Jim Cole has been on my mind again.
The photo you see here is one I took not long ago a few steps from my computer keyboard. 2010 was to be Cole’s big summer for reaching a wider audience.
Upon hearing of the recent fatal grizzly bear attack in Soda Butte Campground, a U.S. Forest Service site beyond Yellowstone National Park’s northeastern entrance, I wondered what Cole, the survivor of a 2007 mauling involving a sow and cub in the world’s first national park, was thinking.
It turns out that on the same day a story appeared on the front page of the local newspaper about the tragic and lethal human-bear encounter near Cooke City, Montana, a separate announcement ran at the bottom of the page: The headline read that Cole was dead.
The stories were unrelated except that Cole, too, knew what it is like to be startled by a grizzly. He had actually been attacked in two different incidents, and lived to tell about it.
Cole had been out of reach from friends for a few days this summer. He is believed to have died July 22, at age 60, of natural causes in his Bozeman, Montana home. The naturalist Jim Halfpenny appropriately said, “It was too early. It is a loss to the wildlife community. And to bears.”
Yes, it was back in late June that I met with the pirate-patch-wearing Cole and reviewed his book, Blindsided: Surviving A Grizzly Attack And Still Loving The Great Bear.
Cole had stopped by for a chat in the living room, in between interviews he was doing with BBC TV and the morning talk shows in New York. He was energetic, sharp-witted, self-deprecating, and high on being an author with a fine new book.
He signed a copy of Blindsided to my family with the following inscription: “Let’s not ever give up the fight! Enjoy the journey.”
As a journalist, it’s a peculiarity of life that we learn heartening details about people — things we never knew fully, things we wished we had known — only AFTER they die.
During the 1990s, I was told there were some wildlife photographers in the West who verbally pilloried Jim Cole. His ethics were being questioned.
Cole had a technique for shooting wildlife with a camera. He would position himself in a discrete location and if the animal drifted in his direction, he would remain in place until it either wandered or foraged past him. He tried to gently reveal his presence to the animal but what he did was considered controversial and dangerous.
Subsequently, other photographers complained and Cole was issued a citation by rangers, with the possibility of a fine and potential banishment from the park facing him. By the letter of park law, what Cole did was an infraction. However, the law said that tourists were not to encroach within 100 yards of bears; it did not say what a person should do if THE BRUIN encroached within 100 yards of the human onlooker. It was this lack of clarity that ultimately resulted in Cole’s acquittal.
Cole, however, did not adopt a grudge. He not only changed his ways, he tried to ingratiate himself with park wildlife managers, working with them to craft regulations that made sense — codes that enabled the public to have windows into the space of animals without invading their comfort zones, noted Yellowstone bear manager Kerry Guenther in a conversation with a reporter from the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.
The current regulation, requiring that you keep 100 yards between you and bears at all times, could be called “Cole’s Law.”
In covering over 27,000 miles of backcountry on foot, Cole had been attacked by grizzlies twice but he never wished them harm. He respected the animals and lectured and sang before thousands of people to promote their conservation.
He always put grizzlies in their proper context.
Consider: A recent lightning storm kills a man and shakes up more than a dozen others on the Grand Teton; river rafters navigating the Snake or Colorado rivers drown; tourists get gored by bison or attacked by bears. Yes, we can and should offer condolences to the victims and their loved ones.
But it isn’t callous to say that we, by choice, seek out wild areas and put ourselves in positions where injury can occur. We do it for the exhilaration of feeling more alive. The odds of getting hurt, from the perspective of an insurance company actuary chart, are far greater in the city during our daily commute to work in rush-hour traffic.
What Cole meant in his book inscription, Let’s not ever give up the fight! was his belief in repelling attempts by those who want to sanitize wildness, dumb it down, put handrails on everything, and tame the risk that accompanies adventure.
At the end of Blindsided, Cole writes about sitting alone on a high ridge above Hayden Valley and watching two bears hundreds of yards away come into view. He had lost his sight in one eye to a bear attack a year earlier. His face bore scars and he wore the eye patch to conceal them. He did not want to frighten children.
“As I reached for my camera, both mother and cub caught my scent and majestically stood, looking right in my eyes,” he writes of his encounter in Hayden Valley. "I was shaking with excitement, but I didn’t feel a sliver of fear.”
By the markings and size, he was sure it was the sow that had mauled him in that year-ago attack.
“This was not a surprise point-blank encounter, so I was completely at ease I never stood up or reached for my bear spray. I wanted to watch these beautiful animals and not spook them if I could help it. Both bears dropped back on all fours, turned around, and galloped away.”
For Cole, this was a moment of closure. He was humbled, thankful for being alive and having another opportunity to see grizzlies again.
As he left my house and handed me his business card in June, inviting me to visit his webpage, we looked forward to getting together soon. That obviously can’t happen now. Go to his webpage anyway and enjoy his images and stories.
The last words that should be written about Jim Cole, and attached as a posthumous afterword to his book, are that in the end, by becoming an ambassador for bears and accepting personal responsibility, he redeemed himself.
Journalist Todd Wilkinson has been writing about the West for 25 years. He is finishing a book about media mogul turned bison baron and eco-philanthropist Ted Turner