A Montana writer's real-life tales of bears and terror

  • Book cover of "Mark of the Grizzly"

 

Joe Heimer had the sow grizzly's upper lip clenched in his fist, shoving and squeezing as hard as he could. The bear had knocked him flat on his back in the deep, sticky snow, and she was standing on his mauled legs, trying to shake his hand loose and sink her jagged teeth into his vital organs. Pushing on that bear's face was like trying a one-armed bench press with a 300-pound barbell, one that fought back with teeth and claws, one that wouldn't hold still.

He held her with his right hand - he could feel the side of a fang pressed hard against his palm - and with his left he kept punching and punching, swinging his fist as hard as he could and trying to keep her away from his organs.

So far, it was a draw.

"I was holding her," Heimer says. "I think I kept her from biting me as many times as she wanted to. I had my mind set that she was not going to get me. I thought about my guts lying out in the snowbank."

Then, suddenly, the bear took off.

Heimer, a tough cowboy of 52 with short gray hair and a bullrider's physique, the kind of guy who isn't afraid to sweat through his shirt three or four times in a day's work, twisted his head and saw the bear lunging on all fours, kicking up snow as it charged. Then, just past the bear, he saw Sonja Crowley's hands fly up in the air, and he knew she was in trouble, too. Crowley went down with a scream and the bear went to work on her


- from Mark of the Grizzly: True Stories of Recent Bear Attacks and the Hard Lessons Learned, by Scott McMillion. Falcon Publishing Inc., Helena, Mont., 1998. Paperback, $14.95. 249 pages.


For anyone who has ever had nightmares about being pursued or attacked by large animals, Scott McMillion's Mark of the Grizzly is a bone-chilling reminder that dreams can come true. Every year, grizzly bears attack a small number of people. Though most survive (the same cannot be said for the bears, which are always hunted down), the incidents set off waves of fear in small Western communities and renew the debate over just how tolerant we should be of Ursus arctos horribilis.

McMillion, a journalist who for the last decade has covered wildlife issues in the Northern Rockies, understands well the visceral punch of the attack story. His book recounts in vivid and sometimes horrifying detail the top dozen or so encounters - in places ranging from Yellowstone National Park to coastal Alaska - most in the last few years.

If McMillion never went beyond the gory details, Mark of the Grizzly could be discounted as just another opportunistic, blood-and-guts animal book. But surrounding each encounter are rich characterizations of people and bears, along with thoughtful discussions of bear biology and management.

In the story of Joe Heimer and Sonja Crowley (excerpted here), for instance, we learn that the attacking bear was not only a mother with cubs, but a "management bear" that had been tranquilized, trapped and released by officials several times to keep her away from apple orchards outside Yellowstone.

Heimer, who after being sewed up from the attack was back to work as a guide the next week, speculates that bear #79 may have snapped because she had been so intensely handled. Still, he also agrees with bear biologists that he had somehow crossed an invisible line drawn by the bears.

Although it adds context, Mark of the Grizzly is at its heart a gripping adventure. McMillion shares a little basic safety advice in his introduction - "make noise on the trail, keep a clean camp, never look a bear in the eye, and if you are attacked, don't try to fight, especially if you are alone" - yet each chapter dramatically proves that what works in one situation doesn't necessarily work in another.

Which, after all, is one reason why keeping grizzlies around seems so important: They are as fascinating and unpredictable as people. McMillion's book succeeds because he conveys this sense of awe and wonder for the bears, even as he describes them making mincemeat out of hikers and hunters.

"Killing all the grizzlies, as the swinish among us call for, would be a simple thing. We've got helicopters and night-vision optics and high-powered weapons that would make fairly short work of it," he writes. "Keeping grizzlies alive, keeping them healthy and numerous and letting them act like wild bears, that's the hard part."

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