Hubert Esquirol says he was talking on a satellite phone with his daughter, Stephanie Blais, when the 44-year-old was attacked by a black bear at the family cabin on McKie Lake, north of Buffalo Narrows, Sask.
She had called last Thursday at about 5:41 p.m. CST with an update on a malfunctioning water pump and had just sent her nine-year-old son, Elie, into the cabin for an antenna.
Esquirol said he then heard a gurgling noise.
“I waited on the line for two minutes, and I called her name,” he said. “I said hello, and there was no answer. So I was talking to her on the phone when the bear attacked her.”
According to Esquirol, his daughter would have been making the call facing south in an open area as they have to move away from trees for the satellite phone to work. Buffalo Narrows is 433 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon.
The bear, he said, likely would have come up behind her from a forested area with a little pond.
“We speculate that he would have probably jumped up and grabbed her by the neck.”
Husband pepper sprays, shoots bear
After waiting two minutes, Esquirol disconnected and called back. No one answered. Seven minutes later, he got a call from his daughter’s husband, Curtis Blais, who had been in the cabin’s kitchen about 30 metres away.
“Curtis called advising me that a bear attacked her, that he sprayed the bear with pepper spray, and the bear got more angry.”
Esquirol said his son-in-law told him he got a gun and shot the bear twice before it went down.
“So by that time, Stephanie had no pulse. He gave her mouth to mouth, but she was injured beyond the point of recovery.”
Esquirol had nothing but praise for how his son-in-law reacted, saying that he did everything that he could “and kept his composure.”
RCMP said in a release that Blais had “significant injuries” and was flown to Buffalo Narrows, where she was pronounced dead.
“We’re very surprised by this. I mean bears don’t usually do this,” said Greg Johnson, an inspector with the Ministry of Environment conservation officer services. “They don’t usually have this type of behaviour.
“You know, to have an unprovoked attack like this is very, very rare in most cases.”
Victim had ‘a strong mind’
Esquirol and his daughter co-own the fly-in cabin north of Buffalo Narrows.
He farms near Meota and is a pilot, and had spent the earlier part of the month at the cabin. Curtis, Stephanie, Elie and two-year-old Uma arrived early last week.
Esquirol said his daughter had “a strong mind” and held degrees in human justice and elementary education.
She lived and worked, at various times, in Kuwait, Taiwan, South Africa and Guatemala — “she had 37 countries on her passport,” Esquirol said — before returning to Saskatchewan and marrying in 2000.
Esquirol said his daughter and son-in-law spent their honeymoon at the camp where she died. Days later, he’s still trying to process what happened.
“We take some comfort in knowing that, less than 30 seconds before Stephanie was attacked, her children were playing at her feet,” he said. “So the bear could have attacked Stephanie, disabled her and then killed the two children, two swats with its front leg.
“It’s very sad. Stephanie passed away at a place where she would not have chosen. But given that she was there, she would take acceptance.”
RCMP and the Ministry of Environment are investigating and will do a necropsy on the bear to determine if it was sick or suffering from an ailment at the time of the attack. This is the first fatal bear attack in the province since 1983.
Conservation officers have had a busy year in 2020, Johnson said, adding there have been 1,070 reports to conservation officers about bears since the beginning of April. Most of them are related to improper storage of food and garbage, or encounters with people.
The RCMP and the Ministry of Environment extended their condolences to Blais’s family.