Bear Attacks of the Century: True Stories of Courage and Survival
By Larry Mueller and Marguerite Reiss
Published by The Lyons Press
Alaska, in the popular imagination, is famous for magnificent wilderness. But wilderness has infamous dangers, as well, none more lurid than bear maulings. The idea of becoming dinner for something enormous and hairy taps into a primal terror.
This fear has inspired numerous articles and books about blood-curdling bear encounters. This year brings a spate of books about the demise of bear-lover Timothy Treadwell, plus "Bear Attacks of the Century."
The latter, by out-of-state authors Larry Mueller and Marguerite Reiss, is largely drawn from articles in "Outdoor Life" magazine, where Mueller is an editor.
The book contains 16 true tales of maulings which victims survived barely. Most involved hunting outings. Nearly all took place in Alaska, especially near Fairbanks, on the Kenai Peninsula, the North Slope or the islands of Southeast and the Kodiak archipelago.
Unlike the brief anecdotes in, for example, Larry Kaniut's popular 1983 book "Alaska Bear Tales," the stories Mueller and Reiss tell are long enough to set the scene, elaborate on circumstances and include events beyond the attack itself.
The authors take particular pains to discuss what happens after the bear leaves the picture.
Despite the gruesome subject matter and blunt criticism of some people's actions, they emphasize the best of human nature.
"We are encouraged when we hear that a victim fought courageously and won," Mueller writes in the introduction. "Or we express admiration when the victim's partner coolly maneuvers in position and waits for a shot that will kill the bear, but not his buddy. And it's heartwarming to know that there are others out there, friends and strangers alike, who unhesitatingly take heroic measures to evacuate the victim, to get him to an appropriate hospital, or just show up and wait in line to give him lifesaving blood."
In addition to the anecdotes, "Bear Attacks of the Century" includes interviews with two Alaskans with a great deal to say on the subject.
These are Dr. William Wennen, a Fairbanks trauma surgeon whose specialties include reassembling mangled survivors, and Bob Brown of Eagle River, who taught bear-safety courses.
Wennen notes that being in the Alaska wilderness requires a different mind-set than other places.
"One stupid little mistake puts you right on the ragged edge of survival," he says.
These narratives include plenty of blood and bullets, plus firsthand accounts of what it is like to feel an animal five times your size peeling off your scalp and crunching its teeth on your cranium. These are not tales for the squeamish.
In addition to the grisly particulars, however, the stories include informative discussions about how people could have avoided trouble and their creative and courageous responses under the worst of circumstances. Thus this book, like others of its ilk, provides valuable cautionary advice for those venturing into bear country.
More problematic, however, is the overall tone.
Brown, in particular, speaks about peaceful coexistence with bruins. He notes with sympathy that people have encroached on bear habitat and invaded their territories.
But the bears featured in the rest of the book are definitely not a credit to their species. The authors emphasize the worst of ursine nature, just as they give human nature a favorable slant.
They also lace their writing with subtle hints that guns, preferably big guns, are a man's best friend in the wild.
Stories such as these, especially when absorbed by readers with limited wilderness experience, can distort impressions of how dangerous bears and Alaska can be.
It would have been helpful if the authors had included some statistics to convey how rare mauling is compared to other wilderness, or even civilized, perils.
It is easy to quibble with the book's extravagant title. It implies some sort of "greatest hits," but nothing explains why these particular stories were selected over others. The use of the word "century" is particularly problematic, given that we recently started a new one.
The authors also commit one cheechako blooper that stands out referring to Inupiat "Indians."
On the whole, however, Mueller and Reiss do a fine job. Their writing is smooth and lively, drawing readers into the adrenaline-pumping events they so vividly describe. Their details ring true, and they take time to get beyond the fight scenes to discuss substantive issues such as bear intelligence and human prudence.
"Bear Attacks of the Century" is certainly not the last word on a morbidly fascinating subject. And it does not pretend to be a comprehensive or balanced account of Alaska bears. But it provides highly charged adventures and cautionary tales.
"It is enough to make anyone planning to charge into the brush during this fall's hunting season pause and ponder worst-case scenarios.
Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.
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