Bill Ayotte's heroics saved the life of a woman being mauled by a polar bear in Churchill Friday morning, and then a plucky teen likely saved him.
The 69-year-old retired tour guide and lifelong resident of the town on the shore of Hudson Bay heard a commotion outside his Selkirk Street home at 5 a.m., rushed out and found a polar bear attacking a 30-year-old woman on his deck.
Ayotte grabbed a shovel and began clubbing the bear, which released its grip on the back of the woman's head and turned its attention to him.
That's when 18-year-old Didier Foubert-Allen, who also heard shrieks, sprang into action.
Clad only in boxer shorts, Foubert-Allen ran outside to his deck in -10 C weather and blasted 18 shots from his 12-gauge shotgun at the polar bear, now savagely tearing at his fallen next-door neighbour.
"I saw this bear just pounding on Bill, knocking him around like nothing, so I ran back inside, grabbed my shotgun and a box of shells and started shooting above the bear trying to scare it off," Foubert-Allen told the Free Press in a telephone interview.
Foubert-Allen fired from his deck, which is about seven or eight metres from Ayotte's deck. Two of his shots hit the mark but barely caused the animal to flinch. Other neighbours, like Mitchell Bellerive, 21, and his mother, Diane, were firing cracker shells at the bear to jolt it into releasing its grip.
'I was five feet away from this bear, honking the horn, turning on the high beams and it suddenly stopped and ran up the road' -- Didier Foubert-Allen
Pausing only to grab shoes and his truck keys, Foubert-Allen jumped into his truck and roared up in front of Ayotte's house.
"It was almost an instinct. I knew that if the bear attacked the truck, it would get off of Billy," said Foubert-Allen. "I was five feet away from this bear, honking the horn, turning on the high beams and it suddenly stopped and ran up the road."
The bear was shot and killed by officers with Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship. Not long after, a second bear with a cub in tow was shot and killed. The young bear was tranquillized and captured.
Foubert-Allen and other neighbours got Ayotte into the truck and headed towards the hospital but were met by the ambulance at the end of the street.
Ayotte suffered serious lacerations to his face, stomach and ear, while the woman, identified only as Erin by a close friend, suffered deep gashes to her head and arm. Both were flown by air ambulance to Winnipeg and are being treated at the Health Sciences Centre.
They are listed in stable condition, RCMP said.
"She owes (Ayotte) her life," said Alex de Vries-Magnifico, 27, who spoke to Erin just before she left the Churchill Health Centre for Winnipeg.
"I briefly saw her, and she smiled and said, 'that crazy bear tried biting my head off.' "
Erin, a native of Montreal, has worked seasonally at Gypsy's Bakery and Restaurant for two years, after falling in love with the northern Manitoba town. She was to return home at the end of November.
Erin and some friends had just left a Halloween party that went late and were walking down Selkirk Street in the centre of town when the bear suddenly appeared, de Vries-Magnifico said.
De Vries-Magnifico said Erin described moments of sheer terror as the bear "threw her against the wall of Mr. Ayotte's house, bit her in the back of the head and in her arm before Ayotte came out and started beating the bear in the head with a shovel."
Doug Webber said he woke up, looked out his window and witnessed a horrific sight.
"I saw the bear kind of chewing on Bill. I went running out to help, and then a bunch of other people ran out, and two boys managed to scare the bear off. Then we put Bill in a pickup truck and took him to the hospital, and the ambulance came and took the girl to the hospital."
A spokesman with Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship said natural resources officers got to the scene of the attack within minutes of receiving word it was happening.
He said shooting the bears was deemed necessary.
"In such an emergency, the safety of people is paramount, and when there is an immediate threat, staff are trained to follow carefully developed policies and practices in order to ensure no one else is injured and the animals involved do not escape," said the spokesman.
Natural resources officers, RCMP and volunteers patrolled throughout Halloween evening, because more and more sightings have been reported in town lately. Churchill has a 24-hour hotline (204-675-2327 or 204-675-BEAR) for people to report bears in the area.
Adilia Shields, who works for Canada Post in Churchill, said she watched the ordeal through the front window of her home on Selkirk Street.
"I actually didn't realize there was a person underneath the bear until I saw a hand waving," she said. "I panicked and started crying.
"It's a miracle he's OK. I'm still in shock."
Churchill Mayor Michael Spence said residents are shaken by the attack.
"Thank God they're going to survive," he said. "It's very traumatic. The people who witnessed it are having a hard time dealing with it.
"But that's just how it is in this community. We co-exist with bears; they're coming through the area, waiting for the ice to form. This is one of those challenges that we, as a community, are faced with."
-- with files from Jason Bell