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Living And Dying with Black Bears
How My Inuit Dogs Saved My Life
by William J. Carpenter,
Written in memory of Casey-Jo1 (circa 1988 - August 25th, 2003)
August 25th, 2003 was a tragic day at Moraine Point, NWT, Canada (61° 36.2' N & 115° 38.00' W) on the west shore of Great Slave Lake where my wife at that time and I resided.
On her 6th attempt to chase black bears off our property since August 20th, and although assisted by four of our Canadian Inuit Dogs2, Casey, our Border Collie, was killed by a bear. I was also attacked and bitten on the right upper arm by the same bear, with my life likely saved by the aggressive and fierce reaction of my Inuit Dogs that immediately attacked the bear while he was upon me, thus giving me a chance to escape. Before I go into the details let me provide a little background.
Casey-Jo photo: Carpenter
I had been involved with Moraine Point and surrounding area for nearly twenty-three years as it was the location of my lodge, and I always fully recognized that it was in the heart of black bear country. The nearby Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation (FFMC) fish packing plant that had operated every summer was a prime attraction for bears. Not only was it a constant source of fish scent as a lure for bears, it also was in the past a summer food source for my Inuit Dogs. Also on a regular basis culled (unmarketable) fish were taken from the FFMC plant to the far side of Moraine Bay and dumped just offshore. That food source had fed many of the resident bears for several generations and even several wolves for all twenty-three summers I spent at Moraine Point Lodge, located only two kilometers from the plant. I had always taken the approach that as we were in their territory we needed to keep a tidy clean camp so that we did not attract the bears. However, if we did see a bear, I focused on deterring the bears or chasing them off by way of all acceptable means including bear banger guns, various noisemakers, throwing rocks and the use of Inuit Dogs at our lodge. I have never viewed the bears as a serious problem at Moraine Point although my former business partners John and Cristine Bayly might have disagreed since a bear did swipe or bite at Cristine while she was in a tent, one summer back in the early 1980s.
Over the many summers I spent at Moraine Point, bears were more of a problem to the FFMC and fishermen. Perhaps their level of tolerance for bears had been lower than mine. I personally did not agree with the solutions at the fish plant as often the fishermen or the FFMC plant employees seemed to have focused entirely on killing all bears. In fact one summer approximately twelve were shot including two cubs that were left hanging in the trees after they were killed. Over the years I have personally deterred numerous bears from remaining in proximity to our lodge and until last year I never had to destroy a problem bear. Casey and at least one Inuit Dog were always with us in recent years and in 1996 Casey’s collar was fitted with a set of bells so we would know her whereabouts. To the amusement of many, she even wore them in Yellowknife. On September 1st, 2002 my wife at the time and I moved permanently to Moraine Point and shortly after our arrival we encountered one bear that persistently tried to acquire food from our dogs. In spite of numerous attempts over several days at chasing him off, he finally crossed the magic line and attacked and slightly injured a tied up dog. At this point I took corrective measures and killed the bear and reported the kill to the Hay River office of Resources Wildlife and Economic Development (RWED). Upon its examination, the dead bear was found to be middle-aged, but had a recent bullet wound to the abdomen resulting in a herniated and infected area under the skin. It was likely the same bear that was shot at the FFMC plant some weeks earlier with a .30-.30 caliber rifle.
In general I took the approach that it was still quite fine to occasionally see bears or any other wildlife for that matter provided they were not a danger to me or any of my guests or friends. After all, we had been pleased to see moose, caribou, bison, wolverine, wolves, foxes and martin, so why not bears.
Summer 2003 was different. Due to economic reasons, the FFMC plant did not open. Although we had expected bears much earlier, amazingly we saw none until August 20th. We concluded, perhaps falsely, that they were successful in acquiring food on their own after the closure of the fish plant.
Bear sighting 1-2003 (I numbered our sightings) showed up on the shoreline in front of the lodge early morning of August 20th and headed for the dogs that were tied on the beach. Casey was in the house. The bear was approaching the Inuit Dogs just as I opened the front door to yell at him. Before I yelled he reacted to the noisy dogs which by then were causing quite a fuss. Bear-1 turned to go back in the direction he came from. I ran to the beach and released four of the Inuit Dogs that were buddies to Casey and called her to have them all chase after the bear as had been our routine to deter any intruding bear. True to form, the task was undertaken with the same eagerness and excitement and, led by Casey, off they went in full pursuit3.
Bear sighting 2-2003 occurred the morning of August 21st just prior to our planned departure to Yellowknife. This one (whether it was the same bear as 1-2003 I do not know) was at our compost barrels when it was also chased off by Casey and her four Inuit Dog companions. While we were away for two days, the dogs (a total of fourteen Inuit Dogs and Casey) were all tied along the beach on a chain that had movement on end cables to allow each dog to have access to the lake water. Casey was happily and safely located between Kurugrook and Whiskers, two of her favorite Inuit Dogs.
Casey and Kurugrook photo: Carpenter
Bear sighting 3-2003 occurred upon our return flight to Moraine Point late on Saturday afternoon August 23rd. It was seen at the old FFMC plant where the pilot had to land the airplane, in front of our home due to rough water. This tall, long-legged thin bear was up on the wooden dock pacing back and forth, stretching his neck out over the water as if wanting to reach out to us. The pilot taxied the plane back and forth waiting for the bear to leave, then after several minutes the bear went down to our docking site on the shore and came out into the water a couple of feet4. The pilot shut off the engine and we shouted loudly at the bear, banging the side of the aircraft to make additional noise. In short order the bear moved off allowing us to dock the plane. He was last seen going into the bush right on the trail that led to our place. After unloading we left our gear and supplies in a building at the plant and noisily walked home, being sure to watch for the bear. Although we did not see any bears, we saw seven piles of scat (bear droppings) on the two-kilometer trail home. Upon arriving home we saw very fresh bear scat right adjacent to the house. The garbage-burning barrel was knocked over with all the burned cans spread out.
Without incident we returned to the fish plant with our Honda trike and wagon for our supplies taking with us a bear banger, Casey and four Inuit Dogs. These five dogs remained loose around our house after we returned.
That evening just after supper, we heard the other dogs on the beach raising a fuss and noted a bear on the shore just beyond the furthest tied dog. This bear sighting 4-2003 was dealt with in the usual manner in that I carried a bear banger, took Casey and the four loose Inuit Dogs to the shore. Within moments they too saw the bear and gave chase sending it into the bush and up the hill away from the lodge.
The next day, Sunday August 24th, bear sighting 5-2003 occurred just outside of the small cabin about a hundred feet from the main lodge. Without any need for assistance or encouragement Casey, Kurugrook, Spirit, Whiskers and Edéhzhíe again chased off the bear, and there were no further sightings that day.
Those four Inuit Dogs spent the night loose outside. The morning of August 25th at approximately 8 AM I let Casey out of the house. She was eager to go. I noticed the loose dogs were not present and Casey was roaming around the yard with her hackles up, keenly interested in something. Shortly after I saw the four loose dogs returning very excited having just come in from the forest. Casey immediately joined her buddies and within minutes they ran off with her in the lead. We heard her loud barking off in the forest as Casey did when she encountered an animal of any kind5.
I was about to put on boots to follow them when something very noticeable occurred. Casey’s barking ended and suddenly off in the forest I heard the long drawn out stress call of her four companions all giving off their low, deep pitched “woof-woof-woof”. A few minutes later, just as I got outside four Inuit Dogs eagerly greeted me, but no Casey. This appeared normal as she was often first after a bear and last to return. However after a few minutes with no Casey in sight and with no distant barking or sounds of her bells, I thought perhaps something was wrong. I also noted that Kurugrook had a sizeable bleeding gash across his forehead just above his eyes. I wasn’t quite sure what direction or route to take to look for Casey but as I entered the lower land behind one of the old buildings it was clear that the dogs wanted to go in one particular direction and not any other. I kept saying, “Let’s find Casey.” Foolishly, as hindsight now tells me, I was on my way without a rifle, carrying only the bear banger with six shots and one projectile that served as an option to send off a unit that explodes at a distance with a very loud bang.
Unusual about this search with the dogs was that Spirit, subordinate to his father Kurugrook, was eagerly leading the way, something Kurugrook never allowed him to do, and he was most definite about his route which took a pronounced right turn off the main path going up the trail we called Cranberry Hill. The other Inuit Dogs followed him as I did. He stopped and waited for them and me, and as soon as I was near he turned this time to the right and went up hill striking off on a new but definite route, then stopped and waited again. By this time the dogs all had hackles up and acted very alert, stopped ahead and smelled and looked up the hill. Spirit led us on a bit further through a small clearing and then into denser forest. Suddenly bear sighting 6-2003. It was some forty-five feet ahead of me in the forest and far too close! The Inuit Dogs immediately gave their stress “woof-woof-woof” and ran at the bear that was standing over dear Casey, obviously dead and being eaten.
Spirit photo: Carpenter
Hindsight, again, is wonderful and I knew that I should have quickly retreated home for my rifle, but I did not. Instead, almost in anger at seeing the bear eating my daughter’s dog, I raised the bear banger, inserted the one projectile unit and fired the gun to scare the bear away from Casey. The projectile landed in front of the bear exactly where I aimed but to my amazement and shock the projectile was a dud and went off with a low “poof” and a bit of smoke instead of the extremely loud bang or boom that was suppose to occur. Within a split second the bear charged me running full speed the forty-five foot gap; and it was not a bluff! With full knowledge from all I had read6 and heard that we are not suppose to run from a bear attack, I didn’t think I had time to run far (prosthetic knee and all) even if I wanted to. In less that a heartbeat the bear was at me, up on his hind legs and had his jaws clenched onto my right upper arm at the triceps area. This was not a bluff but certainly was a provoked bear protecting a food cache. I knew I was in big trouble and with the bear’s head within a foot of mine as he held onto my arm I think I quickly punched him in the nose with my left fist (left handed punches were always my best defense since a kid), and yelled at him as loud as I could. Or maybe I yelled first and then punched, but in either case the entire scene caused a reaction from the Inuit Dogs too, and the next thing I realized was that two of the four dogs were fiercely attacking the bear from below. Suddenly I was free. With the dogs now between me and the bear I immediately looked for a retreat route recalling the odd decision I was making to either select a route with thick bush and trees for protection in case he attacked again, or to go for the easiest but unprotected route. With the bear having moved back over Casey again, I quickly retreated by the easier route. I called the dogs and headed back home realizing I had a sore upper arm from the bear bite. In a few minutes I was at the house and met by my ex-wife who was very concerned as she heard the story of Casey’s death and my brush with the bear.
Checking my arm, I saw that the wound was not serious. The top of the triceps had two upper canine teeth marks and on the underside there was a single but deeper puncture from a lower canine tooth. We applied a topical antibiotic ointment to the area. The oddity was that there was only one lower canine mark. Having dealt with carnivore bites at my veterinary clinic over the years I was expecting to see four canine tooth marks. We next proceeded with plans to return to the site with our guns to kill the bear. First I phoned the RWED office in Hay River and reported the incident to the Resource Management Officer and advised that I was going to shoot the bear.
My ex-wife had our 20-gauge shotgun loaded with three lead slugs instead of birdshot and I carried the 300 Winchester Magnum rifle as we headed back to the area accompanied by the four Inuit Dogs. The plan was to each be in position to see the bear when we approached the area and to have one of us take the easiest shot while the other acted as a backup. As we carefully worked our way back, following the retreat route that I had earlier used, we carefully noted where we were in proximity to the kill site. The Inuit Dogs grew more excited as we approached. However, as they were well in front of us I knew we would have some warning, but still may have called for quick action if the bear came out to meet us.
As expected the bear was found at the site and in fact briefly rushed out a few feet to challenge one of the dogs. All four had actually formed a bit of a semi-circle around the bear. As they were between us and the bear it was a matter of taking careful aim at the bear without risking a dog as all were constantly moving and only occasionally stopping. The moment came and I aimed at the shoulder area and fired my rifle. The bear was hit, ran about ten feet and fell whereupon I shot it again. The dogs immediately let out their woofing sound and each ran in and out from the downed bear. We discovered that it had already covered Casey with moss and other vegetation. The dogs came over to sniff her showing great interest with Kurugrook even pawing at her foot as he often did to get her to react to his playing. Whiskers showed the most reaction and repeatedly came and smelled Casey and then would go to directly back to the bear letting out a long and unusual scolding type noise as a cross between her distress “woof’ and an angry short “howl”. She repeated this behavior often with her brother Edéhzhíe joining in too. We briefly looked around the area and left to get the Honda trike and wagon in order to take back Casey’s remains.
Whiskers (center) photo: Carpenter
Back at the house I phoned to the RWED Hay River number and was immediately asked by the woman on the phone if we got the bear. I replied, “Yes,” and she expressed her concern that we had so much trouble and had lost a dog during the incident. After taking a short break we returned to the site with the dogs and our firearms to retrieve Casey. Upon arrival, Whiskers was very vocal again, so I took the bells off Casey’s neck and called over Whiskers to put the collar with bells on her neck as she perhaps would be as courageous and eager to deter bears as Casey had been.
We returned home with Casey’s remains. It was a sad afternoon and although I am not a person who personifies my dogs, and while I do treat them as “work” animals, there did seem to be some sort of awareness by the four Inuit Dogs that something was not right. We chose a spot for her in front of the house at an area where she often lay in the sun, digging her grave in the glacial till that made up the under burden beneath a thin layer of black humus. As if to watch and supervise the digging event, Casey’s head hung slightly out of the box, and the other dogs simply lay about on the grass as we completed the task. Before filling the grave, I clipped snippets of hair of the four dogs’ heads and placed all of it with Casey. The rest of the day was one of a great deal of mourning and re-examination of the entire event. The Inuit Dogs seldom left the burial site and as we went into evening, over five hours later, Spirit (the dog, which in such a pronounced manner led me back to where the bear had killed Casey) was the only one remaining. He was still sleeping next to the grave when morning came, and was ignoring the other dogs.
August 26th, 2003. The day went well and we partially returned to doing normal work. After supper I decided to pump water and with Whiskers and Edéhzhíe accompanying me I went to the pump located at the shore of the lake in front of the house. Seeing the tanks full, I shut off the pump and returned to the house. Five minutes later as I looked out the parlor window while having coffee, I suddenly heard Whiskers’ collar bells and saw her and Edéhzhíe all excited running down to the lake shore by the water pump. This was bear sighting 7-2003, and my having shot and killed one two days before, I knew there was more than one bear in the vicinity of my camp. It was heading towards the beach where the other dogs were tied up. I hurriedly got my rifle and as I fired a quick shot over the bear two Inuit Dogs quickly moved in close to the bear and turned it back in the direction it had come from. As it was retreating and being chased by the dogs I fired another warning shot that proved to be a real stimulus for the dogs, chasing him even harder for a few more dozen yards. With the dogs and carrying the gun I made my way down the shoreline for a very short distance to see if the bear was still around. However as it was near dark I did not linger long, returning to the house, with two very excited dogs worked up over the chase.
August 28th, 2003; after a full day of no bears I decided to retrieve from the bush the carcass of the bear that killed Casey. It was near our trail and likely would attract other hungry bears or other predators. With Edéhzhíe, Whiskers and Spirit, and a gun for extra protection I took the Honda trike and wagon plus chains and cables to haul the bear out of the dense forest. Without incident I relocated the carcass out in the open at the end of the gravel point just opposite our house and visible across our own cove. The bear served as fall dining for the insects, ravens, gulls and later eagles. Throughout the coming winter it may have fed the occasional weasel, wolverine or wolf and by spring it had played its role in fertilizing the shore or nearby water.
From August 20th to August 26th, 2003 there were seven bear sightings at Moraine Point which proved to be more than just one individual. Using dogs as the main focus of a bear deterrent program did cost the life of one dog, “Casey”, a very active fourteen year-old Border Collie who, with several of our Canadian Inuit Dogs, was always there to lead the chase and attack any intruding black bear. The same bear (#6-2003) also bit me on the right upper arm and I attribute the lack of no additional injuries to the fierce response by some of my Inuit Dogs who attacked it while it was biting me.
With the closure of the Moraine Bay FFMC plant in the summer of 2003, there was a potential black bear problem. Several generations of bears had grown up having expected to be well fed from the regular disposal of culled fish that were dumped on or near the shoreline on the opposite side of the bay from the plant. These bears may not have learned to be active hunters or predators and with this easy food source ending, they may have posed a danger for the next few years until they dispersed or were eliminated by natural or other means. In spite of the loss of one of my dogs, I still concluded that having several loose Inuit Dogs around the yard was likely the most workable bear deterrent program for our location.
Happy hunting in doggy heaven Casey, Lara and I miss you.
1 Casey-Jo was originally my daughter’s dog but as with many parents, I ‘inherited’ the family dog when Lara headed off to university in 1990. Casey was known to many who visited my Bowspringer Kennels & Veterinary Clinic in Yellowknife as the yard dog who greeted all in a friendly manner. She was also well known for her natural herding instincts, helping round up any Inuit Dog puppies that I let loose in our Yellowknife yard. It was during one of those times in 1999 that she first met a little pup who was strong and bold. My Inuit friends who saw him told me to name him Kurugrook which means “strong little man”.
2 The oldest of these four Inuit Dogs was Kurugrook, born in 1999 in Yellowknife but much of his life had been at Moraine Point. His son “Spirit” was born in Yellowknife in 2002 but raised since the age of three months at Moraine Point. The other two Inuit Dogs were sister and brother, “Whiskers” and “Edéhzhíe”, born on the first day of fall 2002 at Moraine Point.
3 The eager pursuit was all part of a game Casey played as the old matriarch dog who had directed the behavior of all our recently raised seven Inuit Dogs over the last few summers. Her game was to chase squirrels with the assistance of the then puppies that, as they grew older, continued to have a subordinate yet protective behavior to this dear old girl and were eager to give chase in support of her interests. This often was after any small mammal such as foxes or squirrels but occasionally boreal bison that ventured into our side of the point. The same behavior occurred fortunately with black bears. It all served as good warning to alert us that some animal was in the vicinity. In the spring of 2001 Casey and Kurugrook chased off one spring bear freshly out of hibernation three or four times before it learned to stay away.
4 This was fairly typical behavior for Moraine Bay bears that often ventured out into the water on the far side of the bay to meet the boat dumping culled fish.
5 Inuit Dogs do not bark as do other domestic dogs, but rather are very vocal with a high pitched whine or howl. When under extreme stress or danger, however, they do sound a pronounced alarm in the way of a slow drawn out “woof – woof – woof” all in a low, deep pitch.
6 It was only the night before that I was reading the bear section in Survival Secrets (Brian Emdin, 2002, Spotted Cow Press Ltd), which said, “In bear country you are more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a bear.”