Hay River’s Shelly Wood and Roy Helmer usually hit the hay early, but on the evening of Oct. 15 into the wee hours of Oct. 16, something kept Wood up knitting.
Had she been in their bedroom at the back of their Saskatoon Drive home, she may not have heard the cries for help of the young woman who became the victim of the first known bear attack to take place within the town.
“I just thank God I was up,” said Wood. She opened the front door to find the young woman being attacked by the bear at the base of the short set of stairs that lead to her entrance.
“I just couldn’t believe my eyes because it wasn’t that big of a bear,” said Wood. “It was right on top of her.”
Wood tried hitting the bear with a boot.
“I was just hitting it, but it wouldn’t budge,” she said, so she ran back to the bedroom to wake Helmer.
“I hurried to the door and the bear was dragging her at the bottom of the steps across the grass,” he said. He said the animal was clawing and biting the victim.
“So I ran down. I was just in my shorts. I threw a boot and that didn’t do a damn thing. He just kept on going,” Helmer said. “So I come back up the steps, and I have some cement statues. And I grabbed the cement statue. And I run over there and I nailed it with that. I just threw it as hard as I could.”
The approximately one-and-half-foot-high statue – of an angel – hit the bear in the chest.
Helmer said that was enough to back it off and it went a short distance away.
“It gave me enough time to grab her feet and pull her from where she was out there to the steps, and then get her up and into (the residence),” he said, noting the bear was once again approaching as he did so.
The bear disappeared afterwards.
In the early afternoon of the day of the attack, the statue still lay on the grass as it awaited the arrival of special investigators from ENR. The site was being secured by ENR wildlife officers.
Helmer noted he doesn’t know the victim of the attack.
“She was not in very good condition,” he said. “She was conscious and talking.”
The rescuer described the injuries as “horrific.”
Helmer noted the bear was small and apparently young, but very aggressive.
A spokesperson for the RCMP said officers responded to the scene at about 2:30 a.m. and found an injured female youth, who was transported by ambulance to the Hay River Regional Health Centre and then transferred to Edmonton for further treatment.
“To protect the victim’s privacy, we cannot release medical information on the victim or her age,” said Julie Plourde, a media relations official with the RCMP’s ‘G’ Division in Yellowknife.
“The bear believed to be involved in the incident was shot and killed by Hay River RCMP members,” Plourde said.
In a statement on Oct. 16, an ENR spokesperson said it is important to note that it cannot confirm the bear killed by the RCMP is the same bear involved in the attack until the investigation is completed.
“For now, all we can say is that a bear was killed near the site of the attack,” the spokesperson said.
The investigation will also seek to determine the potential cause of the attack.
Ross Potter, director of protective services with the Town of Hay River, was also limited in what he could say about the incident, including on the injuries suffered by the victim.
“She, I would suggest, is in serious condition,” he said.
Asked if he had ever heard of a bear attack in Hay River, Potter replied, “Not against an individual.”
Potter called the incident very concerning.
“We haven’t even heard anything about bears being around for the last two or three weeks, then all of a sudden there’s one out there,” he said. “I was under the impression that bears were already gone to start hibernating, but apparently they have not. I’m definitely concerned.”
Potter said people need to be aware that bears are still out, and they should use appropriate precautions.
The ENR spokesperson noted bear attacks are rare and Friday’s mauling was the first such incident recorded within Hay River’s town limits.
In the NWT, there have been nine attacks on humans in the last 20 years – four fatal and five non-fatal, including the Oct. 16 one in Hay River.
ENR reminded the public that the NWT is bear country.
“Bears may be more active in the fall as they are out looking for food to put on weight for hibernation,” the spokesperson stated. “When walking in forested areas, please ensure you remain alert and aware of your surroundings.”
Visit the ENR’s website to learn more about bear safety, including through a pamphlet on avoiding bear encounters: https://www.enr.gov.nt.ca/en/services/bear-safety.
All wildlife emergencies in Hay River should be reported to ENR as soon as possible by calling 875-7640.