Last Thursday, 44-year-old Stephanie Blais was standing outside her family cabin near McKie Lake, 150 kilometres north of Buffalo Narrows, Sask., around 5:40 p.m. when she was attacked by a black bear.
Blais was speaking with her father, Hubert Esquirol, over satellite phone. “She was calling to advise me that the water pump had quit and that her husband Curtis had repaired it,” Esquirol says. During the call, Blais sent her nine-year old son, Elie, into the cabin to retrieve an antenna designed to boost the phone’s signal. Moments later, Blais went silent.
Esquirol stayed on the line for two minutes, wondering if it was a bad connection. “I heard a really weird noise,” he says, describing it like the rustling of paper. He hung up and tried calling again, but no answer.
A fully-grown male black bear had emerged from the woods and charged Blais.
At the time, Curtis was in the cabin’s kitchen with the couple’s two-year-old daughter, Uma, washing dishes. Through the kitchen window, he saw the bear on top of Blais. Curtis rushed outside and pepper sprayed the bear, but this only aggravated him. Dashing back into the cabin, he grabbed a rifle and shot the bear twice, killing him. But for Blais, the attack had proved fatal.
Curtis called Esquirol back seven minutes after the initial call, informing him of the bear attack and that Blais no longer had a pulse. Esquirol says it’s likely Blais was turned towards the water while speaking on the phone and didn’t see the bear approach. “Because she never said a word to me or to Curtis, we think she was disabled right away.”
Acting quickly, Esquirol called a friend in Buffalo Narrows who operates a seaplane service. The friend jumped in his plane and headed straight for the cabin. The flight took an hour and 20 minutes, “which is remarkably fast given the plane only flies 90 miles an hour,” Esquirol says.
The friend flew Blais to Buffalo Narrows where medical officials pronounced her dead.
Conservation officers from the province’s Ministry of Environment are investigating the attack, and the bear’s carcass was transported to Saskatoon to undergo a necropsy.
In an email, the Ministry of Environment said that no additional information about the attack would be provided until the Coroners Service had completed its investigation. However two days after Blais’ death, Esquirol received a call from one of the conservation officers informing him that the attack had been predatory.
“What a predatory attack is, is an attack by an old bear who is in good health, who is not hungry, who is not injured, but who goes around the forest killing baby moose, mostly, and gets charged from killing,” Esquirol says. Blais had just happened to be in the bear’s sight line.
According to an RCMP report, this is the first fatal bear attack in Saskatchewan since 1983. The Ministry of Environment said that there has been one other incident with a black bear in Saskatchewan this year. In July, a bear entered a Saskatchewan residence, and the owner sustained injuries while fleeing, but it was not fatal.
Generally, black bear attacks are rare, said the Ministry of Environment. “Anecdotally, we have had seven incidents where someone has been injured in an encounter with a bear since 2014.”
If you are in an area where you’re at risk of encountering a black bear, the Ministry of Environment advises that you stay in a group and make lots of noise to alert the bear to your presence. Keep your pet on a leash and avoid leaving any attractants, such as garbage or pet food, lying around your property.
If you do encounter a black bear, stay calm. Don’t run. Back away slowly without looking directly at the bear. Have bear spray ready to use and drop articles of clothing, such as a hat or jacket, to distract the bear. “In most cases, black bears will threaten but not attack,” said the Ministry of Environment. “If attacked, defend yourself. Do not play dead.”
Despite being bear and wilderness trained, Blais was still caught off guard. To help the family cope with the attack, Blais’ cousin Jane Rusbridge has started a Go Fund Me page. To date, the page has raised $75,493. These funds will go towards supporting the family as Curtis stays home with the kids over the next few months.
Esquirol says that despite being unharmed during the attack, he worries that it may have lingering effects on Elie. Even Uma seems to know her mother won’t be coming back. But for the sake of the family, Esquirol maintains an edge of optimism. “It could have been a lot worse,” he says. “It could have been two dead.”