How a Pocket Knife Saved This Man During a Grizzly Bear Attack

Alone on a mountain and pinned under a grizzly, Colin Dowler reached for a pocket knife and struggled for his life.

Grizzly bear attackIllustration: Ryan Garcia

A Scream in the Wild

Ever since he was a kid growing up on Quadra Island, B.C., Colin Dowler pushed himself to do more, go faster and scale bigger heights, despite having a small physique and a nagging congenital knee disease. Jenifer, his wife of 16 years, often found herself telling him to slow down. When he skied, he raced the double-black diamond fanatics. When he rode his mountain bike, it was on the bumpiest terrain. If he wasn’t a little scared doing something, he didn’t think he was doing it right.

Last July, to celebrate his 45th birthday, he booked off a week from his job as a city facilities manager in Campbell River, B.C., where he lived with Jenifer and their two daughters. He also planned to spend two days on his own, scouting a route he’d eventually use to climb Mount Doogie Dowler with his older brother, Paul. The peak, standing around 2,000 metres in the Coast Mountains in southwestern B.C., was named after Dowler’s late grandfather. It had always been a point of pride for their family that Grandpa Doogie, a prominent community member who once owned the Heriot Bay Store and Post Office, a Quadra Island hub, was immortalized in nature. But none of the Dowlers had ever climbed to its summit. Colin tried once in his 20s and made it within a few hundred metres of the peak before getting rained out.

Jenifer didn’t like the sound of her husband’s latest plan. She was used to Dowler going on solo adventures, but this time he’d boat to an obscure bay, bike an unpopulated road, hike through grizzly country and camp overnight alone. There was too much room for disaster.

“If I’m not home by eight o’clock Monday evening, you should start to worry,” he said.

Jenifer laughed. It was practically her husband’s motto.

Technically, he said, she’d have to wait until the morning if she wanted search and rescue to take his disappearance seriously.

“So,” she said, “I should just sit all night worrying until I can call authorities and say my husband is missing.”

He shrugged. Pretty much.

The photo Giannandrea took just before Dowler leftCourtesy of Colin Dowler
The photo Giannandrea took just before Dowler left.

The night before his journey Dowler packed sparingly. He ditched his usual tent to experiment with a bivy sack—a person-sized portable shelter. He filled the remaining pockets of his bag with a handheld GPS, hiking poles, his homemade venison pepperoni and a few other essentials. Instead of his usual Swiss Army knife, he took a three-inch stainless steel pocket knife given to him by his dad, Norman.

Jenifer and their daughters were still in bed when Dowler left his home at 7 a.m., his bike and boat in tow.

The weather that day was nice, which meant the parking spots at the city’s boat launch would fill up fast. Dowler intended to stop at a tackle shop for bear spray, but as he added up the minutes, he drove past it, deciding the small likelihood of a bear attack wasn’t worth not completing his mission.

He recognized he couldn’t completely rule out the possibility, though. He’d had two grizzly sightings and countless black bear encounters on Quadra Island before. But he’d always escaped unscathed.

Dowler pulled into the Campbell River port and quickly set off in his motorboat. More than an hour later, he arrived at Ramsay Arm, an inlet on the mainland, and found a spot to tie the vessel near a logging camp.

As a former worker in the logging industry, Dowler knew it was good practice to check in at the mess hall. “Is there anything you need?” Vito Giannandrea, the camp cook asked him.

“Bear spray,” said Dowler.

After finding a can, Giannandrea offered him a ride. They trucked along an overgrown logging road until the forest got too thick. As Dowler leaned his mountain bike against a bush to retrieve on the way back, Giannandrea took a picture of him with his phone. “So we have something to put on the milk cartons if you don’t come home,” he joked.

With Giannandrea’s bear mace in one pocket and the knife from his dad in the other, Dowler started hiking. After traversing steep terrain and thick forest for about an hour, he started marking his trail with blue ribbons. He made lots of noise to ward off any curious creatures. Near the end of the day, he realized the canister of mace was gone. It must have slipped out of his pocket while he rested during a navigation stop.

Dowler didn’t want to risk getting caught in the dark looking for the spray. Instead, he spent an hour searching for a place to camp, eventually settling on a flat, dry surface with branches low enough to set up his bivy sack. He strung his food and clothes high up in a nearby tree, and crawled into the bivy by 9:30 p.m., satisfied with what he’d accomplished that day.

The next morning, Dowler tried without luck to locate the spray on his way down the mountain. He gave up by the time he recovered his bike, then carried on, pedalling and daydreaming about getting home early to enjoy some family time and a beer or two.

As he passed a seven-kilometre marker for camp-bound logging trucks, he came around a bend and suddenly clenched his brakes—a mangy grizzly stood in the middle of the narrow road, 30 metres away. Dowler paused on his bike, calculating his chances of turning around for a quick escape. The bear could easily tackle him by the time he picked up speed. He opted to try to scare the bear away. “Hey bear,” he bellowed.

It didn’t work. The animal looked from him to the bush, back and forth, and then began heading in his direction. Dowler flung his backpack off his shoulders, snatched a hiking pole and extended it in front of him. As the bear approached, he started to make out its features. The boar, about five years old, and nine feet from tail to snout, was nearly three times his body weight—and though it showed no signs of aggression, its curiosity was piqued.

The bear walked along the opposite side of the road, coming closer and closer. The gap between them closed to 10 metres. Dowler carefully stepped off his bike, which seemed to startle the animal. It shuddered from the paws up to its rump, then continued to stalk nearer. Dowler pivoted his bike, shielding himself with it. The bear passed by Dowler. Then, suddenly, it stopped, turned and looked right at him.

Dowler calmly raised a hiking pole and pushed it against the bear’s big forehead, right between the eyes. This seemed to hold the bear in place, until the rubber tip rolled off his muzzle. Before Dowler could try again, the bear chomped on the pole. “Oh, come on now, we don’t need to do this,” he said, careful not to react aggressively with the animal so close. “I’m your friend.”

Dowler let the pole drop. He tossed his backpack beside the bear, hoping the pepperoni scent would entice him away. One sniff, and the bear turned back with his paw in the air, then delivered a light swat that Dowler blocked with his bike. Dowler dodged a second, heavier swat, and another and another, each stronger than the last.

After the bear raised a threatening paw high in the air, Dowler threw the bike at it, but the creature barely stumbled. Instead, it lunged forward and snatched Dowler up by his abdomen with one swift chomp. Dowler was flung sideways, draped across the bear’s muzzle. The animal’s canines sank deep as it carried him to the edge of the road. Dowler felt no pain, just warmth. He didn’t resist, thinking only that if it carried him into the bush, he’d be too incapacitated to get back to the road and would die before anyone found him.

The grizzly dropped him by the ditch and lifted its head for another bite. There was no roar, no growl, just huffing while it chewed Dowler’s flank. Dowler tried to gouge its eyes—grabbing at the fur on its face and poking as hard as he could into the bear’s left eye. Agitated, the bear swung him 180 degrees, hoisted itself high, and chewed into his upper leg. Over and over, the bear lifted his head and bit into him.

Thoughts of leaving behind his family, of missing every part of his daughters’ lives, raced through Dowler’s mind. He regretted that he’d put himself in such a dangerous position—that he’d lost the bear spray.

As he tried to pry the animal’s jaws open, saliva trailed off its yellow teeth. It chomped through his hand. “Stop!” he screamed. “Why? Stop!” It didn’t make sense. He knew that grizzlies typically only attack briefly, then leave humans alone. When would this end?

The bear moved on to taste his other leg. As he heard the sound of his femur grating in its teeth, he remembered his knife in his pocket. He reached for it, just as the grizzly hit a nerve. Dowler arched and yelped.

Okay, he thought, I’ll play dead.

But the bear hit another leg nerve and Dowler screamed even louder. I can’t play dead while I’m screaming. I have to get the knife.

The weight of the grizzly’s chest was on his stomach, pinning his arms to his left side, opposite the knife. Unable to feel his right arm, Dowler wiggled his left hand between their bodies and into his pocket. He opened the blade with both hands and inadvertently sliced the bear’s chest as he pulled his left arm out.

Dowler stabbed the bear’s neck as fast and strong as he could. Blood gushed from the wound. Even the grizzly seemed surprised.

“Now you’re bleeding too, bear,” said Dowler.

The bear stepped off him and walked slowly away, trailing blood on the gravel. As it disappeared into the forest, Dowler assessed the damage to his body. His sides and legs were riddled with cavities. A femoral artery wound drenched his lower half in blood. Dowler cut his left shirt sleeve with his knife and tied it around his left leg. Once it was tightly knotted, he flopped on to his backside and scooted to his bike, then pulled himself onto it and concentrated on resting his feet on the pedals. He collapsed off the bike after one push.

Dowler recovering in hospital after the attackCourtesy of Colin Dowler
Dowler recovering in hospital after the attack.

Dowler fought to remount and take off, keeping a tight grip on his knife. He felt his seat warming as blood from his wounds flowed down his back. As he focused on his breathing, he felt his odds improve.

He pushed ahead for 30 minutes until the road sloped toward the logging camp. He bounced over the bumps, all the way to the mess hall railing and fell on his side.

Dowler flung himself onto the landing, legs flopping on the stairs. “Help! Call a helicopter. I’ve been mauled by a grizzly,” he yelled through a screen door. Five men, including Giannandrea, found Dowler streaked with blood and dirt, smelling like an animal.

They kept him talking for 40 minutes until a medevac finally arrived. He received two units of blood at the camp, and was eventually airlifted to Vancouver General. His younger brother, his cousin and his sister were already waiting for him at the hospital. But Jenifer, still on a camping trip, was unreachable.

It was evening when Jenifer returned home. They’d gone a day without reception and hadn’t turned their phones back on. “Look, it’s almost eight o’clock,” said Jenifer, driving into her neighbourhood. “It’s almost time to start worrying.”

Their house came into view and she immediately noticed her brother-in-law’s truck in the driveway instead of Dowler’s. She saw him pacing outside on a call.

He hurried over. “I don’t want you to panic,” he said. “He’s stable, but Colin was attacked by a grizzly bear.”

At first Jenifer thought it had to be a joke, and expected her husband to jump out from behind a tree.

It was too late for Jenifer to catch the last ferry to the mainland. She finally arrived at the hospital late Tuesday morning, just as Dowler woke up from six and a half hours of surgery. They’d had to make an eight-inch incision to repair an artery wound, and treat more than 50 gashes and bite wounds. In all, he needed close to 200 staples and stitches. He was groggy, equally confused by the sight of his family and all his bandaged limbs.

The news was as good as it could be. The grizzly’s teeth had mostly bounced off his hips and ribs. Had Dowler been any larger, there’d have been more room for the bear to sink its teeth into his internal organs.

In the end, the physique he’d tried to defy all his life had saved him.

In the mood for more heart-stopping survival stories? Check out these other true tales from our Drama in Real Life section.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada