Canmore-based wildlife photographer John E. Marriott was just out for a bit of camping with his family when an epic grizzly showdown started right next to his campsite.
Marriott was able to follow the grizzlies — which just happened to be two of the area’s most notorious male bears — and photograph the chase.
Luckily, as Marriott told the Calgary Eyeopener, he never leaves home without his camera, and he knew immediately that he was dealing with what he dubbed a battle of the titans.
“The Boss and Split Lip have both been around in Banff National Park now for at least 15 years. Nobody knows exactly how old they both are, but they’re both in the 500- to 600-pound range, depending on the time of year,” Marriott said. “So they’re both big, big grizzly bears, dominant male grizzly bears.”
Marriott said both are also notorious.
“They’ve both mated with a number of the female bears in the Bow Valley, and they’ve really become the two most iconic, most famous bears around — Split Lip in part because he has as recently as this year killed cubs of 142 … right on the Bow Valley Parkway,” he said. “The Boss has been the most dominant bear really for about almost a decade now.
“So the two of them, nobody knows. You know, they’re probably in the 15- to 20-year-old range … and they are the two heavyweights right now.”
The two bears have huge, overlapping territory that can range from west of Canmore to nearly Radium, B.C., and up toward Jasper, in what Marriott describes as “an easy 1,000-square-kilometre home range.”
Marriott said he has been photographing both bears for many years.
On July 3, Marriott was camping at Protection Mountain campground with his wife and their 18-month-old son.
Just before 9 p.m., Marriott and his son made a trip to the recycling bin, about 75 metres from their campsite, and spotted Split Lip strolling into the nearly empty campground.
“All of a sudden, I come face to face with Split Lip, walking across the road, right into the campground, right towards me and my son.”
Marriott said he paced it out afterward — the bear was about 23 paces away.
“It was quite an eyeopener to suddenly find yourself that close to one of the big dominant bears. So I quickly pop behind the tree and grabbed my son and yelled out to my wife, ‘Jen, grab the bear spray!’ A couple of the other campers … heard me and quickly grabbed their food and started putting it into their trailers, and we circled back around behind the bathrooms and got back to my trailer.”
Split Lip ambled over to a small meadow and settled in to munch on dandelions, right next to Marriott’s campsite.
“He’s about 25 metres away and he’s just chowing down on dandelions, completely ignoring us,” Marriott said. “So I quickly dropped off my son with my wife, and raced over and got my big lens out, and right from under the awning of my trailer, I was photographing a grizzly bear. And not just any grizzly bear, but one the big titans of the park, Split Lip.”
Marriott loaded his family into the safety of their vehicle, as did the other campers nearby, and they proceeded to watch Split Lip feast on dandelions in a small meadow.
That’s when a second grizzly showed up, just as another family was pulling into the campground with their trailer. Marriott’s wife spotted him first.
Another bear shows up
“She goes, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s another bear! There’s another bear!'”
The shocked campers looked on as The Boss strolled in front of their fifth-wheel.
“Without a doubt it was The Boss,” Marrott said. “He’s a gigantic bear and he’s got these fresh wounds … and he comes marching across the road. And as soon as he sees Split Lip, he just bolts right at him like a freight train. And we were so close I couldn’t even photograph it.”
Marriott estimates the bears were about 20 metres away as The Boss headed for Split Lip like a freight train.
“And The Boss just missed him with a big swipe, and then they went racing through this little meadow, spinning around and spiraling through it and onto the Bow Valley Parkway with The Boss right on Split Lip’s heels.”
Marriott followed after them, onto the Bow Valley Parkway, in time to see The Boss chasing Split Lip down the highway. He says the grizzlies were weaving in and out of the ditch for about three kilometres.
“These two big fat butts, just roaring down the road, it was really quite a sight to see,” he said. “They’re, you know, one of the fastest land mammals in North America. Nobody thinks that but the pronghorn antelope is the only faster animal in a straight line. So they were just going.”
After the chase wound down, with The Boss heading off into the bush, Marriott felt confident in concluding that The Boss is definitely still the boss.
Marriott blogged about his experience on his website John E. Marriott Photography, and you can read the full story in a post he called Battle of the Titans: The Boss vs. Split Lip.
Listen to the full interview on the Calgary Eyeopener here.
With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.