Q&A: A chat with bear mauling survivor Dan Bigley

Mike Dunham

In 2003, Dan Bigley was attacked by a brown bear at the Russian River. Massive head injuries left him blind. His ordeal is newly chronicled in "Beyond the Bear," co-written with Alaska writer Debra McKinney. Not only did Bigley survive, in January 2008, he was named Alaskan of the Year by the Governor's Committee on Employment and Rehabilitation of People With Disabilities.

The book was released last week and has already received a positive review from People magazine.

We spoke to Bigley by phone from his office at Denali Family Services, where he is director of therapeutic foster care.

ADN: How did this book come about?

BIGLEY: For the first couple of years after the mauling, everyone was saying, "You ought to write a book." I decided I should hire a professional writer to help me ... Deb called me with interest in doing a follow-up. ... There's a whole process to getting an agent and a proposal together, but we really started nailing it down about 2010. We wrote the book in the first person, then rewrote it in the third person and then back to the first person, which was a great move for the book. It made it stronger and better.

ADN: What message do you want the reader to take from your book?

BIGLEY: I'll answer that in three parts. First, I really can't take all the credit for what's happened. There's no way I'd be here today with the success stories I've had if not for the incredible community that we're all a part of. Our community's ability to respond was immense, the rescue, the medical and social service care, vocational rehab, The Center for the Blind. It's not really our independence that's so wonderful. Truly, our greatness as human beings comes from our interdependence.

I also want people to realize that there are some beautiful, inspiring things happening in this world. It's an opportunity to reflect on the goodness of our species. It's not always as bad as the 10-minute news cycle makes it out to be.

The third thing is that disability is nothing more than an intellectual, academic concept. There are blind people who are really disabled, not engaged in their pursuit of happiness. There are others who are completely engaged. They are lawyers, teachers, artists. The more I've been engaged, the bigger my life gets and the smaller my disability gets.

ADN: What kind of unexpected support did you get?

BIGLEY: I had residents of Anchorage sending my family moose stew when they were with me in the hospital. There was a guy from Talkeetna who offered up one of his eyeballs if it would help me see. And Lee Hagmeier flew all the way in from Juneau to talk to me, to tell me things were going to get better.

(Hagmeier may be the only other person who has been totally blinded by a bear. In the book he tells Bigley, "I never expected to get a brother. We are a tribe of two.)

ADN: Is happiness a choice?

BIGLEY: There are biological, social and psychological factors. So I think the answer is, to varying degrees, yes and no. I was a happy guy before my accident and a happy guy after. It would have been easy for me to wallow in bitterness, a "Why me?" state of life.

When this first happened, as I was lying on the forest floor and about to die, I had a choice. To go ahead and die, which would have been the easy thing, or to fight. And I made a deal with myself that I would live and never question that decision even though I knew there would be some very hard times ahead.

I have a lot of gratitude when I think how close I came to dying. I've had the chance to have kids, to experience love, to fulfill dreams.

I think it's about perspective. People hear the story and say to me, "You're so unlucky."

But I feel the exact opposite.

Meet the authors of 'Beyond the Bear'

7 p.m. Sunday: Virtual, online book launch, an online reading and interactive Q&A. Here.

Or click on the Lanch Party/Ustream Live "Beyond the Bear" Facebook page to join in.

1-4 p.m. Sunday, April 14: Signing at Blue-Hollomon Gallery, 3555 Arctic Blvd.

7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 17: On Stage Live. Dan Bigley will be interviewed by Alaska author Kris Farmen at Wilda Marston Theatre in Z.J. Loussac Library, 3600 Denali St.

3 p.m. Friday, April 19: Alaska Press Club Book Panel. Debra McKinney will participate in a discussion with other journalists turned authors. Signing to follow. University of Alaska Anchorage Administration Building, Room 148, 3211 Providence Drive (behind the library).

4:30-6:30 p.m. Friday, April 19: Presentation and signing. Dan Bigley will present at Alaska Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, 3903 Taft St.

5 p.m. Monday, April 22: Presentation/reading/signing with both collaborators at the UAA Bookstore, 2905 Providence Drive

7 p.m. Tuesday, April 23: Presentation/reading/signing with both collaborators at the Anchorage Museum auditorium, 625 C St. (enter on Seventh Ave.)