Bjorn Dihle’s new book explores humans’ complicated relationship with Alaskan brown bears and grizzlies, tracing the history of our interactions—from Meriwether Lewis to Theodore Roosevelt, Douglas Peacock and Timothy Treadwell. A Shape in the Dark: Living and Dying with Brown Bears (Mountaineers Books, $18) also includes profound personal reflection as Dihle, an Alaskan writer, naturalist guide and hunter, weaves his own vast experience into the narrative. “Living and working with [brown bears] inspires humility, respect, and, at times, fear,” says Dihle, who describes many fascinating (and sometimes close) encounters with brown bears. “My goal in writing this book was for it to not be another scary bear book. That proved difficult. An aggressive brown bear can be terrifying, but the demon monster mythology surrounding them and perpetuated by the media is not true.”
A Shape in the Dark is a page-turner, enhanced by Dihle’s intimate knowledge of the coastal Alaskan landscape and its wildlife. It’s also a call for action to rediscover Roosevelt’s passion for public lands, Peacock’s practical empathy for wildlife conservation, and Aldo Leopold’s sage acknowledgement that humans are part of the landscape, not removed from it. We caught up with Dihle in between guiding film crews in southeast Alaska.
Men’s Journal: Early on in the book you write, “before I remembered to be afraid” to describe the early moments of an encounter with a brown bear. It seems like this is an apt description for your fascination with bears—equal parts love and fear—to be repeated throughout your book. Why is this such a polarizing animal for you?
BJORN DIHLE: I don’t know if ‘polarizing’ is the right word. I recently returned from guiding a three-week brown bear film shoot on the outer coast of southeast Alaska. It was early in the season and for the most part there were only a handful of large males awake. They were almost entirely nocturnal and would often visit our camp at night to check us out. After sunset one evening, while we were staked out on a beached dead whale, one of the biggest and most dominant bears stuck his head out of the woods and sized us up. The bear waited until it was too dim to film and then came down to the whale. He understood he had the advantage in the darkness. Watching that giant animal with all its power and intelligence, it left us in awe and a hint of terror.
In a sense, your feelings mirror humans’ attitude toward bears—at least the shift you describe in the historical parts of the book, that transition from Hugh Glass and Grizzly Adams to Roosevelt and Doug Peacock. Can you talk about why you’re so intrigued by humans’ attitudes toward brown bears (and grizzlies) over time?
All these historical figures contribute to our understanding and beliefs about brown bears, ourselves and the rapidly shrinking wild regions of North America. Roosevelt’s legacy of public land is ingrained so deeply in me that whenever I see a fence or a no trespassing sign I cringe. One of the reasons my older brother stopped hunting bears was because he watched Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, about Timothy Treadwell. The montage of footage depicting Treadwell is disturbing on many levels, but what affected my brother most was how the film showed how human-like bears are.
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You describe talking to bears during an encounter. What does that do for you?
It can really deescalate a tense encounter. Brown bears are anxious, intelligent and good communicators. Standing up, taking a step forward or slowly raising an arm can often dissuade a bear from coming closer. Speaking gently can really calm an agitated animal. Less is more most of the time. One upset bear I talked to for around 10 minutes at maybe five yards finally just lay down panting and let me and the people I was with slowly back away. I’ve had moms with cubs thinking about charging and talking to them really diffused the situation. Sometimes it feels like it’s easier to communicate with bears than people.
What myths did you specifically set out to combat in writing this book?
Ninety-nine percent of [brown bears] don’t want to attack you. They just want to be left alone. Nearly every aggressive encounter is brought on by the fault of people. Over 2,000 brown bears are killed each year in Alaska by sport hunters. Most years no one is killed by a brown bear in Alaska. So, who’s the scarier of the two species?
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Do you like working as a wildlife-viewing guide? How do you reconcile intruding on bears’ lives?
People need to see, and have a stake in, brown bears and wild places if we’re going to have success in keeping habitat and populations healthy in the future. I have mixed feelings about the time I spent as a bear viewing guide. I have a hard time taking out people who want something that cannot be fulfilled; at the same time, I enjoy being with people who really appreciate wildlife and wild places. This will be my second year not guiding bear viewing and, instead, solely guiding wildlife film crews. I enjoy that kind of work a bit more because it’s more varied, challenging and involves a lot of time sitting still and waiting. I get to go entire days without talking. Most camera operators have lived interesting lives and feel how I do about wildlife, habitat, and the importance of conservation.
What in your experience gives you hope for the future?
It all comes down to habitat—especially salmon habitat—and making sure brown bears have plenty of wild space. There are a lot of people who care about these things, even if most politicians adhere to rape and pillage philosophy regarding the land. Alaska still has a lot of space, but our salmon runs are in trouble. The future is worrying, but I’ve seen time and again what one fed up, pissed off person can do for conservation.
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Looking for More Summer Reading?
Hudson Bay Bound: Two women, one dog, two thousand miles to the Arctic (University of Minnesota Press, $24): Canoe & Kayak magazine contributor Natalie Warren’s new travelogue is a rollicking read, describing her 2011 canoe expedition from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay with Ann Raiho. Warren’s story is unpretentious and fun, capturing the joys (and challenges) of a long journey with a good friend.
Raven’s Witness: The Alaska Life of Richard K. Nelson (Mountaineers Books, $24): In this award-winning biography, author Hank Lentner tells the story of his friend Richard K. Nelson, an influential ethnographer, environmentalist, writer and broadcaster. Lentner combines Nelson’s extensive journals and correspondence with his own admiration for Nelson to create a deeply personal portrait of a fascinating conservationist.
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