A Shape in the Dark: Living and Dying with Brown Bears
By Bjorn Dihle. Mountaineers Books, 2021. $17.95. 208 pages.
Our Alaska shelves are filled with books about bears, those iconic animals that fascinate us with their beauty, power and resemblance in so many ways to ourselves. Do we need yet another book devoted to them?
In the case of Bjorn Dihle’s “A Shape in the Dark,” the answer may be yes. Despite a subtitle that suggests dramatic accounts of bear encounters and maulings in the overworked tradition, Dihle has delivered something else. Brown bears, in this case, are the means to present an inquiry into his own life of adventure, American environmental history, Alaska’s bear people and places, bear mythology and facts, and more. While the book generally addresses the relationship between humans and brown bears, it comes at the topic from a variety of angles chiefly informed by the author’s own experience and knowledge.
Dihle grew up in Juneau, still lives in Southeast Alaska and has spent a great deal of time exploring, often by himself, the wilder parts of the state. He has also worked as a guide for bear viewing and filmmaking. From childhood he’s had numerous bear encounters of his own and writes of his respect for the animals and his strategy of talking softly to them as a way of avoiding harm to either himself or the bears.
After a prologue and introduction that establish his own place in the world — his reactions to a close bear encounter in the Brooks Range and then to news of a fatal bear mauling on Admiralty Island in 2018 — Dihle goes on in part one to weave his life into the larger story of North American brown bears. He tells of the Lewis and Clark expedition across the continent, quoting from Lewis’ diary about the ferocity of the bears they met and killed. After he describes stumbling into a hole made by the passage of many bears on Admiralty Island, he reflects how Lewis and his stories set the foundation for America’s relationship with brown bears (in which eradication was the goal) and “how everything leaves a trail, whether it’s imprinted in the land, in the narratives we tell, or even in our blood.”
The author follows with more about the history of the American West and its “mountain men,” then the elimination of brown bears from California, then the stories of Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall and others, and the evolution of knowledge and attitudes about brown bears. Each chapter shares this history in a context of his own experiences, his own interpretations of the past and present, making for a lively narrative. He ends this section with an Alaska-specific focus, including the “bear wars” early in the last century and, finally, the conservation efforts that resulted in protections for bears and their habitat.
In part two of the book, Dihle tells more stories about his personal fascination with bears and his wilderness adventures. Always, he seemed to be in the company of bears. On one Arctic trek, “It was a rare day I did not see a bear, and sometimes I saw as many as five. The bears became my world — everything else, the caribou and other wildlife, the river crossings and the pulsations (he was hearing a throbbing, like a heartbeat but coming from the land itself), thoughts of loved ones, became secondary.”
He tells of the fears he felt for a woman he found camping alone among bears and then of the Tlingit story of “The Woman Who Married a Bear” and the meaning he takes from it — that there’s a line between human and bear worlds and it’s best not to cross it. “I know that bears do not want me in their world. Sometimes when I forget my fear and common sense, though, I question the line that separates me from the bear world.”
The last several chapters, largely rooted in his experience as a guide for bear viewers, focus much of their attention on the stories of individuals who’ve been mauled or killed by brown bears. This include interviews by the author; in each case he takes care to note what might have been done differently to avoid a dangerous situation. He also profiles with admiration Ken Leghorn, “considered the father of ecotourism in Southeast Alaska,” and a particular bear Dihle watched for years, with what seems equal admiration.
Near the end Dihle gives voice to his doubts about guiding. “Each season it seemed clients became increasingly obsessed with wanting to be close to a bear, often even expressing their disappointment if they didn’t have an encounter close enough to fill the screen of their smart phone.” He wonders, if the superficial goals seem to be to get a photo or bragging rights, if there’s not something more. “I wonder if it’s an attempt to remember something vital about ourselves we don’t even know we forgot.”
He wonders, too, about the effects of Alaska’s planned and proposed developments on bears and their homes, and he wonders what kind of world his young son will live in. His son, when he made his first cries, “sounded the same as a bear cub bawling.” His son is named Shiras, after a dark color-phase of bear found on Admiralty Island and once thought to be a separate species.