On the morning of Nov. 7, Todd Pilgrim stepped out of his truck with a rifle slung over one shoulder and the snow crunching under his boots. It was -18 C, the kind of cold that makes the air turn to steam against your hands when you take your gloves off.
Pilgrim, 57, and his friend, Fred Mullet, 72, were headed to one of Mullet’s favourite bison hunting spots a few kilometres north of Twin Lakes. They had gone into Carmacks earlier that morning, Pilgrim says, to get the permit required to hunt on Little Salmon Carmacks/First Nation settlement land.
Pilgrim says they weren’t there more than a few minutes when they saw a lone young male bison. Mullet — an experienced hunter who had gotten his own bison a few weeks before — pointed it out and told him to take the shot, Pilgrim says.
“Twelve years I’ve been trying to get a bison,” Pilgrim says. “They’re really really hard to get.”
Pilgrim took a knee in the snow and immediately took a shot with his .338 Remington Ultra Magnum.
“‘You hit him!’ Fred says. He was excited,” Pilgrim recounts, “but (the bison) didn’t even flinch.”
The animal just stood there, staring at them, he says.
“It was like I never even touched him.”
Pilgrim fired and shot the animal twice more, at which point the bison “casually walked off the airport strip and into the woods,” he says.
A wounded 680-kilogram bull bison wandering somewhere around in the frozen backcountry is not an optimal situation, but Pilgrim was determined to do the honourable thing and go in after him. He and Mullet waited for about 20 minutes to give the animal time to weaken, and then went into the trees to try to track him down, a proposition which turned out to be much more difficult than expected.
“There was blood dripping in the beginning but it stopped after 50 metres,” he says. “Fred and I tracked him for couple hours until we found he had doubled back to his original location.”
They tracked the bison for an hour and half and were unable to locate the animal. At this point, the pair went back to their trucks — they had arrived in separate vehicles — to regroup and consider their options. Exhausted, Mullet stayed behind while Pilgrim went back into the woods by himself.
“I followed the tracks alone and I found it quite hard to decipher them,” Pilgrim says. “But thank God there was fresh snow.”
He tracked the animal alone for another hour and a half, until he found a “fresh bed soaked in blood,” where the bison had laid down. Often, a critically wounded animal that does not die immediately will go off to find a quiet place to do so, and this bed meant that not only was the bison badly wounded, but nearby.
“Up until this time there was no more blood on his trail, so I wasn’t sure if I had shot him in a vital area,” Pilgrim says. “If I didn’t place the bullet there, he might walk for days and I wouldn’t get him.”
Pilgrim approached the bedding place. That’s when the situation went from dicey to downright dangerous.
“I fucked up,” he says. “I really, really fucked up.”
The bison had been hiding off to the left, amid the trees, perfectly still. Pilgrim hadn’t just found a place where the animal had laid down, he says. The bull had been there only moments before and Pilgrim had startled it.
“I should have known it was fresh (blood),” he says.
There was a “big white flash,” a bang and then Pilgrim was down, struck by the bull’s massive skull. One horn caught him in the face, he says, and he was abruptly blind in his left eye.
“Within a split second, I was struck full-bore in the head and body by the bison, then I lost consciousness for a few seconds. I can’t actually remember much…. When I came to my senses I realized he had pinned me down,” Pilgrim says. “He was on top of me and had me pinned, with my rifle strapped behind me in the snow…. I thought the bison had stuck his horn in my eye and I had lost my eye.”
The bison began to back up to ram him again.
Pilgrim says he “isn’t sure how he did it” but he tucked himself tight against the bison’s chest, out of range of its horns and hooves.
“He could have crushed me with one swipe of his massive skull,” he says.
“He continued to stomp and try to maneuver his head under his front legs to get me. I feared this was it. This feller was going to take my life…. I held onto his chest fur with all my might.”
He managed to “wiggle” out of this perilous position, he says, and then they were “both playing zig-zag.” Bison are powerful but not agile and Pilgrim managed to get behind a tree, keeping it between himself and the animal. Pilgrim was “screaming” curses at him and “shaking with fear.”
Eventually the bison — which was already wounded from Pilgrim’s earlier shots— grew tired of chasing him and backed away. Pilgrim feared it would charge again, but the bison “just started at (him) for a few seconds then turned away and stared off to the side.”
Pilgrim saw his chance and made a mad dash for his rifle, which was about three meters away. He chambered a cartridge and shot the bull at close range. The animal dropped immediately.
Pilgrim “put another round in his head just to make sure he wouldn’t get up and charge (him) again.”
“Then I knelt down by his side, patting him on his chest and said a prayer, thanking him for giving up his life for me,” says Pilgrim. “The poor guy was only trying to fend off someone who he knew was trying to kill him.”
“I have so much respect for him. I hold nothing against that guy.”
Pilgrim says he managed to make his way back to his truck, stumbling near-blind through the snow. He could only see out of one eye and the bison had broken his glasses. When he stumbled out of the bush, Pilgrim says he was “crying (Mullet’s) name and crying, crying like a baby.”
“Fred thought I had accidentally shot myself,” he says. “I was coated in blood, I had a big gash on my forehead.”
He looked at himself in the truck mirror and was relieved to find his eye was not in fact “gouged out,” he says. Rather, his head wound had bled into his eye, obscuring his vision.
Environment Yukon has confirmed this is the first recorded incident of a bison attacking a human in the territory.
Mullet used a satellite phone to call for an ambulance. It arrived about an hour later and the paramedics gave Pilgrim painkillers and an IV. They drove him to Fox Lake, around 50 minutes south of Twin Lakes, where he was transferred to a second ambulance meant to take him to Whitehorse General.
But at the intersection of the Alaska Highway and the Klondike Highway they hit another snag; the fan belt went in the second ambulance, forcing him to wait while a third ambulance was dispatched to get him.
Meanwhile, at Pilgrim’s behest, Mullet and another friend returned for the dead bison, dressing it and taking it back into Whitehorse, where it was butchered and hung that evening while Pilgrim was still in hospital.
When he finally got to the hospital Pilgrim was diagnosed with a severe concussion and injuries to his ribs, back and shoulders. Pilgrim is now recovering at home. As of Nov.15, he says he continures to suffer from complications related to the concussion, including memory loss, dizziness and headaches.
Pilgrim says doesn’t want anyone to think he is “bragging” about killing the bison. He describes himself as a gentle person who loves animals. In 2015, Pilgrim self-published a children’s book — Angie, the Tundra Swan — about a wild swan he found injured and nursed back to health in 2011.
Pilgrim says he has had a lot of time to reflect while he recovers. After a lot of soul-searching, he has decided that is “finished with hunting forever.”
“I’m not mad,” he says. “I’m just so grateful to be alive.”
Contact Lori Fox at firstname.lastname@example.org