How Grizzly Bear Tracking Helps Veterans Recover From Trauma | Canada

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On recent cool and sunny morning, a small group of British and Canadian wildlife guides and veterans reached a ridge in the mountains of British Columbia and found themselves within 15 meters of a grizzly bear.

“He knew we were there. He could smell us but he was just doing his thing, ”said Joe Humphrey, a former Royal Marine. The bear walked past them and went further up the valley.

The close encounter in western Canada was a decisive moment for this rather exceptional tracking part, which had been put together on an experimental basis. Almost all of them, veterans and guides, were survivors of physical and mental injuries that had derailed their lives. The journey was to get them back on track.

They had ended up 7,000 feet above sea level in the Selkirk Mountains because each of them possessed a particular set of skills that set them apart from most people.

The veterans knew how to remain as silent and invisible as humanly possible, to disappear into the landscape. Photography: Kari Medig

The guides knew everything about bears – their habits and behavior, how to show them respect. The veterans knew how to remain as silent and invisible as humanly possible, to disappear into the landscape. They have shown how you can hear better and smell better if you keep your mouth open.

“There are plenty of trips and excursions where veterans can hold hands for a week. I didn’t want that. I wanted to work, to give something, ”Humphrey said.

The week-long trip to the remote mountains was mainly funded by the Invictus Games Foundation, started by Prince Harry, for a sports competition among wounded warriors. But part of the cost was paid by the host of the trip, former journalist Julius Strauss.

Strauss arrived in Canada 15 years ago suffering from PTSD after covering wars for the Daily Telegraph in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan and the 2004 terrorist attack on a school in Beslan, Russian Republic of Ossetia North.

More than 330 people were killed, including 186 children. Strauss had found himself inside the cordon and witnessed the massacre at close range.

“There have been a lot of shootings, a lot of dead children and a lot of chaos,” he said. “It didn’t really spoil me for a little while. It takes time to infiltrate.

While crossing Canada with his Estonian partner, Kristin, he stumbled upon 32 hectares of land for sale that had been an illicit marijuana plantation on the banks of the Lardeau River. The couple decided to make a fresh start there, making a living welcoming travelers and taking them on hikes.

“There are a lot of trips and excursions where the veterans can go and hold hands for a week.  I didn't want that.  I wanted to work, to give something.
“There are a lot of trips and excursions where the veterans can go and hold hands for a week. I didn’t want that. I wanted to work, to give something. Photography: Kari Medig

They founded a business now called Wild Bear Lodge and led a successful campaign to ban grizzly bear hunting in British Columbia, but in February of last year, Kristin died of cancer. , leaving Julius private and running their joint venture on their own. The idea of ​​inviting injured veterans arose in part from a year of mourning.

“I learned a lot from my loss,” he said. “And the older I get, the more I realize that your scars, whether mental or physical, are nothing to be ashamed of, and they also come with silver linings.”

Everyone on the bear stalking group bore their own wounds. Humphrey’s left leg had to be amputated after being shot by a sniper while patrolling in Helmand province, Afghanistan – though he doesn’t believe that loss was the cause of his own PTSD.

“It’s a professional risk. That day the sniper was better at his job than I was at mine, ”he said. Instead, he pointed out that the build-up of mental trauma was more insidious. “I’ve been on two tours, seven months each, and you just rack up things that you see, things that you do.”

Humphrey has built a career as a wilderness guide in the UK and Europe, but tracking the Week’s Bear with other veterans was unlike anything he had experienced.

“The grizzly was quite exciting, very beautiful, very majestic.” Photography: Kari Medig

“It’s been fantastic, really rewarding,” he said. “Helping others use your skills – it helps a hundred times more than sitting with a psychologist. “

One of the tour guides, Sage Raymond, has worked at the lodge for more than four years, but said she still learned new skills during her week with the veterans.

“I learned a lot about how to move quieter and how to listen better,” she said. She had also forged a life in the mountains to fight PTSD from what she calls a “tumultuous childhood” that left her on the streets at 16.

“I find people can be quite unpredictable,” Raymond said. “But nature and animals tend to behave in predictable ways. I also think it’s just good for us to be observant and to get out of our own minds.

One of the ex-Canadian soldiers on the trip, Naomi Fong, had been the victim of her own comrades in her artillery unit, who subjected her to prolonged and repeated sexual abuse which left Fong with injuries. lasting mental and physical. .

She spoke to the Guardian shortly after sighting the bear

“The grizzly was quite exciting, very beautiful, very majestic. It was just amazing, ”Fong said. “It can be very humiliating there. These animals are unbelievably big and just go up there on the field and are just so small in such a big place… It just feels a little better.

“By being here and just being in nature, I think I can thrive in my own way.
“By being here and just being in nature, I think I can thrive in my own way. “ Photography: Kari Medig

It is hoped the trip will be a pilot for similar skills exchange expeditions involving injured veterans in the future.

“The Wild Bear Lodge project is a great example of this, where wounded, injured and ill Canadian and British veterans came together to share skills learned in the military with local conservation guides,” said Sam Newell, spokesperson. word of the Invictus Games Foundation, which funded its Endeavor program. “By helping to pass their skills on to others, these service members further supported their own recovery through service. “

Everyone on the trip spoke about the sense of purpose, camaraderie and belonging it gave them. In the case of Andy Burns, a former Royal Navy sergeant, it literally changed his life.

After sustaining multiple injuries in 25 years of deployments from Northern Ireland to Iraq, he found himself depressed and increasingly alone upon his return to civilian life in Taunton.

“I would go months without talking to anyone,” Burns said. But in the mountains with other wounded veterans, he added, “It was really, really good to share a connection.

Burns has long been considering starting a new life in the Scottish Highlands. This trip convinced him that he could do it.

“It would be a one-way ticket. You can’t just go away and come back. And I didn’t know if I could do it, ”he said. “But now, just being here and just being in nature, I think I can thrive in my own way. I could really have a life and be happy. So it was huge for me.


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