A Grizzly Encounter
Reader's Digest US|April 2021
On a trail near a mountain named for his grandfather, a lone hiker crosses paths with a bear three times his size—and with one enormous appetite
By Omar Mouallem

Ever since he was a kid growing up on Quadra Island in western Canada, Colin Dowler had pushed himself to do more, go faster, and scale bigger heights, despite having a small physique and a nagging congenital knee disease. When he skied, he raced the double-black diamonds. 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. Jenifer Dowler, his wife of 16 years, often found herself telling him to slow down.

To celebrate his 45th birthday in July 2019, Colin took a week off from his job as manager at a health-care facility in Campbell River, a small town on Vancouver Island’s east coast, where he lived with Jenifer and their youngest daughter, Sadie. He planned to spend two days on his own, scouting a route he planned to use later to summit Mount Doogie Dowler with his older brother, Paul. The peak, which rises to about 6,500 feet in the Coast Mountains of southwest British Columbia, was named after Colin’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, a local hub, was immortalized in nature. But none of the Dow lers had ever climbed to its summit. Colin had tried once in his 20s and made it within a thousand feet of the peak before getting rained out.

Jenifer didn’t like the sound of her husband’s latest plan. She was used to Colin going on solo adventures, but this time he’d be boating to an obscure bay, biking an unpopulated road, hiking through grizzly country, and camping 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 night before his journey, Colin packed sparingly. He ditched his usual tent to experiment with a bivy bag—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 pocketknife given to him by his dad.

Jenifer and Sadie were still in bed when Colin left at 7 a.m., his bike and boat in tow.

Colin had intended to stop at a tackle shop for bear spray, but the gorgeous weather meant the parking spots at the city’s boat launch would fill up fast. So as he added up the minutes, he drove past the store, deciding the small likelihood of a bear attack wasn’t worth delaying his mission. He recognized he couldn’t completely rule out the possibility, though. He’d had two grizzly sightings and countless black bear encounters in the area in the past, but he’d always escaped unscathed.

Colin 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, Colin knew it was good practice to check-in at the mess hall. “Is there anything you need?” Vito Giannandrea, the camp cook, asked him.

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