Summer reading: a true bear story, traveling ‘Turn Again’

Beyond the Bear: How I learned to live and love again after being blinded by a Bear, Globe Pequot Press, 212 pages by Dan Bigley and Debra McKinney
One of the problems with a good bear story is that Alaskans like to hear every grim detail of an encounter gone wrong, then they sit back and talk amongst themselves about what the victim of the attack should have done. But what kind of a life does the victim live afterwards? And how does that contribute to the agony?

Beyond the Bear gives readers a look at what happens after the news of an attack is long forgotten. Dan Bigley’s fishing trip to the Russian and Kenai Rivers on July 14, 2003 ended in a bear attack at the parking lot. The grizzly came tearing off the trail and in an instant was on top of him, crushing his skull and robbing him of his eye sight.
Debra McKinney, whose feature articles in the Anchorage Daily News for many years endeared her to readers, tells his story. She recalled the attack reports, how Dan was lost in a drug-induced coma as doctors fought to save his life.
“Five years later, I came into the story. I found out he was back in the state and thought I would do a story on where is he now. It ran on the front page. I felt like he had so much more to say that was important for people to hear,” McKinney recalled. “It was the kind of story I couldn’t just walk away from.”

Bigley worked for Denali Family Services taking children on outdoor excursions. He was 25 years old at the time of the attack and entering into a brand new relationship. After the attack, he went through five surgeries, many therapies and retraining at a school for the blind.
That was in 2008. In 2010, Dan began talking to McKinney about the book collaberation. She agreed after her initial reservations due the logistics of co-writing. By 2010, she was deep into long interviews with Dan and going back and forth with him on individual book sections. Since Dan is now blind, McKinney was driving from her home in Palmer to Anchorage to read aloud chapters for fact checking. “Driving that distance was time consuming, but it was what we thought we needed to do.”
Then Dan purchased talking software whereby McKinney could email chapters that his computer would read aloud to him. Two years and two publishers later, Beyond the Bear was completed. The first publisher, incidently, created a book jacket with an attacking bear reared up on the cover and a mountain behind it. They didn’t like the sensationalist images on the cover, which made a cartoon of such an emotionally charged life changing event. They fired that publisher.
Today, Dan Bigley continues to work as clinical director for Denali Family Services – overseeing the care for emotonally disturbed children as the director of therapeutic foster care. He will be teaching a social work course as an adjunct instructor at the University of Alaska Anchorage this fall and won the 2008 Alaskan of the Year Award from the Governor’s Committee on Employment and Rehabilitation for People with Disabilities.
Bigley doesn’t harbor ill feelings toward the bear. The bear wasn’t found and it wasn’t shot. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“I knew when I came to Alaska that I was coming to a place where my spot on the food chain was a lot different from where I lived in California or Arizona. I spent a lot of time living out of a back pack. I knew I accepted that risk,” he said. “I felt I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. She was a moma bear doing what moma bears do. I understood that possibility and risk.”
Working together created a unique friendship that continues to this day between McKinney and Bigley. That’s an unusual turn when an intense project is finally complete. “I talk to him almost every day,” McKinney said.

Turn Again: A Novel, by Kris Farmen, 385 pages, VPD House Inc., of Anchorage

The Gulf of Kenay was once a place of shamanic intrigue and racial cruelty as a boy moved between the American “civilized” towns like Kenai and his grandfather’s village near modern-day Cooper Landing. This world once existed in reality, but has been forgotten amid homesteading histories that built over it, and road projects paving and reshaping the old maps of the Kenai Peninsula.
Author Kris Farmen brings it back in the person of Aleksandr Campbell, a man of mixed Russian, Dena’ina Athabascan, and American heritage. His story, told to anthropologist Rebecca Ashford from his prison cell as he awaits his execution for a double homicide, paints a 19th century world that looks familiar at times and foreign in others. The story ends in Kodiak in another pivotal time in Alaska history.
Farmen holds degrees in anthropology and archeology, a factual platform on which he built the stories with a greater authenticity than one might feel from other so-called historical works. His employment on a Kenai Peninsula historical project gave him access to little-known historical details he uses to create the environment for his fictional character in Campbell. Readers will envision a time when Point Possession, now an unoccupied village west of Hope, was still occuppied as a village. At that time the emerald waters running through Cooper Landing supplied all the fish the village of Squilantnu or Squilant (two names identified from the past) could want, a time when the Resurrection Creek Trail system formed a likely trading route between the two. The dozens of place names that figure into the plot will supply avid hikers and outdoors people new ideas for trips in years to come.

Author Kris Farmen

One way Farmen gained insights was through a project for the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. It involved an inventory of all of the historic cabins in the refuge. “My job was to gather all known information about a couple of hundred cabins known to be in the refuge,” Farmen said. “I had read, as part of my job over the years, a lot about the history and anthropology of the Athabascan people.”
Farmen lives in a cabin in nearby Anchor Point, but splits time living in Anchorage for his writing work.
VPD is a new publisher based in Alaska that approached Farmen about publishing his book. “The old model of New York publishing is sort of crumbling into the sea. They are a new publishing house, with Vered Mares, editor, who seeks out top shelf manuscripts. She comes from a publishing family,” he said.

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Posted by on May 8th, 2013 and filed under Feature, More News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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