Todd Pilgrim tried for years to get a bison. This week, a bison almost got him.
The Yukon hunter is now resting and recovering at home in Whitehorse, after a terrifying life-or-death battle with an angry and injured bison that left Pilgrim battered, bruised, and amazed to be alive.
"I don't know how I did it," he said.
"I think it was a strong will to live, for my kids and my mother. I knew my mother — who I'm very close to — wouldn't take my death well."
The harrowing encounter happened Tuesday afternoon, in the woods near the village of Carmacks, Yukon. Pilgrim had gone out hunting with his friend Fred Mullet in hopes of finally bagging himself a bison.
The two hunters had just arrived at Mullet's favourite spot near Airport Lake when the ordeal began.
"As soon as we got there, Fred spotted a bison about 250 metres away and he said: 'C'mon, c'mon, Todd. Here's your chance."
Pilgrim fired. He hit the animal but said it "didn't even flinch."
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He fired a couple more rounds, and still there was no apparent reaction.
"The bison just casually walked off the air strip and into the woods," Pilgrim recalled.
Now the hunters were in a quandary. They had to track an injured, and therefore dangerous, animal. They decided to wait 20 minutes before following the trail of blood.
'Have your gun ready'
The trail soon petered out, though, and Pilgrim began to fear he'd lost his quarry.
Mullet, who is 72, was tired.
"I said, 'Fred, that's OK, you stay here. I'll track him alone.' He said, 'Well, be very careful Todd — have your gun ready.'"
"Snow going everywhere, and horns, and he just took me out. And I just seen stars." - Todd Pilgrim
It didn't take long for Pilgrim to pick up the trail. He found a spot where the bleeding animal had apparently lain down.
"I said, 'Holy cow, I got him. Like, I'm pretty sure he's really wounded. I just gotta finish him off,'" he recalled.
Pilgrim kept going, eyes glued to the ground, following tracks. His gun was strapped on his back.
Then he heard a big crash.
"I looked up to my left, and all I could see was two big horns about a foot in front of me, and it just took me out. It was surreal. It was like it was in slow motion," Pilgrim said.
"Snow going everywhere, and horns, and he just took me out. And I just seen stars."
Pinned to the ground
Pilgrim soon came to his senses, and realized he couldn't see out of his left eye. He thought the bison had gored him with a horn.
"Blood was oozing down my face like rain," he said.
That was the least of his concerns right then, though. Pilgrim realized he was lying on his back, with the massive animal standing right over him. He was pinned with his rifle under his back.
"I'm underneath the chest part. His head is over me.…He starts stomping, trying to hit me, but I was in the middle of his legs.
"I said, 'Oh my God, he's gonna kill me. I'm dead.'"
The bison seemed to be shifting his position, and Pilgrim knew that if the animal could get in a better position to stomp him, it was game over. Pilgrim grabbed handfuls of fur, and held himself right under the bison's chest.
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"I just hung on for dear life. You know, you're really strong when your life is at stake and the adrenaline's flowing.
"I said a lot of profanity … I was screaming at him, right: 'You're not going to kill me!'"
What happened next still baffles Pilgrim. He has no idea how he did it, but he managed to push the animal just enough to quickly squeeze out from under it, and leap to his feet.
The bison was not about to relent, though.
'Like a bull with a matador'
"He came right after me ... We're playing zigzag. I go one way, he goes another. But he didn't move that fast because they're so big."
Pilgrim says that's when he remembered hearing about an encounter an acquaintance of his had 20 years ago. The man and his wife had been charged by a bison and said they survived by getting behind a tree. Pilgrim bolted towards a little tree nearby.
The bison kept coming.
"Like a bull with a matador, I was going around the tree, he was chasing me around the tree. And I was going around and around, so he couldn't get me. He couldn't get me because he was so big."
And then — the bison stopped. Pilgrim said it seemed to decide right then that it was beat.
"He knew he couldn't get me. So he just walked off, and he looked at me as if to say, 'You bastard. I want to kill you.' And I know he hated me."
The bison walked a few metres, then turned around again.
"And then he starts snorting, and oh my Jesus, he's gonna charge me again. But you know, he didn't charge me. He just stared at me for a few seconds, then he turned away. He got really mellow."
Pilgrim managed to grab his rifle, get back behind his "life-saving tree," and take aim at his tormenter.
"I fired at him and he went over immediately."
Pilgrim ran back to Mullet, his hunting partner, hollering and crying. The two called the Carmacks Health Centre and a paramedic was sent to get them.
Back home on Friday, Pilgrim said he's still "not well." He suffered a concussion, and has some cuts and bruises, and he injured his back. Luckily, he has no broken bones.
"The doctor said no physical exercise for a week — just take it easy," he said.
"I'm all sore all over, because you know what it's like when a bison is on top of you."