By Timothy Fowler
Bella Twin was a calm, quiet, clear-headed Cree woman with a trap line. May 10, 1957, she killed a massive grizzly bear with her Cooey Ace #1 .22. That was near Slave Lake, Alberta, and the bear Twin killed turned out to be a world record that stood for a good long time. That was seven years before my dad held me for the first time, a five-foot-nothing woman who lived on the land squeezed the trigger on her single-shot rabbit gun and put a .22 rimfire round through the eye of a grizzly bear at close distance. The bear dropped dead, but because Twin knew what she was up against––put seven more rounds into the bear skull––seven insurance shots.
There has been a lot of speculation over the intervening years about what exactly happened that day there on the trapline. I’ll add one more speculation. In 1953, the likelihood of a trapper using Long Rifle .22 rimfire ammunition while trapping, was, well, let’s say, unlikely. I’ll bet a crisp fifty-dollar bill that they were .22-shorts. A trapper neither needed nor wanted the extra velocity of the Long Rife rimfire rounds for two reasons: undamaged pelts bring a premium dollar, and .22 Long Rife rounds were more expensive––just speculating here. She would have wanted neither the additional velocity nor the additional cost.
For me, this story started at the Royal Museum of Alberta in downtown Edmonton where I was doing a piece on the value of firearms for the Canadian Firearms Journal. A white-gloved curator, Anthony Worman, drew a rusty, beat-up Cooey Ace #1 single-shot from a special case. The wooden gun stock was well-worn and broken, attached to the barrelled action with hockey tape. The bolt was so rusted the action wouldn’t work.
“What’s do you think this gun is worth? Worman asked. I knew it was a trap question, but I answered anyway.
“Well, the gun is worth nothing,” I said.
“Wrong,” he said. “This one is priceless, because of its provenance. It was Bella Twin’s.”
Provenance means the history of an object and is tied up with the story that can be told about the object. At that very moment, I began to understand Bella Twin’s amazing story.
Did I mention to you the grizzly bear held the Boone and Crocket world record at 26 5/16 inches? That record was in place for some time. This story has been one of the most enjoyable research projects I have engaged in my whole life. I talked to Constance Brissenden, wife of Larry Loyie who was “grandson” of Bella Twin. (Note: in Cree Culture your mother’s sister or your great aunt is referred to as your Kokum (grandmother) too. This is the case here. Bella was technically Larry’s great aunt, Kokum to Larry. Too, I interviewed Roland Eben-Ebenau, the son of professional bear guide and world record holder on his own right. (If only for a very short time thanks to Twin’s Cooey Ace, calm demeanor, and marksmanship.) Reinhold Eben Ebenau––Roland’s father––acquired the skull and this remains a part of the Eben-Ebenau family museum on the Northshore Homestead Ranch (www.northshorehomestead.com) in Northern Alberta where Roland still raises bison. The closer you get to the story the more interesting it gets. Can you imagine devoting your entire professional life to pursuing big bears? Your street cred is tied to yours and your client trophies and your recent world record gets bested by a quiet lady with a .22?
The story has developed some inconsistencies. Some folks say it was Dave Auger, Twin’s companion that killed the bear. Some folks say she tracked it, went after it. Seriously? Think about this. Twin wasn’t some trigger-happy loon with no forest experience. She was a trapper and would have been aware of what ursus arctos horribils could do if provoked. If Twin would have seen the bear, she would have turned and carefully exited––had she had the chance. My speculation was that she was surprised.
Larry Loyie was a well-published writer. The wife he left behind when he died is Constance Brissenden. She too is a writer and here is an excerpt from what she wrote for the Lakeside Leader of Slave Lake:
“Bella Twin, who lived on Rabbit Hill overlooking Slave Lake, shot the biggest grizzly bear in North America on May 10, 1953. But her bear wasn’t the first giant grizzly to put the town of Slave Lake on the map. Shortly before, homesteader Reinhold Eben-Ebenau also shot a giant grizzly.
Author Larry Loyie, Bella’s grandson, was proud of his grandmother. It made him angry when he heard that some people said her companion, Dave Auger, had shot the bear. “They didn’t believe that a tiny Cree lady could kill a giant grizzly with a single bullet from a .22, held together with chicken wire,” Larry recalled. “So they said it had to be Dave. They said the couple saw the bear coming along the cutline and waited until it was close enough to shoot it.”
Larry wrote his version of the grizzly adventure in As Long as the Rivers Flow. He added himself to the story as a seven-year-old boy in the episode, to bring the story to life for students. In the book, Bella is surprised by the bear that suddenly rises above them in the bush, arms raised high.
Larry wrote: “Without warning, a giant grizzly reared up before them on the trail. Lawrence had never seen anything that big. The bear was as tall as their house. The grizzly towered over them, grunting and snorting. His huge front paws were raised high. Lawrence knew from the elders that this was a bad sign. Bears were most dangerous when they stood up, especially grizzly bears. The elders also said that to run from a grizzly was certain death.”
When students asked him about the bear, Larry told them this was probably what took place. He observed, “Bella was a good hunter,” he said. “If she saw a grizzly coming toward her, she would run like the wind in the opposite direction. She wouldn’t wait around to challenge a huge bear.”
The hide was displayed for many years in the Slave Lake beer hall, nailed to the wall. It moved on to the Reynolds Museum in Wetaskiwin, opened in 1955 by Stanley Reynolds. Today it’s stored at the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton, too threadbare to be displayed.
The bear’s skull was purchased from Bella Twin by Reinhold Eben-Ebenau. He asked Dave Auger to go into the bush and bring back the skull, says son Roland. His dad paid $15 for it.
Reinhold Eben-Ebenau had a reason. A short time before, he’d shot a giant grizzly, and sent his bear’s skull measurements to The Boone and Crockett Club, to be scored against other North American big game. Reinhold, a well-known hunting guide, learned that he had shot the biggest grizzly in North America.
That was until Bella shot her bear.
The skull, used as a measurement, is housed in a small museum on the Eben-Ebenau homestead. “The skull can’t be stretched like the hide,” reports Roland, second-generation owner of the North Shore Homestead. “The measurements are precise and unchanging. Bella’s grizzly was the largest in North America at the time, being a few centimeters larger than my dad’s. Today, they are still among the biggest grizzlies to be recorded.”
The hole from the single-shot that dropped the grizzly is clearly seen in the skull, beside the right eye socket. It is recorded that Bella pumped several other shots into the grizzly after it fell. Who could blame her?”
When I interviewed Brissenden she said to me, “Look, she was a Cree and a top-notch hunter. Okay, fearless––totally. And, if she saw the grizzly coming down the forestry trail, they would have run as fast as they could in the opposite direction. They would not have gone and challenged the biggest grizzly in North America. So he (Larry Loyie) said it had to have surprised them. His account has her throwing down a knapsack for the bear to stop and sniff. Think of the bear standing––it's huge. And, you know, it's walking or standing because if it saw them might have stood and then she wants it to look down so she can shoot it. It's very possible that she threw down a little pack or something that they were carrying.
“People said two things. One was that they tracked the bear. And that it was on the cut line, the forestry cut line outside of town. Yep. And, and they were walking along, probably hunting for rabbits or whatever. Another story was that they saw the bear coming towards them. And they tracked it down, you know, where they saw the bear and they went after it. Larry said, honestly if you saw the giant Grizzly like that, you would never go tracking it if you were any kind of a hunter because it would kill you. If she saw the bear on the cutline coming towards them, they wouldn't wait. You know, they wouldn't wait over by the side to kill it. They would run like hell. And that's what Larry's words were like, hell, no question about it. So that was one thing that annoyed Larry. And the second thing was that people said it wasn't her that shot the bear. It was Dave Auger, her guy.
“History is so important to him (Larry). And family history and honoring people in his family like Bella Twin. You know, I'm just carrying the torch really, when he always wanted the true story to come out. Any opportunity to bring out the facts as Larry saw them is important because there were a lot of myths about how the incidents happened. You know how stories get told, and then somebody hears that story, and they tell it again, and it moves a little bit, told again and moves some more.”
Roland Eben-Ebenau was kind enough to photograph the grizzly skull from his family's museum collection. Roland also agreed to host me in the coming months for a personal tour of his museum and to hear some other stories. His Dad killed a few big bears in the slave lake area and well may have had his eye on this bear for himself or one of his clients. Certainly, there is more to this story that Roland can fill in and I have the sense there are plenty of other interesting bear stories to contemplate.
It is worth noting that grizzly bear populations in Alberta are well on their way to being recovered and at some point in the future, if we can sort the facts from the politics and emotion, we may well have a chance to hunt bears as big as Bella Twin’s. The genetics are still on the landscape, and the bears have not been pursued by hunters since the close of the 2005 season. The bears have had plenty of time these 16 years to fill out to their maximum potential. There may well be great bears in Alberta’s hunting future if we can muster the courage to do the right thing.
Like Bella Twin.
You can find many more of Larry Loyie’s books here: http://firstnationswriter.com. Larry died April 8, 2016, but he left behind a legacy of wonderful stories, some of which are in the process of being published by his loving wife Constance Brissenden, who is honoring him with a post-humous publication of his work.