A Book About Bears

Laura Pritchett and the cover of her book

A book about Colorado bears by a University of Northern Colorado's faculty member is helping fill the public's need for information about the creatures as human-bear encounters continue to increase in frequency.

The Greatest Bear Stories of Colorado by Laura Pritchett, an award-winning author who this fall started teaching creative writing and literature courses at UNC, is a wide-ranging look at Colorado's bears, including the grizzlies that once roamed the state and the black bears that still do.

In keeping with its title, the book has numerous stories about bears that run the gamut from the historical - Teddy Roosevelt's hunting of them, Zebulon Pike's purchase of them to put on display and the death of the state's last grizzly - to the contemporary - the death of a logger, two campers who nearly lost their lives and the scientists who crawl into bear dens.

Some of the stories are humorous and some are tragic. They're all entertaining.

But the painstakingly researched book - Pritchett interviewed wildlife biologists, historians, Native Americans, hikers, ranchers and residents whose lives have intersected with the bears in the state - is more than stories. It also includes some bear biology basics, tips on how to reduce the chances of bear encounters whether you're at home or in the woods and a compendium of media reports about humorous and not-so-humorous bear-human interactions.

Pritchett even takes time to investigate the ongoing debate whether there might still be a grizzly bear or two patrolling some remote section of one of the federal wilderness areas in the state. Her conclusion: "The more I talked to people in the know, the more I became open to the idea that there might, in fact, still be a chance that some exist, though not in any numbers to remain a viable population."

How Pritchett came to write the book is an interesting story in itself. She was approached by a publisher of natural history books about writing an addition to a series of books about bears. Although flattered, she wasn't inclined to accept the offer because she couldn't imagine writing a book that wasn't her idea, like her previous five works were.

Then one night while she was still mulling over the offer, she heard a bear blowing air - known as "huffing" - just outside a bedroom window. Although bears are frequent nighttime visitors to her home at the base of the foothills west of Fort Collins (she most often sees the shy bruins' scat rather than the actual animals) - she'd never heard one huffing and took the close encounter as a sign.

"Maybe it was the universe telling me to write the book or just serendipity," she remembers. "But that's when I decided to go ahead and do the book."

Pritchett spent a year traveling across the state doing interviews and writing the book and is glad she went ahead with the project despite what she said was a "huge learning curve" that included becoming familiar with facts like at this time of the year, black bears preparing for hibernation consume 20,000 a calories a day and it's that quest that drives them to look in trash cans, chicken coops and bird feeders for food higher in calories than their main fall diet of acorns and berries.

Although she's facing a bit of a learning curve transitioning to her role at UNC as a full-time member of the English department's faculty, Pritchett is no stranger to teaching. She's been a faculty member at Denver's Lighthouse Writers Workshop and also works as a writing coach. She holds a Ph.D. in literature from Purdue University.

Her fiction includes the novel Sky Bridge, which won the WILLA Fiction Award from Women Writing the West; and the short story collection Hell's Bottom, Colorado, which won the Milkweed National Fiction Prize and the PEN USA Award. She's also the editor/co-editor of three anthologies: The Pulse of the River, Home Land: Ranching and a West that Works, and Going Green: True Tales from Gleaners, Scavengers, and Dumpster Divers.

For more about Pritchett's writing, visit her website: http://www.laurapritchett.com/

- UNC News Service

Selected Excerpts from the preface of The Greatest Bear Stories of Colorado
When I was asked to write this book, I hesitated. For one thing, I didn't know that much about bears—either the black bears that now occupy our state, or the grizzlies that once did (and perhaps still do). I'm an outdoorsperson, and I'd classify myself as a student of Colorado's backcountry and wildlife, but that made me no expert. But while it's true that writers often write what they know, it's equally true that writers write what they want to know—what they're curious about. And it's true I was curious about bears.

My other worries about writing a bear book were broader: I didn't want to write a romantic-sweet bear book. The bears of our cultural zeitgeist make me queasy—gift shops make me cringe, with bear-paw coffee mugs and stylized bears with Indian maidens scantily clad. The nearest restaurant/shop to me, in fact, has all this stuff, along with a stuffed bear cub standing with a sign in his paws: Please Seat Yourself, which you can do, and then stare at the jackalope on the wall.

Nor did I want to write a horror-thriller book about bears and their menacing ways. The other end of the cultural mythology is just as erroneous. Movies about human-eating grizzlies and orphan-producing bears make me wonder why humans often wish to make wild animals into something far more dangerous than they actually are. Our grossly distorted perception of them seems very stubborn—perhaps an innate fear of predators contributes to this, even when there's ample evidence to suggest that only very rarely are we anything except the top of the food chain. In any case, it seems we've often been too busy killing these animals rather than observing them for the creatures that they are, and I certainly didn't want to contribute to that cultural mythology.

So why write a book about the best bear stories of Colorado? In the end, because of one reason: curiosity is one definition of love. The more I learned about real bears, the more I loved bears. Not in the hug 'em goofy sense, but in the deep respect and care that goes along with real emotion.

My hope, then, has been to paint the real portrait of bears. I am not here to reveal bears as dangerous creatures, although, yes, both black bears and grizzlies can be dangerous, and in this book there are some stories of tragedy and violence. Nor am I presenting them as cute cuddly things, although that famous photograph of Theodore Roosevelt bottle-feeding a bear is awfully endearing, and the cubs I've seen surely make one want to cuddle. But in the end, bears are what they are—wild animals, full of curiosity, strength, playfulness, boredom, activity. I wanted to get to know them and the people who have—by choice or not—found their lives intersecting with the bruins of Colorado.

~ ~ ~

It's fair to say that I spend a lot of time outside in the mountains—hiking or cross-country
skiing or snowshoeing or camping—and I have to admit that I haven't seen that many bears. When I have, it's usually been a quick glimpse, save for the times when a bear is up in a tree and stuck there. For that reason, perhaps, I didn't know that much about their habitat and habits, their role in ecosystems, and about the people who know them best. The greatest gift in writing this book was that I've come to know the bear as more than a creature that rips up my lawn furniture or beats up neighbor's trash cans. Their habits, their preoccupations, their physiology, their personalities have—at least a little—been opened to me.

It is perhaps the case that once you start to know a creature, you can fall in love, and if you fall in love, you want to protect. Thus, the final lesson for me in writing this book is the renewed conviction and belief that this great state has the great gift of bears—and therefore the deep responsibility of keeping them safe and their habitat wild. Our record thus far hasn't been stellar—from the extermination of grizzlies to the current bear-human interface problems—but the fact that Colorado has bear stories to tell offers hope. There are real and tangible things we can do to protect them and their wilderness. And the best way to do that, perhaps, is to know their stories. This book contains, then, the best stories I could find. Enjoy!

Copyright 2012 by Laura Pritchett. Used with the author's permission. All rights reserved.



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