and extended it in front of him. As the bear approached, he started to make out its features. The bear was about five years old, nine feet from toes to snout and 160 kgs, nearly three times Colin’s weight. Although it showed no signs of aggression, its curiosity was piqued.

The bear walked along the opposite side of the road, coming closer and closer, until the gap between them closed to 10 metres. Colin carefully stepped off his bike, which seemed to startle the animal. It shuddered from the paws up to its rump, then continued to stalk closer. Colin shielded himself with his bike as the bear went past him. Then, suddenly, it stopped, turned and looked right at him.

Colin calmly raised a hiking pole and pushed it against the bear’s big forehead, right between the eyes. This held the bear in place, until the rubber tip rolled down and off its muzzle. Before Colin could try again, the bear chomped on the pole. “Oh, come on now, we don’t need to do this,” he said, careful not to react aggressively. “I’m your friend.”

Colin let the pole drop. He tossed his backpack beside the bear, hoping the pepperoni scent would entice him away. One sniff, and the bear turned back with his paw in the air, then delivered a light swat that Colin blocked with his bike. Then he dodged a second, heavier swat, and another and another, each stronger than the last.

After the bear again raised a threatening paw high in the air, Colin threw his bike at it, but the creature barely stumbled. Instead, it lunged forwards and with one swift chomp snatched Colin’s flank in its mouth, its teeth in his abdomen and back. The bear then lifted Colin and carried him to the edge of the road. Colin felt no pain, just warmth.

He didn’t resist, thinking only that if it carried him into the bush, he’d be too incapacitated to get back to the road and would die before anyone found him.

The grizzly placed him by the ditch and lifted its head for another bite, sinking its teeth once again into Colin’s abdomen and back. There was no roar, no growl, just huffing while it chewed . Colin tried to gouge its eyes— grabbing at the fur on its face and poking as hard as he could into the bear’s left eye. Agitated, the bear swung him 180 degrees, put Colin down again, and hoisted itself high and then down to chew into Colin’s left leg. Over and over, the bear lifted his head and then took hold of Colin’s leg again.

Thoughts of leaving behind his family, of missing every part of his daughters’ lives, raced through Colin’s mind. He regretted that he’d put himself in such a dangerous position.

As he tried to pry the animal’s jaws open, saliva trailed off its yellow teeth. It chomped through his hand. “Stop!” Colin screamed. “Why? Stop!” It didn’t make sense. He knew that grizzlies typically only attack briefly, then leave humans alone. When would this end?

The bear moved on to taste his other leg. As he heard the sound of his femur grating in its teeth, Colin remembered the knife in his pocket. But as he reached for it, the grizzly hit a nerve. Colin arched in pain and yelped.

Okay, he thought, I’ll play dead. But the bear hit another leg nerve and Colin screamed even louder. I can’t play dead while I’m screaming. I have to get the knife.

As the bear leaned across Colin’s body to continue chewing his leg, the weight of its chest was on Colin’s stomach, pinning both his arms to his left side, opposite the side his knife was on.

With all his strength Colin managed to wiggle his left hand between their bodies and into his pocket. He pulled the knife out and opened the blade, inadvertently slicing the bear’s chest as he pulled his left arm free.

Colin stabbed the bear’s neck as fast and strongly as he could. Blood gushed from the wound. Even the grizzly seemed surprised. “Now you’re bleeding too, bear,” he said.

The bear stepped off him and walked slowly away, trailing blood on the gravel. As it disappeared into the forest, Colin assessed the damage to his body. His sides and legs were riddled with punctures. A femoral artery wound in his left leg drenched the lower half of his body in blood. He had to stop the bleeding. Colin cut his left shirt sleeve with his knife and tied it around his left leg. Once it was tightly knotted, he flopped on to his backside and pain-fully made his way to his bike. He pulled himself on to it and concentrated on resting his feet on the pedals.

He collapsed off the bike after one push.

He got back on, and pedalling with his right leg, he started down the logging road, keeping a tight grip on his knife. He felt his seat warming as blood from his wounds flowed down his back. As he focused on his breathing, he felt his odds improve.

He pushed ahead for 30 minutes until the road sloped toward the logging camp. He bounced over the bumps, all the way to the mess hall where he fell off the bike onto his side.

grisly-bear-attack-survivor_011121021629.jpgA July hike this year on Vancovuer Island—with bear spray on his belt. Photo courtesy of Colin Dowler

Colin flung himself onto the landing, legs flopping on the stairs. “Help! Call a helicopter. I’ve been mauled by a grizzly,” he yelled through a screen door. Five men, including Vito, found Colin streaked with blood and dirt, smelling like an animal.

The logging crew performed lifesaving first aid. And, they kept Colin talking for 40 minutes until a medevac helicopter arrived. He received two units of blood at the camp, and was then airlifted to Vancouver General Hospital.  

Colin was in surgery for six-and-a-half hours. Doctors made an eight-inch incision to repair the artery wound in his left leg, and treated more than 50 gashes and bite wounds. In all, he needed close to 200 staples and stitches. 

In late August 2019, Colin was transferred to his local hospital, and soon after started working on his rehabilitation, including physiotherapy, to rebuild the strength in his badly injured left leg.

The damage to his femoral artery and other injuries were serious, but the more enduring injury was to the nerves in the left leg. Colin saw a specialist and was told that a large nerve for an important quadriceps muscle had been completely severed by the bear. It was questionable whether he would be able to walk naturally again.

“Is there anything I can do?” Colin asked the specialist with stubborn optimism. He was told that the nerve could possibly regenerate as long as he listened to his physiotherapist.

So, Colin worked hard. When he visited his specialist again in January 2020, the nerve was beginning to work again. So much so that in early February, Colin ran 200 metres on a treadmill.

Then there was no stopping him. The treadmill, stairclimber—anything that would help him regain strength. It worked: Colin is again jogging and mountain biking the trails near his house, and in late July this year, he was able go on a backpack-laden alpine camping trip with his wife.

The attack had exacted an emotional toll. “In the beginning I was crying almost daily,” Colin says. “It wasn’t in self-pity; thoughts of the attack and my recovery were completely consuming. But, I also had tears of joy. The way people came together to help me. How lucky I have been.”

“And I now always carry pepper spray when I’m out in the bush,” he says.

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