'Absolutely terrified': Northern B.C. family fights off 2 marauding grizzly bears

Rick Cowan describes it like a kind of siege at his Atlin, B.C., home, carried out by two aggressive bears who would not relent.

Rick Cowan found himself trapped inside his Atlin, B.C., home while two aggressive bears lurked outside

'Even with all these years of living up here, I was never prepared for the panic and the fear that set in,' said Rick Cowan of Atlin, B.C., after being harrassed by two aggressive grizzlies at his home on Monday night. (Rick Cowan/Facebook)

Rick Cowan had just spent a pleasant evening working in the garden at his home near Atlin, B.C., on Monday and was looking forward to settling in with his girlfriend, and a glass of wine.

Then company arrived.

"[My girlfriend] looked out the window and up the driveway, and there's these two silver-backed grizzlies coming down the driveway," he recalled.

What followed was a harrowing ordeal unlike anything Cowan — an experienced outdoorsman — had ever experienced, or would ever want to again.

He describes it like a kind of siege, carried out by two full-sized, aggressive grizzlies who seemed unfazed by barking dogs, a honking horn or the sound of a rifle. They "surrounded" his home and didn't relent until they were shot dead.

One of the dead bears. Cowan estimates both bears were about 350 lbs. (Rick Cowan)

"I've been around bears most of my life, and I mean, I was absolutely terrified,"  Cowan said.

"I hope people can understand that this was not an intentional killing, or wanting to kill them or anything."

5 feet from getting in

Cowan has seen bears on his rural property before — his dog chased away a black bear just last week. But it was clear almost as soon as he first saw the two grizzlies on Monday that something was off.

"As soon as I started yelling at the dog to come in the house, the bears took a look at me and did a full-on charge right at the house and at me, both side by side. Scared the crap out of me," he said.

"I got the door shut about five feet from them actually getting into the house, behind me."

His teenaged daughter was in another cabin beside the house, and her dog was cowering outside the cabin door. Cowan then yelled out his window for her to let the dog in. When she opened her door, the bears "bolted" at her, too.

"She basically slammed the door and almost… they were about three feet from getting in. They were really, really close," Cowan said.

Cowan had no rifles at home — his were at his father's place nearby. The only weapon he could find was a kitchen knife. He phoned his father to come over as quickly as possible, and to bring a gun.

"We were surrounded by two grizzlies and they were potentially going to get into the house," he told his father.

'I could not have stopped them'

As they waited inside, the bears poked around outside. Eventually, the animals got into a bag of garbage that Cowan had put just outside his front door a little earlier.

The Yukon home where Claudia Huber and Matthias Liniger were living in 2014 when a grizzly came in through a window, chasing the couple out. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)

He says that's when he remembered Claudia Huber and Matthias Liniger, a Yukon couple who were chased out of their house by a grizzly in 2014, after the bear had entered through a window. Huber was mauled by the bear, and killed by a bullet as her partner tried to shoot the animal.

Cowan suddenly felt vulnerable.

"Literally there's only a two inch steel door with a window in it, and I'm on one side ...  and two full-size grizzlies are on the other side of it, like one foot away from me," he said.

"With their weight, they could have just pushed it in and I could not have stopped them."

His father drove up within minutes, blasting his horn. The bears didn't seem to care, Cowan said.

"They actually started walking towards him."

His father then fired a rifle shot into a wood pile, still trying to spook the bears into leaving. 

"He didn't really want to shoot them. He's one of these guys that really loves bears and grizzlies and whatnot, and respects the wildlife. So he just sat there with his rifle, yelling at them, honking the horn," Cowan said.

"They started coming at him. And they were not stopping. So he ended up firing a shot right at the one bear and shot it right in the chest, killing it pretty much instantly."

Atlin, B.C., is just south of the Yukon border, about a two-hour drive from Whitehorse. (CBC)

Cowan said the other bear looked at his father, then laid down and sniffed at the dead animal, ate some dandelions, then "slowly meandered off into the trees."

Everybody was relieved, especially Cowan's father who Cowan said did not want to kill another bear. But the animal would return.

Signs of habituation

In the meantime, Cowan's girlfriend had called the police and local wildlife officials to report the encounter. When conservation officers arrived at the house, they listened to the story and took a look around.

The officers determined that Cowan had acted "for protection of life and property," according to B.C. conservation officer Jeff Piwek.

"There was no obvious signs of attractants, or issues that would have drawn bears to this location," Piwek said.

"The bears were exhibiting some behaviours that show they were habituated, not fearful of people, and potentially aggressive."

The officers then went to look for the bear that had wandered off.

Cowan then decided to take some precautions. He went to his father's house to retrieve his own rifles, to have them on hand at home. He was back within about 20 minutes, he said, and started to inspect his rifles, "just in case".

"My kids all of a sudden started screaming at me that this other bear had come back," he recalled. "And it walked right up beside the house again."

Cowan took a rifle and went out the door.

"As soon as it saw me, it started taking an interest again and coming towards [me], so I fired a shot and hit it square right in the chest."

The bear retreated a bit, then fell down dead.

'Just made no sense'

Looking back, Cowan is still baffled by what happened. Conservation officers believe the bears were habituated to people but to Cowan, even that doesn't fully explain their overtly aggressive behaviour.

'The bears were exhibiting some behaviours that show they were habituated, not fearful of people, and potentially aggressive,' said a B.C. conservation officer. (Rick Cowan)

"They came at me from the start, with a barking dog — just made no sense," he said.

Conservation officers believe the animals were siblings, and Cowan also believes they were likely adolescent bears, "just looking for something to do."

"The aggressiveness that one would exhibit, the other would feed off of. And they were just looking for trouble. They had no intention of just moseying out of there."

He's still shaken. He grew up in the wilderness and has always felt prepared to deal with bears — but this encounter didn't unfold in any expected way.

"I felt completely out of control — I had no means to protect the people that were there. Even being barricaded in the house was not protection, because they could have come in.

"We do live in the wilderness and this is the reality of what can take place. And even with all these years of living up here, I was never prepared for the panic and the fear that set in."

He regrets that the animals were killed, and he's asked conservation officers to give the carcasses to the Taku River Tlingit First Nation, "to be utilized."

"Hopefully they'll be honoured by the people that utilize them," he said.

With files from Mike Rudyk