The Big Bear Reading List

The elusive bear is a thing of fascination, and writers have a lot to say about them.

Growing up in England, my knowledge of bears largely came from Yogi Bear cartoons, and on a childhood holiday to North America, it wasn’t Disneyland, but the thought of seeing a real-life Yogi that I was most excited about. However, despite my parents stoically driving a hire car down treacherous mountain roads as I lounged in the back bemoaning the lack of performing bears, it never happened.

It wasn’t until I moved to Canada many years later that I saw my first bear. I just turned a corner and there it was, a young black bear casually munching grass, completely unphased by my open-mouthed awe. Several years on, I have seen countless black bears; in fact, they rather enjoy relieving themselves on my front lawn after overindulging in next door’s apple trees. But my childhood wonder of them remains.

I am not the only one drawn to the subject; bears have inspired some wonderful articles, so I’ve compiled a reading list of six stories that not only look at bears, but the emotions and issues that they provoke.

1. Where Now Grizzly Bear? (Brian Payton, Hakai Magazine, January 2021)

In this article, Brian Payton shows grizzly bears to be intrepid explorers “destined to wander” — with male grizzlies swimming up to seven kilometers to find new territories. I found myself hypnotized by a map included in the piece, which tracks a grizzly bear as it travels an incredible 850 kilometers over five months. The positive side of grizzly bears turning up in new places is that, after decades of persecution, their numbers are finally improving and young males are looking to move away from “all these big dudes.” On the other hand, this means potential human conflict: “We know they will coexist with us. Their survival depends on our willingness to coexist with them.”

A bear emerges from dense vegetation and pauses on the shore. It’s early spring, and the young grizzly has only recently roused from hibernation, ravenous and driven. He lifts his head and gazes out across the falling tide to the opposite shore, where forested slopes are close enough to make out individual trees. The bear stands and sniffs the air.

Grizzlies can see about as well as we can, but it’s their olfactory powers—at least 2,000 times more acute than ours—that most likely set them in motion. We’ll never grasp how they perceive the world, let alone what they’re thinking. For some reason, this bear falls back on all fours, ambles away from prime habitat, and wades into the sea.

To reach the far shore, he dog-paddles west across Johnstone Strait, one of the narrowest navigable channels that make up the fabled Inside Passage. This stretch of water separates the North American mainland from the largest island on the Pacific coast, British Columbia’s Vancouver Island. It’s only three to 4.5 kilometers across but anywhere from 70 to 500 meters deep. Swift tidal currents can reach 15 kilometers per hour. Vessels of every description pass through, from kayaks to freighters, to cruise ships carrying thousands of passengers. At this time of year, the water temperature averages about 8 °C, but the bear has almost no fat left to insulate him from the cold.

2. Grizzlies at the Table (Jimmy Thomson, Beside Magazine, December 2020)

One place in which grizzly bears are more prevalent than ever is in Wuikinuxv, British Columbia. Jimmy Thomson’s beautiful piece highlights the respect that this First Nations community gives their frequent visitors. The bears are valued as an important part of the ecosystem: “In eating the salmon, the bears bridge the gap between the deep ocean and the treetops, dragging the wriggling essence of one ecosystem into another.” This article is full of such powerful imagery, and Thomson’s respect for the people who wish to defend these animals is apparent.

Adam Nelson pulls the band’s truck into the small landfill less than a kilometer from the village, as he does three times a week to keep bear attractants out of people’s homes, and honks his horn to avoid startling any nearby bears. He and Corey Hanuse toss the village’s garbage bags into the landfill and wait. Minutes later a large grizzly is tearing the bags apart.

An electrified fence around the landfill, installed at great expense, lasted three days. The bears pulled it open like a can of sardines and it hasn’t been repaired. Later, someone stole the batteries. The bears have become accustomed now to the easy food the dump has on offer, and most days it’s possible to find them snacking amongst the detritus. Better there than roaming the village.

3. Barbearians at the Gate (Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, The Atavist Magazine, May 2018)

Bear intrusions are not so welcome in other areas. Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling’s article documents life in Grafton, New Hampshire, where residents believe “in untethering themselves from institution, foraging for food, and hunting game with guns, arrows, and knives.” Hongoltz-Hetling discovers a deep-rooted conflict in Grafton between man and bear, explaining the drama with a colorful array of local stories — about eaten cats and bear-fighting llamas, for instance — that tell us as much about the characters and colloquialisms of Grafton as about the bears themselves.

With bears reaching peak boogie man status, Hongoltz-Hetling also hears whispers of a darker side to the conflict — vigilante posses embarking on clandestine hunts of bears sleeping in their dens, even though “a person was (and still is) much more likely to suffocate in a giant vat of corn than be killed by a bear.” This article is an intriguing insight into small-town life — told through the bears.

Can bears be calculating? Babiarz and other Grafton residents I spoke to sure seemed to think so. Dave Thurber, a Vietnam War veteran who lives up the road from Jessica Soule, recounted how, one dark winter night, he had a feeling that something wasn’t right. He peeled back a corner of the curtains covering his living room windows and peered out at the front lawn, where he spotted a bear delicately licking sunflower seeds from a bird feeder. When a car approached, the bear flattened itself against a snowbank like an escaping prisoner evading a watchtower spotlight. After the car passed, the bear resumed eating.

Rumors of the bears’ cunning had planted unsettling questions in the minds of Grafton residents: How close are we to a bear right now? Could one be just beyond someone’s front door or hiding behind a nearby tree, casing a pet or, worse, someone’s child?

4. A Death in Yellowstone (Jessica Grose, Slate, April 2012)

How do you manage conflict between humans and bears when it escalates? That’s a dilemma faced by many park rangers. In the Yogi Bear cartoons, Yogi was a cheeky chap who loved to steal the odd picnic basket from guests at his home in Jellystone National Park. In this article, Jessica Grose discovers the stark reality that a fed bear is often a dead bear — for national parks are, ultimately, a human creation: “Its boundaries are built and monitored by the government, and the rangers are responsible for keeping its … visitors safe.” If a bear gets too close, the rangers have to play judge and jury on its life.

This was the case with Grose’s subject — the Wapiti sow — a bear thought to have been responsible for two deaths in Yellowstone National Park. Grose’s piece is a harrowing look at bear attacks and how rangers weigh up a bear’s guilt like a criminal case, with “ non-acidic envelopes for storing evidence, tweezers for picking up multicolored grizzly bear hairs, tape measures for measuring bear tracks.” The death penalty is based on whether a bear was acting in a naturally aggressive way or not. But what exactly is natural? The penal code for wild animals is a hard one to decipher.

Wildlife biologists like Kerry Gunther help the park’s crime-scene investigators by speculating on a bear’s emotional state. Based on the evidence at hand, he tries to determine whether a given act of bear aggression might have been a natural behavior—the result of being startled while feeding on an elk carcass, for example, or seeing someone approaching her cubs. If a bear appears to have followed a hiker down the trail instead of backing off, or if it attacked campers while they were asleep, that would be more unusual—the result, perhaps of a deranged grizzly mind.

In a mauling case like that of John Wallace, in which there are no living (human) witnesses, sorting out these categories of bear aggression can be especially vexing. But there’s one piece of circumstantial evidence that almost always leads to euthanasia: a half-eaten corpse. Under normal circumstances, the grizzly diet in Yellowstone is about 60 percent vegetarian—roots and nuts, with the remainder coming from pocket gophers, trout, elk, and bison. If the rangers have good reason to believe that a bear killed a human being and then consumed his body, that bear’s behavior will be deemed unnatural—and its crime a capital offense.

5. Lessons From a Bear Attack (Eva Holland, Cottage Life, December 2020)

Not all bears are given a guilty verdict after an attack. When Mya Helena Myllykoski and her son were charged by a grizzly bear, the bear received a reprieve for acting naturally to defend a moose carcass. In her interview with Eva Holland, Myllykoski describes her relief that the bear was spared, and how instead of paralyzing her with fear, the attack inspired her to fight to protect bears. Holland explores the fascinating psychology behind Myllykoski’s “post-traumatic growth,” as well as describing the attack itself in spine-tingling detail. Her account demonstrates great respect for the wilderness she is writing about — in a previous piece, “When a Fatal Grizzly Mauling Goes Viral,” Holland discusses her reluctance to report on bear attacks at all: They are incredibly rare, and she questions whether writing about them is anything more than voyeurism for those outside of bear country. This perspective brings sincerity, thoughtfulness, and understanding to her work on the subject.

When she shares that detail—that she has felt a grizzly bear’s hot breath on her face—I feel something unexpected creeping up inside me, a little green shoot alongside the larger growth of fear and fascination as I listen to her story: envy. Irrationally, against all logic or instinct for survival, I envy that experience, just a little. When she tells me that she regrets not having a memory of that smell, I understand what she means. I want to know what the bear smelled like too.

We crave vivid and authentic encounters with the wilderness. That, in part, is why we go out there, why we leave the city behind for an afternoon or a weekend, or more. We want to see the stars turn overhead and hear loons, owls, and coyotes; we want to watch the mist burn off a river’s surface, or a thunderstorm roll across a lake. We want to smell crushed spruce needles and wet, decomposing logs and that sweet dirt scent when the mushrooms begin to pop up.

Wilderness can feed us. It can fill our lives up with rich sensory memories. But we take risks in going there, and we bring risk with us for the animals that live there too. Sometimes we pay a price for our curiosity and our desires—but more often, they pay the price instead.

6. This Man Protected Wild Bears Every Day for 13 Years — Until He Made the Ultimate Sacrifice (Nick Jans, Reader’s Digest, June 2019)

Timothy Treadwell took the meaning of bear advocate to a whole new level. I first learned about Treadwell through watching Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, an incredible film that uses sequences extracted from more than 100 hours of video footage shot by Treadwell during the last five years of his life — years he spent living amongst grizzly bears in Alaska. Nick Jans has also written a beautiful book about Treadwell, The Grizzly Maze, depicting the journey that led Treadwell to the bears, and the stunning, eerie landscape of Alaska that is their home.

In this excerpt for Reader’s Digest, Jans explains how Treadwell was a controversial figure, a self-styled “bear whisperer” who refused to accept bears as dangerous animals, and “gave them names like Thumper, Mr. Chocolate, and Squiggle. He would walk up to a half-ton wild animal with four-inch claws and two-inch fangs, and say, ‘Czar, I’m so worried! I can’t find little Booble.'” Jans provides a moving portrait of Treadwell, culminating in a gut-wrenching description of his final demise — mauled by a bear. Accustomed to recording his life, Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, had a camera turned on during the attack: “Treadwell did not die quickly. The tape runs roughly six minutes, and his cries can be heard two-thirds of that time.”

While many believe Treadwell encroached on the life of the bears, rendering his end inevitable, he was still a remarkable, larger-than-life character, and Jans manages to capture him with his elegant prose.

Those searching for the meaning in what happened to Timothy Treadwell offer compelling theories, impossible to either prove or refute but containing flickers of insight. Bear-viewing guide Gary Porter says, “I think Timmy made a fundamental anthropomorphic error. Naming them and hanging around with them as long as he did, he probably forgot they were bears. And maybe they forgot, some of the time, he was human.” Porter points out that old, dominant males generally avoid people and are intolerant of other bears. A subordinate bear that refuses to move is attacked and, if it doesn’t retreat, is often killed and eaten. Biologist Larry Van Daele calls such an event “apparently more of a disciplinary action than predatory.”

And he, too, agrees there may be something to the theory, especially given “the strange, ambiguous signals Timothy sent to bears.”

“Maybe that big guy figured Timmy was just another bear,” Porter suggests. If so, it was a final, ironic compliment to a man who strove, among bears, to become as much like them as possible.