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Nick's story

Bear attacks are rare, but they do happen

By Robin Nish (a.k.a. Ms. Aikins)

Phone calls that wake us in the middle of the night cause confusion and panic - it's dark, everyone should be safely asleep, and the phone shouldn't be ringing. But the call that woke me up on that July Tuesday morning came at 6 a.m. when the sunlight was filling my bedroom, the Montreal heat wave already in motion. As I got up to cross the room to answer I had a fleeting thought that it was a call from friends who had recently visited us from England - they've got the time mixed up again I thought.

I'm sure I did a brief inventory of the family - something all mothers do: Lauren was upstairs sleeping after two weeks at an outdoor adventure camp, and Kelly and Nick were in Algonquin Park starting their third week of a first time "away" camp. I had just spent Saturday with them on Parent's Day and they were loving it. And, in any case, at six in the morning they would be fast asleep in their cabins or tents. All was well.

I had no sense of foreboding and was therefore totally unprepared as I answered the phone and a man's voice said, "Mrs. Aikins?"

"Yes," I answered.

"This is Constable Shultz of the Ontario Provincial Police."

Even now it is impossible to remember that 1997 morning without feeling my heart start to beat very fast. There could be only one reason why this man was calling - I had two children at camp in Ontario and as I dropped to my knees saying, "oh God, please God," I knew that this stranger had my world in his hands. His next words were devastating. "Do you have a son Nicholas?" he asked, and in the seconds that followed, during which all I could do was cry hysterically and say, "...Please no... Please..." I'm sure that I died.

However long the eternity was before Cst. Shultz said, "Your son is alive Mrs. Aikins, he is still alive," was a time I spent in another dimension, and then I was afraid to come out of it in case this stranger was tricking me, trying to soften the blow. I clung to the magic words "your son is alive," at the same time crying and saying, "No, you're just saying that. Please tell me it's true. Why are you calling me? Where is my son?"

He finally shocked me into silence with the words: "He is in the operating room of the Barry's Bay hospital. He has been severely mauled by a black bear."


The Attack

The story of Nick's survival, of that dreadful night, is documented in the annals of bear attacks in North America. In the last 100 years or so there have been only a handful of survivors of what is called a "true predator attack," and my son is one. His story is also the stuff of nightmares and legends; where do you hear of a sleeping child being dragged off by a wild animal to be eaten? In the Old Testament? In darkest African jungles? Not, surely, at one of the thousands of wonderful camps that forms the backbone of summer memories for generations of kids. But that is what happened to Nick.

After a day of canoeing and portaging, and then carefully piling all the food and treats into the boats, which were in the water safely down the beach from the tents, Nick and seven other little boys fell deeply asleep, their two counsellors nearby in another tent. And at one o'clock in the morning, under a half moon, a 315-pound (143 kilograms) predator-black bear lumbered into the campsite, trampled the counsellor's tent and then, tore open the tent that Nick was in, sunk its teeth into his leg and dragged him out across the rocky campsite.

My son woke up, literally, in the jaws of death.

I want to tell Nick's story now partly in light of this summer's fatal bear attack in nearby Lillooet, and partly because since moving to Squamish and spending time in Whistler, I have often been concerned with what I can only call reckless and possibly dangerous attitudes towards black bears. Additionally, for someone to survive a bear attack, a few things have to start going right immediately after the initial event, and perhaps some of that information will be helpful to others at some future time.


Surviving the Attack

The first thing that went right for Nick was having an extraordinary young man, Mike Hildebrand, on his trip. He was one of the two amazing counsellors with the kids. When the bear began its rampage it started with Hildebrand and fellow counsellor Michelle Hayes's tent. The bear's attack left them trapped inside, but rather than staying frozen in fear they searched for their knives and other emergency equipment and worked to free themselves.

Mike quickly slashed open the tent, rushing out with a can of "bear mace" in his hands, which instantly proved useless. He told me later that he didn't know that humans hands could shake the way his were shaking at the time of the attack, and he has never been able to make them shake that way again, and so, unable to gain control of his fine motor skills, he quickly threw the mace aside and ran to the water to grab a canoe paddle - something to wrap his shaking hands around and hopefully, become a weapon. The other thing that went right for Nick was that although it was quite dark under that half moon and Mike couldn't clearly see which boy the bear had, he heard Nick call out, "get it off me!" and recognizing his voice immediately started calling him by name.

The importance of this is crucial.

If my son had died that night in such a violent way, I would always have believed he had died in fear and pain. But that would not have been the case. Shock is a wonderful and powerful gift the brain gives to the body, blocking out sensation, shutting down fear. But, of course, it can also be paralyzing. Long after the attack, when I tearfully asked Nick if he was very frightened at the time he said, no.

"I really didn't feel anything," Nick told me.

"I didn't know what was happening. I just tried really hard to go back to sleep. But Mike kept calling me over and over again and shouting - 'Nick just go! Just go Nick!' and so I rolled over and tried to crawl away."

Nick had just turned 11 years old the day before the attack and he weighed 84-pounds. If he had not rolled himself over from his back to his knees, he would never have had a chance of surviving the total of 26 puncture wounds this bear managed to inflict on him before Mike beat him off. Because Mike called him over and over again, it helped to keep Nick from going into shock, and because he gave him an order -go Nick - simple as that was, it created a sense in Nick to try to get away. And so, the wounds that rained down on his little body were not on his stomach but instead all over his thighs, and bottom and hips.

As Mike ran back carrying the paddle towards Nick and the bear he was thankful for the headlamp that he had automatically pulled onto his head as he was getting out of the tent. It meant both hands were free to wield the heavy paddle as a weapon as he approached the raging bear.

Bears have few weaknesses. They are very powerful and strong; they move extremely fast and often kill their victims with a quick swat to the head to break the neck. They can swim and they can climb trees. But in the darkness, their eyes are a bit weak and Mike was able to confuse and partially blind the bear with the headlamp as he rushed towards it landing a mighty blow on its head with the blade side of the paddle. The bear, at that point angry and confused, and likely in pain since the subsequent autopsy showed that the blow had broken blood vessels in its skull, reared up on his hind legs and dropped Nick's body, but not before inflicting a series of deep claw wounds.

And so the situation was this - a huge black bear was on his hind legs huffing and angry, a little boy lay on the ground at its feet, and Mike - all 5-foot 8-inches of him - stood on the other side of my little boy.

Mike had a decision to make and what he decided was to attack.

Once more he was able to land a blow to the head, which snapped the edge of the paddle, but it was enough to force the animal to abandon Nick and climb the tree beside him - shaking it and raging and huffing the whole time. As Michelle, who had evacuated the other seven terrified boys into the canoes came rushing up to drag Nick down to the boats, Mike stayed under the tree with the headlamp in the eyes of the bear until Nick was in the canoe, and then Mike backed away and the shocked and frightened group of campers paddled out into the dark lake, leaving an enraged predator who, in the words of Algonquin Park's Chief Biologist Dan Strickland, "came down from the tree and laid waste to the campsite," shredding everything in its fury.

The campsite they were leaving, on Lake Opeongo, was easily four hours by canoe from anywhere that they could call for help. So they made for another nearby campsite where luckily someone knew how they could access a motorboat. After waking up the powerboat owner and explaining what had happened Michelle and Nick set off in the motorboat to get to the next urgently required level of care, which was the hospital at Barry's Bay just outside the provincial park.

And this is where another thing went right for Nick, in the person of a young doctor from Toronto - Dr. Bernard Dew, who immediately assessed the situation and began the major work required to stop the spread of infection that was now coursing through Nick's wounds.

He knew Nick would need many hours of surgery at a major hospital, and also many months of nursing care and re-hab if he survived the surgery and infection, and so even as he worked on Nick he was setting up the next stage with St. Justine's Children's Hospital in Montreal. We later learned that there had been jurisdictional problems getting Nick out of the region: there was only one ambulance in the Barry's Bay area and it had to get all the way to Ottawa to make the crucial transfer to a Quebec ambulance. At some point during this time when I could actually speak to Dr. Dew, I said: "Shouldn't Nick get to a hospital in Ottawa - the closest place?"

But he assured me that he had cleaned and stabilized the wounds sufficiently to allow Nick to spend another hour and a half in the ambulance to Montreal, since so many months of after care would be required close to home.

Thankfully, the ambulance drivers were very considerate and kept me informed of exactly where they were as the endless morning dragged on. We were quite helpless and useless in Montreal and had to entirely trust the skill and knowledge of everyone involved in the emergency response system to care for our son. I was only able to speak to Dr. Dew after Nick was out of surgery and on his way in the ambulance. That was when I got some idea of the extent of his wounds. I wanted to rush to Ottawa to be there for the transfer into the Quebec ambulance, but that would have complicated things unnecessarily, and so I waited by the phone and thanks to the driver I was at the emergency entrance of St. Justine's, along with a team of surgeons and doctors, when Nick arrived.

I bent down to kiss him as he was being wheeled into the operating room and he gave me a lopsided grin and whispered, "Don't freak out, okay Mom?"

My little warrior.

And then over five hours later Chief Surgeon Dr. Louise Laberge came out of the operating room and said to us, "If you didn't believe in miracles before, you can believe in them now."

Nick had survived 26 puncture wounds, some so deep that the doctors could put their whole hands inside them, and yet no major artery had been severed, which would have resulted in him bleeding to death. He spent two weeks in hospital undergoing intense treatment to destroy the dreadful bacteria that lives in the mouths of bears and in our soils; bacteria which include many types of streptococci and diphtheria to name a few, and which could have cost him his legs or even his life. He was treated with rabies vaccine because although rabies is rare in bears, wildlife services confirmed to the microbiology department of the hospital that it does exist in the species and it can only be prevented never cured. So my Nick had to undergo the very painful rabies injections inserted at the major wound sites. He required eight weeks of daily nursing care to clean and irrigate the many wounds, which had tubes in them while they healed from inside, and a month after the attack he went back to hospital for skin grafts to his thighs. And all this was followed by months of physio and massage therapy to break down the adhesions in the wounds as they healed.


But Back to the Day of the Attack

Meanwhile, back in Algonquin Park, officials realized that they had a predator bear on the loose, and began to mount an evacuation campaign for the region around Lake Opeongo. The park administration knew that a bear showing this kind of predatory behavior was a danger to others, and given the history of Algonquin Park's fatal black bear attacks, they were taking no chances (In 1978 three teenagers on a fishing trip at Radiant Lake were killed by a black bear. In 1991 a rouge bear broke the necks of a man and a woman on Bates Island in Opeongo Lake)

Nick's sister Kelly was in one of many groups of young campers out on another campsite at the time of the attack. Imagine the surprise of these 14-year-old girls and their counsellors as a helicopter appeared over their heads about 8 a.m. and using a loudspeaker told them not to leave the site - they would be evacuated by boat in a few hours. Park Rangers and others involved in the evacuation knew that the victim's sister was one of the campers, but as they did not know Nick's status, they didn't want to alarm anyone by disclosing the reasons for the evacuation, which was being done in order of locations closest to the attack site. Kelly remembers that as they waited for the boat to pick them up all sorts of possibilities for this sudden change in plans were put forward by the girls, with escaped murderers and nuclear war being the top two. It wasn't until much later that day when she was back at camp that she was called into the director's office to see an emotional Mike and to talk to me on the phone from the hospital in Montreal.

A vital piece of information that Mike had been able to give park officials about the bear was that there was a yellow tag in one of his ears; a tag that would have been put in as part of a 1994 park research program on male black bears. And so at 8 p.m. that night when Rangers spotted a large black bear clawing the ground on the very site where Nick had been attacked, and after quietly paddling close to shore to ensure that they could get a clear shot, they were able to bring the bear down and establish that this was the animal they were looking for by the tag in its ear.

The bear's body was sent to the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph for examination, although the brain was sent to Ottawa for what is called a nuclear test to determine if rabies was present. It wasn't. But as the test takes several days to confirm this, Nick still had to take the injections. The absence of rabies, or any illness, or disease or signs of starvation told the experts at Algonquin Park what they had suspected from the beginning: this attack on Nick was what is called a "true predator attack," which includes no illness, starvation or provocation.

What was a surprise to them was found in the data gathered when the bear had been tagged in 1994. At that time the animal, as a three-year-old, was only 117 pounds (53 kg) and was noted by the biologist as being "unusually docile." And then three years later it weighed over 300 pounds and was a killer.

Chief Biologist Dan Strickland wrote a long report about the attack and the bear the following year for the Algonquin Park Visitor's Newsletter - The Raven - (Vol.39, No. 5), and although this report very much downplayed Nick's injuries, it gave a lot of information about the bear.

"There was nothing inadvertent about what this bear did to Nick," states the report.

"(The bear) deliberately seized the sleeping boy and dragged him out of his tent. The bear was behaving as a predator and we have no reason to doubt that, without Mike's intervention, it would have killed and eaten Nick."

Strickland also wrote: "We should make no mistake that Mike did what he did at enormous risk to himself."

In reconstructing the events of that night he also said that it was very lucky that Mike and Michelle were unsuccessful in their attempt to use the can of bear mace as the spray could have in fact incapacitated them, with disastrous results.


About Black Bear Attacks

The information that we received following the attack came from experts like Dr. Stephen Herrero of the University of Calgary who has published books on bear attacks and has studied data covering about 100 years. One of the most interesting details concerns the very entrenched idea that we should fear a female bear with her cubs, something that is not supported by evidence. The vast majority of killer-bears are male, and at the time of Nick's attack only two human deaths by black bears could be attributed to females in Dr. Herrero's database. Tragically, in July of 2000, this statistic changed when a young Canadian Olympic hopeful for Canada's biathlon team, Mary Beth Miller, was killed by a female bear (although not one with cubs) in CFB Valcartier Quebec while on a training run.

Reports of bear sightings in the area and warning signs posted were not deterrents to any of the athletes training in the area, and we were shocked when the media coverage began with, "most black bears are harmless," or words to that effect.

Our family's position is that bears are wild animals, and some black bears are predators that have eaten meat since they were born and will look for prey in the way that all successful predators work - meaning the prey will be smaller and present no defense; a small sleeping child would be an easy target, or a solitary runner. Bears should not be anthropomorphized or characterized as "mostly harmless."

I remember one acquaintance who came up to me after Nick's attack and broke down in tears as she told me that she had been trying to get a baby bear to come towards her and her six-year-old daughter in their country house yard by putting food in her daughter's hand and calling to the bear. She was appalled at herself for being so naïve about wild animals. We have begun to think that bears that frequent human habitats are not really wild animals anymore, and although research and the records of bear attacks do show that so-called "nuisance bears" rarely graduate to killing humans, thinking of any bear as just a nuisance is not wise. The killers are described as "wild bears," which have had little or no contact with people, but Nick's story tells us that the bear that attacked him had certainly come into contact with humans - when he was caught and tagged -and was considered "unusually docile." There is no totally dependable way to establish the danger presented by any bear.

One of the wonderful aspects of life in British Columbia is seeing the great love that people here have for the beautiful outdoors; spending hours working or playing on trails and camping in far-flung regions. If we look at the statistics about black bear attacks, then it is true that you are unlikely to be a victim. But, as a Montreal neighbour of mine who happened to be the CEO of a major Canadian bank, said at the time, "When you are the one in 400,000, then statistics mean nothing."

If you are out in the wild, or even in your local campsite, are you prepared, with some kind of weapon and with a plan, to defend yourself or your children? Most of us are quite certain that we would fight to the death for our child, but what if your body freezes, or what if you just don't have the physical strength? As the mother of one of the girls who was with Kelly said: "There was no Mike out there with our daughters."

And any attack unfolds with its own set of particular circumstances.

Conventional wisdom tells us that fighting back hard is the best thing to do, but in Nick's case Dan Strickland points out that because Nick was asleep and therefore confused when he woke up, he didn't resist, and the bear didn't have to swat him to keep him in his grasp.

In Mike's case, having the knife and the headlamp in his tent were the first items that allowed this rescue to be successful. Having a very long-handled item, such as the canoe paddle, close at hand allowed him to strike the animal without having to get as close as he would have had to if he had used something like mace.

I sometimes advise friends who camp to take a golf club with them to keep in their tents - a strong hard weapon that could be a lifesaver. I have to admit that I don't think anyone has ever followed this advice. Another factor which helped make this a successful rescue was the instinctive and spontaneous way that Mike and Michelle worked together, with her evacuating the seven other boys, and Mike going after Nick and the bear.

Do you have a plan worked out that you could follow if you were in an emergency situation? If you love the wild and you camp or hike, it makes sense to practice a plan of some kind so that critical moments don't slip away when every second counts. And importantly, one of the things missing from Nick's rescue was any sort of appropriate communication device. If you have a child at camp anywhere - please make sure that their counsellors have whatever device they need to call for help.


Blessings Counted

I'm happy to report that Nick's attack did not turn him, or Mike, away from their love of the outdoors. Sometimes after nature has shown its violent side, it leaves a sense of bewildered pain; you love nature and respect it, and yet one night it tried to kill you. But time has healed many things.

As Nick has grown to be six-feet tall, (causing a certain amount of "who saved who?" jokes when he is with Mike) his scars and graft sites have grown with him since puncture wounds cannot be neatly stitched closed. When he was 16 years old I took him back to Dr. Laberge since the skin grafts were lying on top of now well-developed thigh muscles and looked like they might herniate. After an affectionate greeting between doctor and patient, she examined his many scars and said they were strong and not to worry, and that she could make some look a bit better with more surgery, something Nick wasn't remotely interested in.

When we left she gave Nick a big hug and said: "Go away Nick and forget you ever knew us."

How do you thank the professionals whose daily work ensures that life goes on? It's almost impossible.

But when Nick graduated from Lower Canada College at age 17 and was awarded the much coveted trophy for Most Outstanding Male Athlete in the graduating year, I sent Dr. Laberge a picture of her former patient and tried to express once again my deepest gratitude for her amazing skill in getting Nick to that place.

For Mike and for Michelle, many honours followed including special awards for their bravery and critical response. One came unexpectedly from the Andrew Carnegie Hero Foundation in New York, an amazing organization with a mandate to seek out those who risk their lives to save others and to recognize and reward them; and they found Mike's story.

On May 10, 1999, which was a Mother's Day, Nick and I had the great honour to be with Ray and Mary Hildebrand at Rideau Hall Ottawa, as their son Mike received the Medal of Bravery from the Governor General of Canada, Romeo LeBlanc.

This was a day of quiet pride for Mike's parents, but I have to say that when they opened the scroll that was presented and saw the Coat of Arms for Canada, and then the words "on Behalf of her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the II," the tears welled up. I have always said to Mary that both of our sons survived that night, and I have no way of ever repaying Mike for what he did. There were seven other little boys on that campsite who needed saving, and if Mike and Michelle had saved all of them but had had to leave the one the bear got, could anyone have blamed them? Mike's response was that of a trained soldier, but he was no such thing. He was a 22-year-old university student with a summer job who risked his life in a sudden and violent emergency to save my son from a horrible death, and I am forever in his debt.

As for Nick, he has grown up knowing that Mike risked his life for him. That awareness has developed over the years and when he turned 22 he said: "I have to go to see Mike. There are some things I need to say to him."

A unique relationship, to be sure.