Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Re-Visiting the Night of the Grizzlies

I've had a tendency in the past to be a bit skeptical about bear attack books, unless they offer solid and clear explanations for why those attacks may have occurred. Mind you, I'm not in denial about bear attacks, I just feel that presenting and analyzing possible causes is more beneficial than serving up a bloody dish of horror stories, which is what most books on the subject do. One exception is Jack Olsen's Night of the Grizzlies, the true account of one of the most horrific and unexplained attacks in recorded history.

One does not need to read very many bear books before hearing of Julie Helgeson and Michele Koons and the violent deaths they suffered on the same night in August 1967. Separated by nine miles of 9,000 foot mountain peaks in Glacier National Park, both teenage girls were mauled by ravenous grizzlies in the middle of the night. Helgeson was attacked at midnight, spent more than two hours lying mutilated and alone in the dark before a search party found her. She was taken back to Granite Park Chalet where she died from her wounds shortly after 4 A.M. - almost two more hours later. Fifteen minutes later and nine miles away, Michele Koons was attacked by a grizzly. Mercifully, her death was swift.

The bear responsible for Michele's death was found and killed. It had been quite active in the area and appeared to be exhibiting signs of mental illness. At Granite Park Chalet, the four or five bears that frequented the garbage dump every night were destroyed. Each bear was closely examined, including stomach contents and dried blood caked between claws. Investigators were forced to come to a grim conclusion - none of the bears were responsible for Julie's death. These were the first recorded deaths in the history of Glacier Park and the attacks there have continued to this day, prompting the great mystery as to what set these two bears off that night. Speculation abounds and theories are tossed about left and right, but we may never know for a certainty.

Olsen's book is as thorough an account as one could hope to find. Several chapters are devoted to the events that preceded the attack, including all persons involved in the incident, from the biggest key players to the smallest bit parts, the whole thing moving like a predator in the night toward the dreaded events that the reader is doomed to repeat. Something about this particular incident has always sucked me in, something about the two girls involved that has stirred deep feelings of empathy and sorrow for the plight they suffered, and I can't quite put my finger on what it is. As disturbing as it can be, I highly recommend the book as one of the most thorough and well-written accounts of non-fiction history that I've read.

I find it interesting that the summer in which I got to work with bears and talk to people about how docile and non-aggressive they really are, is the same summer that bear attacks were reported seemingly every other day. Grizzlies got a few in Yellowstone, a captive grizzly killed his keeper in Ohio, and a man in Seattle was attacked by a black bear right outside the door of his own house....and I'm sure I'm missing a few more. To me, it just drives home how complex these animals are. Human beings are just as complicated. Some of us are kind and friendly, while some are mean and nasty. Bears are much the same way. Nowhere is this complexity more brilliantly captured than in Doug and Andrea Peacock's The Essential Grizzly (recently re-printed as In the Presence of Grizzlies), a look at the relationship between man and bear, from the good, to the bad, to the downright ugly.

To me, as bear advocates, we should never lose sight of the fact that bear attacks do happen. They always have and they always will. They should not be swept aside and disregarded in some state of denial. Rather they should be analyzed and explained. We should look at those situations and try to determine what went wrong and think of ways to prevent it from happening again, ways that are a bit more enlightened than shooting every bear in sight for weeks afterward. The problem is that we expect these animals to behave as simply as possible and we don't know what to think when they don't. As with all things, time and education are the key. Nowadays I usually advocate several attack books to anyone interested in the subject of bears, because once you've learned about that complexity, 90% of the time you can step back, look at the dark side of the issue, and pinpoint exactly where it all went wrong.

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