‘Absolute terror.’ The first time I caught a grizzly bear
It was 1994 in the Canadian Rockies and I was a nervous 24 year old standing between two well-armed men.
It was like a scene from a heist movie. We were there to catch a grizzly. A few grizzlies if possible.
I was with Ian Ross, a wildlife biologist legendary in the bear world for his seemingly innate ability to catch grizzly bears for scientific research. The aim was to understand how grizzlies survive in what was becoming a human-dominated region.
The Wild - Episode 2
Ian was calm, mild mannered and in control of his every movement and emotion. Kind of like Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti Western. Chill, but witty, and with a glint in his eye. Ian told me that catching a grizzly is weeks of tedium interspersed with moments of absolute terror.
“Are you ready, Chris?” he asked me. I was ready.
The only way to understand grizzly bears 25 years ago was to track their lives with radio collars. Getting a radio collar on a bear was what I was about to learn.
On the first day, Ian, a conservation officer named Dave, and I headed out in a pickup truck. The truck smelled … rank. It was overpowering.
As we jumped off the truck, Ian handed me a rope and he told me to hold on tight as the rope unraveled in my hand. When the rope became taut, a dead beaver slopped out the back of the pickup, onto the ground, splat.
I could see Ian smiling in his rear view mirror. This was our bait. I felt a bit like bait, too. I was the gullible Englishman who had to drag the beaver carcass up the hill to create a scent trail. A great plan, because a grizzly bear sees the world through his nose. Their sense of smell is about 10 times better than a bloodhound.
So the first thing to do is create a scent trail with the stinky beaver carcass right up to the door of our cubby.
The cubby is where it all happens. It's basically a bunch of logs piled in a triangle shape for the grizzly bear to walk into, with a four-foot wide entrance. At the entrance is a foot snare, a humane system it doesn't hurt the bear.
It's a cable attached to a tree … the idea is to trap the bear to the tree for us to then tranquilize him and outfit him with a radio collar.
And the beaver carcass? We strapped that to a tree at the back of the cubby. If anything brings in a hungry grizzly, it's a stinky dead beaver.
The next day we came back. No bear. Day after that, still no bear. This was what Ian meant by weeks of tedium. Every day we headed out on quads or in the truck to check the capture sites. We had about six of them in different areas of the forest, and every day, the same routine, Ian on one side, Dave on the other. One with a shotgun, and one with a rifle. Bear pepper spray on our belts.
It was tense. A grizzly can run 35 miles per hour, as fast as a racehorse, and it doesn’t like being approached or cornered.
But one day …
We walked up casually but still looking carefully. Twenty feet from the cubby and BOOM. Out of nowhere this bear barreled out of a hole in the ground. It felt like a nanosecond. Talk about life flashing before your eyes. This was it.
I reached for my bear spray, but I couldn’t grab it. We took a step back like we were shoved in the chest and right then, the bear rolled into a somersault. He'd been tugged back by the cable. Thank God.
I reached for my binoculars because I needed to see if the cable was on his wrist and not just his toes. Because if it was on his toes, he could break free and be on us. I was shaking like a leaf trying to hold my binoculars to my eyes. And as I did, the bear backed up to give himself room. He reached the end of the cable and then came barreling at us again. He was huffing and charging, and he did this over and over again at super speed. He was pissed.
My heart rate was through the roof. And then I saw the cable, and it was on his wrist. It was secure. I'm panting at this point, and Ian looks at me calmly and says, “Sure beats a cup of coffee.” And I'm like, “I just shit my pants.” I was a wreck but I had never felt so alive in my life.
We backed away. We were all pretty wound up and we didn't want to stress the bear. Ian darted the bear with a tranquilizer rifle and five minutes later it was the most tranquil scene. I had my hands on a live Rocky Mountain grizzly bear. He was covered in mud but I could see he had a beautiful thick coat and giant paws with long, white claws.
I looked into the big hole he dug in the ground. I could just picture him wiping camo on his face waiting for us to arrive.
We stayed with him as he slept for an hour. We put the radio collar on the bear. Gave him a shot of antibiotic. Took DNA blood samples and I monitored his rectal temperature — another job for the new guy, of course. We weighed him —350 pounds, a good sized bear in great health.
Then we removed the cable, got him more comfortable and left him alone to wake up quietly. We named him Dawson after the small creek nearby. Dawson the grizzly bear. I had no idea what he would mean to me in the years to come.
For the next two seasons I tracked Dawson and a dozen or so other grizzly bears through the Canadian Rockies on foot by following their radio collar signals. Like breadcrumbs into another world, teaching us where they go, what they eat, where they mate, and what they need to survive.
I hiked 2,000 miles over those two years, and they were two of the best years of my life. Dawson and other bears taught me a lot. There was a window into the wild and I was in total awe.
Ian and I became great friends. He even met my parents. I remember one evening totally wide eyed around the campfire in grizzly bear country, listening to him recite the Cremation of Sam McGee, the 10-minute poem by Robert W. Service.
One day about eight years later, Ian called me up. He was on another project in the Rockies and he needed to capture more grizzlies. He wanted me to be on the team, so of course I jumped at the chance to work with Ian again.
It was, to quote Ian, weeks of tedium interspersed with moments of absolute terror. Every day shoulder to shoulder, but no bear. Until this one day...
We walked into the trap site and everything was quiet. Got closer and closer when suddenly, this giant bear leaped out of a hole, covered in mud, charging at us. He was bigger than any bear I'd seen at that point.
It was déjà vu. I was shaking like a leaf. I looked over at Ian, and he smiled and said, “Sure beats a cup of coffee.”
We tranquilized the bear, put a collar on him, weighed him — 650 pounds! Enormous for a bear in this part of the world and such an amazing thing to see up close.
We finished up and left him in peace, and I honestly didn't think much more about it. A month later back at home, I got a call from Ian. “You know the big old bear we caught?” he said. “They ran the DNA and you'll never guess who it was.”
It was Dawson.
I was blown away. Eight years later, and he was almost double the weight the first time we caught him. Dawson was alive. He was like the king of the hill. He'd managed to get across the highways and the railroads and avoid trouble on the golf courses and get around this busy world of humans. And not only that, he was still teaching us what it takes to be a grizzly.
A year after we caught Dawson for the second time. I got another call, one of the toughest I’ve ever received. Ian had been killed in a plane crash. He was tracking lions in Africa.
It hit me hard. I'd heard from him just days before loving life, living to understand the animals he loved. Right away I thought of Dawson. I'm so grateful that Dawson brought me to Ian, and that Ian brought me to Dawson for those incredible experiences together.
I think about them both almost every day, and how they both shape everything I do. And I know that somewhere in those Rocky Mountains are Dawson's descendants, roaming their wilderness thanks to the people like Ian who set out to save them.