KENAI — It was a hallmark, “blue bird” sunny day typical of the Russian River.
Although he had been fishing there many times before, Dan Bigley didn’t take his pole with him this time.
He was dealing with too many emotions.
Instead, while his friends hiked off and fished, he sat with his dog on the beach throwing pebbles into the river, soaking in the sun and reflecting on where he’d been and how he got back.
Back, that is, to the patch of Kenai Peninsula ground where he was horribly mauled by a brown bear after a day of fishing years earlier in an event that made headlines and focused the state’s attention on the then 25-year-old Girdwood resident and the stream he was fishing near Cooper Landing.
“It was a bit challenging emotionally,” said Bigley, now a 35-year-old Anchorage resident, of returning to the Russian. “I had some of that hyper vigilance, some of that anxiety stuff about being there, particularly as my friends were wandering up river and I found myself there alone on the beach wondering about bears coming out of the woods.
“But at the same time I had to exercise ... a cognitive shift to accept and acknowledge that fear was not going to serve me well no matter what.”
When the July 14, 2003, mauling that left Bigley disfigured and blinded occurred, Debra McKinney, then a feature writer for the Anchorage Daily News, was far away in a Fairbanks cabin.
“I just remember that it shook us all up,” she said, remembering the feeling of the newsroom and of the reporters following the story.
“I don’t know if any of us thought he’d ever be back,” she said. “So it is not like I forgot about him. I always wondered what happened to that 25-year-old Girdwood kid.
“Then suddenly five years later I was out of story ideas.”
McKinney and Bigley met and sat down in 2008 for a “where are they now” feature for the Daily News. Bigley said he was impressed with McKinney’s storytelling abilities and asked her about writing a book.
“It really came out of telling my story to everybody and everybody I told, their response was, ‘You should write a book,’” said Bigley, now the director of therapeutic foster care for Denali Family Services.
McKinney never gave much thought to the possibility of writing a book, she said.
“I would say, ‘Well if the right story came along I would consider it,’” she said. “I had been telling other peoples’ stories for years and years and there’s some amazing people out there with some amazing stories, but Dan’s was the only one that struck me as I could get behind this and devote myself to this.”
The pair’s devotion recently materialized in the 212-page, “Beyond the bear: How I learned to live and love again after being blinded by a bear,” published by the Connecticut-based Lyons Press, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press. The book will be available nationally in early April.
Bigley and McKinney, who share a byline on the book, spent a year and a half writing it, contacting more than 50 people and collecting hundreds of hours of interviews. Bigley said he would have not been able to complete the book without McKinney’s journalistic ability to piece stories together and to filter down the most important aspects of the narrative.
“In reading the book, there are places where I can tell it is my words, word for word almost transcribed interviews, and there’s other portions where she definitely added a lot in the actual writing and descriptions,” Bigley said.
Said McKinney, “It is sort of hard to separate (his story and my words) because he is so articulate with the way he tells his stories and he is kind of a gifted storyteller, which certainly made my job easy.”
One thing Bigley said he would like the reader to take away from the book relates to how some people view his story of rehabilitation and triumph in the face of horror as “an inspiration.”
Maybe so, he said, but he didn’t get there alone.
“To me it is a real victory for humanity and for our community,” he said. “It is not just a personal victory that I have done something great and therefore it’s inspiring. It is inspiring to me that our community was able to pull this off with me and support me through this.”
Moreover, he’d like the reader to realize how he was able to change his attitude about life despite his disability.
“The more I engage in life and pursue things that are of interest, or passions, or dreams and the more I engage in those things whether it is fishing or music or my career or my family ... that through engagement my life gets bigger,” he said. “The bigger my life gets, the smaller my disability gets.”
Despite being blind, Bigley said he returns often to fish the Russian and Kenai Rivers ever mindful of the area’s bear population, but remembering that the statistical probability that he’d be mauled by a bear again are slim, he said with a laugh.
“I go there with a mind of fullness that I’m still able to go there, that I’m still able to fish and that I could have easily died there and I didn’t,” he said. “So I think there is some gratitude that’s present.”
While he has respect for the area and its inhabitants both human and otherwise, some other fishermen don’t reciprocate that to him. Some have been disrespectful about a blind man combat fishing for salmon with what he called a “wild fly.”
“I guess that can be frustrating to me, but I try not to be a bitter person,” he said. “But I have ended up on a couple of occasions telling people that, ‘Listen, to me it is remarkable that I’m here because I almost died right over there 10 years ago this summer.
“So maybe you could just have some respect and let me fish. If only you knew what I’d been through to be here to continue to fish.”