If you want to see a bear in Alaska, it’s not difficult. Go hiking and sooner or later you will. You may not even need to go that far. I’ve seen countless bears in the Alaskan wilderness since arriving in 1990, but one of the most memorable sightings was the largest black bear I’ve ever seen, indiscriminately feeding near a sidewalk along Tudor Road in Anchorage as I ran the Mayor’s Marathon. year. Like my fellow runners, I was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt with nothing handy to protect myself. Fortunately, the bear appeared oblivious to the presence of dozens of people nearby.
Like all my encounters with bears, this was memorable for me. For the bear, however, my presence probably went unnoticed. As Paul Schullery writes in “The Bear Doesn’t Know,” “It all means so much to you, but the bear almost immediately ignores it; forgetting where the meeting took place, but hardly as thrilled or impressed as you were.
So, how are you. Schullery is a bear obsessive who started working in Yellowstone National Park in 1972 and spent his professional career there. His degree is in history, not science, but he has written dozens of acclaimed books on natural history, particularly regarding Yellowstone and bears. He is fascinated by these frightening yet appealing animals to humans who see a creature that “may seem as menacing and almost as inviting as your favorite old couch”, but which could, without warning, “pursue and abruptly overtake four or three two legged animal and crush its skull.
Schullery devotes a great deal of time to bear watching, as well as reading and writing about them, and a number of articles included here, previously published and now updated, detail his experiences on the ground.
Wildlife viewing takes patience, he warns, but the payoff can be substantial. Schullery once saw a black bear in Yellowstone spend two days encroaching on a bison carcass protected by a grizzly bear, only to be repeatedly chased into the trees. Grizzlies usually win these matchups, writes Schullery, but not always. A large black bear can intimidate a young grizzly bear. The urban black bear I spotted could have easily overpowered a much smaller interior Alaskan grizzly bear with a submissive disposition.
Schullery has a gently rolling and often humorous style of writing reminiscent of early 20th century outdoor periodicals, where the emphasis was on beauty and camaraderie, and murder itself was only incidental. to the story. Schullery shoots bears with his camera, not his gun, but he is an aficionado of these old writings, and their influence informs his writing. He is drawn, he explains, to the way bears were perceived at the time, when little was known about them scientifically, but the behaviors now intensively studied by biologists were familiar to observers.
Perhaps the most fascinating example of his blending of modern science with centuries-old observations concerns reproduction. Bears mate in the spring, but the fertilized egg remains a microscopic blastocyst until late fall, when the sow takes shelter for the winter. This is when the egg adheres to its uterine wall for a brief gestation before the birth of young weighing less than a pound. This is called delayed implantation, an adaptation found in many animals. For outdoor enthusiasts in the early 20th century, the long interval between mating and the birth of young was a headache. Skimming through articles from dusty old outdoor magazines, Schullery finds writers speculating on the causes of the phenomenon, from which the historian within him draws insight into human thought at the time.
It’s this old-school literary perspective that makes “The Bear Doesn’t Know” such a wonderful read, and Schullery tells us where he got it. He ends the book with a long reading list of his favorite “vintage” (as he calls them) works of bear literature. Some 40 pages are devoted to brief summaries of volumes written no later than 1967, and often long before, when attitudes and understanding of bears and ourselves differed markedly from what we know now. He doesn’t always agree with some writers’ views, noting that cruelty to animals — and sometimes racism toward others — can be found in their writing. Rather, it seeks to learn from them so that we can grasp how we arrived at our present moment. This is the job of the historian, and this impulse distinguishes this book from the many other contemporary volumes on our neighboring urchins.
For a man so obsessed with bears, Schullery spent surprisingly little time in Alaska, but he made the most of it when he could, focusing on a 1998 visit in the third section of this book. Schullery first traveled to Denali, where he found that “the National Park Service had a good system for getting visitors out into the wildlife with the least effect on animal behavior and the best chance so people can see them without losing all vital organs. Then he was off to Brooks Camp, where he and his wife “were treated to a terrific professional presentation full of the specifics of getting along with bears in this remarkable place.” Both locations have seen horrific bear-to-human incidents, but these have been remarkably few given the concentration of people and bruins.The mandatory safety precautions celebrated by Schullery are why he could safely marvel at the gargantuan behemoths gorging on salmon at Brooks Falls.As many authors have noted—and as I learned while running a marathon—Sch ullery notes how remarkably tolerant bears can be of people.
Until they aren’t, of course. For all his love for bears, Schullery is a grounded realist, not a Timothy Treadwell romantic, adhering to human behaviors and motivations as another species. Schullery tells readers that they shouldn’t see bears through a human lens, but rather watch, listen, and learn to “accept that animals are best enjoyed on their own terms, no matter how different those terms may be.” ours”.
“The Bear Doesn’t Know: The Life and Wonders of Bear Country”
University of Nebraska Press