Rick Bass – “The Lost Grizzlies”

Fourteen years have passed since the publication of “The Lost Grizzlies: A Search for Survivors in the Wilderness of Colorado,” by Rick Bass.

And it’s been 33 years since Ed Wiseman was attacked by a grizzly in southern Colorado. Wiseman was being mauled but managed to kill the bear using an arrow as a spear. He spent a month in the hospital. Wiseman, an experienced hunting guide, was no doubt shocked by the grizzly attack. After all, the last confirmed grizzly sighting in Colorado was 27 years prior, in 1952.

There’s an old clip of a Wiseman interview embedded here in a recent piece on CBS-4 piece about whether the grizzly bear might one day return to Colorado. And Wiseman was interviewed in May 2012 in a beautifully edited piece inter-cutting the 1979 account with his memories today.

There are plenty of believers. The Colorado Grizzly Coalition is hard at work, trying to demonstrate their existence today.  “As the Grizzly is officially considered extirpated from Colorado, any potential surviving bears are not receiving the study, legislation and, most importantly, the protection they deserve. The Colorado Grizzly Coalition aims to change that. If we can find solid evidence of this great and noble animal in Colorado, then State and Federal agencies will be obligated to act.”

In 2006, a sighting by hunters sent helicopters (how was that going to work?) scrambling, according to this story in The Denver Post.

I know it’s possible the grizzlies are gone from Colorado, but the bear Wiseman killed was a sow and had given birth: where are her cubs?  What happened to them?

I can think of no better way to ponder this possibility than to read “The Lost Grizzlies.” This volume could have been published last week or last year. All the events in this account could be re-created today. The search, after all, is still on.

Going backcountry with grizzly expert Doug Peacock and biologist Dennis Sizemore, Bass makes three trips into The San Juan Mountains to search for tracks, claw marks and scat.  Or a bear. A bear sighting or photo would do the trick, too.

“The Lost Grizzlies” is as much about Rick and his erstwhile collection of buddies, including the singular Peacock character, as it is about the actual search.  There is time for introspection and nature-gazing and I drank every word like I was sipping from a fine bottle of tequila. (Sorry, I don’t drink the George Dickel bourbon these guys prefer.)

The account is complete with the supply-gathering and car repairs that go with this group’s efforts and so you get a little taste of the communities near where they searched, such as Del Norte.

Most challenging of all, however, is how do you go find a mammal that doesn’t want to be seen? That can smell you coming from miles and miles away? That knows every escape route and hiding place?

The slow-motion hikes are beautifully written:

Stopping to examine an elk skeleton:

“We piece the scapula and a femur and tibia together and place a few ribs back in their proper position. We spy the skull, with antlers still attached—he probably died twenty or so years ago—and reverently, we pull that from the soil, too. It’s a huge royal eight-point, the only one I’ve ever seen. Without saying a word, we pass around the great skull and admire it. Moss has grown on the bald pate, and the antlers are worn, whittled by the teeth of squirrels and porcupines. The old boy died in the fall, and on the trail. Almost certainly he fell to a predator—more noble, perhaps, than succumbing to winter weakness and starvation. We lay the head where it belongs, near the scapula and some stray vertebrae—as gently as if laying a favorite old dog to rest—and continue on our way.”

Bass believes there are bears. Or, at least, compounds belief with hope and some logic and the result is a sense that you might be able to will a grizzly into your midst. Just maybe. Finally, on a solo hike at a high elevation, comes the encounter that we have waited for and Bass believes and makes us believe, too. Alas, all the exacting scientists and fussy wildlife officers want actual physical evidence—even a fresh hair will do—but Bass and the team are unsuccessful in producing such a worthy tidbit. (No spoiler alert there.) Or are they? Bass is sure he saw a grizzly. Sure but not, you know, positive. He has no proof. The moment was brief, but close. It’s a heart-pounding scene.

I could launch a couple dozen superlatives about Bass’ writing style, but I’ll just leave it at this—I was drawn along effortlessly from the first word to the last.

So the outcome is no surprise, but the journey is immensely satisfying with Bass’ smooth and engaging prose as our guide. I wish Bass would go back and write an update. It’s time. They are out there.  I hope.

2 responses to “Rick Bass – “The Lost Grizzlies”

  1. On page 168-169, Bass claims to have found proof of grizzlies in Colorado. “Our hearts have already told us what Denis and the pathologist will later confirm: there are grizzlies still living in Colorado.” However, I haven’t been able to find any information beyond the book about the results of their research. Thoughts?

  2. I think the general scientific / biology / wildlife management community would agree that there are no grizzlies in Colorado any longer. I wonder what Rick Bass would say these days, too. Personally, I’d like to think they are out there.

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