Editor's note: On July 14, 2003, Dan Bigley was a 25-year-old Girdwood musician, backcountry wanderer and avid fisherman. He and a friend were just wrapping up a stellar day of red salmon fishing at the Russian River when, moments from the safety of their car, a brown bear nearly killed him. The mauling was big news at the time, not only because it happened just below the Russian River Campground, one of the most heavily used in the state, but also because it was one of the most horrific bear maulings anyone had survived.
Nearly 10 years later, Bigley and former Daily News writer Debra McKinney have released a book about how Bigley navigated his way through his tragedy. "Beyond the Bear: How I Learned to Live and Love Again after Being Blinded by a Bear," published by Globe Pequot/Lyons Press, is many stories: a survival story, a medical story and a love story among them. It's the story of how, in dealing with physical and emotional devastation, Bigley realized that being stuck in the quicksand of "why me?" had far more potential to ruin his life than being blinded by a bear.
That day in July had begun with such promise. Bigley and the woman he'd been interested in for about a year, Amber Takavitz, had finally gotten together -- just the night before. Bigley and his buddy, John Duray, and Bigley's dog, Maya, set out on that gorgeous mid-summer day for the Kenai River. Fishing the Russian River, including its confluence with the Kenai known as The Sanctuary, was an afterthought.
The following is an adaptation drawn from two chapters of "Beyond the Bear."
By early evening, between the two of us, we had three reds the size of canoe-paddle blades on ice in the cooler, all caught within the first forty-five minutes, after which it seemed the reds ended their shift and punched out for the day. Although the limit was three per angler per day, after more than two hours without a single intercept, we called it quits, loaded up our fish, hoofed it back to the car, peeled off our waders, and headed toward home.
We pulled into Gwin's around 6:30 that evening. Burgers and beer at the half-century-old log roadhouse had become an end-of-the-day fishing tradition. We headed into the bar, parked ourselves at a table against a wall, and ordered without bothering to look at the menu since we knew it by heart. The place was abuzz with anglers comparing notes and guides dropping in for beers after work, several of whom we either knew or recognized, all of whom talked fish. Halfway through our burgers, we overheard a couple of guys talking about how the reds were holed up at The Sanctuary. From the sounds of it, they had limited out without much trouble.
John and I looked at each other, both thinking the same thing. I didn't have to be at work until ten the next morning, but John was due back at the hotel later that night for the graveyard shift. It was just after seven, it was a gorgeous evening, and the sun wouldn't be setting for about four hours, and even then "dark" would be relative. John threw it out there.
"What do you think about running down to the Russian real fast and trying to get those last three fish?"
"Hell yeah," I said. "Let's do it."
John, who had no problem keeping his priorities straight, called in sick.
"We should swing by and see if Jaha wants to wet a line," I said.
Jaha, short for Jeremy Anderson Hard Ass, a nickname earned in middle school for holding his ground against bullies half-again his size, was the most natural-born fisherman I'd ever known, an angling genius who could practically talk a fish into skipping the drama and hopping straight into his cooler. My favorite image of him came from a day at that same fishing hole we'd just left down the highway. Standing atop a boulder at the water's edge, he'd cracked open a can of Coors Light, raised it toward the heavens, hollered out the motto, "Tap the Rockies!," tipped it straight back, chugged the whole thing down, crushed the can against his chest, tossed it over his shoulder next to his pack, cast into the river, and instantly nailed a fish. Everyone down there about died laughing.
"Do it again! Do it again!" we all chanted.
Jaha, a woolly Wisconsinite like John, was working as a river guide on the Kenai and had been living out of a tent pitched on his boss's property since the cabin he'd been renting got sold out from under him. It was his day off, and since too much fishing could never be enough, I had no doubt he'd be up for a quick jaunt to the Russian. I was right. His girlfriend, Emily, was game, too. We swung by, they tossed their gear into the back of John's Subaru and climbed into the backseat with Maya, and off we went to the Russian River with hopes of better luck.
During the height of the salmon runs, there isn't a spot to be had at the Russian River Campground or its day-use parking lots. Long lines of cars, pickups, and RVs wait at the entrance for hours, and sometimes an entire day, for an opening to come up. We were down there so much and were friends with so many of those who worked there, we had it wired. Sometimes we'd stash the car and go in on bikes. But mostly our strategy was way more obnoxious. We'd drive past the line of vehicles, turn into the "Exit Only" lane, pull up to the information booth, hand over a six pack of beer, and secure for ourselves the next available parking pass while those who'd been waiting their turn annihilated us with their glares.
On the night of July 14, our timing was such that there were only a couple of cars in line, so we entered the respectable, grown-up way, through the entrance. Around 8:30, we pulled into the campground's Grayling parking lot, built on a bluff above the river. Maya hopped out, put her nose to the ground, and started skimming back and forth like a minesweeper while everyone sorted out gear. I climbed back into my chest waders and dropped extra weights, spare coho flies, and a pair of pliers into my front pocket. I grabbed my pack, which was set to go with a fillet knife, a stringer, a few garbage bags, a thin gray sweater, and a green fleece jacket. Before closing it up, as was my fishing ritual, I tossed in a bomber-size bottle of Midnight Sun Brewery's Sockeye Red IPA for good luck.
In three hours I'd be blind.
Fishing rods in hand, we headed across the parking lot and down the long set of stairs leading to the Angler Trail that runs alongside the river. The four of us fished together at a spot called the Cottonwood Hole for a while without a single successful flossing. John and I decided to move on to The Sanctuary. New to Alaska, new to the notion of grizzlies being part of the landscape, Emily wasn't up for that, especially after hearing how many bears were out and about at the time. So she and Jaha stayed in an area where she felt less skittish -- closer to the stairs. Given that everyone but John had to work in the morning, we all agreed to meet at the car around 10:30.
John, Maya, and I made our way downriver. It was a Monday night, but when the reds are running, every night is a Friday night at the Russian. We waded across the mouth of the river just below its confluence with the Kenai, while Maya did her beaver impersonation, paddling across the current with just her head, ears, and nose poking out of the water. A little farther down, John and I found ourselves a couple of nice spots to slide into. We took note of the rhythm and joined in.
It took more than an hour to catch those last three fish, for both of us to limit out. There's nothing easier than to lose track of time when standing knee deep in a river. By the time we packed up, we were already behind schedule for meeting up with Jaha and Emily. We still had to clean our fish at the cleaning station across the mouth of the Russian and hike back to the car. Then we ran into some friends from Girdwood, Jaelyn Rockman and Carl Roesner, and stopped to swap fishing stories. At the cleaning station we ran into another Girdwoodian and chatted with him a spell.
"Hey, guys, be really careful," he said before turning the table over to us. "There are a ton of bears around."
"Thanks, man. We will."
I had thirty minutes left to see.
We filleted our fish, wrapped them in garbage bags, and slid them into John's pack. We loaded up and began hiking back to the parking lot, bantering back and forth, laughing, making ourselves well heard as one does in bear country, filling lulls in the conversation with an occasional "Hey, bear!" or a whistle or my signature bear-be-gone call, "Hootie-Hoo," inspired by a hip-hop song I was fond of as a teenager. About three-quarters of the way back, we passed four guys in camo and fatigue greens on their way to The Sanctuary, poles in one hand, cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon gripped in the other.
"Hey, how's it going?" I asked with a nod and a smile.
They tromped on by as if we didn't exist. John and I stopped a second and looked at each other. "That was weird," John said. "I wonder what the hell their problem is."
"They sure didn't seem to be having much fun. How can you not have fun going fishing? Maybe it's their taste in beer. I hear fish can smell PBR a mile away." We laughed and continued on.
I had five minutes left.
A little farther up we came upon a surprise in the trail -- two cans of Pabst, one mostly empty, the other unopened. Both were dented. "Score!" John shouted as he bent down to pick them up. As rude as those guys were, at least we would get a beer out of the deal. "Thanks, guys!" John slid the empty one into the top pocket of my pack, popped the other, took a swig, and passed it to me. We walked on.
We reached the intersection where the riverside Angler Trail meets the path leading to the stairs and turned the corner. There, moments from the safety of the car, Maya glued herself to my side and let out a low, eerie growl.
We hit the brakes. Blocking the trail thirty feet ahead, just below the stairs to the Grayling parking lot, was the hind end of a grizzly. It glanced over its shoulder, then whipped around to face us in the midsummer twilight. I slowly reached down and grabbed Maya by the scruff of her neck. John took a couple of steps backward so we'd be standing side by side, making us look bigger, nothing to mess with.
"What do you want to do here?" I whispered without taking my eyes off the bear.
"Let's give it a second."
"I don't know, I don't like this."
Between the two of us, we'd encountered a lot of bears through the years. This one wasn't like any of the others. Instead of the typical bear behavior -- the take-note-of-humans-and-trundle-along routine, or better yet, take note and run for the hills -- this one held its ground, hackles raised. Then it began huffing and woofing and bouncing to and fro on its front paws. We needed to get out of there. Now.
We backpedaled slowly, calmly, keeping an eye on the bear while negotiating a right-hand turn in reverse at the corner where the path to the stairs intercepted the trail paralleling the river. We would continue upriver, we'd decided, and take a roundabout way to the car, giving that bear plenty of space. Once we made the corner, we were out of sight. We continued up the trail a ways, and I let go of Maya. She shook herself, then scampered on ahead. John and I relaxed our shoulders and picked up our pace.
"Whoa, that was kind of crazy," I said. "Something must have really pissed that thing off. I wonder if those guys we just passed . . . Oh shit!"
We screeched to a halt. Up ahead, the alders were shaking violently. John grabbed me by my shoulders and yanked me backward a step. My stomach plunged. My heart felt like a fist trying to pound its way out of my chest. Was that bear stalking us? Had it circled around to cut us off ? Instantly, and without need for discussion, we about-faced and started hoofing it back the way we'd just come. We didn't get far.
In a flash, the bear we thought was now behind us came tearing around the corner in front of us so fast it had to dip its shoulder to make the turn. Head lowered, ears flattened against its neck, eyes on fire, it took a running swipe at Maya. Maya yelped and leapt sideways off the trail, avoiding the blow. Without breaking stride, it took a running swipe at John. John launched sideways into the alders with such propulsion he flew out of his wader shoes, leaving them behind on the trail. The bear blew by him like a missile, eyes locked on mine.
Those eyes, I remember them as yellow and burning like comets. Those eyes would be the last thing I would ever see.