On a recent crisp sunny morning, a small group of wildlife guides and British and Canadian military veterans, reached a ridge in the mountains of British Columbia and found themselves within 15 metres of a grizzly bear.
“He knew we were there. He could smell us but he was just doing his thing,” said Joe Humphrey, a former Royal Marine. The bear walked past them and ambled further up the valley.
The close encounter in western Canada was a climactic moment for this rather exceptional tracking party, which had been brought together as an experiment. Almost all of them, veterans and guides alike, were survivors of physical and mental wounds that had derailed their lives. The trip was about putting them back on track.
They had found themselves 7,000 feet up the Selkirk Mountains because each of them had a particular set of skills that set them apart from most people.
The guides knew all about bears – their habits and behaviour, how to show them respect. The veterans knew how to stay as quiet and invisible as humanly possible, to disappear into the landscape. They demonstrated how you can hear and smell better if you keep your mouth open.
“There’s loads of trips and excursions where veterans can go and have their hand held for a week. I didn’t want that. I wanted to work, to give something,” Humphrey said.
The weeklong journey into the remote mountains was mostly financed by the Invictus Games Foundation, started by Prince Harry, for sports competition among wounded warriors. But part of the costs was paid by the trip’s host, former journalist Julius Strauss.
Strauss came to Canada 15 years ago suffering PTSD after covering wars for the Daily Telegraph in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan and the 2004 terrorist attack on a school in Beslan, in Russia’s North Ossetia republic.
More than 330 people were killed, 186 of them children. Strauss had found himself inside the security cordon and witnessed the slaughter at close range.
“There was a lot of shooting, and a lot of dead kids and a lot of mayhem,” he said. “It didn’t actually mess me up for a little bit of time. It takes time to kind of percolate.”
Driving across Canada with his Estonian partner, Kristin, he came across 32-hectare plot for sale that had been an illicit marijuana plantation on the banks of the Lardeau River. The couple decided to make a new start there, earning a living by hosting travellers and taking them trekking.
They built a business that is now called Wild Bear Lodge, and took the lead in a successful campaign to ban grizzly bear hunting in British Columbia, but in February last year, Kristin died of cancer, leaving Julius bereft and running their joint venture alone. The idea of inviting wounded veterans arose in part out of a year of grief.
“I learned a lot from my loss,” he said. “And the older I get, the more I realize that your scars, whether they’re mental or physical, are nothing to be ashamed of, and they come with silver linings as well.”
Everyone on the bear tracking party bore their own wounds. Humphrey’s left leg had to be amputated after he was shot by a sniper while on patrol in Helmand province, Afghanistan – though he does not think the loss is at the source of his own PTSD.
“That’s an occupational hazard. On that day, the sniper was better at his job than I was at mine,” he said. Instead, he pointed to the buildup of mental trauma as being more insidious. “I did two tours, seven months each, and you just accumulate things that you see, things you do.”
Humphrey has built a career as a wilderness guide in the UK and Europe, but the week’s bear tracking with fellow veterans was unlike anything he had experienced.
“It’s been fantastic, really rewarding,” he said. “Helping others put your skills to use – that helps me a hundred times more than sitting down with a psychologist.”
One of the guides on the trip, Sage Raymond, has been working at the lodge for more than four years but said she had still acquired new skills from her week with the veterans.
“I’ve learned quite a bit about how to move more quietly, and how to listen better,” she said. She had also forged a life in the mountains to address PTSD from what she calls a “tumultuous childhood” that left her on the streets at 16.
“I find people can be quite unpredictable,” Raymond said. “But nature and animals tend to behave predictably. I also think that it’s just good for us to be observant and get out of our own heads.”
One of the Canadian ex-soldiers on the trip, Naomi Fong, had been the victim of her own comrades-in-arms in her artillery unit, who had subjected her to prolonged and repeated sexual abuse that left Fong with lasting mental and physical injuries.
She spoke to the Guardian shortly after the bear sighting
“The grizzly was quite exciting, very beautiful, very majestic. It was just amazing,” Fong said. “It can be very humbling out there. These animals are incredibly large and just getting up there in the terrain and just being so small in such a vast place … Everything just feels a bit better.”
It is hoped that the trip will be a pilot for similar skill-swapping expeditions involving wounded veterans in the future.
“The Wild Bear Lodge project is a great example of this, where wounded, injured or sick Canadian and British veterans came together to share skills learnt in the military with local conservation guides,” said Sam Newell, a spokesman for the Invictus Games Foundation, which gave funding from its Endeavour programme. “In helping pass their skills on to others, these military personnel further supported their own recovery through service.”
Everyone on the trip spoke of the sense of purpose, camaraderie and belonging it gave them. In the case of Andy Burns, a former Royal Marine colour sergeant, it was literally life-changing.
After suffering multiple injuries in 25 years of deployments from Northern Ireland to Iraq, he found himself depressed and increasingly alone on his return to civilian life in Taunton.
“I would go for months without speaking to anybody,” Burns said. But up in the mountains with fellow wounded veterans, he added: “It’s been really, really good to share a bond.”
For a long time, Burns has been contemplating starting a new life in the Scottish highlands. This trip persuaded him he could do it.
“It would be a one-way trip. You can’t just leave and come back. And I didn’t know whether I could do it,” he said. “But now from being here and just being around nature, I think I can thrive in my own way. I could actually have a life and be happy. So this has been massive for me.”