Alaska Bear Tales
About the time Jim McMahon, then the Chicago Bears' quarterback, showed television reporters his copy of Larry Kaniut's Alaska Bear Tales, I was on Afognak Island with two fishermen from Colorado. They complained about the bugs when I insisted that we camp back in the timber and not along the breezy shore of Afognak Lake; they complained when I refused to let them bring their fish into camp; and they were standing with mouths open, their backs to our campfire, one of them shouldering my .458, the other searching the timber with a three-cell, when I went to bed our first night there. They were listening to brown bears chasing spawning silvers in the shallows of the lake, and they kept the fire burning all night. In the morning, they shivered when they saw the size of the tracks within twenty yards of our tents. Either of them could place both of their feet inside the prints of one of the bears that silently passed behind them sometime during the night.
After bouncing around Kodiak, Kenai and the Alaska Peninsula for nearly twenty years, I read Alaska Bear Tales, then in its eleventh printing. I read the collection of personal stories and previously published accounts of bear encounters to see if Larry Kaniut had people I know who have been mauled. He hadn't. Even though a third of the book reads like a compendium of man-bear incidents in not just Alaska but northern British Columbia and the Yukon, with a Greenland incident thrown in to sort of universalize the mauling experience, plenty of stories weren't relayed to Mr. Kaniut or couldn't be verified by him.
A Kenai homesteader on his way to his outhouse was run over by a brownie, the homesteader's bald head licked after the bear knocked him around a bit. An assistant guide on Kodiak, whose outboard I was repairing, was chewed up while dressing a client's deer—the guide spent a month hospitalized, but was guiding again the following season. A timber faller I cut with one winter was knocked down, batted and nipped by a small brownie as he rolled to safety. The bear bit through the faller's right palm, and the faller lost the use of his hand. He learned to support his chainsaw with his knee, and only missed a week of work.
Alaska Bear Tales isn't a comprehensive list of bear maulings in Alaska; it isn't even particularly well written. It mixes a little fiction with some tall tales, too many comma splices and organization dependent upon the sensationalism bear attacks generate. But as Mr. Kaniut says of the Congressman and the bear story, the book "casts more light on the nature of man" than on the nature of bears or bear maulings. It speaks, at times elegantly in the transcribed personal accounts, to what men and women can and have endured. To a large extent, it is a series of testimonials to humanity's will to live—hurt, blind, with parts of them missing.
The light the book casts excludes most man-bear encounters where a hundred yards and a high-power bullet determined the outcome, the bear the victim. How would bears write of these incidents if they could, a question requiring no more fictionalizing than Mr. Kaniut's account of Jay B.L. Reeves' death. Possibly a little more fictionalizing, but Northwest Coast Native tradition subscribes close kinship, which includes telling stories, between brown bears and humans. Alaskan Native bear stories are not of maulings, but of marriages between the species, metaphors for the inclusion of the outsider in society and metonyms for bears' learning human ways or, in Western phrasing, conditioned response behavior. Native traditions demand respect be given bears and encourages respectful conversation with a bear to extricate oneself from a possible conflict. … An old muskrat trapper I know was running his line along Kenai's Swanson River when he came upon a sow brownie with cubs one spring. The sow, raiding one of his traps, was directly across the fifteen-foot-wide, knee-deep river. He started talking to her, assuring her that he wasn't going to hurt her or her babies, that he'd help her feed them. He tossed her a rat that she caught in the air and he backed away, a non-incident.
As Mr. Kaniut points out, there is no assurance that talking to bears will work any better than rattling pebbles in a tin can: bears have attacked people for no apparent reason although there is probably no such thing as an entirely unprovoked attack if the bear's reason for attacking is considered. So like the flickering light of the campfire that night in the timber off Afognak Lake, the book comforts without letting readers feel secure, illuminates without letting readers see into the shadows.
As I read the gleaned accounts of maulings, I started thinking about century-old newspaper headlines proclaiming that there were no survivors of Custer's last stand. Of course there were survivors of the battle on the Little Big Horn, several thousand of them who were hunted until they fled into Canada or were safely incarcerated on reservations. I started remembering when I first read of, or heard about the accounts Mr. Kaniut compiled. As a young teenager, I read musty issues of Alaska Sportsman magazine I found bundled in a basement of a house on the Oregon Coast. In the late 1950s, early 1960s, I read all of the back issues of Outdoor Life I could locate. And what Mr. Kaniut's book illuminates most is our changing attitude towards bears and wilderness.
What is missing in Alaska Bear Tales is self-realization, the awareness of what the book reveals about the nature of humanity. This may not be entirely fair to Mr. Kaniut, who states, in his loose prose style, that "it became one of my number one goals to advise readers of ways to prevent a bear attack." The surest way is the means used to prevent attacks by California grizzlies, species extinction. I recall an article in Outdoor Life about the killing of the last known California grizzly—the hunter used a .38-55 and the bear weighed, I believe, 1600 pounds at the Dunsmuir rail station. But by not advocating extinction or bounties as viable options, Mr. Kuniut reveals how much more secure Anglo-Europeans are as occupants in North America. Western culture's survival on this continent is no longer dependent upon wiping out perceived threats. We are now free to attack ourselves, to criticize our past practices, to even admit that bears are only doing their bear thing when they rough up someone in their territory.
The points Mr. Kaniut makes about bear behavior and unprovoked attacks ring true; they certainly agree with my experiences in bear country. I've been asked many times what caliber of handgun do I carry on Kodiak Island. I say, to the questioner's disbelief, a .22, for "that way I'm not tempted to use it on a bear." Actually, I don't carry a handgun. I carry a large bore rifle even when going to the bathroom. I didn't for many years, my overly-familiar stint in bear county. But my time on Kodiak and elsewhere has taught me that bears do become conditioned to avoiding human contact, that if a person sees a bear it is usually when the person least expects it and that a confrontation probably isn't avoidable. If it were, the bear would have already avoided it.
The advice Mr. Kaniut gives is sound: a person has to have knowledge and respect for bears, has to be alert, has to use common sense, has to decide for his or her self whether the person carries a weapon. For most of us, entering brown or polar bear country is by choice. I don't know that the same can be said for black bears, which, except for my time on Kodiak, have always been nearly as numerous as stray cats wherever I lived. So we are uninvited guests in, and with the potential to overrun the domain of the great bears.
The ethical question of whether humans have the evolutionary right to overrun another species’ domain is only tangentially addressed by Mr. Kaniut. It is this question that leads to discrediting the strictest application of survival of the fittest, social Darwinism. It is this question that remains on the horizon. Mr. Kaniut writes, "Unless some conditioned reflex tells him otherwise, he [bear species] will enter the battle [between man and bruin] with victory in mind—whatever the cost." I believe this reflex conditioning has, across the continent, already occurred with black bears and has, in the Kodiak archipelago, occurred with brownies. Even the fiercest boars that would have once ruled the falls on Afognak River mornings and evening during the salmon runs now slyly fish at night, leaving the daylight hours to the Gore-Tex tribe.
The Lakota people remind us that there were survivors of the battle at Little Big Horn. My memory of the large tracks behind our tents off Afognak Lake remind me that there are more man-bear non-encounters than encounters, that there are survivors of what one writer in Alaska Sportsman claimed was North America's greatest hunting challenge. Taking a trophy brown bear probably is still America's greatest challenge, maybe more now than before for the bears have adapted their ways to ours. They have become nocturnal, with some knowledge of hunting seasons and the rules of fair chase. Perhaps the Northwest Coast Natives who didn't hunt brown bears because they were close kin recognized something with which we are only now beginning to deal.
Injuries and the aging process have made Jim McMahon, no longer a Chicago Bear, a wiser quarterback, more experienced but a step slower. In his letter to Mr. Kaniut, Dr. Milo Fritz says that three of the four mauling victims he has treated were older and had lost part of their hearing. Instead of not hearing the footsteps of charging linemen, these men didn't hear the bear that injured them. Let us hope, though, that we, as a culture, wiser and more experienced, hear the snapped twigs of the great bears generations from now. Alaska Bear Tales concludes with a brief discussion of bears' future in Alaska. Mr. Kaniut notes that "though the bear that mauls or kills is a real threat, it is a rarity." Let us make sure that it remains a rarity and not an absence in our expanding domain.