Battle of the Grizzly Titans: The Boss vs Split Lip
It was legendary. It was The Boss vs Split Lip, the two largest, toughest and most famous grizzly bears in Banff National Park, in an encounter that thrilled me to my very core. It was easily one of the greatest wildlife viewing encounters of my life, which, when you consider I’ve photographed wolverines, cougars, grizzlies and other beasts for almost thirty years, should tell you all you need to know about what’s to come.
But first, some background: I don’t usually search out Banff’s two biggest bears, but living here for the past twenty-nine years, I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a number of encounters with each of them.
My favourite two experiences with The Boss, also known as Bear 122, were back in 2008, when a friend and I ran into 122 eating a bighorn sheep carcass off the Sunshine Road, and in 2015, when I ran into him on foot (ulp!) near the Banff Townsite. In that 2015 encounter, he was covered in oil from eating grain along the railway tracks.
And until my crazy encounter recently, I hadn’t even seen Split Lip, Bear 136, in almost a decade — my last sighting of him was before he started to become a well-known bear killer and before he beefed up enough to seriously challenge The Boss as the king of Canada’s most famous national park.
Who’s the Boss now?
In mid-June this year, while watching Bear 142 and her cub munch on dandelions near Lake Louise with a Parks Canada Resource Conservation Officer, he started talking about his shocking run-in with The Boss earlier that day:
“I couldn’t believe it, I’ve never seen him like that. He could barely move and he’s got a big chunks missing out of the side of his face. Someone beat him up bad.”
The next morning, the situation appeared to have gotten more dire. I ran into the CO again and this time his news was worse:
“I don’t know if he’s going to make it. He hasn’t moved all day, just keeps laying in the same meadow…there’s something wrong with his hip and back leg. I just don’t know if he’s going to make it.”
It was shocking news. I desperately wanted to know what was going on, but by that night The Boss had limped off into the bush on his own.
So who could have beaten up the king? There was really only one possible contender: Split Lip.
A Chance Encounter
On June 16th, a day after learning that Banff’s legendary Bear 122 might be done for, I got up at 4 a.m. and went out to my car at my house in Canmore, prepared to meet Canon Canada rep Russell Brown for a day of top-secret shooting with the still-to-be-announced, brand new, Canon R6 camera. We decided to head for the Icefields Parkway first, and I was already feeling the pressure as we hit the road at 4:15 — I had ONE day to make hay with the new camera and get at least five shots that Canon was happy with. I was hoping I’d be able to find something good early to relieve my anxiety.
As we came through the Parks Canada gate at the start of Highway 93 North just after 5 a.m., I was shocked to see a very large bear that looked exactly like The Boss headed straight down the middle of the road toward us. But this bear looked totally healthy and definitely didn’t have a limp of any sort. As it cut over into the ditch and sped past us, I managed to snap off a dozen quick pictures in the low light.
“I’m 100% sure that’s The Boss,” I said to Russell. But I was immediately thinking to myself, how could it be? The Boss is supposed to be on death’s doorstep, barely clinging to life.
I quickly reviewed the images, checking to see if this bear had a chunk or two missing from the right side of his face like my CO friend had mentioned about The Boss.
Sure enough, it was 122, sporting a few fresh wounds, including a gaping split on the right side of his mouth extremely similar to the scar Split Lip has on the left side of his mouth! No limp, no sign of distress, no chance that he was on his last legs, in fact, he looked spectacular and like he was a bear on a mission, marching off in search of ladies to woo and foes to conquer.
Friday, July 3rd, 2020 — The Battle of the Titans
On Wednesday, July 1st, my family and I packed up our small trailer and towed it out to Protection Mountain campground halfway between Lake Louise and Castle Mountain on the Bow Valley Parkway. The campground had just opened for the season that morning and apparently had escaped the notice of the camping hordes, because we found ourselves camping alone for the first few nights in a secluded spot at the top of the campground right beside the trees.
By Friday, a few other campers started to pull in, but we were still on our own in our spot in the top loop of the campground.
At just before 9 p.m., my eighteen-month-old son Porter and I walked over to the recyling bins about fifty meters from our site to drop off a few beer cans. Porter got a kick out of me lifting him up and letting him drop the cans through the bin’s recycling hole, and when we were done, I set him down and started to walk back toward our site. As I rounded the lone tree by the bin, I glanced over to my right and was stunned to see a very large grizzly bear walking across the road RIGHT TOWARD me and Porter. I paced it out long after all of the shenanigans had died down and the bear was just twenty-three paces away from us when I first spotted it!
I immediately shot into Dad mode and grabbed Porter before he knew what was going on and circled back behind the recycling bin, yelling out to my wife:
“JENN, GRAB THE BEAR SPRAY!!!”
The other campers in the next section section heard my piercing yell and immediately began to take action to get food off their tables and jump into their cars or trucks.
Meanwhile, the bear stopped in the campsite right beside ours and started to merrily munch away on dandelions as if it didn’t have a care in the world. I managed to circle around past it and get to our trailer, where I quickly dropped off Porter, grabbed a bear spray and snuck over to my vehicle to snag my camera and big lens. For the first time in my career, I took pictures from under the awning of our trailer of a grizzly bear in the very next campsite.
(For those of you that follow my adventures regularly, you know that we recently spent six weeks volunteering at the Northern Lights Wildlife Shelter in northern BC and our son Porter grew quite used to seeing bears by the dozens as the shelter rehabs both grizzly and black bear cubs.)
As I was shooting furiously, the bear started to walk across the front of our site on the road and as it did, I noticed movement out of the corner of my left eye. Glancing over, I was shocked to see Porter, out of the clutches of his mom who had quickly dropped him to toss our two cats into the trailer, walking right past me as if he was going to visit the bear! Thankfully, the bear was oblivious to all the commotion and didn’t even give us a look as I rushed forward to grab Porter and return him to his mom.
The big bear slowly made his way through the campsite and set up shop in a small meadow of dandelions just off the Bow Valley Parkway at the entrance to the campground. Once we had secured all of our food and gotten things back under control, we got into our car and slowly drove down to see if the big guy was still there. Sure enough, he hadn’t moved much at all and we parked and turned off our engine and settled in to watch it as the light slowly faded. I could now clearly make out an ear tag and was sure that it was not The Boss, but who was it? The bear was obviously extremely large and a big, dominant male, but it looked so clean-cut from most angles that I couldn’t see Split Lip’s tell-tale scarred lip and so I wondered to myself if it was maybe Bear 126, a very handsome male that’s not quite in the same size category as 122 and 136.
By this point, I think you’ve all figured out that this was indeed Split Lip, but it took me quite a while to determine that on my own. Regardless, as I was glued to my camera and lens watching 136 mow down dandelions like a professional, my wife noticed a big 5th-wheel trailer pulling into the entrance and said,
“Wow, can you imagine that, you’re coming from Calgary or wherever with your trailer and you pull into your campground and RIGHT THERE at the entrance is a giant grizzly, that’s ju…OMG, THERE’S ANOTHER BEAR COMING, JOHN, THERE’S ANOTHER BEAR COMING!!!”
I shot my eyes up from my viewfinder in time to see The Boss — and I was 110% sure it was The Boss in an instant — with a furious, stern look in his eye crossing the road just twenty meters from us and just meters in front of the wide-eyed driver of the 5th wheel. As soon as he was across the road, he bolted full steam right at Split Lip, and were so close to the action that I didn’t even try to take a picture, I just stared in awe. Thankfully, my wife was a bit smarter than me and filmed this short video of the tail end of the initial chase scene with her phone. The Boss almost got right onto Split Lip before Split Lip noticed the freight train barreling down on him, and in a split second he wheeled out of the way and then darted toward the Bow Valley Parkway, weaving his way through the meadow with The Boss hot on his heels.
As the bears raced out onto the Bow Valley Parkway, we quickly started up my car and squeezed past the 5th wheel just in time to watch The Boss chase Split Lip for THREE kilometers down the middle of the Parkway weaving in and out of the ditch and across the yellow line repeatedly!
Eventually, the chase wound down and we chanced driving up past the bears when The Boss dipped into the woods for a few minutes. As he emerged, I was finally able to get some photographs and Jenn got out our handheld video camera and took some of the home video footage you see above.
So in the end, it wasn’t quite a ‘Battle of the Titans’ in terms of a physical altercation, but our crazy evening did indeed settle any debate about who was and is still Banff’s biggest, baddest bear:
The Boss is still The Boss.
Enjoyed reading the Battle of the Titans? Check out John’s latest book, Tall Tales, Long Lenses: My Adventures in Photography for more stories and photos, and watch for John’s next book, What Bears Teach Us, coming out this October (pre-orders now available).
42 Comments on “Battle of the Grizzly Titans: The Boss vs Split Lip”
John H BrownAugust 4, 2020 at 1:02 pm
Great story John, thanks to you and your wife for taking us along for the ride.
John E MarriottAugust 4, 2020 at 1:24 pm
Glad you enjoyed it, John!
Ken James.August 4, 2020 at 2:25 pm
Great read. What an awesome opportunity to witness nature at it’s finest.
PS: what’s your favourite Porter, to drink. Lol.
John E MarriottAugust 4, 2020 at 2:44 pm
Haha, definitely looking forward to the Alaskan Brewing Porter that I’ve got stashed in the fridge!
Brad CookAugust 4, 2020 at 2:49 pm
Great story John, we saw split lip last year across from the entrance to Johnston’s canyon along the tracks, watched him for an hour……what a great encounter.
JohnAugust 4, 2020 at 9:10 pm
That sounds like it was great, Brad!
Judy CheskeAugust 4, 2020 at 2:51 pm
Amazing, great descriptions. I didn’t realize grizzlies were so territorial.
JohnAugust 4, 2020 at 9:10 pm
They sure are, Judy.
Patricia WeberAugust 4, 2020 at 3:03 pm
Great story and photo’s.👏🐾
JohnAugust 4, 2020 at 9:11 pm
Mary AlbertAugust 4, 2020 at 5:45 pm
Comment–Excellent story along with the photos!! I was completely mesmerized while reading your post of the 2 bears! Thank you and your wife for making my day, since tourists are not allowed to experience Canada’s wildlife this year.
JohnAugust 4, 2020 at 9:12 pm
Thank you so much, Mary, glad you enjoyed it!
Doug CarderAugust 4, 2020 at 7:55 pm
I’ve seen lots of bears out in that area, but neither of these two and certainly nothing like you saw John. Certainly glad you were all safe and not hurt. A great story, enjoyed it a bunch!
JohnAugust 4, 2020 at 9:09 pm
Glad you enjoyed it, Doug!
Sharon HallAugust 5, 2020 at 1:11 am
We visited British Columbia last year from Australia and we where told all about The Boss while we where in Banff. Glad to hear the King still reigns. Really enjoy all your adventures.
JohnAugust 5, 2020 at 6:13 am
Thanks for the comments, Sharon, glad you enjoyed the story.
Leann GriesemerAugust 5, 2020 at 8:51 am
I love all kinds of bears and these two are heart stopping! I live in Florida, so I could never imagine what it is like being so close to bears. Thanks for sharing your story and the great pictures.
Chantal FortierAugust 5, 2020 at 10:57 am
Riveting personal story, I really enjoyed it. The boss soaked in oil and the last photo of him you shared are so powerful. thanks for sharing John
Chantal FortierAugust 5, 2020 at 11:00 am
Riveting personal story, I really enjoyed it. The photos of the boss covered in oil and the last shot you shared are so powerful. Thanks for sharing John
John E MarriottAugust 6, 2020 at 5:03 pm
DANIEL BREITNERAugust 6, 2020 at 1:56 pm
CommentDEFENED ALL ANIMALS !!FULL SUPPORT !!
Beatrice OlorenshawAugust 6, 2020 at 4:24 pm
I really enjoyed this story and the pictures. My family lived in Banff for 5 years. Our neighbours showed us a Tomato Tin that was clawed apart by a grizzly. Thank you for sharing. I would like to share this with some friends.
John E MarriottAugust 6, 2020 at 5:02 pm
Thanks for the comments, Beatrice. Definitely feel free to share this with anyone you’d like to.
Lindsay AndersenAugust 7, 2020 at 1:02 pm
CommentOh my Gosh… this such a great story!
ColleenAugust 7, 2020 at 3:13 pm
What an epic encounter John!!
MathiauAugust 7, 2020 at 9:29 pm
Absolutely surreal! To experience something like that…not to mention, someone as talented as yourself being there to capture it!
Lisa TrenkaAugust 8, 2020 at 10:40 am
WOW! thanks for sharing. Great story and photos, and I have to say I was rooting for “The Boss”, glad he’s recovered.
Diane HalladayAugust 9, 2020 at 10:28 pm
So amazing that we are able to see and hear these stories through your photography and stories 🎉🎉🤩 Gorgeous Bears 🐻 Thank you so much 😊🙏 Be safe 😎
BrianAugust 9, 2020 at 10:53 pm
Absolutely amazing storey and photo’s awsome
RobAugust 10, 2020 at 11:21 am
What an amazing story John. Huge congrats to you for being lucky enough to witness this piece of Banff bear history! Incredible.
SimpappyAugust 11, 2020 at 1:24 pm
I think you should contact CBC and complain about how sensationalized and misleading their article is. An epic showdown and chase? Then they link to the youtube video of the bears slowly walking. They should have included the video from your wife’s phone.
Ursuline RedwoodAugust 12, 2020 at 8:46 am
wow..what an experience! I live in Redwood ..I’m always weary of early morning walks since there have been the odd sightings in our community..
Don BraceyAugust 12, 2020 at 11:02 am
What lense is your best go-to lense to shot from distance?
John E MarriottAugust 13, 2020 at 11:54 am
Definitely my 500mm F4.
SusanAugust 12, 2020 at 8:34 pm
Why did the bear have oil on him from eating grain on the railroad tracks? Are there freight trains that leak i
oil or something? It seemed to be all over his fur. We are Americans banned from going anywhere because of dummies who won’t wear masks. Luckily we were in Banff last July.
John E MarriottAugust 13, 2020 at 11:54 am
There are substations that are full of oil and the tracks themselves are quite oily.
WendyAugust 13, 2020 at 11:08 am
Nice photos and story. We were at Protection Mountain Campground on June 30 and July 1, 2020. There was a mama grizzly and her cub there at the same time. We saw them both days. We managed to take a couple of photos but they were pretty far away and it was only with a phone. I wonder if she was gone or if that was a factor in why the bears were fighting.
John E MarriottAugust 13, 2020 at 11:53 am
Heather PeirceAugust 14, 2020 at 11:14 pm
I am so happy you are a “bear magnet” John. What a phenomenal photo story you showed us of ‘thee’ MOST magnificent of the Bow Valley grizzlies! Funny, I rode my horses for over 50 years in the wilds of the foothills, often by myself, & I have hiked so many trails in the mountains. I have never seen a bear but in a car, or on a road way! It must be Karma, as I was chased by bears so often in my dreams as a kid. I am petrified of them! So ridiculous! Funny isn’t it!
John E MarriottAugust 17, 2020 at 2:03 pm
SuzanneAugust 22, 2020 at 8:53 am
Excellent read and vuewing. You have guts.
SuzanneAugust 22, 2020 at 8:57 am
Viewing. Damn phones.
Road tripped there a handful of times from BC i remember all tye wildlife and bears eating in the side of the road early evening as Id drive through. A great sight. Didn’t see many last time visiting Jasper, but its as I obviously wasn’t driving through Bow valley, well next time..