AD Main Menu

Heart of survival was 'Beyond the Bear' for mauling victim Dan Bigley

The story of Dan Bigley's recovery after almost being killed by an Alaska brown bear would be valuable to anyone who has had to try to survive, adapt and get on with life after serious trauma. We can all learn from his wisdom. Courtesy Deb McKinney

Anyone unlucky enough to be mauled by a bear in Alaska is mauled a second time as soon as the news hits the street. Sometimes the second mauling hurts worse than the first.

Although many Alaskans know more about the causes and avoidance of bear attacks than the average citizen of the world, there are other Alaskans who know just enough to get themselves or others into trouble. Unfortunately, these know-it-alls are more than willing to share their misinformation with the rest of us.

Dan Bigley learned this lesson first hand. His horrific encounter with a brown bear at the Russian River Campground in 2003 become one of the most publicized and discussed maulings in Alaska history. Within hours, Alaska’s bear-mauling “experts” were telling anyone who would listen exactly what he did wrong.

Blind and nearly dead

Bigley has written a book about his life since the bear attack left him blind and nearly dead. “Beyond the Bear: How I Learned to Live and Love Again after Being Blinded by a Bear” was co-written with Debra McKinney, a veteran Alaskan reporter and an excellent writer.

The first chapter, which describes Bigley’s surgeon’s initial impressions and actions, is as fast-paced and emotionally charged as a best-selling medical thriller. Few readers will be able to shake the book loose after the hook is set.

The book describes the attack in graphic detail, as well as Bigley can piece it together based on what he recalls and what friends and others on scene told him later. But where Bigley’s book makes its mark is in recounting what happened after he was carried out of the brush by rescuers. How does the victim survive, adapt, get on with the rest of his life?

As you would expect, it’s not easy. Adding to his excruciating pain and mental anguish, like most mauling victims Bigley had nightmares in which he relived the experience of being overpowered and maimed, his life derailed by a wild animal. Many of his nightmares replayed “every aspect of my mauling and from every possible angle.” But he also dreamed of being chased by thugs with firearms, thrown to the ground and “sprayed with lead.” He’d feel the bullets hit “one after another before finally lunging up in bed and gasping for breath.” A trauma therapist helped him slowly adjust the nightmares until the bear was no longer a threat.

Bigley is hard-nosed about his injuries and his torturous path to recovery. He never drifts into platitudes, religious or otherwise. The events he describes – not just combat fishing on the Russian River, but other experiences, like watching beluga whales in Turnagain Arm and listening to the Girdwood band The Photonz – infuse his story with Alaska’s version of street cred. Even if you never met Bigley, you know Alaskans just like him, at least on the surface.

Bigley’s injuries were about as severe as a body can absorb and live to tell about it. His story, therefore, is a life lesson worth heeding. Bigley’s experience and advice are not only relevant to the few who have been or will be mauled by a bear. Survivors of severe vehicle collisions, shootings, muggings, and other disfiguring and life-altering accidents and crimes will find inspiration on almost every page. In fact, we can all learn from Bigley’s wit and wisdom.

Finally, there’s the love story. Bigley and the future love of his life connected for the first time the night before he met the bear on the Russian River. It’s no big secret that they’re destined to be a match made in heaven. But negotiating the uncharted twists and turns of the just-barely committed after one of you has been blinded and scarred by a bear lends a whole different meaning to being mauled.

Reimagining our beastly fears

Bigley didn’t do anything wrong the night he was mauled, except occupy precisely the wrong place at precisely the wrong time. More to the point, almost everything he’s done since has been the right thing.

He matriculated with the University of Alaska–Anchorage and completed a graduate degree with straight A’s. He married, had kids. He found a job as a clinician, working with emotionally disturbed children. He’s now a director of therapeutic foster care services. He earned the Alaskan of the Year Award in 2008.

And he’s still fishing.

Like many survivors of bear attacks, Bigley knows why the bear attacked – it was defending its cubs – and he doesn’t blame the bear for his predicament. “Beyond the Bear” does a good job of explaining why bears attack and how, despite the best advice, the outcome of a bear attack is never entirely predictable.

Alaska is chock-full of guides. Hunting guides. Fishing guides. Wilderness guides. However, while reading “Beyond the Bear,” I realized there’s another type of guide, one who is in very short supply.

We need a few "mauling guides," experienced survivors who are willing to show us the ropes and keep us from making beginner’s mistakes in the unlikely event we stumble into their area of expertise. Bigley was fortunate to gain the advice, inspiration, and friendship of Lee Hagmeier, mauled by a brown bear in Juneau in 1959. We need guides like Hagmeier, who visited Bigley within days of his hospital admission, offering his unconditional help.

The certification process for a mauling guide involves years of pain, suffering, and introspection. I don’t wish that on anybody. But I’m grateful that Dan Bigley has written a book that can lead other survivors through those dark nightmares and help Alaskans reimagine the worst of our beastly fears.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact him at rickjsinnott(at)gmail.com