Teena’s Polar Bear Encounter

What follows is the account of Teena’s encounter with a polar bear on the evening of October 6, 2004 near her home on the Colville River Delta.  It was written the morninig after the incident.

I mixed up ice-cream sugar-milk mix after dinner.  Toby was nervous and wanted outside, so I let him out ahead of me.  (I normally never let him go with me when I'm getting snow mixed in ice-cream mix so he won't get around the clean snow I find to use. Praise God, I didn't think of that this time, only that he was impatient to be let out.)  

I walked out looking around for some soft clean snow deep enough to scoop up into my bowl.  There was a small mound of snow beside the wood pile Aaron had stacked up earlier in the fall just NE of the garage.  I walked over there and was just leaning down to start scooping snow when I looked up and a small polar bear was charging toward me, coming from the direction of the river porch (SW).  I immediately recognized it as a large cub.  (Jim thinks it is probably at least a two year old.)  It was still big enough to stop my heart as it charged me!  I don't know if I screamed at that point...I don't remember saying any words...just instant thoughts that a BIG mamma bear had to be right behind this small bear.  I took steps backwards and the bear came on lunging toward me.  I threw the whole bowl, bowl contents, and large spoon at the bear's face as he grabbed for me.  I saw the sugary milk splash all over his face, top of his head and neck.  That stopped him momentarily and he turned to look at the bowl hitting the ground to his one side, but was turning back toward me just as Toby came around the inside corner of the woodpile barking and snarling ferociously.  That again turned the bear  away from me and I turned and ran around the back of the garage and powerhouse, pausing to look carefully around the building, still expecting to see a bigger mamma bear.  The way was clear so I dashed to the front corner of the powerhouse, paused to look again and seeing no threat, I ran to the house, and practically crawled up the steps in a panic.  Toby's barks and growls continued ferociously indicating a fierce fight, but I didn't turn to look, nor could I have seen them, since the fight had moved closer to the riverbank and was hidden by the garage.

I ran in the house screaming (literally "bloody murder", as the saying goes) Jim's name, and he came out of the sitting room wondering what was going on.  I screamed that a polar bear had Toby, and that Toby had just saved my life...go help him!!!  Jim told me to keep calling Toby back to the house, which I did desperately from the porch doorway.  A shotgun was not on the porch like usual and Jim hesitated as to the quickest action to take.  He then remembered the shotgun just inside the powerhouse door and ran for it.  He was frantically getting the shotgun to load - there was a slight jamming problem - as he ran around the corner of the garage.  Jim said at that point he saw Toby's woefully begging eyes looking at him from under the bear, who had Toby pinned down with its jaws clamped on the top of Toby's neck.  Toby was no longer barking, and pretty helpless at that point.  Perhaps he had turned his back on the bear to run toward my calling voice and the bear pounced on his back.  We don't know since we hadn't been able to see the fight.

Jim then leveled the gun and shot the bear broadside and high, trying to miss Toby.  The bear was thrown sideways, releasing Toby, who jumped up and ran to Jim.  Toby started to run back toward the bear again when Jim shot again and the bear collapsed.

Jim brought Toby immediately to the house and located fresh ammo and got outdoor gear on to go back out.  There was still the strong possibility of another bear nearby.  He first confirmed that the young bear was dead - Yes.  Then he carefully walked around looking for other tracks or evidence of where the cub had come from.  Tracks showed it was only one bear and he'd been around looking for food for awhile, even dragging a muskox skull off the bench on the deck.  How he could do that without us hearing or seeing it is amazing.  Perhaps Toby had been hearing something, which is what had made him nervous and wanting out.  We've had foxes all around since freeze-up and Toby has barked a lot over them, both from inside the house and outside.  So I'm still puzzled why Toby didn't indicate by barking about any sounds the bear must have been making earlier.  TV noise probably disguised it, is my guess.

Anyway, tracks showed the single bear had followed Jim and Toby's tracks down the riverbank from the northeast as they returned earlier in the day from walking over to close the big hanger doors.  The bear seemed too young to be on its own so has been separated from its mother for whatever reason? Perhaps she was killed? 

We left the bear lay where it fell for the night (it was nearly dark by then and we still didn't know if another bear would show up), but we reported to Fish & Wildlife.  They have no problem with the kill in defense of life, and plan to come retrieve the hide and skull as soon as weather permits.  It is snowing and blowing right now.

We skinned the bear this morning.  It isn't that much larger then Toby length-wise, but weighs considerable more, stood taller, and was much more robust then Toby...a BIG rolly-polly cub.  It wasn't starving but the fat still on it had turned pink like it was being reabsorbed, which indicates the cub must have been on its own and gone without food for awhile.  If it had been an experienced killer, Toby wouldn't have stood a chance.

Just writing about the encounter has my stomach tied in knots.  I hardly slept all night.  I couldn't stop thinking about the "what if"s like what if I hadn't let Toby out with me, or what if there was a mother bear around...  We discovered by following the tracks, that Toby had gone straight out and picked up the bear’s tracks around the warehouse.  It was a NE wind, so the smell of the tracks attracted Toby first, while the bear itself must have been on or near the SW side deck when we first went out (downwind for us, but not him).  Toby was just returning from over by the warehouse when he got to me just in time.  Had he been a second later, I'm pretty sure the bear would have had me in his jaws.

Well, I've reread Psalm 121:7-8 several times this morning: "The Lord will keep you from all harm - he will watch over your life;  the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore."

By the way...about Toby.  His head and neck were all wet with bear slobbers and tuffs of loose hair were all over, but no blood or wounds that we could find.  Although the bear's teeth are full of Toby's hair, it seems that Toby's tough collar and thick hide and hair on the top of his neck protected him just long enough.  Like I said, had it been an older bear, I'm sure that wouldn't have been the case.  Toby's neck must be sore because he wouldn't let me try to clean off his neck last night.  However, he rolled and rolled in the snow and let me rub snow into his hair this morning.

This episode certainly reinforces the need to be especially observant before venturing outside this time of year, and take Toby with me!

Love, Teena