Bear attacks are personal in the Yukon—there is no hiding from them.
Bear attacks are personal in the Yukon—there is no hiding from them.
Bear attacks are personal in the Yukon—there is no hiding from them. (Photo: Kevin Gilgan/Stocksy)

When a Fatal Grizzly Mauling Goes Viral

How much does the world need to know about a deadly bear attack? That question was tested in the Yukon last year, after the horrific loss of a mother and daughter caused a destructive media storm.

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Gjermund Roesholt left the cabin on Einarson Lake, in the remote backcountry of the central Yukon, around 9:30 A.M. on November 26, 2018. He headed out by snowmobile to check a trapline that was laid north of the cabin. His partner, Valérie Théorêt, stayed behind with their ten-month-old baby girl, Adèle.

Théorêt was a grade-school teacher on maternity leave; Roesholt was a wilderness and hunting guide. The couple, who normally lived in Whitehorse, the Yukon’s small capital city, had flown in to their cabin on October 4, intending to stay until the new year, when Théorêt was due back at school. At the cabin, they hunted for game and maintained their modest trapping concession, a designated area where they were permitted to catch and kill small fur-bearing mammals, living out a dream of rugged self-sufficiency. Both were experienced in the wild, and they were careful about attractants—they stored the remnants of their hunts in a secure container inside a shed a short distance from the cabin.

Around 2:30 in the afternoon, five hours after he’d set out, Roesholt was working his way back toward home. It had snowed gently on and off throughout his morning on the trapline, and as he retraced his own newly dusted trail, he could see fresh bear tracks heading in the same direction. Before he reached the cabin, the tracks turned away.

When he got to the cabin, it was quiet. Théorêt and Adèle were not inside. Roesholt walked down the well-used trail toward a sauna, calling their names. Increasingly worried, he knew he might have to use the loaded rifle he carried.

His partner and child were not at the sauna. Roesholt kept going, down a trail they used for a small trapline that was close enough to the cabin to be checked on foot. He was about 800 feet from the structure when he heard a bear growl.

The grizzly charged Roesholt from 50 feet, but he got his rifle up in time, fired, and didn’t miss. The bear collapsed, shot fatally through the head. Behind it, just off the trail, Roesholt found his family. They had both been killed.

Later, after he had used his Garmin InReach to contact the nearest detachment of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and after nearly 21 nightmarish hours had passed while he waited for an investigative team to arrive at his remote location and evacuate him, and after the Mounties and other agencies had done their work, a coroner’s report, published in March 2019, would conclude that Théorêt’s injuries “quickly proved to be fatal” and that baby Adèle’s were “instantly incompatible with life.”

The grizzly charged Roesholt from 50 feet, but he got his rifle up in time, fired, and didn’t miss. The bear collapsed, shot fatally through the head. Behind it, just off the trail, Roesholt found his family. They had both been killed.

The bear, a male grizzly, was 18 years old and starving. He still weighed just over 300 pounds, in muscle and skin and bone, but he had already burned away all his body fat. Too emaciated to hibernate and apparently hampered by a weeks-old injury in his abdomen, he had recently taken the desperate step of eating a porcupine, and he was pierced internally by quills from throat to gut.

The bear had followed the snowmobile trail earlier that day, left it behind to circle wide around the cabin and the sauna, and then rejoined the trail south of the buildings. There, investigators believe, he had sensed Théorêt coming toward him, out for a walk, her baby in a carrier on her back. In the chilling phrasing of the coroner’s report, the bear had retreated from the trail and “moved into a position of advantage” under the thick, obscuring branches of a spruce tree, six feet away. It was an ambush: no one could have seen him coming or reacted in time if they had. Théorêt might as well have been struck by lightning.

The next day, at 1:30 in the afternoon, I was at home in Whitehorse when I saw this on the Twitter feed of the Yukon Mounties:

Yukon RCMP and Yukon Coroner’s Service are investigating the death of two individuals following a suspected bear attack on November 26, northeast of Mayo, near the NWT border. Environment Yukon is assisting with the investigation. More information will be released soon.

I remember thinking: Two? That’s weird.

There had been three previous fatal Yukon bear attacks in recent memory. An adventure tour operator named Claudia Huber died in 2014 after a grizzly invaded her home in the Johnson’s Crossing area, off the Alaska Highway. Jean-François Pagé was killed by a defensive mother bear in 2006, after he unknowingly walked by her den while staking mining claims outside the community of Ross River. And a hiker visiting from British Columbia, Christine Courtney, was mauled to death in Kluane National Park in 1996. I knew these stories well, and I had read about other attacks elsewhere, but I couldn’t remember hearing of a double fatality before. It never occurred to me to think of a mother and her baby.

Awful clarity came less than two hours later, when a media release from the Yukon’s chief coroner landed in my inbox. At the same time, my Facebook feed began to fill up with photos of Valérie’s smiling face. Whitehorse is a small, close-knit community, and while I didn’t know this family personally, our worlds overlapped many times over. As I watched from my couch, our mutual friends changed their profile pictures to shots of themselves with Val, shots of themselves with Adèle, shots of Val and Adèle together. People were reeling and paying immediate tribute to their friend’s life the best way they knew how.

What happened next, I suppose, should have been predictable in our extremely online era. Local news spawned national news and then international news. “Canadian Press picked up the story,” Yukon News reporter Jackie Hong told me. “The New York Times picked it up, The Washington Post. And then suddenly it wasn’t just a Yukon story or a Canada story. It was an international story.” Hong covered the attack for the Yukon News, and soon she was receiving requests from outside media, some as far away as Norway, to help her make contacts or to provide them with updates herself.

I was not exempt from all this. Outside contacted me less than 24 hours after the news broke to ask if I’d be interested in covering it. I was torn: I didn’t want to add to the noise, and I wasn’t eager to ask my friends to speak on the record about their pain. I didn’t want to have to try to track down Gjermund Roesholt and intrude on his agony. But I also didn’t want someone else, someone who might be less sensitive to the issue than I was, to get the assignment. I told my editor I’d be willing if we could wait for the results of the coroner’s report. Then, I thought, I might actually have something new or meaningful to share with readers.

Meanwhile, a TV reporter made the long journey north from southern British Columbia and set up shop outside Whitehorse Elementary School, where Valérie had taught. As grief counselors were made available to the students there, and as local parents struggled to figure out how to explain to their children that their teacher had been killed, the school received e-mail and phone calls from around two dozen different media outlets.

As the story spread, Facebook and Twitter and the comments attached to news articles filled with the most callous contributions imaginable.

I didn’t want to add to the noise, and I wasn’t eager to ask my friends to speak on the record about their pain.

“Who in the world takes their wife and 10 month old into bear country,” one person wrote in response to the RCMP’s initial tweet. “Why wasn’t she carrying a weapon?” said another. A third: “They both were torturing animals in traps for their whole lives, and now this bear fought back in his territory. I feel sorry for the baby, for the bear, who paid with his life, and for ALL THE BEAUTIFUL WILD ANIMALS THESE TWO PEOPLE MURDERED !!!”

It was like that everywhere: She should have had a gun. Or they’d been trapping and killing animals, so they had it coming. Or they should never have taken a baby out there.

I wasn’t the only one feeling conflicted about covering the attack. Claudiane Samson is the Whitehorse reporter for French-language Radio-Canada. She knew Valérie socially; they shared a tightly knit circle of friends in the Yukon’s Francophone community. She heard the news before the RCMP and the coroner made it public—she’d heard rumors of a grizzly attack, and then a letter arrived for the parents of children at Whitehorse Elementary, announcing that Valérie Théorêt had died. Samson did the math.

“It’s the kind of story where I hate my job,” she told me. “And it was not my first.” Jean-François Pagé had been her friend, too, and she’d been obliged to report on his death 13 years ago. But back then, social media was in its infancy, not the global force it is now. And so Pagé’s death was not scrutinized in the same way.

“I kind of knew where this would lead,” Samson said. All she could do, she figured, was try to use her work to show what Valérie’s life had been all about—her passion for the outdoors, her love of the Yukon wilderness, and her desire to be immersed in it. Like me, she figured she would do a better job than some outsider. “They were living their dream out there,” she told me. “That was my driving force in my whole coverage.”

But she was in a difficult position. Some media reports struck locals as insensitive—the station that sent the TV reporter to Whitehorse ran a segment that included charging bears and injured mauling victims describing their attacks. Even the most respectful coverage was tainted by the comments that faraway readers left online.

“It became a judgment over our lifestyle,” said Samson, who has had bears pass through the same backyard where her children play. “That’s where we’re at with social media.” (While Roesholt and Théorêt had gone deeper into the bush, and for longer, than most of us do, trapping and hunting are common activities around Whitehorse.) Very quickly, friends of the couple became reluctant to speak to reporters, fearful that even their most loving memories of Val would be smeared by online hatred. Months later, that fear is still fresh—when I eventually approached a friend of Val’s for this story, she described the pain of seeing her friend’s picture everywhere in the days after the attack and always surrounded by harsh comments from strangers. A teacher herself, she worried about fielding questions from her students, about scaring them away from the outdoors. She was no longer living in the Yukon, and she didn’t feel able to tell many people in her daily life about the loss she was grieving.

Reaching out to family members for comment is fairly standard practice when news reporters cover a person’s death. The Mounties had asked the media to refrain from contacting Roesholt or any other relatives. Not every outside reporter honored that request, but all local reporters that I’m aware of did. Samson told me she couldn’t bring herself to call Gjermund. Jackie Hong agreed. “There was no indication at all that he wanted to talk or was ready to talk,” Hong said.

The scrutiny was unprecedented. It’s a running joke among Yukon reporters that their stories only go national when they’re about animals. The wolf that chased a cyclist. The Bohemian waxwings that got drunk on fermented berries and then were locked in the government’s avian drunk tank. The wild boars that escaped from a farm and terrorized a rural subdivision. Now our joke had come true again, in the worst way.

Bear attacks are personal here—there is no hiding from them, no distancing yourself from the horror and thinking, That could never happen to me. As Samson notes, while strangers on the internet accused Valérie of being irresponsible for bringing her baby into bear country, every parent in Whitehorse knows that a bear could wander across their driveway or through their yard someday. Our whole lives are lived in bear country.

My favorite hiking trail winds right by the area where Christine Courtney died—there’s a monument to remind me, in case I’d managed to forget. I didn’t know Claudia Huber, but I had a dozen friends in common with Valérie Théorêt. And when I worked for a mining company as a field laborer a few years ago, I walked into the lobby of the office on my first day—about to head into the bush for a month, where I would hike alone for eight hours every day—and found a memorial to Jean-François Pagé mounted on the wall. Attacks are incredibly rare, but when they do happen, they feel real to everyone in the community.

Maybe that’s why the response to this one bothered me so much. In the aftermath, I found myself surprised and disturbed by the amount of attention the attack received. I felt intensely protective of my grieving friends and my shocked, horrified community—I wanted to shield them from the intrusive phone calls, the strangers creeping into their social-media profiles, the awful, cruel comments appended to every news story. When a reporter for The New York Times called the Yukon “desolate,” I wanted to reach through my laptop screen and shake him, to try to make him understand a place he wasn’t describing properly. Life here is amazing, I wanted to say. This is the kind of place where you can hike to a glacier, watch it calve, and then engage in a howl-off with a pack of nearby wolf puppies. This is where grizzlies swipe spawning salmon from streams, and caribou still flow like rivers across the mountains, and the northern lights come out at night. It’s the opposite of desolate.

“This is a great place to live,” Samson agreed. “Yes, we live in bear country. [But] I’m not going to judge people raising kids beside a river because a kid drowned one year.”

In any future tragedies with the awful potential to go viral outside the territory, Samson would like to see authorities devote more resources to helping families cope with the deluge of media requests. The police could connect the family with a designated spokesperson, for instance, and all requests for information could be funneled through them. That kind of thing “helps the families,” she said, “but it also gives media what they need.” It directs their energy away from elementary schools and the Facebook accounts of the grief-stricken while still feeding their need for quotes and copy.

I kept wondering about that need, though. For Yukoners, this was real news—we needed to know that a friend and community member had been killed, where counseling services were available, and where public-memorial events were being held. For a community, the media can play a role in processing the event, even in healing. It can offer people a place to say: My friend was wonderful, and I will miss her.

At least the aftermath of a car accident can remind you to slow down yourself. For people outside bear country, was reading about this tragedy really anything more than voyeurism?

But what about those outside that circle—the reporters in New York, in Vancouver, in other cities where grizzly attacks are not a threat? What need are they serving for their readers? On some level, it’s obvious: horrible stories travel around the world. We know this. We click on the tales of trauma and tragedy the way we slow down on the highway to gawk at the shrapnel of a broken vehicle. But at least the aftermath of a car accident can remind you to slow down yourself. For people outside bear country, was reading about this tragedy really anything more than voyeurism?

All winter these questions troubled me. As people around Whitehorse strapped canoes to the tops of their vehicles in midwinter to remember Val, whose boat had seemingly always been riding around on top of her little car, and as my friends who knew and loved her went on adventures in her honor, I thought about how the media and social-media dynamics had made their grief even harder. I wondered if it had to be that way. I didn’t find easy answers.

When the coroner’s report came out in March, it emphasized the family’s preparedness, their experience, their safety precautions. The investigators’ reconstruction of the attack made it clear: even if, somehow, Valérie had had a loaded gun in her hand when the bear made his move, she wouldn’t have had a chance. The only thing she could have done differently, I realized, was not be there. Not have gone for a walk with her child in the freshly fallen snow, not have been in the backcountry to begin with.

But those of us who love the outdoors understand: staying inside is no option at all.

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