'Unbelievable I survived': Yukon woman attacked by bear speaks out

Vanessa Leegstra and her husband David at their wedding in 2023.  (Submitted by David Leegstra - image credit)
Vanessa Leegstra and her husband David at their wedding in 2023. (Submitted by David Leegstra - image credit)

Vanessa Leegstra is still recovering after a bear attack in Haines Junction, Yukon on June 30.

Speaking from hospital, she said she's still in a lot of pain.

Leegstra was on a run with her dog near the Pine Lake campground at around 10 p.m. that day when she spotted a group of bears.

"I was trying to give them space before my dog noticed, but she either saw or smelt them... and she took off towards them," she said.

Leegstra's dog was leashed, but upon seeing the bears it broke free and chased away two female bears.

"Because they're in rut right now, they're extremely aggressive and territorial, so because my dog chased away the females, it triggered a territorial aggression protecting his females, his sows," she said.

The male grizzly began charging towards her. Leegstra remembers she didn't run, didn't scream, and quickly tried to put a tree between herself and the oncoming bear.

"He ended up attacking me just prior, right in front of the tree," she said. "He grabbed my head and wrapped his paws around me. And I just remember the claws digging into my back... I could feel him biting my arm, my head.

"The only thought I had was just, 'I need to get myself away from this bear, I need to do this for my husband and daughter.'"

Leegstra's daughter is two years old.

Leegstra believes she is only alive because of a large plastic hair clip she happened to be wearing that day. She says the bear wasn't able to get a good grip on her head, and when he bit down, the clip shattered, injuring the bear's mouth.

"It let go for an instant because it didn't like that," she said.

Leegstra quickly put herself behind a tree. When she looked up, the bear was charging at her once again.

"He stopped just right in front of [the tree] and slapped the ground," she said.

Narrow escape

At that point, the bear became distracted by Leegstra's barking dog, which gave her time to walk out to the highway and call her husband and 911.

David Leegstra said he had a weird intuition that something was going to happen before Vanessa left that night, and kept his phone close by.

"Instantly, you just go into a state of shock," he said. "I tried to keep her on the phone and ask her, while I was running through the house, grabbing my keys and stuff, where she was on the highway, if she was losing a lot of blood."

He jumped in his truck and sped to her side, calling a conservation officer on the way.

The Pine Lake campground was evacuated and closed shortly afterwards.

"You know, she's standing there with her dog, covered in blood and everything," he said. "Coming from 10 feet away, all I could smell was the grizzly. During rut, there's a lot of testosterone... it's a really strong smell."

Leegstra had lacerations on the back of her head and across her body, a torn ear, a broken arm and a number of bite wounds.

Vanessa Leegstra is still recovering in hospital.
Vanessa Leegstra is still recovering in hospital.

Vanessa Leegstra is still recovering in hospital. (David Leegstra)

"One of the bites was extremely deep," said David Leegsta. "But she's extremely, extremely tough, like the toughest person I've ever met, and I'm not just saying that because she's my wife."

Vanessa Leegstra was born and raised in Watson Lake and is familiar with Yukon wildlife and their behaviours.

"My dad raised us out in the bush so I was very aware of bears and how powerful they can be, especially during this time when they are mating," she said. "It's a one in a million chance that I survived a bear in rut... it's unbelievable I survived."

After she recovers, she wants to use her story to try help educate people so if they're ever in the same position, they know what to do.

The community of Haines Junction, and many others across the Yukon, have rallied around the young family following the incident.

"We're totally overwhelmed and grateful, the support's been amazing," David Leegstra. "It's really what's getting us through this time right now, that love and support from everyone."

In a July 2 statement from Yukon Conservation Officer Services, a spokesperson wrote that arriving officers euthanized a bear that was present at the location of the attack. Three additional bears that matched Leegstra's description were located and two more were euthanized. Efforts to locate the fourth bear are still ongoing.

"We recognize the public concern around euthanizing bears following a defensive attack," the statement read. "In circumstances like this, critical decisions are made in the interest of public safety and the safety of personnel."

Leegstra says she does not hold any resentment towards the bear who attacked her.

"I already had a lot of respect for grizzly bears and now I have even a more profound respect for them," she said. "I don't blame the bear and I don't blame myself or my dog. It just happened to be the wrong place at the wrong time."