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.
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).