On the morning of July 15, Lee Mandeville, a wildlife officer with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, got a call from RCMP dispatch: a married American couple was stranded at Hanbury Lake after a bear sighting.
The distress call had originated from a search and rescue centre in Texas after the couple activated their inReach communications device. Mandeville was unsure if it was bear attack, or if the couple were hurt.
“Are you able to assist us?” the caller asked.
Mandeville talked to his supervisor, and was in the air heading toward the popular Thelon River canoeing destination 480 km east of Yellowknife with his partner shortly afterwards. After a roughly three hour helicopter ride, they reached the couple.
The American tourists were pinned down at the end of a point, running water behind them and near some rapids. “Pretty dangerous to get in,” Mandeville said.
He didn’t see a canoe or anything close by, only the couple’s camp and a grizzly bear 30 to 40 feet away, approaching the tourists. Mandeville later learned the couple had expended all their bear spray by the time the officers arrived.
“We were just in time,” he said.
In addition to the ruined canoe, the bear had ripped apart their camp. It ate their food as it watched them, Mandeville said, sometimes visiting them and standing on its two backs legs to bare its teeth. The bear had them cornered.
“To me it was securing its last meal,” Mandeville said.
While the area is abundant in muskox, caribou and fish, food can still be scarce, he added. “Time is of the essence: you have the opportunity to have a meal, that bear’s going to go for it.”
“I’m pretty impressed by how they held it together,” he said.
The officers brought the helicopter down quickly, pushing the bear away and securing the area to ensure the tourists were safe. The officers loaded their firearms and kept close. Normally, the officers would approach an animal by foot, but Mandeville judged it was unsafe to pursue the bear, which had hid in the rugged terrain.
The bear had a history in the area, going after campers, hikers and canoeists, he said. One party was a group of youths who were pushed away from their camp onto a river with their canoes, leaving their gear to the bear. Officers were sent to scare the bear away with firearms and rubber bullets, but it remained.
Once Mandeville had heard about the bear in the area, “things started clicking in.”
“We all decided that the bear had to go,” he said.
Mandeville asked the helicopter pilot if he could take the animal from the air. The pilot took the door off and placed a harness on Mandeville. His partner, Taylor Summerfield, stayed with the couple.
Once in the air, Mandeville discovered the bear in some brush in a ravine over some rocks. They chased it up a hill and shot it, taking samples afterward, Mandeville said.
“That one message from the inReach (communication device) saved their lives,” he said.
The tourists were so exhausted, they couldn’t even talk on the way back, he said. They did everything right, but should have a brought a firearm, Mandeville explained.
“The travellers were well prepared and had planned to bring a communication device with them on their trip, which definitely helped them with their misadventure,” stated Yellowknife RCMP detachment Staff Sgt. Yannick Hamel.
“We can’t stress enough the importance to be prepared when venturing in the wilderness as anything can happen, like a wildlife encounter.”