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The couple killed by a bear in Banff were able to send an SOS text: 'Bear attack bad'

Jenny Gusse and Doug Inglis died during a backpacking trip through Canada's Banff National Park. They're seen here on a river trip in Saskatchewan.
Ron Teather
Jenny Gusse and Doug Inglis died during a backpacking trip through Canada's Banff National Park. They're seen here on a river trip in Saskatchewan.

The two campers who died in a grizzly bear attack in Banff National Park in Canada were able to send a desperate message before succumbing to their injuries.

"Bear attack bad," the emergency message read, according to Colin Inglis, the uncle of Doug Inglis — who was found dead last weekend alongside his longtime partner, Jenny Gusse, and their dog.

The dire message was sent over a Garmin inReach satellite communicator last Friday night. It was received along with an SOS signal, triggered by someone holding the device's emergency button for three seconds.

"So one of them had entered that [text] into the inReach" manually, Colin Inglis told NPR.

The chilling message stands as direct evidence of the moment when a backpacking trip to enjoy fall foliage became a tragedy. The case is also something of a mystery: How did two veteran backpackers known for doing everything correctly become the victims of a rare bear attack?

"This incident is the first grizzly bear caused fatality recorded in Banff National Park in decades," Parks Canada said in a message to NPR.

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The couple knew the terrain and had bear spray

It seems that not even the best preparations could have prevented the fatal attack. When a Wildlife Human Attack Response Team reached the campsite, they found a bear-proof food bag hanging in a tree, as recommended. A discharged can of bear spray was also found at the site, implying the campers had tried to force the animal to leave.

The couple, both 62, also knew the region — Banff's Red Deer Valley — very well.

"They hiked in this area several times a year on an extended trip," Inglis said. "They'd been in this area in the spring."

As they made their way on a weeklong trek through Banff, the backpackers used their inReach device to send regular updates to Inglis, and to Gusse's mother. The couple were meticulous in planning their adventures, Inglis said. They were careful by nature: In their professional life, the pair worked together in laboratories, doing agricultural research.

"Doug and Jenny were highly experienced. They did everything right," Inglis said. "This is an unusual circumstance — they ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Earlier in the day, the couple had told Inglis that they hit a delay during their hike, but that all was OK. Inglis says they had likely made it to a campsite and were making dinner when that message was sent, just before 5 p.m. But a few hours later, things went horribly wrong.

The attack took place in a very remote area

Doug Inglis and Jenny Gusse made camp in a permitted area, along with their border collie, Tris. At the time, there was no active bear warning or area closures in place, according to Parks Canada.

The agency says it got the same message from an inReach device that Inglis did, alerting them to a bear attack at approximately 8 p.m. local time.

It took hours to reach the site of the violent attack: The response team had to travel over ground, as bad weather ruled out using a helicopter. Parks Canada says the area is very remote and there were no witnesses to the attack.

"We will never know the full details of what led to the attack and will not speculate," it said.

When their bodies were found, "Jenny and Doug were close by each other not far from the tent in their stocking feet," Inglis said, relaying what Parks Canada told him. That's very unusual, he said, noting that it was wet outside.

"Their boots and booties were in the tent, which suggests that something happened that one or both of them exited the tent," he said.

The bear tried to attack the emergency team

When the response team arrived after 1 a.m., they discovered the bodies of the two campers and their dog. They also spotted the bear, which "displayed aggressive behavior, and proceeded to charge towards the response team," Parks Canada said.

The bear was shot and killed. A necropsy found it was a "non-lactating older female" of more than 25 years old. While she was deemed to be in fair condition, the bear's teeth were in bad shape and she "had less than normal body fat for this time of year," according to Parks Canada.

The bear wasn't tagged or wearing a collar — unlike Bear 148, a large bear that was shot and killed in 2017. That bear was famous for its close calls with humans, such as the time it chased hikersin Banff, or when it pursued a woman on a kicksled.

But overall, bear attacks are very rare. "Over the last 10 years, there have been three recorded non-fatal, contact encounters with grizzly bears in Banff National Park," according to Parks Canada.

Inglis agrees that it's useless to speculate about exactly what happened to his nephew. But, he adds, "You know, if they hadn't been delayed, they would have been in a different spot."

"They were wonderful people"

"These were real special human beings," Inglis said. And while he is Doug's uncle, he also views the couple as his close friends.

"I've known Doug since the day he was born," he said. "He is more like a little brother than a nephew."

Doug Inglis sits with his dog, Tris, in a 2018 trek in Quetico Provincial Park.
/ Ron Teather
Ron Teather
Doug Inglis sits with his dog, Tris, in a 2018 trek in Quetico Provincial Park.

Doug Inglis was a scientist, and Jenny Gusse was a research technician in his labs. They worked for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and had ties to the University of Lethbridge — which is remembering them as people who made an outsize impact, through their own research and by mentoring students in fields from agricultural biotechnology to neuroscience.

In everything, they were partners.

"They have been together almost entirely since they went to university," Inglis said. "They've been a team, completely, in all aspects of their lives, whether it be work, at home, gardening, or canoeing or hiking."

The couple was very concerned about protecting the environment, and they loved Canada's national park system, seeing themselves as stewards of that wilderness.

"They were wonderful people. They were very gentle people," Inglis said.

Inglis says the tragedy is also a reminder of the things that are beyond our control when we go out into the wilderness.

"Being outdoors people ourselves, it's a nightmare that doesn't go away, you know? That's just the reality."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.