Grizzlies in Our Midst

One hell of a lot of books have been written about Grizzlies. Ninety-five percent of them are shallow, venal efforts posing as legitimate works concerning the great bear, while anyone with a bit of vision can clearly see that they are nothing more than slipshod attempts at literacy with the prime objective being that of turning a quick buck. Such has never been the case with Doug Peacock. Not in his books. Not in his magazine articles. And not in his life–a life that has been devoted to trying to understand grizzlies and in, turn, protecting the magnificent creatures.

This holds true in spades in his latest book, co-authored with his wife Andrea, titled The Essential Grizzly: The Mingled Fates of Men and Bears. Sometime back in the hazy past I spent many years living in northwest Montana, a land of prime grizzly habitat. Whether I was fishing for native westslope cutthroat or bull trout, camping or blindly playing with a camera, every year I’d see a number of the bears–normally from a distance but a few times oh so close. More exciting to me was working up a trail and seeing fresh tracks, enormous ones, so recent that they were still filling with water on the moist path or I’d come across steaming mounds of bear sign and I’d go “Damn, one of these guys is very close.” That made me feel alive in ways I can’t explain, even to myself. And over the course of these years I came to recognize a few of the bears including one female that I saw year after year along an isolated, high mountain valley stream with different broods of cubs every few years. She became a long-distance friend, a creature I looked forward to seeing in late June.

The point of all of the above is that because of my limited experiences, when I read The Essential Grizzly it was like revisiting those happy times only through the eyes of exceptionally experienced observers of the bear. The authors convey in a direct visceral line this emotion with such clarity that even someone who’s never been in grizzly country can feel the wild combination of fear, wonder and exhilaration. And this book is so much more.

The style of this book is intriguing. Doug has written several short stories, called Portraits, based on his personal experiences with the bears around the northern Rockies, while Andrea contributes chapters revolving around interviews and reporting on the subject. The book closes with a chapter titled “Practical Considerations in Grizzly Country”, an excellent treatise on what to expect and what to do and not do if a person encounters a grizzly along the way in the back country. This is simple unencumbered wisdom as exemplified by the following:

“Once you have blundered close enough to get a grizzly’s attention, your options are indeed limited, and the advice does become simplistic and redundant. If you don’t want to get charged, don’t run or try to climb a tree: in fact, in those first critical seconds, don’t move a muscle.”

Most of us would instinctively run away like lunatics and vainly try and climb a tree. Doug goes on to explain why this is an exercise in futility.

He is a renowned bear expert and nature writer. A Vietnam veteran and former Green Beret medic. His memoirs, The Grizzly Years and Walking It Off (recently reviewed on this site) detail one man’s attempts to deal with the horrors of war through his relationship with the continents top carnivore. He is also the author of iBaja! And served as the “wild grizzly consultant” for the classic Jean-Jacques Annaud film, The Bear. He also writes extensively for magazines including Audubon, Backpacker and Outside.

Andrea is the author of the critically acclaimed Libby, Montana: Asbestos and the Deadly Silence of the American Corporation. Her articles have appeared in Mother Jones and High Country News. She is the former editor of the Missoula Independent. The two live in Livingston, Montana.

As I mentioned the style and form of this book is unique as it alters between Doug’s prose and Andrea’s journalistic takes. As seen in this juxtaposition. First from Doug’s chapter “The Bear Who Crossed The Freeway”:

Now the men are visibly nervous. Surprising a grizzly on a spring carcass is a perilous situation. They try to back off the far side of the ridge. Below they hear a branch break. The two humans freeze. They hear the conifers rustle, then the brief murmur of brush. A bear bounds across the open creek bottom and disappears into the timber beyond. It is a grizzly bear. The animal has a bald spot on his rear flank.

The danger is over. The two skiers think they have heard of this bear. The grizzly is vulnerable, so they will keep their discovery a secret. The men smile and pat each other on the back. They have just seen something magical.”

And this from Andrea’s chapter “The Bear Keepers”:

When Casey Anderson and his two business partners applied for a roadside menagerie permit from the state of Montana, they included a laundry list of potential uses for their bear exhibit. One of these was so bizarre, they were nearly laughed out of the county: it was a grizzly motel

The plan was to build a set of cabins, each sharing a one-way glass wall with the bears’ dens, so people staying there could see into lairs from their rooms. Now, locals opposed Anderson’s permit for every conceivable reason–from fears over declining property values to concerns for the animals welfare–but the sheer weirdness of the bear motel eclipsed everything else.

This alternation of styles gives the book a pace and rhythm that only adds to the compelling nature of the subject. Perhaps one day Doug will write a novel on the bears, and hopefully Andrea will produce more books on the environmental degradations being visited upon Montana these days.

Other chapters/short stories include “The Black Grizzly” and “The Education of the Astringent Creek Grizzly”. Some of Andrea’s other chapters are titled “The Photographers”, “Hunting Grizzly” (the profile and interview with long bow hunter E. Donnell Thomas is fascinating) and “Living With Grizzlies”.

Ultimately what The Essential Grizzly is, is just what the title says. Essential, professional, and entertaining writing and reporting on one of the last of its kind. One of the last apex predators on the planet. The Grizzly.

JOHN HOLT is the author of numerous books, including the gripping novel Hunted, and Coyote Nowhere: In Search of America’s Lost Frontier. He lives in Livingston, Montana and can be reached at: