A really terrifying story, and I’m not talking about Ottawa
Two gripping news stories reached me via Facebook yesterday. Both involved violent, shocking deaths. And I had a personal, family connection to each one.
You already know about happened in Ottawa. I was first alerted to the crisis when a relative – Claude Gravelle, who is an NDP MP from northern Ontario – posted at 10:35 AM: “There has been a shooting … I am safe … We are in a lock down with massive security … “
What’s all that about? I wondered.
But strangely, it was the second story that really intrigued me. The headline read, “Grizzly bear entered Claudia Huber’s house before fatal attack.” It featured a winter shot of a Yukon couple (the photo above). I clicked the link and gasped at the news lead: “The grizzly bear that killed Claudia Huber on the weekend came into her house through a window, then pursued Huber and her spouse when they ran outside, says Yukon coroner.”
I didn’t recognize the couple in the photo at first but the story began to feel familiar as I read the details. They lived near Johnsons Crossing (JC), a tiny hamlet on the Alaska highway east of Whitehorse. Hmmm. I know that area, I’ve been there, several times. My twin sister Beth lived nearby for many years before moving to the territorial capital, and she still spends most weekends at a cabin on a friend’s property near JC.
The story from CBC news was equal parts horrifying and heartbreaking. Claudia and her husband Matthias were alerted to an approaching bear by their dog, a large Alaskan malamute, last Saturday. They left the house as the bear broke in, attempted to flee, but Huber was caught and mauled while her husband Matthias scrambled for his gun. He eventually shot the bear, then drove her to the nearest medical help in the village of Teslin, where she died. It was a northern horror story, the sort that really interests southerners like me, who grew up reading books called “Lost in the Barrens” and “Never Cry Wolf.”
Huber was 42 years old. She and her husband were from Switzerland, and had moved to the Yukon eight years ago, in pursuit of the northern Canadian dream. They started a business together, offering wilderness trips and accommodation to Europeans, especially Germans, since that was their native language. Their business name was “Breath of Wilderness.”
I have a dawn of recognition. I text my niece Cassandra, who had posted the story to her Facebook timeline. She lives in Revelstoke, BC now, but was raised in Teslin and still returns to Whitehorse regularly to see her mum (my sister), and her brother.
“Isn’t Claudia a friend of Beth’s?” I ask Cass.
“Yes,” she replies almost immediately.
I search my photos from our last trip to the Yukon, six years ago. We had a 10-day family gathering as Beth and I celebrated our joint 50th birthdays. One afternoon we crossed Teslin Lake in a boat, just down from Johnsons Crossing, to a trapline and cabin owned by my sister’s best friend, Minnie. They invited other nearby friends to the party, including … Claudia and Matthias, then relative newcomers to the territory.
I text my wife Nichola, who remembers Claudia immediately. I send the photo to Cass, who confirms their identity. It’s still early morning in the Yukon and my sister is off to a yoga class, so I google for more details. Again, more heartbreak as I read a Calgary Sun story, quoting Claudia’s surviving spouse, Matthias Liniger. “It was our paradise here,” he tells the paper.
The story continues: “They loved life in the Yukon enough to want to stay forever. Liniger says one their proudest moments came when they both received the parchment at the end of a ceremony declaring them Canadian citizens.”
Then it quotes Liniger again, describing his wife: “She was a woman who could handle a chainsaw and cut trees, and then she came home, and prepared herself, and you could go out with her, and she was the most stunning woman you have ever seen.”
Meanwhile, the Ottawa story is growing. I’ve met Claude Gravelle, who is my niece Cassandra’s father-in-law, and on Facebook he advises following the TV news. I don’t have a TV at work, and don’t want to get sucked into a news vortex when I’ve got projects to complete. I leave a message for Claude on his page, expressing relief at his safety and thanking him for the updates.
But I can’t stop wondering about Claudia and Matthias. I scour our photos from that magical day on Teslin Lake. We walked on Minnie’s trapline. She pointed out bear scat on the trail. We’d be safe, because of three dogs with us, she said. The blackflies were thick, a constant cloud around our heads. We sang songs around a campfire because Minnie, Claudia and some of the others were in a guitar group together at Johnsons Crossing.
The Swiss couple reminded me of many Yukoners I’d met on our trip – a little different, seekers who weren’t happy in the places they were born or raised. They were after solitude, the environmental purity of a sparsely settled land. They were outdoors people, no matter what the weather, and not minding the lack of daylight at the coldest time of the year.
Here’s a photo of my son Thomas and his then-girlfriend Anna, playing on the beach of Teslin Lake with two dogs. One is Minnie’s dog Ed, the other belongs to Claudia and Matthias. That’s Kona crouching down, the malamute who alerted the couple to the approaching grizzly last weekend. In the background, watching them play, are Matthias and Claudia. Look at the hills around Teslin Lake; it’s a stunning and serene landscape.
We were planning a camping trip of our own as we visited the Yukon that summer – a four-day hike on the historic Chilkoot Trail, the gold rush route of 1898, starting in Alaska and ending in the Yukon. As we prepared our gear and food, Thomas slept in Beth’s tent in her Whitehorse backyard. One morning, she discovered that he’d taken a bowl of cereal to eat in the tent, and she dashed out to reprimand him, shocked by his naivete.
“You never have food in a tent,” she scolded him. There are no bears in Whitehorse, but leaving even a trace of food smell in a tent you later take into the wilderness could be fatal, she warned.
After work yesterday, I watch the TV news and digest the day’s events in Ottawa. As late as 8 PM Claude Gravelle is still reporting that he’s locked up in a room in Parliament’s Centre Block. I miss the Prime Minister’s TV statement, but already the term “terrorism” is circulating. The Ottawa events are being linked to the killing of a Quebec soldier earlier in the week, and even to the sending of Canadian fighter jets to the Middle East. Really? Do we know that much about the man who attempted to storm Parliament? Was he acting alone, or as part of some wider conspiracy? Was it jihad, or was it schizophrenia? The rush to explain and characterize before the facts are known seems premature to me.
• • • • •
I finally catch up with Beth by phone, just before I go to bed. She wasn’t at her cabin in JC last weekend, which was rare, but she tells me what she knows about Claudia’s death. The story is somehow even more macabre than what I’ve already learned from the news media. The couple attempted to escape the bear by car, but there was a mixup over keys. When Claudia tried to get to a second vehicle, the bear caught her, and Matthias had to search for his gun as it dragged her away. Rumours circulate, so Beth is not sure what’s true. She hasn’t been able to speak to Matthias yet, but when she heard his voice on the radio she says he sounded empty, completely unlike himself.
Beth tells me the bear attack has an obvious explanation. It’s October, with the animals headed for hibernation very soon. The grizzly that attacked her friends was an older, underweight bear. Because of poor weather its main food source, low-bush cranberries, were a washout this year. Beth has friends who normally pick hundreds of pounds of them, for sale. They reaped nothing this year, depriving them of some income. The consequences for a bear are more serious – insufficient calorie stores to last the long Yukon winter. It makes them desperate, so October bear attacks are not uncommon. Still, breaking into a house, that’s unusual, even by Yukon standards.
Mostly, Beth talks about her friends as one of the nicest couples she knows. They integrated so well into the Yukon since we met them in 2008 that both eventually landed jobs with the Teslin Tlingit First Nation, in the community where Beth used to live. The band held a prayer circle for Claudia on Monday, and there’s an outpouring of community support for Matthias. “Everybody loved Claudia,” he tells the newspaper.
Beth reports that Matthias is badly shaken. He can’t return to his house, is staying with friends in JC (people from the guitar group), and doesn’t know if he can ever go back. His life, home, and business are in tatters. Now he must organize a memorial with family coming from Switzerland. The couple had no children. He’s left with Kona, and his memories of his time with Claudia.
I fall asleep contemplating the two events. The news feels different when you have a personal connection to the players. I’m sure that’s how it feels for the family of the army reservist killed yesterday at the Ottawa war memorial. For me, knowing that Claude Gravelle is safe and texting messages from Parliament Hill is comforting, although he says, “It was something I never experienced before and hope to never go through again.” Maybe I’m overly sanguine; an hour later and Claude would have been out in the halls of Parliament with hundreds of other MPs, just as the gunman arrived.
Still, the story that really sticks with me is the one about Claudia, her young life ended by a freak wilderness accident, and her husband Matthias, now a hollow, shell-shocked widower with a home he can’t return to.
• • • • •
- A recent CBC north interview with Matthias Liniger, including more photos of the couple and a touching audio clip from Matthias, is here.