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.
My 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. Something 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.
Later 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.