ARTICLE - Four Bears

Reflecting on a year of travels to the wild outposts of the earth, author Dan Richards writes about three bears that crossed paths with his forebears both familial and literary, before a personal close encounter with a fourth...


1927, 1956, 1982, 2017.

Four bears.
© Dan Richards


In 1927, whilst climbing in Canada, my great-great-uncle, I.A. Richards urinated on a grizzly bear 'in order to unnerve it.'

The best, indeed only, written account of the incident comes from a 2002 letter sent to the London Review of Books by a Mr. Jeremy Bernstein —

'In my freshman year at Harvard, I was one of at least two hundred students to take a General Education course in which I.A. Richards was a lecturer. He was one of the best I have ever heard. We also shared an interest in mountaineering. He gave a talk on climbing in the Canadian Rockies, the high point of which was an encounter with a bear. It came into a two-storey cabin where Richards was staying and seemed inclined to climb the stairs, up which Richards had retreated. Richards said the way he dealt with the bear was to pee on it from the balcony that overlooked the ground floor. The bear, he said, got the message and promptly left the cabin.'

My father vaguely remembers a version of the story from his childhood. The bear was apparently 'so disgusted' that it bolted from the cabin but I imagine the line between 'so disgusted that the bear left Ivor alone' and 'so disgusted and outraged that the bear ran upstairs and ripped him limb from limb' was gossamer thin and a replay might not have returned the same result.

The account is strange and intriguing. It seems to invite more questions than it answers. For a start there's the 70 years which elapsed between the Ivor meeting with the bear and a 2nd hand account posted to a London literary journal — a sketch of a moment in a Harvard talk perhaps chock full of such close calls and anecdotes. Ivor himself hated biography. In the LRB article which inspired Mr. Bernstein's letter, Terry Eagleton notes that Ivor studied History at Cambridge before giving it up to become Britain's first theorist of academic English; 'History, he remarked with glum accuracy, was simply a record of 'things which ought not to have happened'.' Personal history too. John Paul Russo's I.A. Richards: His Life & Work so focuses on the work, the cerebral that its subject might well have been a floating Futurama head in a vitrine during the late-20s — a time when he was actually spending his long school holidays gallivanting about Canada pissing on bears — but such were Ivor's wishes; such was his antipathy to prosopography that he insisted he be excised from his own biography.

So we only have fragments. Letters where he surfaces. Family stories. Photographs. Dorothy Pilley, adamantine mountaineer, suffragette, journalist, explorer and eventually Ivor's wife at the n'th time of asking, published an excellent memoir of the pair's climbing lives in 1935 (co-written by the two because nothing's simple, is it.) So young Ivor's in that a bit — proffering Champagne atop the Dent Blanche, having his hair set on fire by lightning, leaping crevasses in the dark… — but generally he's the man who wasn't there; a cypher at his own behest. You had to see him teaching, as Jeremy Bernstein did; catch him at Harvard and ask him about his off-stage life of derring-do, or be an unfortunate Grizzly bear.

Desolation at night.  © Dan Richards
Desolation at night.
© Dan Richards


In 2015, I set out to write an account of Ivor and Dorothy's climbing lives together, following in the footsteps and handholds of I.A.R. and D.E.P. in mountains across Europe whilst detailing their adventures around the world. One night in the Swiss Pennine Alps my father and I awoke to find our tent being raided by a fox who stole our milk and left several bite marks in Tim's boots. It must have had a taste for the marzipan tang of dubbin and UHT but in any case, my mind hopped straight to Ivor's bear and then skipped on to Jack Kerouac and the similar story of dairy-based larceny he relates in Alone on a Mountaintop. Kerouac's fox was a bear:

'One morning I found bear stool and signs of where the monster had taken a can of frozen milk and squeezed it in his paws and bit it with one sharp tooth trying to suck out the paste. In the foggy dawn I looked down the mysterious Ridge of Starvation with its fog-lost firs and its hills humping into invisibility, and the wind blowing the fog by like a faint blizzard and I realized that somewhere in the fog stalked the bear.'

Kerouac imagined all the attributes and stories of the bear, its life and times: 'He was Avalokitesvara the Bear, and his sign was the grey wind of autumn.' He sat awaiting the bear's return. It never did. [1]

In 1956 Kerouac spent 63 days stationed as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the Cascade Range of Washington State, inspired by the vedette stints of his friends and fellow buddhists Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen. In a letter to Jack a few months before he began his Desolation tour, Snyder described sentinel life in the sort of elliptical aphoristic terms which define so many of the Buddhist sutras — fire-watching, he writes, requires 'physical and mental toughness' whilst also allowing 'vast leisure' — words that would come back to haunt Jack as he became pretty crazed pretty quickly with too much time to think and only himself for company.

By the tenth day of his stay in the Desolation eyrie he'd run out of tobacco and was smoking coffee grounds; by the end of his tour he had rooted out and read every single piece of mouse-chewed paper in the attic, invented several imaginary friends and begun playing poker with them. Where Snyder and Whalen had been the big eyes and big ears, opened out, looking, listening, meditating, Kerouac struggled to live in the moment and felt strangely strained and afraid.

'In the middle of the night I woke up suddenly and my hair was standing on end – I saw a huge black shadow in my window. – Then I saw that it had a star above it, and realised that this was Mt Hozomeen (8080 feet) looking in my window from miles away near Canada. – I got up from the forlorn bunk with the mice scattering underneath and went outside and gasped to see black mountain shapes gianting all around, and not only that but the billowing curtains of the northern lights shift- ing behind the clouds. – It was a little too much for a city boy – the fear that the Abominable Snowman might be breathing behind me in the dark sent me back to bed where I buried my head inside my sleeping bag.' [2]

This is played for laughs of course, but the mystic loner is a central figure and theme in almost all of Kerouac's books; Zen bebop man-cub hobo exploring the great beyond. But the hermit's joy he later hymned wasn't his experience on Desolation, at least not very often. He had flashes of it but his notebooks and letters of the time make plain that he suffered, pined and gnawed his way through his just-over-two-months in a way reminiscent of one of Denis Johnson's addicts attempting cold turkey – fumbling at the monastic, striving for the ascetic, trying to remake himself closer to heaven – but writing a lot, albeit crazed and haunted by the void.

A black bear cub.   © Jim Henterly
A black bear cub.
© Jim Henterly

In Fire Season, Philip Connors lists the enduring qualifications and qualities needed to be a wilderness lookout based on his own experience and the writings and reminiscences of 'Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Edward Abbey, and Norman Maclean' —

  • Not blind, deaf, or mute — must be able to see fires, hear the radio, respond when called
  • Capability for extreme patience while waiting for smokes
  • One good arm to cut wood
  • Two good legs for hiking to a remote post
  • Ability to keep oneself amused
  • Tolerance for living in proximity to rodents
  • A touch of pyromania, though only of the nonparticipatory variety [3]

Jack Kerouac's name tops Connors's roll-call. Kerouac: the fire-watch poster boy who ticks about half of that list. Kerouac who, in Connors's words, mined Desolation for two novels, The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels, but I don't think he ever really let it go. He reworked the experience repeatedly in retrospect, trying to make it right, anxious to retrofit resolution and significance.

I imagine him sat up there at night, sadly bemused that he wasn't enjoying his post; that he seemed so temperamentally unsuited to his task; this pillar-saint position he felt he ought to be owning. Gazing over the dark gulf at the horned shadow of Hozomeen, rubbing his eyes, refocusing on his own face in the black mirrors of the glass. Very much alone on his mountaintop, his cross – less sage than martyr. A still night and cold. Hard cold. Stars unknown. The radio is silent; no fire or light for miles but his own – the potbelly stove all purr and tick. He's wrapped up, hunched over his desk, pencil scratching, mice skittering, bugs tapping at the lamp, cigarette smoke pooling in the green cabin eaves – the cigarettes he radioed a plea for two weeks in, hangdog and sheepish. Talking to himself as he walked down the trail past all the trees and plants he couldn't name, a couple of hours back to the lake where the Ross Dam ranger boat was waiting with coffee and cigarettes – company and conversation.

They took him round the lake with them, a night back on the float, a ham steak dinner, then they dropped him back to the trail head, one pound tin of Prince Albert tobacco under his arm, feeling better but also like he'd failed, been humoured. Back up to the summit. City boy. Couldn't do without smokes, couldn't do on his own. He'd dreamt of this for years and he was fucking it up… 'no liquor, no drugs, no chance of faking it but face to face with ole Hateful Duluoz Me.'

Autobiography was Kerouac's quiddity. In this he's Ivor's antithesis, yet it's the latter's bear which fascinates in his uric fidelity, even rendered at one remove, because the original contact was personal and highly charged. The fact that Avalokitesvara the Bear passed Kerouac by, the fact he was late to the party but still sought to mythologise the experience from the fumes is symptomatic of his time atop Desolation.


The polar bear pelvis brought home by Tim Richards in 1982.
© Dan Richards
A few days before my birth, my father returned from his final Arctic expedition. It was night and raining hard. From Spitsbergen he'd flown to Tromsø, then Luton, then several trains to reach Swansea and finally the little meandering bus to Penclawdd — a village on the Gower where my parents lived. Once home he was amazed to see how pregnant my mother was, how round her belly.

A keen climber and explorer with a deep fascination for geology, he'd been away for several months with Ecologist Dr James Fenton as part of a Brathay expedition on Svalbard — a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, the last land before the North Pole — exploring the glaciers, fjords and mountains east of Ny-Ålesund, Earth's northernmost civilian settlement at 78° 55' N.

Next morning he unpacked his bag. Everything smelled of smoke. The smell permeated the whole house — Trangia smoke and unwashed man — and from deep in the stuffed mix of wool and down he drew out a polar bear pelvis found on the ice and black beaches of Kongsfjorden, abstract, sculptural, bleached, and placed it on the table. Strange object from another world.

I grew up fascinated by the pelvis. It lived in my father's study, full of story. When held it was heavier than one might expect. It enthralled me; an almost feathered line of peaks ran over the sacrum and coccyx, the broken ends of the flaring hips revealed a coral interior. The hollow eyes of the femur cups, the sinuous lines of the iliac crest, its conch shell-like fissures, cracks and apertures – all these tactile features thrilled and intrigued. It was full of story. To hold it was to think of Tim as a young man in that great white silence, imagine polar bears, the life of that particular bear, and feel my horizons expand.

Pawprints, human and ursine.  © Dan Richards
Pawprints, human and ursine.
© Dan Richards


In 2017, 90 years after Ivor's Grizzly encounter, I began writing book about the wild ends of the earth, the farthest flung cabins, people and stories — spurred by the ventures of my forebears both familial and literary. I travelled up to Svalbard to look for polar bears in light of my father's Arctic odyssey and crossed the Atlantic to Desolation Peak on account of Kerouac's 63 day crack-up.

From Seattle, a friend and I drove north up Interstate-5 to Burlington then took Washington State Route 20 east into the dusk as the Cascade mountains grew. A night in Marblemount — last diner, gas and motel for 74 miles; the diner, a Twin Peaks diorama; the gas station, a neon close encounter; the motel oddly normal — and a visit to the ranger station for wilderness permits and a bear canister to store food away from our tent, we pressed on into the peaks.

Jim and Dan.   © Dan Richards
Jim and Dan.
© Dan Richards

That evening, having set up camp a little below the mountain's summit — having followed the Skagit River to a set of mighty dams, flashed up the Ross Lake in a motor boat, and hiked up the forested mountain's switchback path, we climbed the last stretch and into firn snow, a granular crust on a rise from where we could see the low pyramid roof of the true summit's belvedere. A wonderful moment. Then we saw a figure, a tall man, walking down from the cabin. He saw us at the same moment. He waved. We waved back and met on the path a few minutes later. Hello, he said, I was just going out for a stroll around. He hadn't expected to meet anyone. Would we like to come up and see the cabin? He was Jim Henterly, the current Desolation Peak fire lookout.

We followed him up the slope and suddenly a hot pink honeyed alpenglow flared. It had been dim in the dip and Jim had looked forbidding as he strode down towards us. I'd had the thought then, the split second after he'd seen us but before he waved, that here was the watchman to tell us to piss off, piss off back down the mountain, no you can't see the cabin. But he was all smiles and welcome and the sun now lit the rounded summit so the belvedere glowed pink and looked, with its window shutters raised all round, a little like Leonardo's whirling sketch of a helicopter.

Desolation Peak, with outpost.  © Dan Richards
Desolation Peak, with outpost.
© Dan Richards

Inside, Jim set to making tea, telling us about the cabin as he lit the stove and got the silver kettle going. The late sun cut gold across the panelled room and flared on the central fire-finding turntable, the washing-up drying on top of the fridge, the delicate window frames; the books on the desk and the sleeping bag neatly doubled on the mattress. The huge panorama of the windows – the spec- tacular mountains all round us either shadowed blue or saturated red – you could see it all from this glass pagoda on top of the world. 'You can see right into Canada,' Jim gestured with his mug once we were all settled with a drink.

It really did feel like a station suitable for pilgrimage; the view was sublime.

Later we crunched back down the dark ridge delighted at our luck to have met somebody so hospitable and full of enthusiasm, delighted also to be the only people camped up on the mountain that night. We went to bed immediately, mainly to warm back up, looking forward to breakfast coffee with Jim.

Desolation lookout office.  © Jim Henterly
Desolation lookout office.
© Jim Henterly

I woke around 1 a.m. and sat up. Colin was asleep. Two thoughts occurred in rapid succession:

Colin is asleep.

That noise isn't Colin.

The noise was a snuffly sniffing, something big snuffly sniffing and shuffling about. On large paddy feet. It was dark and there was no moon so there was no shadow on the tent but had there been any light I was pretty certain the shadow would have been a colossal black bear.

Colin woke up and turned on a torch.
Hello! he said, what's going on?
No, Colin, I said, with exaggerated calm. No, Colin. Please turn the torch off.

The moment of silence and darkness that followed, the sound of three nervous souls holding their breath, was long. Then the probably-a-bear moved away.

Blimey, I thought, dimly aware that my minor brush with Ursa Major was at an end. Well, there we are. Then I lay down and went back to sleep.

I think Colin remained acutely awake for some time.

Next morning I returned to the land of the living with words of Ted Hughes's poem The Bear padding about my head.

In the huge, wide-open, sleeping eye of the mountain

The bear is the gleam in the pupil

Ready to awake [4]

Dan Richards is the co-author of Holloway (with Robert Macfarlane & Stanley Donwood) and author of The Beechwood Airship Interviews and Climbing Days. He has written for the Guardian, Monocle, and Caught by the River amongst others.

Outpost: A Journey to the Wild Ends of the Earth was published by Canongate in July, 2019.

Kendal Mountain Festival  © KMF
Kendal Mountain Festival 2019

Kendal Mountain Festival (14th-17th November) is an award-winning event that has grown in size and diversity over the last 19 years. It is also the main social event for outdoor enthusiasts in the UK. Thousands of outdoor enthusiasts plus media industry specialists, athletes, top brands & equipment manufacturers, artists, photographers, adventurers, explorers and inspirational speakers gather every year to share adventures and celebrate the very best in outdoor and adventure sports culture.


Join Dan Richards as he journeys to some of the world's less-travelled places. An exploration of the outposts set along the edges of civilisation and the impact that visiting these has on the human spirit. Dan's Outpost talk will take place on Sunday 17th November 2019 at 14:30 at Abbot Hall Social Centre.


[1] Jack Kerouac, 'Alone on a Mountaintop', The Lonesome Traveler, Andre Deutsch Ltd, 1962; Penguin, London, 2000, p.114

[2] ibid, p.111

[3] Fire Season, Philip Connors, Harper Collins, London, 2011, p.4

[4] 'The Bear', Wodwo, Ted Hughes, Faber, London, 1967

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