Wilderness Canoe Trip: Surviving a Grizzly Attack

Alex Messenger was between his junior and senior year of high school when he went on a 600-mile canoe trip in the Canadian wilderness. It turned into a much more life-changing trip than he had anticipated…

preparing to fly canoes into Canada
Preparing to fly into the Northwest Territories to begin their 600-mile canoe trip

 

Alex grew up in a canoe—first with his family, and then at Camp Menogyn in northern Minnesota. He and his fellow Menogyn campers had all paddled many trips over the years, working their way up to this one: the longest and most challenging the camp offers.

An Epic Wilderness Canoe Trip

Alex, his paddle mates and their guide, an experienced wilderness canoeist with Menogyn, headed out.  

canoeist group
Alex (far left) and his fellow canoeists

 

To reach their starting point, they first drove to northern Manitoba, then took a bush plane with all their gear into the Northwest Territories. Launching on the Dubawnt River, they paddled north and east into Dubawnt Lake in Nunavut.

A 4-mile portage took them into the Kunwak River system, then the Kazan. Their final destination was Baker Lake.

map of route
The general area of their route

 

Alex describes it as “an epic river trip with touring-style whitewater.”

Grizzly Encounter

29 days into the trip, Alex left camp that afternoon and went out on a solo hike. The terrain was treeless subarctic tundra, rocky and barren. He had scaled a steep vertical climb when he encountered a grizzly bear, just 30 feet away.

Their guide had carefully instructed them what to do in case of a grizzly encounter: Don’t run. Back away slowly. Try to convince it you’re not a threat. All of that was running through his head the instant he saw it. Unfortunately, the bear charged.

Alex recalls:

“Terror turned into an overwhelming sense of loss. I was certain my life was about to end. I was so sad about that. I wasn’t ready to die.” (source)

“I was really lucky. My injuries were not as bad as they could’ve been, by far. The bear bit me at the top of my leg, so I had puncture wounds there and in my thigh. But they missed my vital blood vessels.”

Their guide was a trained Wilderness First Responder (WFR), as all the camp’s guides are. He was able to bind up and stabilize Alex’s wounds. Needless to say, their trip shifted at that point. They had a satellite phone along, so they could connect with the camp to discuss Alex’s injuries and decide what to do next.

There wasn’t a helicopter available to pick him up, and since his injuries were stable they didn’t feel it required a high-risk emergency military-type rescue.

canoeing
Princess Mary Lake, Nunavet on Day 28 of Alex’s trip

 

The group, of course, had bear mace (spray) and bear poppers with them (noise makers) on the trip. Unfortunately, Alex didn’t have mace with him on this short hike when he encountered the grizzly.

“As Murphy’s Law would say, the time you don’t have it is when you need it!”

Back in the Wilderness

“Canoeing's a huge part of my life. I love being out on the water and canoes are definitely my choice of how to be out there. Because of your connection with that place…your feeling of satisfaction when you get somewhere under your own power. The challenges you can overcome in a canoe are humbling, and really exciting and invigorating.

“After my bear attack, getting back out there—into the wilderness, especially—was challenging. I had to overcome a lot of fears just to be out there in a place where you're not completely in control. I have a heightened startle response. When I’m walking through the woods and hear a grouse jump out or a pine marten, it’s always much bigger and scarier in that first instant.”

But Alex made sure to continue getting out there with his family. It was important to him for his long-term healing.

canoeing a northern river
Canoeing one of the many rivers along their 600 miles

 

After a few years he was able to get back to Camp Menogyn and work as a guide himself. He eventually extended that into joining his local search and rescue squad. His experiences helping other people have been extremely rewarding for him.

“One of the things about bear encounters is that you learn a lot from it. There’s a lot you can do to prevent it from happening. There are some situations that are just out of your control, but there’s a lot you can do to stack the odds in your favor.”

He recommends taking bear mace everywhere with you—ready at hand—whenever you're in bear territory. Not just on a hike, but when you’re at your campsite, when you use the latrine…everywhere.

“The Twenty-Ninth Day”

Alex has written about his encounter with the grizzly in his forthcoming book, The Twenty-Ninth Day: Surviving a Grizzly Attack in the Canadian Tundra. Blackstone Publishing will release the book on November 12. It’ll be available on Amazon.

“I have no regrets for having gone on that trip, or any of the other trips I’ve gone on. I feel like I’ve learned some of my best lessons when traveling out in the wilderness and in other countries. A lot of those challenges are very real challenges, but they become the crucible that helps form who you are.” (source)

What is Alex’s connection with Bending Branches? “I grew up on Bending Branches paddles—my first bent-shaft was a BB Special. My family still uses them today.”

Alex Messenger
Author and canoeist Alex Messenger (photo by Lacey Messenger)

 

You can connect with Alex Messenger on: his website, Messenger Photography, Facebook and Instagram. Listen to this interview with Alex on Minnesota Public Radio.

(All photos by Alex Messenger, except where noted)

Contact our friendly Customer Service team today for help choosing your wilderness canoe paddle: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

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