DOUG PEACOCK SERVED two tours in the Vietnam War as a medic with the U.S. Army Special Forces. To find peace, he spent much of the time imagining he was somewhere else—Yellowstone National Park.
When he got back, he sought solitude there, and lived amongst a landscape that he’d previously only dreamed about. He soon encountered grizzly bears, and as he got to know these creatures, he came to respect and love them. They changed his life forever.
Peacock, who is the real-life basis for the character George Hayduke in his friend Edward Abbey’s book, The Monkey Wrench Gang, has since devoted the last half-century to writing about and advocating for the grizzly bear, which remains a threatened species due to decades of hunting and habitat loss. A new film called Grizzly Country covers Peacock’s life story and passion for grizzlies. National Geographic caught up with the author to learn about what it’s like to live safely around the animals, how to prevent bear attacks, and other life lessons.
After serving in the Vietnam War, author Doug Peacock spent years alone in the Wyoming and Montana wilderness observing grizzly bears.
How’d you decide to go to into the wilderness after the war? Did you love the out-of-doors from a young age?
Yes, I was raised in the woods of Michigan. After the war I was really out of sorts, like countless other vets. I couldn’t talk to anybody. So I went to the one place I was comfortable, the wilderness, in the northern Rocky Mountains.
As the snow melted, I went north, to the Wind River wilderness [in Wyoming]. Then I came down with malaria. I had to go to a flatter, gentler place, and that was Yellowstone.
How’d you come into contact with grizzly bears?
There were grizzlies there. I wasn’t looking for them, but I ran into them, and they got my attention. They’ve been part of my life ever since. Those bears saved my life.
In grizzly country, humans are put in their proper place—you are not the dominant creature on the landscape. It’s a matter of getting yourself outside yourself. Your senses are forced outward. You see better. You smell better. It’s not yourself which is the centre of the universe. It’s an enforced humility.
Do you remember the first time you encountered a grizzly bear?
Yes. I was in the Yellowstone area soaking in a hot spring. It was a cold October day, and I looked across the meadow, and there was a mother grizzly and two yearling cubs, about 200 to 300 feet away. I knew you weren’t supposed to get that close.
The wind is blowing, and I’m naked in this hotspring. So I decide to climb a lodgepole pine. I grab the low branches and stand up, but because [of the shock of quickly rising from hot water], I blacked out. I fell and cut a huge gash in my forehead. Blood is running down into my eyes. I’m terrified, so I scramble to the top of the tree. When I arrive at the top, I discover it isn’t much taller than a Christmas tree.
It’s blowing like hell and I’m naked and bleeding and the bears, without ever looking at me, grazing in the meadow, come within about 25 feet. I’m up there like some silly species of towhee or wren, clinging to the top of this tree. They never even looked up.
That’s amazing. But this was not your closest call with grizzlies, right?
Right, I’ve been charged a couple dozen times—almost always by moms with cubs, and almost always it was my fault, mainly in the early days.
Mother bears only care that you’re not a threat to her cubs. But they don’t always charge. A couple years ago, a mother grizzly caught me and my daughter in a raging wind, and we huddled behind a rock and I told my daughter not to move.
The mother stood up, moving her nose around to sniff... and decides we’re not a threat. She proceeds to walk right past us, 20 feet away. She stopped at the edge of a cliff, and nursed her yearling cub for like seven minutes, right in front of us. It was really magic.
Wow. Were you not afraid?
I’ve just had enough experience with wild grizzlies that... I don’t have that kind of fear. I don’t do anything that to a bear would seem aggressive. I don’t look at the bear, or shout at the bear, or make any movements, and if I do, I do very slowly. The people who get mauled are the people who run, and climb trees, and yell at them.
So if a grizzly is charging you, you should remain totally still.
Yes. Completely. I have precipitated charges by merely reaching for something. And don’t look at the bear, as that’s considered aggressive. A grizzly bear that stands up isn’t going to maul you. Unless you do something stupid, it’s just trying to see and smell better.
How did you decide to begin filming the bears?
When I lived alone in the backcountry of Yellowstone, even a wacko ‘Nam vet could tell the bears weren’t doing well, being shot into extinction—as many as 270 grizzlies were killed from 1968 to 1973, according to researcher Frank Craighead. (The bears were listed as threatened in 1975.)
These bears had done me a modestly great service, and I had to return the favour. So I filmed them, and used that film to advertise their plight. I shared my film [with National Geographic and others] and went around showing the footage to people and talking about the bears. And by that time I’d started a family, so I began writing about it all to make a living, and I’m still working for the bears.
I still go around talking about them, and have been fighting the delisting effort [in which the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed taking the grizzly bear off the Endangered Species List, a move that was overturned]. (Related: Will grizzlies survive being hunted?)
We have a record number of illegal grizzly kills in the Yellowstone area, beyond anything in the historical record. [It’s mostly] by people that don’t know better. They don’t know grizzly bears, they tend to fear what they don’t know, and they hate what they fear.
How’d you meet Edward Abbey, and what was your friendship like?
I met Ed in 1968 and we started camping together. He was one of my closest friends ever, but it was a cantankerous friendship. He was a grouch and I’m not piece of cake myself. All the important things in our lives, we did together and collaborated on. I was alone with him in his last lucid minutes; I told him where he was going to be buried and that was the last time I saw him smile. I buried him in a beautiful spot in the desert.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.