It was the year of the bear. It seemed like there was a serious bear attack on a person in Alberta virtually every other week in the summer of 1980. It was so bad that it became a joke around the Edmonton Journal newsroom that the paper should establish a Bear Bureau, just to keep up. One enormous and ferocious grizzly bear deservedly drew most of the attention in the end with three savage attacks that severely injured four people, killing one, horrifying Albertans and deeply rattling the residents of the small national park town of Banff. The maulings all occurred in an area half a mile north of Banff, known as Whiskey Creek, with thick woods, wetlands, good fishing, lots of beavers, some homes and cabins and no real history of bear attacks. It was only one-and-a-half miles long and a half-mile wide.
As a rookie reporter with The Journal I had just passed my six months’ probation and was anxious for some good assignments. So I was thrilled to learn they were sending a photographer and me to Banff after the second attack in which two men were badly injured. My best pal, Darcy Henton, and I relied mostly on phone calls to local people and the Parks Canada spokesperson, plus wire stories to write about the latest bear mauling in Whiskey Creek. I was on top of the story, but as it grew it became clear that we needed some of our journalistic boots on the ground in the Banff area to cover it effectively.
My travelling companion to Banff was Jim Cochrane, or JC as everyone calls him. JC was the paper’s most experienced photographer and a perfect companion for a road trip assignment, with his folksy sense of humour, calm presence and rock-solid professionalism. The crafty veteran and the hungry cub reporter made a good team. We were cruising down the road towards Banff on September 3 when we learned, to our mutual astonishment, that there had been yet another savage mauling – the third attack and the fourth victim in eleven terrifying days. A 20-year-old man was raced to the hospital for major facial surgery and other repairs after he staggered out of a cordoned off area of woods where the previous attacks had occurred, onto the Norquay Road, just northwest of the town site. Park staff were puzzled about how and why the young man got into an area patrolled by helicopters and surrounded by men armed with high powered rifles and shotguns. By this point the grizzly was becoming a kind of living legend – an almost mythical, larger than life beast who struck without warning and somehow managed to elude the best efforts of the national park staff.
The first attack occurred on August 24th when two Calgary businessmen enjoying a weekend in Whiskey Creek were suddenly charged by a massive bear while walking through the bush. Bob Muskett tried to run but fell down. The grizzly stood over him menacingly, but then attacked his friend Ernest Cohoe, who had fallen but drew the bear’s attention when he got to his feet. Cohoe was horribly mauled with his face virtually removed by a ferocious bite. He was rushed to a Calgary hospital in critical condition and experienced a long string of surgeries, but one night he pulled out his life support tubes in an apparent – and successful – suicide attempt. He may have finished the job, but it was the bear who killed him. It was described as an abnormally large and black coloured bear, causing Park officials to wrongly conclude it was a black bear, although some of the park wardens and bear experts had their doubts.
The second attack followed on September 1st, a few days after Park officials killed a large black bear they believed had mauled Cohoe. In this case the victims were two Swiss men, who assumed that the bear scare was over. Like Muskett and Cohoe they were strolling through the Whiskey Creek wetlands not sensing any threat when a giant grizzly suddenly charged them from the bushes, much as the earlier pair were attacked without warning. Andreas Leuthold started running then dove to the ground and played dead as the bear sunk its teeth into his left shoulder and clawed his back. The grizzly than went after his friend Remy Tobler and badly mauled him, leaving his scalp hanging by a thread and one eye out of its socket, plus many other very serious injuries, before moving away. Despite his fear of the bear, Leuthold raced for help and his friend was evacuated quickly by helicopter to a local hospital for emergency surgery. It was increasingly clear that the attacker was not just a grizzly bear, but a highly aggressive and out-sized one. Tobler later sued the national park for negligence, partially because of their failure to put a stop to Banff’s hotels and restaurants leaving their garbage in the open and attracting numerous bears. He was awarded over $100,000.
Back then, Banff was a sleepy little place. Its residents are used to sharing the town and its surroundings with wild animals, but this was something different. At work or at home, over beers at the bar and over coffee at the local diner everyone was talking about the bear and park officials seeming inability to kill or capture it. “Of course we’re worried,” said local resident Hans Weissmuller, who lived perilously close to the original attack site. “I’ve got two young kids and we’re keeping them indoors until this thing is settled. I don’t even want them in the street. I’m as nervous as I can get,” he told me. I interviewed a few more locals, wrote my story, phoned it in and went to bed, dreaming of killer bears and wondering what would happen next. Before I left for the assignment I was encouraged to provide lots of colour, so I gave The Journal some fairly purple prose. As a Journal veteran told me when I got back the copy editors can always tone a story down, but it is very difficult for them to torque it up.
Shortly after waking, I learned that park rangers had finally killed the bear a little before 8 a.m. The temptation of a baited beaver trap proved to be the undoing of the massive grizzly. One of the great bear’s legs was caught in a steel snare and he lunged at the park rangers multiple times until a series of close-range blasts from high-powered rifles put an end to his story. We were told to drive to a Parks’ compound in the woods, where the bear’s carcass would be moved to. I expected it would be trucked in but to my surprise the bear was attached to a helicopter by a steel wire around his neck and another around one hind leg. The sight of the massive grizzly bear approaching from just above the trees with magnificent snow-capped mountains in the background, dangling from the bottom of the big chopper with a hind leg pulled waist high as if in a dance, and his massive head facing upwards like he was looking for a way out was like a scene out of a Fellini film.
Like all the Banff residents who raced out for a glimpse of the bear that had struck repeatedly on the fringes of their town, we stared at its carcass, our faces pressed hard against the compound fence where he lay. I watched in awed silence as park officials examined the bear’s gaping jaws, and paws the size of a man’s head. The 345-kilogram (761 pound) giant was not a monster, just an extraordinarily large and aggressive grizzly – a spectacular wild animal following its natural instincts. When the media were let inside JC asked me to place my hand beside the bear’s head for a photograph to give a sense of its immense size. The grizzly was dead but I still felt nervous being that close to it. I shuddered to think what it must have felt like to see that massive creature explode out of the shrubbery and charge at you.
I thought that was the end of the story, but a few years later I was talking to a park ranger about the maulings when the subject of the last victim came up. He told me that at that time the RCMP were chasing him for attempting to steal a vehicle but he desperately cycled away on his bike before racing on foot into the cordoned-off area of woods, ignoring the screams of warning from the rangers not to go in there. Shortly afterwards the 20-year-old was attacked and severely mauled by the grizzly. I asked the park ranger why he was never charged with theft, and he said that all parties agreed he had been punished enough by the bear and no charges were filed. His accomplice was arrested and charged, however. I told people that story many times over the years, but always wondered if it was accurate. Many years later I read consummate outdoorsman, writer and former park warden Sid Marty’s excellent book, The Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek, which confirmed that the story was true. I deeply believe that was a wise and compassionate decision.
Feature photo of the grizzly from World Life Expectancy