Moose hunting around High Level, Alberta had been slow, so when Pete Karels arrived early to his scheduled pick-up point he decided to lie down in a little hut his outfitter had made out of evergreen boughs, and bask in the beauty of a remote Canadian wilderness sunset. The serenity was cut short however, when Karels glanced up the four-wheeler trail to the horrifying sight of a full-grown sow grizzly with two cubs in tow, and they were headed straight for him. When Karel’s eyes met those of the giant bear, he was suddenly overwhelmed with a feeling of helplessness and peril. In the blink of an eye, he was in a very desperate life or death situation.
Karels had come to High Level at the suggestion of a friend, Ron Bice, who had visited the area the previous year to film a black bear hunting video: The Bear Facts II. Bice’s guide, Everett Martin invited Ron to return for an archery moose hunt the following fall, and upon returning home, Bice extended the invitation to Karels, an insurance salesman from Ortonville, Minnesota. The pair made plans and when September rolled around they packed up their truck and headed north.
Bice and Karels spent their first full day scouting licks, hanging stands and cutting shooting lanes before heading back to camp for dinner where, eventually the conversation came around to grizzlies. There was a mixture of sobriety and sport as Martin, and some of the other guides related tales of grizzly encounters to their wide-eyed visitors. Martin wrapped up the conversation by the light of a glowing lantern, offering his clients some advice on how to react should they encounter a bear.
"Forget what the books tell you," he said. "Your best chance is to stand your ground, and try to act bigger and meaner than the bear."
That advice would ultimately determine the outcome of Karel’s encounter; though at the time he could never have imagined it. Like most folks, Bice felt the odds of a grizzly encounter were extremely remote. Karels, on the other hand, summarily dismissed the idea.
"To be honest, I was looking for grizzly tracks from the very beginning," said Bice. But seeing no evidence of the big bears put him more at ease with each passing day. "I felt an encounter would be extremely rare, boosting my confidence to walk through the brush with only bow and arrow."
Still Bice’s trepidation became a running joke between the two hunters. "He laughed and joked about it pretty much throughout the hunt," said Bice of Karels. “Right up to the last night.”
The following day played out without sight or sound of a moose but as Karels intended to hunt again the next morning before their departure, he decided to leave his bow in the stand. He also considered leaving his pack, but at the last moment decided the air horn it contained might come in handy in the event of a bear encounter, though he chuckled a bit at the thought of Bice’s trepidation.
Karel’s guide, Dan Abei, wasn’t scheduled to pick him up until 8, so he settle into a comfortable repose. But barely five minutes had passed when he turned to see the massive predator just yards away. From then on it was largely a matter of instincts.
His first was to stand. Whatever was about to happen he knew he didn’t want to be lying down for it. But the sudden movement at such close proximity proved perilous for when Karels stood, the bear charged. Now he had 600 pounds of pure predatory maternal instinct bearing down on him and little but a canvas pack and an air horn to defend himself with.
With his life literally hanging in the balance, Karels had to make a split-second decision. His initial, gut instinct was to race for shelter but as he turned and took half a step he recalled his outfitter’s advice “don’t ever run from a grizzly.”
Every man wonders how they’ll react in a life-or-death situation. Animal behaviorists call it a fight or flight response. Soldiers call it trial under fire. Hemingway referred to it as “facing the lion.” Karels was now facing the bear.
Face it he did. Turning back toward the bear, he began waving his arms and yelling with all the force he could muster. It was enough to halt the bear momentarily, mere feet from Karels. Then she rose up on her hind legs, and towering three feet over the scrawny intruder, let out a roar that shuddered Pete Karels to his very marrow. Meanwhile, the 150-pound cubs were now nervously bouncing on their hind legs. Saliva, screams and the rank odor of bear breath filled the narrow space between man and beast, but the bear came no closer.
Having survived the first attack, Karels rapidly took stock of the situation and decided to turn and reach for his pack and the airhorn. With that the bear dropped to all fours and prepared to charge again as Karels fought frantically to free the horn from his pack, only to realize it was still wrapped in the packaging. Seconds seemed like minutes as he tore at the wrapper at the same time screaming at the bear that would at any moment be on him. Just as she coiled to charge, Karels freed the horn and blasted the bear, startling her momentarily.
Then she regrouped and appeared ready for another attack. Karels tried to rebuff her with another blast when, to his horror, he realized the horn quit. As she lunged, Karels challenged her in the only way he could, roaring and even advancing on her. He also managed to get the horn working again. Once more the bear appeared ready to advance when she suddenly backed down, then turned and headed away.
No sooner had she disappeared from Karels' sight when Abei came riding up on his four-wheeler.
"Did you see the bear?" he excitedly asked Karels, before taking note of Pete’s ghostly white complexion and trembling body.
"She charged me; she charged me!" he shouted to his guide.
That night by the glowing lantern it was Karels, still pale and shaky from his ordeal, who had the best bear story. He humbly offered that he only did what he had to do to survive, and that it was Martin’s advice that had probably saved his life. But to the others he suddenly seemed much larger than his 6' 3", 220-pound frame.
Determining the age and size of a bear can be difficult when your adrenaline is pumping. Before taking a shot or going into a panic, you can determine a bear's age or sex by its physical features. If you're bear hunting, wait for the right bear.