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The Lost Grizzlies, by Rick Bass

Review by Lynda La Rocca

Wildlife – April 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

The Lost Grizzlies: A Search for Survivors in the Wilderness of Colorado
by Rick Bass
ISBN 0-395-71759-0

Published in 1995 by the Houghton Mifflin Company

So how did I miss the extraordinary news that grizzly bears still roam the back country of southwestern Colorado? I’ve lived in Colorado almost 14 years, yet Rick Bass’s book, The Lost Grizzlies, contains the first confirmation that’s ever come to my attention.

And I easily could have missed that, too. Bass’s announcement, nestled into page 168 of a 241-page book, is made so offhandedly that it must be read several times before it finally sinks in.

The discovery is revealed after analysis of hair found in a scat sample collected by Bass during a 1991 search for grizzlies in the San Juan Mountains. “Our hearts,” Bass writes, “have already told us what Dennis and the pathologist will later confirm, or punctuate, when they look at the scat sample’s hair under the microscope: there are grizzlies still living in Colorado.”

This unusual, albeit highly engaging, account of the search for a surviving pocket of Colorado grizzlies unfolds like a quest for the Holy Grail. Bass obviously wants to believe in the existence of a reclusive, highly adaptable handful of the giant bears. Actually, he seems to need to believe in them. For Bass, grizzlies must dwell in Colorado because they represent a last tenuous link between humans and the awe-inspiring spiritual power that pervades America’s few remaining unspoiled places.

So he wills the grizzlies to survive, then scatters a handful of vaguely scientific assertions, tantalizing physical evidence, and possible sightings throughout the book to advance his desire.

And that’s what makes Bass’s account so confusing. On one hand, Bass wants the public to know that he and his companions, including noted grizzly expert Doug Peacock (the archetype of George Washington Hayduke in Edward Abbey novels), have found proof of the grizzly’s existence in Colorado. On the other, he’s terrified of turning us yahoos into such fervent believers that we charge into the mountains seeking our own mystical encounters–and possibly destroying the griz once and for all. “The last thing we want,” Bass writes, “is a starry-eyed rush of backpackers in the San Juans, all trying to ‘help’ the bear by finding grizzly scat.”

So after making his startling assertion, Bass fudges. Even his own sighting of “a huge bear…a chocolate-brown, round-headed, humped-back bear…nearly as big” as a moose, metamorphoses into a doubtful vision. Maybe I just imagined I saw a bear. Maybe it was really an elk. It seems unlikely that someone with Bass’s extensive experience as a hunter and woodsman (of which he frequently reminds us) would be unable to differentiate between an elk and a gigantic bear at a distance of ten yards.

But while I question Bass’s reason for writing this book–and remain uncertain of what, if anything, was truly discovered–there’s no way I can quarrel with his writing ability. Bass portrays his surroundings with such breathtaking vividness and attention to detail that you can hear the whirring wings of a blue grouse exploding from its rocky perch, see the sizzling lightning strikes of a high country storm, feel each step across spongy tundra, and taste salty sweat after a quick scramble up a daunting talus slope.

If the joy for you is in the journey, don’t miss The Lost Grizzlies. Read it to delight in Bass’s descriptions of slippery mountain paths, frosty mornings, and elk the color of butter. Read it for his portrait of Doug Peacock, last of the wild men seeking out the last of the wild places. Read it to conjure images of “…mounds and mounds of sweet moist chanterelles, a pungent smell that’s part fruit, part meat, part sex, part forest, part wine, part flower.”

And just let the bears be.

–Lynda La Rocca