Warning: this story contains graphic details that may be disturbing to some readers
A B.C. man who fought off an aggressive grizzly bear with a pocket knife is recounting his incredible tale of survival.
The attack left Colin Dowler with potentially fatal injuries, but, miraculously, doctors say he’s expected to make a full recovery.
Dowler had his mountain bike with him as he was exploring the backcountry north of Powell River, looking for a trail route on on Monday.
But on his way back, seven kilometres to the logging camp where he’d started his journey, the 45-year-old from Campbell River ran into what conservation officers described as a healthy, 350-pound, four- to five-year-old male grizzly.
“I was talking to the bear, explaining to it, ‘You know, we don’t have to have a problem here, everything’s OK,'” he said.
Dowler threw his backpack with food away — but despite giving the pack a sniff, the bear was more interested in him, he said.
EXTENDED: B.C. man who fought off grizzly bear with pocket knife shares survival story
“It ultimately overwhelmed me and my bike and then grabbed me by my stomach, kind of pushed me down, dragged me towards a ditch maybe 50 feet,” he said from a bed in Vancouver General Hospital (VGH) on Thursday.
“I tried eye gouging it away, but it didn’t really work. I think it shook me and spun me around and crossed over top of me.”
That’s when the situation became dire.
But while the mauling that followed might evoke a scene from a movie like The Revenant, Dowler said the experience was conspicuously without the violent snarling of a Hollywood grizzly.
“I don’t think the bear growled once,” he said. “It drooled a lot, but I don’t think it growled.”
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The bear — now on top of Dowler — began chewing on his thigh, arm, foot and leg, he said.
“I had this little pocket knife my dad gave me like two weeks earlier. I tried getting to it, but it was just too much pain with the bear chewing away. You could hear, like, the grating sounds,” he said.
“I’m amazed I don’t have any broken bones, because it sounded like it was grating my bones.”
He said he tried playing dead, but it didn’t work.
Instead, he said, the thought of his daughters and wife flashed into his mind and he made a second effort to get to the knife, which he said had just a two-inch blade.
“It let go of me immediately and was bleeding quite badly.”
The bear backed away, and the pair spent several moments in an uneasy standoff, in which Dowler said he couldn’t tell who was bleeding to death faster.
Then his attention locked on his bike. He used the knife to cut the sleeve from his shirt and make a tourniquet to tie-off his bleeding leg, before dragging himself to the bicycle.
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“I tried to mount my bicycle and fell off trying to do that, and I thought, ‘I’ve got one more chance to do this right,'” he said.
Somehow, Dowler managed to ride the seven kilometres back to camp despite multiple injuries that were losing blood quickly.
He flopped down on the stairs of the camp’s rec centre and called for help.
He was in luck: several people at the camp had Level 1 first aid training, and rushed to staunch the bleeding, he said.
He credits the people on site that day with saving his life.
“You guys rock,” he said.
“That was awesome, you guys. Dinner’s on me when I get better.”
“I just want to thank the guys in the camp, because he definitely wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them,” Dowler’s wife Jen added.
“And I’m just happy my husband is as stubborn as he is.”
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Conservation officers returned to the attack site on Tuesday, where they say they were stalked by a male grizzly.
The officers shot the bear, and said it had a wound on its neck corresponding to what Dowler described. The Conservation Officer Service says it remains unclear why the bear attacked.
‘War zone’ injuries
Dr. Naison Garraway, head of trauma services at VGH, described Dowler’s escape as “incredible,” and his injuries as the type you’d find on a battlefield.
“He had quite serious injuries and it’s surprising he was able to get himself out of that situation as he did and ride his bike as far as he did with all the injuries he had,” he said.
“Having those kind of injuries can be very similar to shrapnel wounds in a war zone, where you have multiple lacerations and a large open wound.”
In fact, Garraway said Dowler was left with multiple puncture wounds and lacerations to his legs, damage to a blood vessel in his leg that could have seen him bleed out within an hour or two, and a large cut to his side that left internal organs visible.
He said the fact that people with high-level first aid were able tend to Dowler until an air ambulance arrived saved his life.
As for his recovery time? Garraway said Dowler could be out of hospital within days, barring any infection issues.
Dowler said he’d even managed to stand up Thursday morning.
But he said the experience will likely affect the way he approaches the backcountry in the future.
“So far, yes. I’m not a huge fan of being solo in grizzly country at the moment.”
-With files from Jordan Armstrong