GRAND FORKS — They’d spent more than a year planning and anticipating their 500-mile canoe trip into the heart of the Canadian tundra.
Now they found themselves in a life-threatening situation, only 20 feet from a grizzly bear that seemed to appear out of nowhere on the banks of an Arctic river far beyond the treeline.
So began perhaps the longest 17 hours of their lives for Grand Forks native Todd Mozinski and his wife, Kerri, retired veterinarians from Colorado Springs, Colo.
It was Monday, July 15, the fifth day in a planned 40-day paddling expedition that would take the couple from Sifton Lake on the Hanbury River in Canada’s Northwest Territories down the Thelon River to Baker Lake, an Inuit community of nearly 2,100 in the territory of Nunavut.
From there, they would fly back to their vehicle in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, where their trip had started Wednesday, July 10, with a 2½-hour float plane ride to Sifton Lake.
They set up camp late that first day, marveling at the musk oxen on the far shore of the lake, and prepared to push off the next morning in their 17-foot Ally, a lightweight Norwegian-made canoe with a PVC skin and collapsible aluminum tubing that fits inside the shell.
The entire canoe folds up into a pack and weighs about 45 pounds.
“We landed and got all our stuff on shore, and the first thing we see is grizzly bear tracks,” laughed Todd, a 1989 graduate of Red River High School.
The tracks were old, and while he didn’t know it at the time, they also were prophetic.
They battled wind their first few days on the Hanbury, but the weather, overall, wasn’t bad. They had lake trout for dinner one night after Todd found a fishing hotspot.
Their fifth day was the nicest of the trip.
After a long day of paddling, they decided to set up camp about 8 p.m. at a place called Grove Rapids, a series of three long rapids and a 1½-mile portage.
They did part of the portage — “we were having a great time until then,” Todd said — and planned to finish up and resume the journey the next day.
“We checked the area — everything was fine, no sign of anything,” Kerri said.
They made camp “like you do in bear country,” she said, setting up the cooking, sleeping and food storage areas about 100 yards from each other in a triangle shape.
They were cooking a freeze-dried meal near the water, and “there wasn’t a lot of odor,” Kerri said.
The ordeal begins
They were eating dinner inside the screen tent when Todd saw the bear coming up behind Kerri.
“He looks up at me, he looks behind me, and he says, ‘Grizzly,’” Kerri recalls. “We jump up, we get out of the tent, we grabbed the bear spray. And the grizzly, he just came right in our little area and walked right up to the tent.”
Ready with the bear spray, Todd had Kerri stand behind him as the bear approached to within about 20 feet.
“He stood up, and he was just towering over (Todd),” Kerri said. “He was sniffing the air, he was moving his mouth and pulling his lips back. We could see his teeth and everything.”
That’s when Todd zapped the grizzly with the bear spray for the first time.
“He didn’t like it,” Kerri said. “He dropped back down, and he backed away a little bit. At that point, Todd said to start getting everything together because we were going to try to pick up and move so we could get out of his way.”
Kerri started taking down the screen tent and packing their gear while Todd kept an eye on the grizzly.
The bear again approached, and Todd gave it another dose of bear spray. The grizzly still didn't leave, but instead wandered into a low spot by the water a short distance away.
“He sat down, had a scratch, then he got up, and he was just kind of pacing around the area watching us, trying to figure out what he was going to do next or how he was going to get our stuff,” Kerri said.
They grabbed as much gear as they could carry — an 80-pound pack, a 55-pound pack, a 20-pound pack and two fishing rods. When they reached the sleeping area, they saw the bear had already been there, tearing a hole in their main tent and breaking the poles.
The tent was destroyed but everything inside was fine, Kerri recalls, so they packed up the tent and sleeping bags and headed for higher ground with all of the gear.
The grizzly didn’t approach, but it kept circling them.
During one of those circles when the bear was out of sight, they resumed their walk “down the portage, down the rapids, down the river,” Kerri said.
He didn’t follow so they continued up and over a ridge about half a mile away, where they dropped off their gear.
With still no sign of the bear, they decided to walk back and get the canoe so they could leave.
“We knew that at the end of the rapids there was a lake,” Kerri said. “There was no place else to go.”
They saw the bear again as they walked back over the hill to where they'd set up camp but then it disappeared.
Only when they saw him standing by the canoe a short time later did they realized he’d destroyed the canoe, torn out the seats and shredded one of the life jackets.
The debris was scattered across the tundra.
“At this point, we knew we couldn’t go any further because we didn’t have a boat,” Kerri said.
They walked back to their gear and finished the portage, where the bottom of the rapids flows back into the Hanbury.
The grizzly was still watching them.
“He didn’t come in close again like he had, but he was definitely watching what we were doing and wanted to know what was going on,” Kerri said
A tiny piece of technology, the Garmin inReach Mini satellite communicator, probably saved their lives. Kerri hit the SOS button, which put her in contact with a Texas-based response company – Geos International Emergency Rescue Coordination Center – which in turn called authorities in Yellowknife to initiate rescue.
Toggling one letter at a time, Kerri says she was able to let Garmin’s rescue provider know they were OK.
By that time, it was about midnight.
“They were very, very helpful, and they were very, very quick,” Kerri said. “I was put in contact with the RCMP, and they told us to sit tight as long as we were safe, and in the morning (they would) have someone sent out either by plane or helicopter.”
Back in Grand Forks, Todd’s parents, Gerald and Mary Mozinski, were sound asleep when the phone rang sometime in the wee hours. Along with Kerri’s parents, they were listed as emergency contacts.
“My wife got the phone, and she says, ‘It’s search and rescue,’” Gerald Mozinski recalls. “And I said, ‘Oh no.’ You don’t know what’s going on, you know?
“So she handed me the phone and I talked to them, and they kind of told me what happened.”
As a dad, Gerald said he worried about his son and daughter-in-law venturing into the Arctic wilderness, even though both are experienced in the outdoors.
“As long as it was a good ending, that’s the main thing,” he said. “Nowadays, it’s so much easier when they’ve got all that equipment.”
Without the Garmin inReach Mini, no one would have known the paddlers were in trouble until more than a month later.
“I think we would have been in a real survival situation at that point,” Todd said. “Especially, you know, (the bear) got our tent, and he got our canoe. We would have had a tough time, I think.”
The helicopter rescued them early in the afternoon of July 16 for the 3-hour flight back to Yellowknife.
The feeling, Carrie says, was “relief and just total decompression.”
They’re not sure what the rescue will cost and are awaiting the bill.
Little time for fear
Looking back on the ordeal, the Mozinskis say there wasn’t time to be scared until the bear showed up again early in the morning while they were waiting for rescue that still was several hours away.
“When we didn’t see him all night long, we were thinking, ‘OK, this is good,’” Kerri said. “When he came back at 6 a.m., for me, that’s when I got scared. And then we thought, ‘Where are we going to go and what are we going to do?’”
Their fear subsided when the grizzly walked away; Kerri even managed to snap a quick photo.
“It was shocking, but the other thing was it was beautiful, too,” she said. “It was an incredible animal, and the tundra is just amazing.”
For now, Carrie says, their biggest feeling is “extreme disappointment” at not being able to complete the trip.
They plan to try again, perhaps as early as next year.
“I’m not going to lie and say I’m not going to be a little more watchful,” Kerri said. “I don’t know, maybe there’ll be some things we’ll do different as far as gear and whatnot, but we went over it, and there was nothing else we could have done.”
Their tent was “pristine,” she says, with no food or anything else that should have attracted the bear.
“We did all the things they recommend when you’re in bear country,” she said.
Bear encounters weren’t real high on their list of potential problems, Todd says.
“I brought bear spray to check that box on the gear list,” he said. “I was a lot more worried about dumping the canoe and hypothermia and losing all our stuff that way, either in a rapid or in rough water, than having a grizzly bear come into camp.”
Todd says he probably could have gotten the required permits to carry a rifle or shotgun.
“I did a lot of research on that,” he said. “I consulted with a lot of people, and none of the recreational canoeists I heard of take anything like that.”
The couple salvaged their trip by touring the Yukon and Northwest Territories before heading to Alaska, where they spent several weeks hiking and camping in the backcountry of Denali National Park and Preserve — also grizzly country.
They returned to Colorado Springs on Sept. 10.
“We were very fortunate,” Kerri said. “Very fortunate.”