Accounts of the First World War often evoke images of the horrid conditions in the trenches along the Western Front in France, or the gas attacks and needless slaughter. Here is an account of one Yukon soldier with an even more remarkable tale of survival. His name was Jim Christie.
James Murdoch Christie was born in Perthshire, Scotland on October 22 of 1874. When he joined the stampede to the Klondike during the gold rush in 1898, he had been farming in Carman, Manitoba.
Christie remained in the Yukon after the gold rush, later becoming a guide and professional hunter, but his remarkable story begins in October of 1909, when he and George Crisfield were trapping on the Rogue River, a remote tributary of the Stewart River. Christie had been tracking a large grizzly bear that had disturbed one of their caches. A marauding grizzly bear at that time of year is never good news.
The bear surprised him as he climbed up a snow-covered river bank, and at a range of 30 metres, he got off one shot from his Ross rifle, which hit the bear in the chest, and a second round to the head just before the bear was upon him. Christie tried to escape the charging grizzly, but to no avail.
The grizzly took Christie’s head into his powerful jaws and began to crush his skull. Christie’s jaw and cheek bone were crushed and his scalp was ripped away from his head, drenching the snow with his blood. One eye was blinded.
To protect himself, Christie thrust his right arm into the angry bear’s maw, and it too was crushed. Christie might not have survived had the bear continued its attack, but the bullets finally took effect and the beast rolled over, lifeless.
Christie was in terrible shape. He was bleeding profusely, and his broken jaw hung open. He wrapped his jacket around his head to hold the fractured jawbone in place, and staggered half-blinded toward his cabin, which was 11 kilometres away. Leaving a trail of blood behind him, he made it back to the cabin.
Crisfield was not there, so Christie kept a fire going despite being half delirious, until his partner returned to the cabin. After a couple of days rest, Crisfield strapped Christie into a sled and headed to Lansing, the nearest trading post on the Stewart River. Wrapped in his blood-soaked clothing, Christie endured in silence the pain from every bump and jolt on the four day journey.
Four two months, J.E Ferrill, the trader, and his wife tended to Christie, slowly nursing him back to health. Ferrill even trimmed the jagged edges of Christie’s scalp wounds as the flap of skin began to heal.
Eventually, Christie was fit enough for the journey to Dawson. He, Ferrill and Crisfield left Lansing on New Year’s Day. Christie even insisted on doing much of the physical work on the journey to Mayo, and then to Dawson City, where he arrived in mid January.
By this time, his jaw had healed improperly so he could not chew solid food and was reduced to consuming a liquid diet. The staff of St. Mary’s Hospital in Dawson could do nothing for him, so he went to Victoria, where surgeon Dr. C.M Jones reset his jaw in the course of several operations. Dr. Jones told Christie: “You have no business to be alive.” Much of the credit for his recovery goes to the Ferrills, who tended him for so many weeks.
He was forever after known as “Grizzly Bear” Christie.
But Christie’s story does not end there. When war was declared August 4, 1914, nearing 40 years of age, he was one of the first to head outside to enlist. His attestation papers show that he signed up only three weeks after war was declared. He joined the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry and saw considerable action as a scout and sniper in France. After the war, Major Neville Armstrong, who haunted the same country in the Stewart River as Christie, said the man was the best scout officer he knew of.
Christie was twice wounded in battle; once in April of 1915, and again in July of 1916. He was promoted in the field to the rank of lieutenant, and was decorated with both the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the Military Cross.
For years, Christie haunted no-man’s land like few men dared. A superior officer described his exploits:
“His long life alone in the mountains made him the most observant man I have ever known. He saw everything and said nothing. He could put his hand on the ground in No Man’s Land and tell whether a man had walked there one hour ago, two hours ago, three hours ago. It was uncanny, and he was never wrong. He would lie out in the open behind our trenches, day after day … and get his sight on some part of the enemy trench and wait for someone to put his head up. If he did not put it up today, he would be there tomorrow, and sure enough some German would come to that spot, and Christie would get him. This happened year after year. I have never known anyone outside an Indian who had the patience of Christie. He would concentrate hour after hour on one spot … Christie could do it for two days.”
In one encounter, Christie led four other men into No Man’s Land and lay in wait of a German patrol. They ambushed a German officer and 16 soldiers, killing them all, returning with their insignia and papers carried by the officer. Realizing that two of his men had left their rifles behind, Christie returned to No Man’s Land to retrieve them, and was immediately awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal by Gen. Sir George Milne who witnessed the event.
At age 43, he was released from service June of 1918 and returned to civilian life, having not only fought for his life with a grizzly bear, but survived years of the most hazardous combat duty. Ironically, it was George Crisfield, the trapping partner who helped him back in 1909, who was killed by machine gun fire September 1918, as the war was coming to an end.
Christie took his scars and his medals back to Canada. Laura Berton remembered visiting him years later as a white-haired agile little man in his seventies, living peacefully on Saltspring Island with his wife. According to Berton, “only a slight scar [was] visible on his scalp as evidence of the terrible winter when – while the rest of us were dancing in the A.B. Hall [in Dawson City] – he fought for his life after his famous battle with a grizzly.”
In late May of 1939, he travelled to Vancouver to see the King and Queen during their royal visit to that city, but that was not to be. He died in Shaughnessy Military Hospital, June 1, 1939, 30 years after his wrestling match with a grizzly.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores.
You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org