How my Dog Saved My Life

The Slim's River Valley runs from the toe of the Kaskawulsh Glacier into Kluane Lake in the South-Western Yukon. It is part of Kluane National Park and Reserve and one of the most scenic hiking routes in the park. Unfortunately for avid hikers, it is also a favorite stomping ground for grizzly bears. There is at least one attack every year and several hikers have lost their lives in the shadows of the stunning mountains that line the valley.

In 1998, my friend Patrick, my ever faithful canine companion, Punk Ass, and I, set out on the Slim's River West hike up to the toe of the famous glacier. It was a fairly easy, but long hike, traversing 30 kilometers along the river and then 8 hours up a mountain. I'd done a lot of hiking previous to this trip, but never underneath the Midnight Sun. It was a spectacular journey, albeit challenging.

We did everything right, despite being incredibly tired and windswept campers for most of the 5 days. We kept our food in a bear proof canister (rented at the park warden's office), we cooked all of our meals at least 20 meters downwind from our tent and changed clothes before getting into the tent. Everything involved in food preparation, clothing, food, pots and utensils, was hung up in a tree for the night. We knew not to tempt fate by forfeiting any of these rules.

Still, despite our caution and camper smarts, we had a run in with a grizzly bear.

On our last night, we set up camp about seven kilometers from the entrance to the park. It was too late to cross the creek formed by glacier run off since it was at its peak in the afternoons and evenings. It would be less intense and easier, not to mention safer, to cross in the morning. We went through the evening ritual of dinner and the drank the last of our Kahlua and, like on all the other nights, fell into a blissful and well earned sleep.

Sometime in the night, Punk Ass lost the plot and starting growling as he commando crawled his way to the front of the tent. My dog, I have to admit, was a mama's boy and there was no making him sleep outside of the small 2-person tent. He simply had to sleep tucked in between our feet. The other nights he, like us, had been exhausted and hadn't moved until it was time to rise, so it was odd for him to spark up at some odd hour in the middle of the night.

I was pissed. Anyone who has made the unfortunate mistake of waking me before I am ready to, has faced my wrath. I am vicious, like a cobra, like a bear with a headache. Like a bull being taunted by the red cape, I can cause physical damage with a look. I often say things I later regret, if I at all remember. To be honest, I am embarrassed at my morning behaviour, but it is beyond my control. I really cherish my sleep and curses on s/he who transgresses.

I grabbed Punk Ass by the collar and as I tried to force him back to the other end of the tent, I launched into a fury of obscenities. Then I saw Patrick's face, full of horror. I somehow knew it wasn't because of the hissy fit I was having and followed his petrified gaze outside. On the other side of the mesh door, about 10 meters away, was a full grown grizzly.

I have to admit, he was a gorgeous creature. His gaze was steady and intelligent, his body a powerhouse of strength and grace. His movements were slow and deliberate, yet each small motion contained an echo of the violence he could commit. He looked cuddly and terrifying at the same time. Punk Ass continued to growl.

The bear, all one ton of him, stood up on his hind legs. And growled back and the tent was blown by its depth and fierceness. Somehow or another we managed not to wet ourselves.

Truth be told, I was so ridiculously tired that even had the bear morphed into a three headed, fire-breathing monster, I wouldn't have reacted any different. I figured if he was going to eat us, it would happen with or without our approval and just hoped that it would be over fast so I could return to being unconscious.

I looked over at Patrick, who was holding the can of bear spray in one hand and his Swiss Army knife in the other. I looked back at the grizzly. I knew we stood no chance. Punk Ass kept growling and we gave up any attempt at stopping him. The bear fell back onto all fours and as he did, the ground shook underneath us. This made Punk Ass even more irritated and he doubled the intensity and ferocity of his verbal attacks. This is where the life saving bit happened.

Our unwanted visitor stood before the tent, surmising the situation and probably weighing the odds of him versus us. We didn't realize until later that what we were and what we appeared to be, were in fact two very different things. We weren't two scrawny humans rolled up in tasty sleeping bags, with a delicious wolf burger in between us. No, we were a fiercely growling blue pod. A blue pod that wasn't moving and was bigger than the bear himself. He weighed out he situation for a few moments and decided it wasn't worth it. He turned around and walked away, the trees shaking in his wake.

If it hadn't been for Punk Ass, we'd probably have been mauled.

As soon as the bear was out of sight, Punk Ass returned to the back of the tent. His fur was still ruffled, but I could see he was satisfied. When he fell asleep shortly after, with a quiet snarf, I knew we were safe. I also knew that if Mr. Mean and Scary Grizzy Bear came back, we had an organic alarm system that wouldn't fail us. I immediately fell asleep myself, knowing full well that I did, indeed, have the best dog in the world.

A picture of Punk Ass as a small dog is available for your viewing pleasure on wertperch's photo gallery at:
http://www.wertperch.co.uk/gallery/guestbook

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