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The best thing to do is avoid an encounter," reads the headline in a Parks Canada pamphlet on bears and people. Today it may seem like an obvious statement, but in the late 1970s, the distance between bears and humans in the tourist mountain town of Banff, Alta., had become dangerously small. Grizzly and black bears regularly raided the town's garbage dump for food. Tourists flocked to watch the feasting omnivores, snapping photos of them as if they were harmless as chickadees. A similar photo op unfolded downtown when bears fed behind Banff restaurants that refused to bear-proof their garbage bins, despite numerous warnings from Parks Canada.

  • The Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek, by Sid Marty, McClelland & Stewart, 282 pages, $34.99

In The Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek, Alberta nature writer and former park warden Sid Marty recalls how this seemingly amicable relationship between the two species ultimately had tragic results for both. The bears lost their banquet when Parks Canada started shipping Banff's garbage to a Calgary landfill in 1980. Unfortunately, overcast skies, late frost and ash from Mount St. Helens stunted the local buffalo berry crop, eliminating another food source for bears. With their garbage and berries missing, hungry bears roved into Banff, catching the scent of ripe beef and seafood from restaurant waste - "a grizzly bear's wet dream," Marty writes.

Then tragedy hit. On Aug. 24, 1980, a bear charged Ernest Cohoe, a 38-year-old medical equipment salesman from Calgary, as he and a friend fished just north of town in the Whiskey Creek area. The bear chomped a bite from Cohoe's head and literally ripped off his face. He later died in hospital. The forest, once regarded as a safe playground for locals, suddenly transformed into "a place whose shadows were not the cool refuge of summer but the heart of uncompromising ambush." More headline-grabbing attacks soon followed, further rattling the town and raising worries about the menace in the woods. (The attacker's identity remained a mystery to Parks Canada since eyewitnesses gave varied descriptions of the bear.)

Marty's chilling account of the 1980 maulings will put the fear of bears into anyone who thinks humans and bears can live side by side without any trouble. Drawing from official reports, scores of interviews and his own wilderness experience, Marty recalls how the Banff wardens nervously launched a hunt for Cohoe's attacker, surrounding the Whiskey Creek area with help from the RCMP. "The area looked like a mega-crime scene investigation," recalls Marty, who eventually volunteered to participate in the hunt with his former colleagues.

That's just how Marty tells it: like a good crime story. It's not clear, however, who's the criminal. The bear was just being a bear when it went on the attack. But what of the restaurants that knowingly left their garbage in the open, drawing bears into town day after day? Marty comes down hard on his old employer for its refusal to charge restaurants for those blatant waste infractions. Wardens scolded campers for little things like littering pop cans, but the real violators got off easy, receiving warning after toothless warning. (Shortly after the 1980 maulings, bear-proof garbage bins replaced the open bins in Banff.)

A true mountain journalist, Marty eschews tabloid-style sensationalism and ensures that all sides of the Whiskey Creek story get a say, even the animal characters at the heart of the book. Parts of the story are imaginatively told from a bear's perspective, showing how hunter and hunted, threat and threatened, constantly swap roles in the woods. The result is a wilderness thriller that educates as much as it entertains.

The Black Grizzly of Whiskey Creek is, at its core, an outdoorsman's lament. It's a lament for bears destroyed by human carelessness and contact, for the bears' unsuspecting human victims, and for park wardens who find themselves in the absurd situation of destroying the wildlife they're mandated to protect. "To wilderness," the book's dedication reads. Marty's words, filled with respect, wisdom and warning, are as fine a tribute as I can imagine.

Jeremy Klaszus, a Calgary writer and aspiring outdoorsman, will participate in the Banff Centre's literary journalism program this summer.

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