A Shape in the Dark

Bjorn Dihle / Mountaineers Books / 203 pages

From Lewis and Clark shooting the first ones they encountered, to sport hunters today killing hundreds in Alaska each year, humans have long persecuted North America’s brown (a.k.a. grizzly) bears. The bears, often acting in self-defense, have also occasionally attacked humans. A Shape in the Dark: Living and Dying with Brown Bears recounts some of these violent and tragic events, while weaving in the author’s own close encounters with, and complex feelings toward, these powerful yet vulnerable animals.

Dihle, a wildlife-viewing guide, grew up in Southeast Alaska, hunting, fishing, and admiring the “mountain men” who were some of the first Europeans to explore the West and encounter (and kill) grizzlies. “I, too,” he writes, “wanted to match myself against bears and mountains.” Later, Dihle begins exploring remote areas of southeastern and interior Alaska, hiking or paddling for days or weeks on end, frequently encountering brown bears. He develops a fascination with the animals and describes the joy, fear, awe, and wonder he experiences in bear country, while reflecting on the cruel devastation that European explorers, settlers, miners, ranchers, entertainers, market hunters, and trappers—including the heroes of his youth—historically wrought on the species.

Dihle’s own views toward brown bears are complicated and unclear—perhaps even to himself. He considers them magnificent beings whose existence and habitat should be conserved; yet, he does not seem to oppose Alaska’s bear hunting industry and sometimes wonders what it would be like to shoot a bear himself. While exploring, he often thanks bears for not attacking him and apologizes for intruding into their territory; yet, he returns again and again, and carries a handgun for defense (despite research from Alaska—not mentioned in the book—indicating that bear spray is safer and more effective). 

A Shape in the Dark is a haunting exploration of the history of human hostility toward brown bears, of the coexistence possible when we leave bears and their habitat alone, and what can happen when we needlessly get too close.

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