LISTEN: With ‘A Shape in the Dark,’ Juneau author crafts thoughtful portrait of Alaska’s brown bears

A brown bear at a whale carcass on a seaweedy beech
A male brown bear feasts on a dead whale on Admiralty Island in June 2018. (Bjorn Dihle)

A Shape in the Dark: Living and Dying with Brown Bears” is a new book by Juneau writer and wilderness guide Bjorn Dihle. It’s a portrait of brown bears and their complex relationship with humans that combines a sweeping historical perspective with Dihle’s personal experience and interviews with others in his field. He sat down to discuss a century of conservation ethics, trophy hunting, and belting out classic rock tunes to survive in grizzly country.

Jacob Resneck: There’s been a lot of books written about Alaska bears. When you set out to write this one, what were some of the points you were trying to include that you hadn’t seen in the rest of the literature?

Bjorn Dihle: I set out to write this book because I wanted to tell a bigger story of our relationship with brown bears, specifically. You know, there’s a lot of bear terror stories, bear hunting stories, or bear cuddling stories. And I wanted to get at the root of where all these stories kind of spring from. So when I set out to write this, it was kind of a more holistic sort of deal.

And then at the same time, growing up in Southeast Alaska and living here today, and having been lucky enough to travel around brown bear country all over the state … there’s no other species of animal that’s challenged and intrigued me more. So, writing this book was a way of me coming to terms with my own relationship with the brown bear.

JR: When you submitted your first draft of the manuscript to your editors, what did they say?

BD: I was gonna write a book about brown bears that wasn’t scary. And then by the time I was done with my draft, I was like, ‘Well, this is scary.’ And then I just kind of was like, ‘Well, you can’t make brown bears not be scary.’ They’re scary animals, there’s no way around it. So, when I sent it in to the editor, she really liked it a lot. But she was like, you know, you mentioned earlier about not wanting this to be a scary book. And she’s like, ‘I’m terrified.’

Excerpt from ‘A Shape in the Dark’:
“For a second, before I remembered to be afraid, I was overcome by its sheer presence. Dark brown with silver forelegs, incredibly muscled and poised, it appeared too real to be real. A moment later, our eyes met. Fear and rage flashed in its small brown eyes. It closed the distance separating us in one stride as I reached for my bear spray attached to my pack strap. There wasn’t time to unclip it. There wasn’t even time to realize the bear was about to knock me down and what that might mean. But instead of smashing me, the bear stopped short — at what felt like only inches away — and recoiled to the side. I took a step back and was fumbling with my pepper spray when the bear came again and, just before contact seemed inevitable, bounded away. For the longest seconds of my life, we participated in a strange and violent dance until the bear crashed off into the willows. It was only then that I had the pepper spray in my hand and ready. During the rest of the hike out, every set of grizzly tracks I came across seemed to radiate with the promise of death. At any moment, I expected a bear to emerge from the mountains and come for me.”

Cover for “A Shape in the Dark.” The 208-page book is published by Mountaineer Books (Seattle). It will be released on Feb. 15, 2021.

JR: A lot of the book, you’re describing some pretty intense experiences of being in their territory and feeling physically afraid. But as you get more experience, as someone in the wilderness, what are some of the techniques you learned to de-escalate your encounters and avoid things from going south?

BD: The first thing is just being aware of when you’re in bear country [is] how to travel safely through it. There’s some areas where you just shouldn’t go unless you’re really experienced. If you’re seeing lots of bear sign, chances are you should not be there. But I’d say probably the most interesting thing I learned over the years with bears, as far as de-escalating scenarios, is just how incredibly responsive they are to being talked to, to your body language. These animals communicate 98% through body language. So the way you hold yourself is critical.

And honestly, in my opinion, they respond better. They’re better listeners than people: Trying to de-escalate a person who’s agitated and scared is way harder than trying to de-escalate a brown bear that’s agitated, angry and scared. If you give them the chance, you know, by being calm, cool and collected, they tend to respond incredibly well.

But then there are those stories where it’s like, well, this person was walking down the street and a bear nailed them. So, there are bad bears out there, at any given moment, no matter how experienced you are. No matter what you’ve done for conservation, the species does not exclude you from being hurt by a bear.

A male brown bear walks along on Admiralty Island in May 2019. (Bjorn Dihle)

JR: Bears are pretty celebrated in Alaska, especially brown bears, but as you write in your book, historically, that wasn’t the case. Some of the attitudes during territorial days — it was like a zero-sum game, them or us: brown bears were seen as this impediment to development or even human habitation. Can you talk a little bit about that part of the story?

BD: Yeah, the book begins with Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark expedition) and covers Westward Expansion. That attitude of zero tolerance, no room for bears is very prevalent. And I think one of the most interesting things about Alaska is that we are, I’m not gonna say that we’re an enlightened age, but we have enough varying opinions and different ideas and perspectives to accommodate brown bears, which is really remarkable.

During the territorial days … Admiralty Island is just such a good example. The head biologist for the Forest Service in the early 1930s, late 1920s, I think his name was Jay Williams — he recommended killing all the brown bears to make it safer to clearcut log Admiralty Island. That sort of idea today, you know, people would say that’s insane.

JR: Guiding trophy hunts for brown bears is big business in rural Alaska. In the book, you talk to a number of guides, whose livelihood depends on these hunts. You found a range of attitudes among guides who take people paying big money to come and kill an Alaska brown bear. What are some of the attitudes you got from talking to those guides?

BD: The one common theme, I would say, is that there is this reverence for brown bears in wilderness areas. Just about every guide I talked to you, that was very important. The idea of conservation is very important. There are obviously bad guides who don’t care about the species and whatnot.

But, you know, I think the most interesting thing that I came across talking to hunting guides was how often the word intimacy popped up when they’re talking about why their clients want to hunt brown bear versus even another animal. The intimacy was always greater with the brown bear. Which, I mean, that’s an interesting thing to think about. I’m not going to go off on it too much. You know, make your own conclusions on that one.

One of the guides is talking about how emotionally complicated brown bear hunting is versus hunting other animals, specifically animals that you eat. Brown bear, generally, is not eaten.

I think just like all of us, how you make your money kind of shapes your morals to a certain extent, and your justification — what you can justify. But most of the hunting guides I talked to, just deep reverence for the brown bear.

A brown bear stands up on Chichagof Island in June 2020. (Bjorn Dihle)

JR: What are some of the things you do when you find yourself hiking alone, and you see a lot of bear sign and you’re obviously in brown bear territory? What are some of the techniques you employ?

BD: The first thing that you got to remember with bears is they don’t like surprises. So if there’s an area that’s super dense, with bear sign, I might even try to avoid it. But the other thing that you gotta remember to do is making noise. Not bells or anything like that, your voice. And in my experience, too, you know, bears hearing varies quite a bit: I’ve been, you know, 40 yards away from the bear, talking loudly and it doesn’t know I’m there. So, keeping the wind on your back, if you can, that’s the most important thing, and making noise. So they know you’re coming.

JR: In the book, you mention singing ’80s power ballads. Do you have any examples?

BD: That was early on. And that was that was as much for myself as for the bears, as a young man.

JR: Can you give me a song title?

BD: Oh man, probably REO Speedwagon’s “Keep on Loving You.” But that got me in trouble, too.

Bjorn Dihle was born and raised in Southeast Alaska. He works as a writer, editor and guide. He’s the author of Haunted Inside Passage: Ghosts, Legends, and Mysteries of Southeast Alaska (2017) and Never Cry Halibut: and Other Alaska Hunting and Fishing Tales (2018). His newest book, a Shape in the Dark, will be available on Feb. 15, 2021 from Mountaineer Books. He lives in Douglas.

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Jacob Resneck is CoastAlaska's regional news director in Juneau.

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