Half memoir, half historical past lesson, ‘A Form within the Darkish’ crafts a considerate portrait of brown bears in Alaska
A male brown bear feasts on a dead whale on Admiralty Island in June 2018. (Photos by Björn Dihle)
“A Form in the Dark: Living and Dying with Brown Bears” is a new book by the Juneau writer and wilderness guide Björn Dihle. It is a portrait of brown bears and their complex relationship with humans. It combines a broad historical perspective with Dihle’s own experiences and interviews with others in the field. He sat down with CoastAlaska’s Jacob Resneck to discuss the last century’s conservation ethics, trophy hunting, and classical rock music to help survive in grizzly land.
Jacob Resneck: Many books have been written about Alaskan bears. When you set out to write this, what were some of the stories about points you wanted to include that you had not seen in the rest of the literature?
Björn Dihle: I set out to write this book just because I wanted to tell a bigger story about our relationship with brown bears. And you know, there are a lot of bear terror stories, bear hunting stories or bear cuddling stories. And I wanted to find out where all these stories came from. So yeah, when I set out to write this it was kind of a more holistic deal. And at the same time, it’s just that you grew up in Southeast Alaska and live here today. After being fortunate enough to travel across the state through brown bear country, there is also … there is no other species than the brown bear that has challenged and fascinated me more. So it’s just a way of writing this book to deal with my own relationship with the brown bear.
JR: What did they say when you submitted your first draft of the manuscript and you and you gave it to your editors?
BD: I wanted to write a book about brown bears that wasn’t scary. And when I finished my design, I said, “Well, that’s scary.” And then I just said, “Well, you can’t make brown bears scary.” They are scary animals, there is no getting around them. When I sent it to the editorial team there, she liked it very much. But she said you mentioned earlier that this isn’t supposed to be a scary book. And she says, “I’m scared.”
The 208-page book is published by Mountaineer Books (Seattle). It will be released on February 15, 2021.
Extract from A Shape in the Dark:
“For a second before I remembered being scared, I was overwhelmed by its very presence. Dark brown with silver front legs, incredibly muscular and balanced, it seemed too real to be real. A moment later our eyes met. Fear and anger flashed in his small brown eyes. It closed the one-step distance as I reached for my bear spray attached to my backpack strap. There was no time to solve it. It wasn’t even time to realize that the bear was going to knock me over and what that could mean. But instead of smashing me, the bear stopped – at a distance of only a few centimeters – and backed away. I took a step back and fiddled with my pepper spray when the bear came back and jumped away just before contact seemed inevitable. For the longest seconds of my life we participated in a strange and violent dance until the bear fell into the pastures. Only then did I have the pepper spray in hand and was ready. For the rest of the hike, all of the grizzly tracks I came across seemed to glow with the promise of death. I was expecting a bear from the mountains to come and pick me up at any moment. “
JR: Yes, because for much of the book you are describing some fairly intense experiences in which you are on your territory and feeling physically anxious. But as you gain more experience as someone in the wild, what techniques have you learned to de-escalate your encounters and keep things from going south?
BD: I mean, the first is just knowing how to drive safely through bear sanctuary while in bear sanctuary. There are some areas that if you are not, you just shouldn’t go. I am really experienced. If you’re seeing a lot of bear signs, you probably shouldn’t be there. But I’d say probably the most interesting thing I’ve learned with bears over the years when it comes to de-escalation scenarios is how incredibly quick they respond to your body language when spoken to. 98% of these animals communicate through body language. So the way you hold up is crucial. And honestly, I think they respond better. They listen better than people.
Trying to de-escalate a person who is excited and scared is much more difficult than trying to de-escalate a brown bear who is excited, angry and scared. If you give them the chance, you’ll know by being calm, cool, and collected. They react, they tend to react incredibly well.
But then there are these stories where it looks like this person was walking down the street and a bear pinned them down. So there are bad bears out there. You know, at all times, no matter how experienced you are. That doesn’t rule out a bear attacking you no matter what you’ve done for conservation. The species doesn’t exclude you from getting hurt by a bear.
A male brown bear walks along Admiralty Island in May 2019.
JR: You know, bears are quite celebrated in Alaska, especially brown bears, but as you write in your book, historically you show that it wasn’t. Actually, it wasn’t that long ago. And some of the settings during the territorial days. It was like a zero-sum game. It was them or us: brown bears were seen as that barrier to development or even human habitation. Can you talk a little about this part of the story?
BD: Yes, much of the book begins with Meriwether Lewis [of Lewis & Clark expedition — ed.] and covers expansion to the west. This zero tolerance, no room for bears attitude is very common. And I think one of the most interesting things about Alaska is that we are. I’m not going to say we are like an enlightened age, but we have enough different opinions and different ideas and perspectives to do justice to brown bears, which is truly remarkable.
During the territorial days, Admiralty Island is a good example. The chief biologist for the Forest Service in the early 1930s and late 1920s, I believe his name was Jay Williams. He recommended killing all brown bears to increase security and clear Admiralty Island. That kind of idea is easy today, you know, people would say this is crazy.
JR: Running trophy hunts for brown bears is big business in rural Alaska. In the book, you speak to a number of guides whose livelihoods depend on these hunts. And you’ve found a number of attitudes among guides taking people paying big bucks to kill an Alaskan brown bear. What attitudes did you get from talking to these guides?
BD: The one common theme I would say is that there’s this reverence for brown bears in wilderness areas that almost every guide I’ve spoken to you with like it’s very important, the idea of protection is very important. There are obviously bad leaders who don’t care about style and so on. But I think the most interesting thing I came across while talking to hunting guides was how often the word intimacy came up when they were talking about why their clients want to hunt, brown bear versus even another animal. And the intimacy with the brown bear was always greater. What I mean is this is an interesting thing to think about. I’m not going to go into it too much. You know, make your own conclusions about this.
One of the guides you know talks about how emotionally complicated brown bear hunting is compared to hunting other animals, especially animals that you eat. While brown bear is generally not eaten.
I think just like all of us, how your money affects your morals to some extent and your justification – which you can justify. But the only thing you know, most of the hunt guides I’ve spoken to, just deep awe of the brown bear.
A brown bear gets up on Chichagof Island in June 2020.
JR: So what are some of the things you do when you hike alone and see a lot of bear signs and are obviously in brown bear territory? What techniques do you use?
BD: The first thing to remember about bears is that they don’t like surprises. So if there is an area that is very dense and has a bear sign, I might even try to avoid it. But the other thing to think about is making noise. No bells or anything like that, your voice. And even in my experience, the hearing of bears is very different. But today I was 40 meters away from the bear and spoke loudly and don’t know that I’m there. So it’s not that you can go quietly, “Hey Bear,” you know, you have to let her know. So yeah, just keeping the wind on your back when you can, that’s the most important thing and just making noise. So you know you are coming.
JR: In the book you mention singing ’80s power ballads. Do you have any examples
BD: That was early. And that was just as important to me as it was to the bears, as a young man.
JR: Can you give me a song title
BD: Oh man, probably REO Speedwagons “Keep on Loving You”. But that also got me into trouble.
Björn Dihle was born in Southeast Alaska and grew up there. He works as a writer, editor and guide. He is also the author of Haunted Inside Passage: Ghosts, Legends, and Secrets of Southeast Alaska (2017) and Never Cry Halibut: and Other Alaska Hunting and Fishing Tales (2018). He lives in Douglas.