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Grizzly bear attack puts hiker in the fight of his life
One morning in July 2019, Colin Dowler was returning to his boat parked at a logging camp in Ramsay Arm east of Campbell River. He had spent the previous day mapping out a route to climb Mount Doogie Dowler — a local mountain named after Colin’s late grandfather that he and his brother planned to hike together.
Nearly seven kilometres out from his boat, Colin’s life changed forever. While riding down the trail he came across a grizzly bear.
“The bear looked into the bush a couple of times, and I was hoping that it was just going to step off into the forest, but it didn’t,” says Colin.
Colin got off his bike, took off his backpack and extended a hiking pole — he had heard of another hiker once fending a bear off with one and figured it couldn’t hurt to have it in hand.
Colin kept his composure and watched the bear as it walked towards him and then seemingly right past. They made brief eye contact, and Colin breathed a sigh of relief as the bear continued to walk past him.
“The bear was maybe four feet away. It was really close,” says Colin. “It walked almost all the way past, like his rump was about to pass by my rear tire of my bike. At that point he did a one-eighty turn so I turned in kind and extended the pole out towards the bear. With my bike in between us and he did a little shudder. Then the bear advanced towards me.”
Colin tried to poke the bear between the eyes with the hiking pole, but it bit the pole and pulled it away. Colin then tried to toss his backpack over to entice the bear with the food inside. It didn’t take.
What happened next was the single most terrifying experience of Colin’s life — the bear charged Colin.
Colin threw his bike at the bear, but it crashed over top, barreled into him and bit the side of his torso. It gripped Colin’s body in its jaws and tossed him. It picked Colin up again and carried him nearly 50 feet. He soon find himself being crushed underneath the weight of the bear, and it began chewing on Colin’s leg and foot.
Colin tried fighting back, attempting to peel the bear’s gums but the bear bit his hand and pinned him down harder.
“I was kind of at a loss of what to do,” says Colin. “I was yelling aloud, Why? Stop! Thinking all the horrible thoughts you have. Is this it for me? Bye to my wife and kids. Am I going to succumb to being eaten by this bear? Am I going to die of my injuries after he’s done mauling me?”
Then Colin remembered his pocketknife.
Mustering all the strength he had, he dragged his arms from underneath the bear, reached into his pants pocket, pulled the knife out and opened it.
He drew back his arm and stabbed down at the bear’s neck.
“Amazingly, the bear immediately let go of me and retreated back,” says Colin.
After a few moments, Colin used his knife to cut off his shirt sleeve and made a tourniquet for his leg, all while watching the bear as it stood at a distance looking back at Colin. After what felt like an eternity, the bear scampered into the woods.
Colin dragged himself over to his bike, propped it up and tried to mount it, but he fell over top.
Laying in the dirt, Colin was bloody, beaten and exhausted. He didn’t know if he could get up again. But then he started to pump himself up.
“I told myself, You’ve got one chance to do this,” says Colin. “Time to muster what you have. So I got back on the bike, it was actually surprisingly easier the second time. I got on and got pedaling, and it was successful. I just started pedaling away.”
Colin thought back on his time as a long-distance runner in high school. He knew the feeling of exhaustion, and more importantly, he knew how to fight through it.
He rode and rode, and rode some more. He rode for three and a half kilometres until he hit a downhill slope, and flew down into the logging camp. The camp workers immediately called 9-1-1.
The BC Air Ambulance arrived and flew Colin to the only place that could treat the severity of his wounds — Vancouver General Hospital (VGH).
World-class coordinated and specialized care
At VGH, Trauma Surgeon Dr. David Ko assessed the extent of Colin’s injuries: multiple puncture wounds from teeth and claws with the most extensive damage on his left side. Dr. Ko and the specialized vascular team at VGH worked together to surgically repair Colin’s badly mauled body.
“The injury on his left flank was only one cell layer away from the kidney, and from all the internal organs,” says Dr. Ko. “Colin was very fortunate that didn’t pierce.”
To prevent infection, Dr. Ko examined, sterilized, cleaned and sutured all of Colin’s many puncture wounds. Colin also required extensive assessment to ensure he had no unidentified intra-abdominal or kidney damage. The complexity of Colin’s injuries required expert and coordinated care from many specialized teams at VGH, including infection control.
Recovering from the attack
Colin’s stay at VGH lasted 24 days. During his time in hospital he was cared for by a myriad of physicians, nurses, and specialists whose mission was to make Colin recover as best as possible.
He is now back at home to continue his recovery in Campbell River with a comprehensive outpatient care package, which he continues to follow to this day.
“I feel so grateful [for the] whole team at VGH,” says Colin. “They were there for me when I needed it most, and returned me home to my wife and children.”