Hand to Hand Combat with a Bear

It’s a game of mortal combat when a canoeist runs into one of nature’s most efficient killing machines in the wilds of the Churchill River.

By Jonathan Klein

August 3, 2012: I had a new experience today. I fought for my life.

I got to Portage Chute, shortly after noon.  It had been a splendid morning with plenty of current to speed me along.  This stretch of the Churchill is wide, shallow, fast and studded with gardens of large, dark, looming rock.  I maneuvered amidst these monoliths all morning, playing and dodging and showing off to myself, pretending I had nitroglycerin on board which would explode with the slightest jar, and seeing how close I could pass by or over an obstacle without hitting it.  I was enjoying myself.

Pewter SunMy GPS didn’t think I was quite to Portage Chute.  It’s still 1.11 miles downstream, it was telling me but I knew better.  This was Portage Chute, beyond all doubt.  Narrow defile?  Check.  Increased grade and velocity?  Check.  Check.  Flecks of foam popping up downstream?  Sure ‘nuff.  Deafening roar?  That’s a big 10-4.  I was there.

I took out on river left where the Churchill broadens into a small bight, beached the canoe and headed downriver to scout.  There were boulders scattered all over, like a toddler’s toys.  Portaging would be hell.  Two hundred yards in, I came to a major obstacle, a scarp, only eight feet high, but sheer.  Getting the canoe and gear up and over it would take some doing, the kind of doing I didn’t want to do.  I scaled the wall and emerged onto a broad bench, blanketed with low shrubs and clumped with slips of cottonwood.

I recognized some of the shrubs as buffalo berry, adorned with clusters of small red fruits.  Across the bench, fifty feet away, the Churchill pounded through Portage Chute and I headed over to check it out, hoping it wouldn’t look as bad as it sounded.  A rim of pale red rock stood twenty feet above the river and lined it up and down, giving me a great view of the rapid.

I had already pretty much made up my mind to run it, even before scouting, because the portage was going to be a Bitch (note capital ‘B’), but there wasn’t a great line.  Getting through without swimming would be iffy because of several large breaking waves strewn pell-mell across the river that could swamp or roll the boat.  There was no way to miss them alI.  And there were rocks aplenty too, which I’d have to miss, but I took comfort in seeing that the river below deepened and slowed, providing a reasonably good recovery area, so, in the event of a water landing, all the flotsam, including the canoe, any unsecured gear, and I could be reunited in calmer water and, after some sputtering, bailing and sponging, returned to a fully upright and undamaged state.  I studied the rapid a bit more, picked a line, ran it a couple of times in my mind’s eye, and started back.

I was crossing the bench through the buffalo berry and almost to the lip of the scarp when I noticed movement in my periphery.  The bear that almost ate meSomething big and black and blurry.  I turned to look and was incredulous to see a large black bear, only forty feet away, approaching with obvious ill intent. It was moving with deliberation, mouth open, head low, black eyes unwavering—locked on mine.

I had been dreaming of a true wilderness experience and here it was: Mother Nature, telling me, So you want real wilderness? Here you go, sonny. For what could be more real or more wild than an animal coming to eat you?  I was prey, calories, for a large omnivore that was sick and tired of grass and berries and roots. My shotgun and bear spray were in the canoe, 200 yards away.  I would have to stand and fight with the only weapons I had, my bare hands.

There was no time to be afraid.  The bear was closing in.  Only seconds remained.  Some long dormant survival instinct took over and I transformed from mild mannered Nature Boy into Conan the Barbarian in a nanosecond (ok, exaggeration). A klaxon blared in my brain. Every cell in my body scrambled to battle stations.  I was not aware of wind or cold.  The crash of water through the nearby rapid drew silent.  Every fiber of my being was focused on the bear.

It approached with a dispassionate malevolence, as if to say, Hey. This isn’t personal, just business. Some things are killed and eaten so that other things can live to kill and eat another day. But predators don’t always get their prey.  Sometimes, the prey gets away.  Sometimes the predator gets hurt.  We quarry are not completely helpless. We can kick, maybe break a jaw, butt, gouge and bite, put a hurtin on ya, even inflict mortal wounds, so the prudent predator will approach cautiously, especially with unfamiliar, larger prey, to assess the risks, prior to going in for the kill.

That’s exactly what my bear was doing, coming on slowly to take my measure, ponder the risks verses rewards, and then decide whether to attack or withdraw.  I doubt this animal had ever seen a human before. We were in the most remote portion of the Churchill, no roads or villages anywhere close, no trails, fish camps or cabins, and inaccessible to motorboats and float planes because of all the rocks and shallows. The bear could not know, what exactly was I, and just how dangerous might I be?

My only hope lay in exploiting this uncertainty, make the bear  think I was some psycho in search of a rug. I couldn’t run.  He’d shag me down in a heartbeat, swat me to the ground, rake and bite me while I screamed, shake me like a rag doll while I whimpered, and then begin to tug and tear off chunks of flesh while I quietly moaned.  If I played dead, I’d last only slightly longer than if I ran, and it wouldn’t be quality time.  My only play was to be aggressive, fool the bear into thinking that I was biggest badass this side of Fidler Lake.

“Get away you Mother Fucker!”,  I screamed, but there was no discernible reaction.  Nothing.  On it came, walking, watching, not making a sound.  Only twenty feet away now.  I charged it with arms held high, trying to look bigger, and snarling invective through barred teeth.  “COCKSUCKER!” I yelled.  “MOTHER FUCKER!”

No change in attitude.

The bear was right next to me now, close enough to touch. It began to circle, close in, from right to left.  I began to hit it, punching it in the head and face with neoprene gloved hands.  “Good God!” I thought, “I just hit a bear.  Is this really happening?”

It was.  I was really fighting a bear.  As it turned, I turned with it to keep its head to my front, constantly throwing punches.  My left jabs were weak, ineffectual, glancing blows, but I landed a couple of hard rights to the side of its enormous head which caused a momentary pause before the circling resumed.  Near the end of its circumnavigation, I hauled off and kicked it in the ribs just behind the left leg.  I was only wearing soft rubber boating booties, hardly more than slippers, but I kicked as hard as I could.

This seemed to surprise the bear and it stopped circling and rose up, apparently indignant over such boorish behavior.  I’m 6’4” and 185 pounds.  The bear was half a head taller, but on the lean side.  I doubt it weighed more than 250 pounds, but skinny meant hungry and hungry meant dangerous.  Its paws were held high, claws outstretched and I expected to be cuffed at any moment, but the bear just stood there, as if newly uncrated from the taxidermist.

We stood, facing each other like dancers, unsure, waiting for the music to start. Then it suddenly dawned on me.  I had a knife.  Holy shit!  It hung inverted from a sheath affixed to my life jacket.  I’d forgotten all about it. It was only a four inch blade and the only thing it had ever cut was cheese, but I drew it forth with a flourish and brandished it at the bear.

“I have a knife!” I bellowed, to myself in surprise, to the bear in warning. The tables had turned, whatever that means.  Still, the thought of stabbing this creature with the little blade was cold comfort. I did not want to hurt it, or aggravate it, and feared that once the stabbing started, this fight was going to get ugly for real.  So there we stood, two statues cast in enmity, knife out, claws up, a Mexican standoff if ever there was one. I ended it, taking several quick steps backwards to the lip of the ledge, then whirled and bounded down the wall with the speed of a mountain goat, but not the agility.

Halfway down I slipped and had to jump the final four feet to the basin below. I landed hard, tried to catch myself with lunging steps, but fell, sprawled out on hands and knees.  My right hand, still gripping the knife, lit almost directly upon a fist sized hunk of rock, smooth, near round, granite. A gift. I transferred the knife to my left hand, snatched up rock in my right, and sprang to my feet with improbable dexterity for someone of my age and decrepitude, then I spun around to see if the bear had given chase.

There it was, just ten feet away. The motherfucking thing had followed me down the wall.  It stopped when I turned, looked at me, not directly this time, but obliquely and with menace. I faced it, edgewise, like a fencer, knife extended, and the rock, locked and loaded behind.  This was it.  The moment of truth.

“Look bear” I implored, “I don’t want to stab you with this knife or hit you with this rock, but you have to leave right now.”  The words were barely out of my mouth when the bear made up his mind, and it wasn’t to leave.  The big head swung up and he came at me.  I let him have it, heaving the rock with all my might.

Funny. Ever since dislocating my right shoulder in a kayaking  mishap twenty years ago, I haven’t been able to put any umph into an overhand throw.  Before the injury I could hurl hard, be it baseball, football or rock, but, ever since, I throw like a girl, all arm and no shoulder.  Not this time.  Adrenaline is a miracle drug and with a surfeit of it coursing through my veins, I unloosed the rock.  It sailed, trailing flame, and smacked into the bear’s skull right between the ears. It landed with a loud crunch, rock scraping bone, an awful noise normally but sweet music under the circumstances.

The bear vanished in a blur, hunger pangs replaced by headache.  I ran in the opposite direction, hotfooting it to the canoe, where I quickly hoisted the shotgun in one hand and bear spray in the other.

“Hey asshole!” I bellowed.  “You want a piece of me?  Well come on you chicken shit and I’ll spray you right in the kisser.”  I heard nothing but the hiss of wind and water, and blood pounding in my ears.  Then I started laughing like a lunatic.

Once I returned to a semblance of normal, I decided not to tempt the fates further by running Portage Chute.  I figured all my lucky charms were cashed in for the day.  What if I dumped and ended up on the left side of the river?  The bear’s side.  I had no desire for round two with the bruin so I pushed off and clawed my way upstream a couple of hundred yards, far enough up so I wouldn’t be swept down into the rapid, and ferried to the right shore.  There was no channel on this side, just a jumble of huge rocks through which the river poured over, around or through.  I dragged  the canoe past the obstacles, abusing it in myriad ways, but I got down. Then I returned to the canoe for lunch, my favorite, peanut butter on rye crisp with turkey jerky.  As I smacked down these delectables, thinking about my  improbable victory and narrow escape from the literal jaws of death, I glanced across the river and saw a hairy hump moving through the vegetation opposite.

“Hey bear!” I shouted and the hump stopped, turned, and the bear emerged onto the rim where I had scouted the rapid a lifetime ago.  It peered across at me with a puzzled expression, then turned and walked out of sight. “Good luck to you bear” I called after it, and meant it.

Hanging in the wildsLater at camp, I poured myself a big 151 rum and sipped it thoughtfully.  I was in a contemplative mood, totally drained, and numbed, but euphoric.  I marveled at the days events.  I fought a bear and I won.  I knew it was mostly luck, that I was lucky to be alive.  I have always been lucky.  Lucky in my parents, my friends, health, choices.  Lucky in love.

I have learned to trust in luck, but this was more luck than anyone deserved.  I was lucky the bear wasn’t bigger.  Lucky he wasn’t more confident.  Lucky he didn’t swat or bite me.  Lucky, I walked away without a scratch save for a small scrape on my knee sustained when I crash-landed below the ledge. But that was lucky too, because if I hadn’t fallen I would not have found that rock. It was the rock that saved me.

Strange, but there are almost no loose rocks along this portion of the Churchill River.  I wasn’t even looking for a rock, it just materialized, found me.  Now, I am not in any way suggesting divine intervention.  As far as I’m concerned Jesus would have been more inclined to send the bear than provide the rock.  Luck gave me the rock and luck guided the throw that nailed the bear right where I needed to bean him.  A shot to the shoulder wouldn’t have done it.  And it was luck that the bear didn’t think, “Ouch, my head hurts, but fuck it, I’m going to eat him anyway.”

So I drank my rum and thought about the day, August 3, 2012, the day I had to fight a bear.  I kicked its ass and lived.  I love living.

–This is an excerpt from Jonathan Klein’s upcoming book on wilderness.  Klein worked as a wilderness ranger and manager in Montana’s Lee Metcalf Wilderness for 27 years before retiring in 2012.  Three days after leaving the Forest Service, he departed on a 700-mile solo canoe trip on Canada’s Churchill River, seeking a purer strain of wilderness than can be found in the lower 48—where the furthest one can get from a Micky D’s is 104 miles and the farthest from a road, a mere 30.  Klein lives in Ennis, Mont., where he spends his time pedaling, paddling, and planning his next adventure to wild places.  

20 thoughts on “Hand to Hand Combat with a Bear”

  1. Excellent writing of an awesome experience! YES, solo traveling can be the best adventure. No guarantees, but that is part of the adventure. I’m looking forward to reading your book.
    Ron – US expat living in Southern Chile.

    1. This is a great read. I am going to forward this to a friend of mine that was stalked by black bear on a trip we did in northern Quebec.

      This article shows a great deal of respect for life and for the bear. After almost being consumed by a predator, Jonathan is able to see the animal again and sincerely wish it well. When the bear was trying to eat him it was indeed a “mother fucker”. Once the situation was diffused, Jonathan held no ill will for the animal. In fact, I’m willing to bet that Jonathan’s level of respect for black bears and life (including his own) has increased.

      Once you cease being at the top of the food chain your perception of the world changes in a hurry.

    2. Ah Stef. though the world be a wonderful place with Sugar Plums and Fairies ! Disrespect for the Bear. ???
      Think this thru. If you say were there. You speak softly to the Bruin. The bear swats you down and breaks your back. While you cannot move the Bear starts tearing big chunks of your Thigh and eating it while you watch. This is Nature , Depending on point of view, as good as it gets. The bear is full you are bear Scat. Next , the Bear has no fear of humans and now will hunt a few more innocents before he passes. You have trained the bear to hunt Humans.
      Enjoy your apartment in Queens . I hope you learn more of life and be more tolerant of us not being the top of the food chain in some situations.

      Tom
      I hope I can enjoy all of nature and leave it as I found it. I will for myself and others that follow, try to make life a little safer and more kind.

      1. Hi Tom J,
        Well, I know it’s Internet but … not sure many Queens’ residents know the Mountain Gazette. I used to hike in the Boulder area (mostly Green Mt) few years back; and in the San Juan Moutains a few times. I’ve always saw me like an intruder in the wild. I’ve never had to shout at a bear or at a mountain lion and certainly not consider I know how I’ve had react in real but I always thought any encouter with these ones will be different as Jonothan’s one. Sorry if I shocked–I’ve never hunt and maybe I miss something as Dre said or maybe you’d thought that my “wild” places are not so wild anymore: it’s fine with me as I would never go in areas where guns are required for “safety” reasons.
        Stef — erh to be honest I live now in a mountain range in France where sadly the most dangerous predator is human

    3. Jonathan,
      Living in Co. and Hunting in Wy. we have Black and Grizzly Bear. I read that more attacks are from Black Bears. The bear you encountered was Skinny August 3 ? ? I would have to think something was wrong with that bear. It should have been fattening up for winter? ? I am simply a bystander in this case and Enjoy your story.
      . . Has anyone checked to see if there were any Paddlers after you that were Missing and lost in the wilderness? Just thinking it would maybe have been a safer option to dispatch that , ‘sick’ , AGGRESSIVE bear .

      Just my thoughts from the Couch. Glad you were safely home and have stories to tell the Grand Kids.

      Tom
      Colorado, Land or things that go bump in the Woods.

  2. Excellent writing, Klein. I felt I was right there with you, probably not beside you, but more like 10 yards behind. I like your style. A bit like Hemingway, but more virile. I too know what it’s like to be on your own in the wilderness, in a life, death situation. I once spent a week in Winnipeg, getting into a tussle with a fierce, furry Saskatoon bohunk. I appreciate your refreshing candor of life on the wild side and look forward to more of your stories.

  3. Having had a few bear encounters (during hunts as well as random, surprise meetings on the trail at night, etc.) I can relate to Jonathan’s situation, but thankfully not nearly as “up close and personal”. His reaction and decisions kept him alive.
    Regarding Stef’s comment, I could not disagree more — that is a comment made from the safety of one’s sofa, and having never even for a moment wondered what will happen next, and if you are going to come out of it unscathed.
    These kind of situations and uncertainties are why I so dearly love wilderness and wild places, and knowing damn well that I am merely a visitor in that world. And I don’t think we should want it any other way. Risk is part of it, and a necessary one.

  4. I have known and boated with Jonathon the better part of 30 years.
    I don’t doubt the story one bit. Jonathon is a great athlete and calm
    under pressure. He also throws a mean frisbee.
    Personally i would rather get eaten by a bear than spend 60 days
    alone with mosquitoes.
    By the way Jonathon usually doesn’t cuss.
    Lonnie

  5. No so dramatic, but I startled a bear at about 20 paces once in the Smokies. He was standing in a little stream, out of sight through a tangle of rhododendron. Though I still couldn’t see him, I heard him exhale, like a steam valve, and I knew instantly what it was. I suppose he was clearing his nostrils to get a good whiff of me. For some long moments he sniffed and listened to my heartbeat, and I listened to him breathing. Actually, I wasn’t scared yet. That didn’t occur until later, each time I thought about it. I don’t know how long it was, maybe 10 or 15 seconds, but those were some long seconds. Then he ran like a horse galloping through the rocks in the stream, up the hill yonder, breaking little saplings as he ran. Unfortunately, I was on a 6 day circle, alone, and had to continue in the very direction he went. I climbed over the next hill, singing, though without much spirit, making as much noise as I could, to my designated back country campsite, which was empty, most empty. Now I was wondering if he might smell my meal, if I cooked one, and come for supper. So I ate granola bars and powdered milk. Then I sat up close to the fire, listening to the darkness until I was so exhausted I collapsed. I’ve never felt lonely in the wilderness, but I felt alone that night. The wilderness was sullen, brooding, dark, utterly silent and as close as the edge of the firelight.

  6. Jonathan – excellent writing that took me right along with you (metaphorically, which is as close as I want to bears). I too have considered myself lucky in life but you showed more of an inherent instinct for survival & determination that separates the men from us boys. I look forwRd to reading the rest of your book!
    Jeff & Lyn Tuttle

  7. Great to see the story in print form. Last time I heard this story was on August 5th 2012, 2 days after the event. I had encountered the same bear with a group of three. The bear showed no fear of us or the shotgun we attempted to scare it with, but also no where near the aggression that it showed Johnathan. I’ll never forgot how shaken up Johnathan was as he re-enacted his story while camped in his electric fence in polar bear country.
    Keep paddling ya bush hippie and keep me posted on your upcoming book

  8. Thank you for an excellent story Mr. Klein. I get the strong impression that I’d like you (and like for you to have my back). I’ve lived my whole long life in bear territory — Just a couple of days ago watched a black bear with two cubs amble through the brush beyond my window. The dog (who admittedly is not very bright) didn’t even startle. I’ve had uncountable encounters with black bears; some were tense, but none violent, and some were downright pastoral. The bears have backed off far more often than I’ve had to. I killed one black bear when I was very young and very stupid. I regretted it deeply at the time, and have ever since.
    I find black bears mostly diplomatic creatures, and if I did the math I’d probably find that I like a larger percentage of them than I do people. But like us, bears are individuals and so unpredictable. Anyone who claims to know what a bear WILL do is blowing smoke. Bears can be shy or anxious or desperate or psychotic, and it’s hard for must us humans to read their signs. Two people and one dog that I’ve known were killed by black bears. I’ve seen scars and heard myriad stories of close calls.
    I’ve met only two Grizzly in the wild, and they came in close succession. I was hiking alone in the Northern Cascades in summer, maybe mid-1970’s. I crested a hill that opened onto a nice flowered meadow. The little bear cub and I saw each other at about the same time, and it started running toward me, still some distance away. I can’t tell a young grizzly cub from a black bear cub. I wasn’t too concerned, but was sure that Mom wouldn’t approve of his choice f playmates.

    And then Mom appeared — undoubtedly a healthy Griz and running hard right toward both of us. I had no weapons other than a 5 inch knife, and didn’t even carry bear spray because I’d never before felt need of it. There was very little that I could do, and so I just stood there, trying not to look threatening in this particular situation. I’d say how close they got, but am sure that I’d get the distance far shorter than it really was, because it certainly is in my memory. When Ma Griz finally caught up with the cub she turned him and they trotted off into the woods.

    }}}}

  9. Hi Jonathan,
    Greetings from Estonia my friend. Great story, I still think you were a little nuts to take that canoe trip but am glad you survived. Hope things are going well with you and Marianne in Ennis. I always enjoy your humorous perception of life and its events. Looking forward to the book.

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