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Canadian musician inspired by the wilderness dies in bear attack

  • Author: Allyson Chiu, The Washington Post
  • Updated: August 21, 2019
  • Published August 21, 2019

Three years ago, Julien Gauthier began planning to carry out his childhood dream. He had reached his 40s and was determined finally to explore the rugged landscapes of northern Canada.

Soon an idea took shape, one that combined the French-Canadian composer’s love of music and adventure: In the summer, Gauthier would embark on a roughly month-long canoeing and camping trip through part of Canada’s remote Northwest Territories. Along the way, he would record nature sounds for a collaborative music project in Paris.

“It was his dream to go there, to go to the north,” Camille Toscani, a biologist who joined Gauthier on the journey, recently told Le Parisien. “He asked me to take part in this adventure, which he had been thinking about for three years. . . . He was a unique artist, he was inspired by the great outdoors and by nature.”

But last Thursday, Toscani said, Gauthier's long-awaited trip came to a tragic end. As the pair slept in their camp along the Mackenzie River near the hamlet of Tulita, a bear attacked, dragging the 44-year-old musician from his tent in the middle of the night, Le Parisien reported.

Mes chers amis, Je suis profondément attristé de vous annoncer le décès de notre compagnon de route, le compositeur et...

Posted by Orchestre Symphonique de Bretagne on Monday, August 19, 2019

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said an emergency beacon signal was activated Thursday morning about 30 miles south of Tulita, an isolated area accessible only by water or air, according to Canadian Broadcasting Corp. A woman in need of help had come across a second group of travelers who sent the alert with their emergency communications device, CBC reported.

"A woman reported her traveling companion had an encounter with a bear," RCMP spokesperson Marie York-Condon said in a Friday news release. "The man was reported missing after the encounter."

Authorities recovered a man's body Friday afternoon, noting that evidence from an investigation "confirms a bear encounter," CBC reported. The man was not identified, but friends of Gauthier said it was him.

A black bear and a grizzly bear found near Tulita were killed Friday and necropsies are scheduled to see if either animal was involved in the fatal attack, CBC reported. The incident marks the fourth bear-related death in the Northwest Territories in 20 years, according to CBC. About 4,300 black bears and 4,000 to 5,000 grizzlies are in the largely uninhabited region.

"Human-bear encounters in the Northwest Territories are not out of the ordinary, although fatalities are rare," Meagan Wohlberg, a spokeswoman with the region's Department of Environment and Natural Resources, told the news outlet.

Canoeing through the territories wasn't Gauthier's first time venturing into remote wilderness. According to a biography on his personal website, the composer was "attracted by the most unusual or extreme places" and once spent five months in a group of islands in the Antarctic more than 2,000 miles from civilization. Drawing inspiration from the sounds of nature recorded during his stay, Gauthier composed "Southern Symphony" and produced an album, "Inaudita Symphonia."

Music was also a factor in the Canada trip, but this time Gauthier planned to work with a cellist on the composition and incorporate photos taken by Toscani, the biologist, into an accompanying display, according to a crowdfunding page for the project.

"They never wanted this project to be only their trip," the page said, adding that Gauthier and Toscani hoped to "share the experience upon their return."

Ahead of the expedition, Gauthier's social media posts were brimming with excitement as he promoted the crowdfunding page and provided periodic updates on his preparations. In a Facebook post, Gauthier wrote that the excursion was a "very old dream" he had while growing up in Canada.

"To have the opportunity today of fulfilling that dream combined with a real artistic project is even better," he wrote on July 15.

As the trip neared, Gauthier appeared eager to set off, sharing an image of the route he and Toscani planned to paddle. In a July 28 post, he wrote that he was "having a bit of trouble realizing that in a few days" they would be in Canada.

En rouge, le parcours en canoë que nous allons démarrer, avec mon amie "kerguelenienne" Camille Toscani, vendredi matin...

Posted by Julien Gauthier on Sunday, July 28, 2019

“He really wanted to go,” Marc Feldman, a manager of the Brittany Symphony Orchestra in France where Gauthier was an associate artist, told Ouest-France. “He was very happy to make this long trip to Canada. He is someone who held onto this sense of wonder about the world.”

On Monday, Feldman mourned Gauthier's death on Facebook.

"He was a sensitive, generous and talented man that many of us had the chance to know by his work and the gift of his friendship," he wrote in a post shared to the symphony's official page. "His work was faithful to his curious spirit, humble in front of the vast power and beauty of nature."

Feldman continued: "On a personal note, I am extremely happy to have known Julien. He brought me a sense of adventure, wonder and a rare intelligence. I'm going to miss him terribly."

Losing Gauthier felt like a "real punch in the gut," Feldman told Ouest-France.

"A colleague from the orchestra said that he died like a 19th century adventurer," he said.

In his final social media post on Aug. 7, less than a week into the trip, Gauthier provided a brief update, describing the experience as "intense, tiring and inspiring." One photo showed Gauthier standing near the river's edge holding what appeared to be a microphone. In another, his unshaven face was visible through the mosquito netting attached to his hat.

Gauthier wrote that he and Toscani had reached a small village with WiFi. The pair had gone three days without seeing a single other living soul, he wrote, except for four bears.

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The Washington Post’s Antonia Noori Farzan contributed to this report.