Looking back, Diana Mathisen can laugh about it now.
But on a summer day near Hidden Lake in 1978, holed up in a tree as she stared down a hungry bear determined to scurry up the very branches she stood quivering on, the new-to-the-North southerner was doing anything but laughing.
It was a “life and death situation,” Mathisen later told News of the North (a precursor to News/North, where she was working) following the harrowing weekend ordeal, which unfolded on her first outdoor excursion in the NWT after travelling North of 60 from Ontario.
She’d just started her summer job at the paper as a typesetter and proofreader.
“It was my first summer here,” Mathisen recalled earlier this week in an interview with Yellowknifer.
The day-trip, which Mathisen embarked on with resident Bill Stirling, turned out to be a day of many firsts for the newcomer — some more enjoyable than others.
She caught her first fish ever after hiking through the territory’s rugged wilderness for the very first time. Then, in another first — and what she soon hoped would be her last — Mathisen, about to call Stirling over to serve up the fish she’d caught for supper, encountered an unexpected, and uninvited, four-legged dinner guest.
“I looked over and there was a bear in the distance,” she said, recalling that only moments before the sighting she’d been reassured by her travel companion the pair likely wouldn’t run into any bears during the hike.
“It got closer and closer and we started pounding pots and stuff,” said Mathisen.
“But it kept coming.”
So the two “very quietly” made their way over to a copse of tall trees near where they had set up camp. Stirling was the first to scale a nearby trunk — soon realizing he may have barked up the wrong tree as the bear soon followed him up the same one.
But the bear decided to climb down from Stirling’s place of refuge, instead, to Mathisen’s shock, turning its sights on her.
“Bill’s going ‘Diana, you have to climb a tree!’’ she remembered.
“And I’m saying ‘I don’t know how to climb a tree!,’” recalled Mathisen.
With Stirling still hanging on for dear life, she was on her own. That’s when the novice climber took matters into her own hands.
“All of a sudden, I was on the top of tree. I don’t even know to this day how I got there,” said Mathisen, pantomiming the still-vivid quivering that followed. “I have no control over my shaking and the bear was climbing up my tree,” she said.
Armed with only a pocket camera, Mathisen considered “tempting fate,” by snapping a photo of the encroaching animal.
She didn’t. “I always joked then you’d see this bear wearing my baseball cap somewhere,” laughed Mathisen.
The bear soon lost interest in the pair of suspended and scared hikers, turning its focus to the smorgasbord of camp food on the ground below (“Bear eats everything but campers,” read the July 1978 News of the North headline).
Mathisen and Stirling weren’t about to leave their protected perches anytime soon. Mathisen reckons she stayed up in the tree — as the bear would leave the site and then return, over and over — for more than three hours, as the North’s notoriously unforgiving bugs moved on her, leaving her with many-a-war-wound.“I kept saying do you think anyone will come and get us?” she recalled.
Finally, Stirling suggested they climb down and head for the hills – but Mathisen only agreed if they left everything behind. They did. And a mad dash to safety ensued.
In what felt like a “very long time,” the two “ran through the woods, up and down like Tarzan and Jane, through the swamp and over the rocks,” finally reaching the vehicle they’d travelled in, breathing a big sigh of relief.
Mathisen said she’s no expert on bear encounters by any stretch, but she credits escaping the close call with the pair’s instinctive call to remain calm in the face of danger — after the banging of pots and pans didn’t do the trick.
“Of course we were freak out on the inside … but my gut feel is that it was because we were just talking calmly to each other,” said Mathisen.
Mathisen said it took her awhile to “get over” her brush with the bear — an encounter that is still in the back of her mind.
“We were just lucky I think. We were lucky.”
How to Stay “Bear Aware”
When camping, always make sure to:
- Avoid areas known to be frequented by bears
- Store food in a secure place and always keep a tidy campsite; wash plates after meals
- Never leave food inside tents. Tents are for sleeping, not snacking!
So you’ve encountered a bear. Now what?:
- Always remember the Three S’s: Stop, Stand still, Stay calm
- Don’t run away
- If the bear at a distance, let your presence be know by slowing waving your arms and speaking in low tones
- Quietly back away from the direction of the bear or make a wide detour
- Maintain a visual on the bear
- Consider using warning shots or noisemakers
- If the bear is nearby, do not shout or make sudden movements
- Avoid eye contact and slowly back away