I had a sad incident with a particular horse named Nitchie. Rick Blackwood was a patrolman at the time and had the unfortunate experience of being with me on this particular trip. He and I were going up the Athabasca River to Middle Forks to haul in some concrete for some work that was being done up there. Denny Welsh was the barn boss of course and there was a horse that was around the range but seldom used because of her disposition. She just didn’t fit in with the other horses and she had a bit of a mean streak in her. Denny had been working with her around the range and I’d spent some time with her as well in the arena. We felt that maybe she just needed to get out and get some work. So this opportunity presented itself to pack some concrete, which is a heavy load. She stood pretty well, and the pack stayed on her quite well. So I said “Let me take her up to Middle Forks,” because it was just going to be two days to haul the concrete in and come back.

So Rick Blackwood, who was pretty new to the organization and didn’t have a lot of horse experience was going to come with me. We loaded up without incident and headed off down the trail. We got up to Middle Forks and did what we had to do there. Nitchie behaved herself well. I hobbled her and she was out in the meadow with the other horses. She tended to be a loner a little bit, so I actually put a bell on her because I worried that if she did move off, there was some wild country up there and I might not find her. Anyhow, she was there with the other horses the next day and we loaded up and went up towards Athabasca Pass, and dropped some other stuff off up there. I rode her that day and she was great.

We came back and spent the night and packed up the next day to go home and we were heading back down the river and I was leading her.. she was being packed and I had a load that wasn’t heavy it was just some of our gear. So we were pretty light coming back. We were just on a little bit of a contour along a hill side that dropped off down towards the river, through heavy bush. For no reason that I could discern she just blew up and we were not in a good spot for a blow up. I was trying to hang onto her and keep my horse on the trail because I didn’t want to go off the trail down into heavy blow-down. She managed to get twisted around and was kicking at me quite purposely and kicking at my horse. I had a rifle in my scabbard and she glanced my knee twice and hit the rifle a couple of times, but then I just couldn’t hang on to her. She jumped off the trail and I swear to God she went five feet in the air downhill. I saw the air under her feet and she landed in this heavy timber, and then just stood there dead still, looking at me.

Rick Blackwood’s eyes were about as big as saucers … we’d had a wreck. I think I said to Rick “Now that was a wreck!” We got the other horses tied up. I think there were three pack horses and two saddle horses, and we got the other horses to a spot that was easier to deal with and tied them up. Nitchie was not moving, she was standing still down below the trail. It was heavy timber and I was going to have to chop some trees out of the way to get her out of there. So I went down there with my axe, to knock this one tree down that was sort of across her breast. I thought that was what was holding her in place but when I got down there her leg was broken totally. Her right leg was totally broken, just hanging there. And I thought “Oh my God”. Anyhow that was a terrible feeling and I can remember her looking at me, wondering what’s going on, what’s happening here. I was just so devastated. Anyhow I figured out there was only one thing to do, I had to shoot her. So I went to get my rifle out of my scabbard and in one of the kicks she had broken my rifle such that I couldn’t lever a shell into the chamber. I tried everything but then I thought there’s no point in doing this because I’m not sure I’d want to pull the trigger anyhow because the rifle was mangled. Later on I found out that if I had of got a shell into the chamber I probably would have killed myself if I had pulled the trigger.

So the only other choice I had was my axe. Rick was not saying anything, he hadn’t said anything for probably an hour and I told him what I had to do. I stood in front of Nitchie and looked her in the eye for probably an hour before I could swing the axe. But finally I got up the nerve to swing the axe and she didn’t move at all. I was able to put the blade of the axe, sink it right between her eyes. So it was pretty sad even today when I think about it. It would have been much easier to shoot her of course but that wasn’t an option. So anyhow, that became a bit of an epic for about two days because it was right on the trail, so we had to close the trail. There were grizzly bears in the area.

Jimmy Suttil who was head of the trail crew at the time, and Todd McCready or Garry Forman (helicopter pilots) , one or the other, went in there and we were able to land down on the river bank and able to walk up. We thought we were going to have to butcher her to get her out of there and Garry or Todd said “Let’s just put a line on her and see if I can’t lift her straight out of there without butchering her.” He was able to and he flew her way up into the alpine up the Athabasca River so that’s where she was dropped. (Tape 14:04)

Willi Pfisterer, Pierre Trudeau, Doug Coats (RCMP), Peter Fuhrmann, Marv Millar, John Steele, Darro Stinson, Gaby Fortin..
1983 Mt. Athabasca Climb

SH: Wow, that’s a tough story.

Darro: Ya, I can remember Keith Everts and I doing interviews for seasonal park wardens. It was in the Banff Admin Office where we were doing the interviews and we had a lot of really good candidates, and some that just didn’t cut it. We had a way to signal each other to skip to the last questions because this isn’t going anywhere. Let’s not waste our time. I can’t remember how many candidates there were right now, but it was a lot and they were long days. There was somebody else on the Board, an HR person I think. Anyhow we all agreed that at some point we had to have a way to signal that this is not going well for the candidate and they’ve already flunked the first three questions so why waste another half hour or forty minutes. I remember this young guy, I can’t think of his name right now, but I can picture him. If I think of it I’ll let you know. We were asking a little bit about horse experience. I think we had a bridle and maybe some hobbles or something there and we’d ask people if they were familiar with these pieces of equipment and there were some pretty funny answers from several of the people. Everything from some kind of weird sexual device to it’s just a pair of hobbles and a bridle.

I remember this one person telling us about his horse experience and I think Keith handed him the bridle and said, “So what do you do with this?” And he looked at it and said “I got no idea what it is, so I don’t know what I’d do with it.” He’d just finished telling us about all his horse experience. So that was the end of that guy. I remember another candidate, and that was one of our questions, “Tell us about your horse experience.” And he told us a few things, didn’t say much and wouldn’t elaborate. We really had to pull it out of him a little bit. And we were just getting ready to give the signal that this one was over, and I think one of the questions was “Tell us about a wreck you’ve had with horses.” And he thought for a minute. And a lot of people said “I’ve never had a wreck with horses”. But this guy thought about it for awhile and said, “Well I don’t know where to start, I’ve had lots of wrecks.” And that got him to the next questions and he got hired. Anybody who has been around horses would have had a wreck and had lots of them. Even some of the best horse people that I came across in the Warden Service and outside of the Warden Service, they’ve got some epics. Donny Mickle’s got some epics, and Paul Peyto, an outfitter out of Lake Louise has got some epics. Gordy Dixon, Denny Welsh, Dale Loewen, Johnny Nylund…. all guys who I have respect for their horsemanship, they all have good wreck stories. I think that’s a real tell. So I think we started asking that question first when we got to the horse area, because it became really apparent, who had horse experience and who didn’t.

SH: Do you want to talk about a wildlife story, a bear story? (Tape 18:30)
Yes, I have some bear stories. I mean anybody that has been in the west in the Warden Service has lots of bear stories. Everybody’s got stories about encounters, or trapping, or maulings, but I had a bit of a unique one when I was living at Athabasca Falls. Athabasca Falls is right on the highway, and in the summertime some people think you’re lonely or just want to talk to somebody, and they would often pull into the driveway, especially if you were out in the yard. Sometimes it was very annoying, especially if you’d had a long day, and/or you were just having supper or you had friends over or whatever.

On this particular day there were some friends over for dinner. This guy pulled into the yard and had a bunch of kids in the car. I got up and went to the back door and he said “Look, I’m really sorry to bother you but I thought you should know about this. Just down the road there’s a black bear on the highway and there’s two people on top of their car, and the bear is pacing quite aggressively around the car. We tried to get them into our car, but the woman was quite frightened and the guy wouldn’t leave her and every time we got close the bear would charge our car. The other thing is neither one of them has clothes on. So I thought I had heard everything with bear stories until this came up. So I thought something’s going on, so I left my supper on the table. I used to have a Black Lab and Chesapeake cross named Charlie. He was a great bear dog. He loved to put a bear up a tree. He was good at it but he would only do it if I gave him the nod. He wouldn’t chase them out of the yard. He wouldn’t chase wildlife, he was a good dog. So whenever I went somewhere by myself in those days I always took him with me because he’d saved my bacon on at least three occasions, two of them with bears, and one of them with a group of individuals who were starting to get a little bit aggressive. So we get down there and sure enough there’s a little car, and this guy and gal buck naked on top of their car and this black bear, probably about 180 pounds very aggressively walking around their car and taking snaps at them. He was not jumping up, to get at them which he could easily have done. So, I pulled up on the other side of the highway and got my rifle out and was trying to figure out what the hell to do here and what was going on. So I thought first I’m going to put Charlie on him and see what happens. Charlie is in the back of the truck and just wired, he’s not barking yet and I just gave him the nod to get after the bear. As soon as I gave him the nod he barked, and the bear stopped and looked at him. Charlie leaped out of the truck and was halfway across the highway barking and the bear took off which allowed me to get the people off the car and into my truck. I then called Charlie back and put him back in the truck. But then the bear came back to the car and was looking around, and did not want to leave. It was strange behavior. So, then I got talking to the people and what had happened is they’d stopped at a place called Ranger Creek and just over the bank there’s a big meadow there. The conservation corps used to camp there back in the day. It’s a nice meadow; there’s a bunch of trees that separate it from the highway and there’s a little creek that runs through there and anyhow, they’d gone down to have a picnic and one thing led to another and pretty soon they were naked.

The girl told me that there was a lot of heavy breathing going on but then when she opened her eyes it wasn’t what she thought it was, there was a bear right in her face. She screamed, and he screamed, and they ran up to get back in their car. But of course their car was locked, and they didn’t have any clothes on, and the keys were back in the their clothes on the picnic blanket. So they couldn’t get back in the car. So he was going to break the window but every time he went to get off the car, the bear would come at him. The bear could have easily gotten up on the car and I don’t know why that didn’t occur. Anyhow, I said “So the keys are down below?” He said “Yes” So I said, “Okay I’m going to go get the keys”. I gave them a couple of jackets that I had in the truck and I said, “Okay you guys just stay here.” So Charlie and I went down to try to retrieve what I could. I had to put Charlie on the bear again to chase him off and this time he ran up a tree quite close to where we were. So I went right to the clothes and tried to gather up as much as I could. There was nothing left of hers. Her shirt, her pants were totally ripped apart like there was nothing useable of her clothes, but I just gathered up the stuff as quick as I could and put it in blanket because this bear was not leaving, and I didn’t want to shoot it. It wasn’t to the point where I thought I needed to kill it. So I gathered up as much stuff as I could, got it up to the car and threw it in the back of the truck. He found his keys in his pants, but she didn’t have any clothes. But she did have clothes in the car. So he went and got her some clothes from the car and she got changed inside my truck and they got into their vehicle. But before they got inside their vehicle we were still having a chat. The bear was still hanging around, it had not left. It came down from the tree and came back to the car once. Then went back and was pawing through the remnants of whatever was left down below.

What I discovered in our discussion was that she was menstruating and that’s the only thing I can think of that created the behavior of this bear. That scent was in her clothes and hers were completely destroyed and his were useable, hers were not. So that was the end of that story for now. I’m not sure how it got picked up, but it ended up in the local newspaper, it was called “The Bare Facts”, BARE not BEAR. So that story ran and then Peter Gzowski (CBC) saw it and he had it on his radio show two different times and I did a couple of interviews about it. I mean it was a comical story after, but it could have been a disaster.

So that’s not the end of the story. That’s the end of the bear part of it. That winter I was up at the ski area in avalanche control. At that time, I was the senior warden and forecaster and we were pretty vigilant about people skiing in closed areas. It really bothered me when people would ski into areas that we had roped off where there were no tracks because it always worried me that either kids or some inexperienced skier would then follow the tracks and then find themselves in trouble and my son was up there skiing all the time. So, we had no tolerance for skiing in closed areas and often charged people for it.

I got a call from the ski patrol one day and they had caught two skiers in Dupree Bowl and there was myself and it might have been Dave Norcross but I can’t recall for sure. We went up there to deal with this. So the ski patrol had hold of them and we get up there and it was pretty cold out. So everybody is bundled up pretty good and I start talking to this guy and there’s something familiar about this guy. All of a sudden, I figured out who he is, and I couldn’t stop laughing because all I could think of was I didn’t recognize him with his clothes on. I can’t remember if I verbalized that or if it was in my head, but I couldn’t stop laughing. Of course the ski patrol and whoever was with me was thinking “He’s lost it”. I wasn’t in hysterical laughter, but I was chuckling and of course he recognized me right away. We get chatting and I said, “What happened after I saw you last summer?” and it’s not the same girl. And she is saying “What’s he talking about? Who were you with?” So I’m not sure what that whole situation was but he was in shit with her for sure. At the end of it I just couldn’t bring myself to charge them because clearly I was very unprofessional dealing with this and laughing but I said “I’m going to keep your skis, both of you, and you’re going to get escorted off the hill and if you like you can come and claim your skis here next week. So I took their skis away from them and they got off the hill and that was the end of them.

SH: What are the odds eh?
Darro: Yes, what are the odds that he’d come back and come to Marmot and that I would there when he was caught skiing in a closed area. I later found out, I won’t say what his name was, but that he was a ski patrol at Mount Norquay as well. (Tape 32:17)

SH: Do you have some more stories?
Darro: I’ve got a wildlife story. There’s a spring grizzly bear season in Alberta along the Brazeau River. It’s early in the spring … I can’t remember the dates exactly, but it was too early for us to get horses into that part of the country. Usually we hadn’t even brought the horses back from the Ranch. I think it was in March. If we had the horses we could have come in through the Province off the Nordegg Forestry Road but as a rule what we did was we put a fly camp in on the Southesk River and we’d drop individuals in there for 7-10 days. They’d move back and forth from that fly camp from Southesk down to Isaac Creek. There’d be quite a few hunters in there looking for grizzly at that time of year.

Just towards the end of the season, I went in and relieved whoever was in there, and I took my dog with me. I think we were just closing up the camp and I got in there and just checked to see if there was any outfitters or hunters on the boundary, and there wasn’t. I was moving over to Isaac Creek, which is about 16 kms from the fly camp, it probably would have been a four or five hour walk. It was one of those beautiful spring days when there’s still snow in the deep bush, but the sun exposed south slopes are clear of snow. There’s a little area between Southesk and Isaac Creek; we called it Sandhills, it’s just an area of sparse popular in some rolling hills, and often it was a great place for wolf dens, we often saw wolves there. I stopped there for lunch and I nodded off under the tree, just sitting under the tree after I’d had something to eat. My dog was sitting beside me and he started with a low growl. It kind of woke me up because I wasn’t sound asleep, I was just nodding off. It was unusual for him to do that, and he was still growling, laying down. He hadn’t stood up. The trail was right there … you know how the trail gets beaten down sometimes into a bit of a trough and I could see a set of ears sticking up when I looked up. There was a wolf about probably 50 feet away, pretty close, laying in the gully of the trail. I think he was crawling up the gully but he didn’t move after I sat up, because he could see me then. I thought that wolf was probably coming after Charlie. So I didn’t move I just sat there and told Charlie to keep quiet, and the wolf didn’t move, he just sat there, probably for ten or fifteen minutes. I thought well, I better get going because it’s going to be dark when I pull into Isaac Creek and I still had to ford Isaac Creek itself to get to the cabin. So I stood up and as soon as I stood up, seven other heads popped up around me. So there was now eight wolves and they were all pretty close but the one on the trail was the closest, and he was about 50 feet away. The others weren’t far away. I have to admit that my heart started to beat a little bit and I thought “What was going on here?” They didn’t move when I stood up, they just stood there, and I thought, well we gotta get moving here or do something. I had a firearm with me which I had in my hand. I got ahold of Charlie and kept him close to me because I figured they were after him and we started to walk away. As soon as we started to walk away, most of them backed off except the one who was on the trail. At that point something had told me they weren’t being aggressive, and I felt a little bit better, but I was still nervous. It was still another two hours down to Isaac Creek. The wolves followed me on both sides, slightly behind me through the bush, all the way to the creek. The cabin is only about 300 meters on the other side of the creek, so I wasn’t going to take my shoes off, I wasn’t even going to stop. I just waded the river and kept moving. I got to Isaac Creek flats which is quite wide, rocky terrain. The bridge had been blown out the previous year.. I got part way across the rock flats and turned around and they were gone. I couldn’t see them. They quit following me at the creek and they didn’t cross, right then anyhow. So, I got to the cabin and got a fire going. I got warmed up and the sun was just going down. As soon as the sun went down it got dark and I had Charlie inside the cabin. He started barking inside the cabin and I went out and looked out in the meadow in front of Isaac Creek and there were two of them out in the meadow, just watching, not doing anything. It was an interesting encounter with those wolves, and probably the most interesting one I’d ever had with wolves.