Review: Hunt for giant bear is part mystery, part travelogue | Book Reviews and News

J. KEMPER CAMPBELL

“Chasing the Ghost Bear: On the Trail of America’s Last Super Beast” by Mike Stark, University of Nebraska Press, 264 pages, $24.95 (paperback).

“Chasing the Ghost Bear” is a beguiling book by Tucson author and journalist Mike Stark. It makes an excellent companion to “The Bear Doesn’t Know” by Paul Schullery, which was favorably reviewed in this space Sept. 12.

Past visitors to this space are aware that the reviewer is fond of updated travelogues based upon historical facts. Whether writers are searching for the ghosts of Stonewall Jackson (“Searching for Stonewall Jackson,” Aug. 25, 2019), George Washington (“Travels with George,” Oct. 24), or retired baseball players (“The Wax Pack, ” April 2), the trip illuminates both the subjects and the authors. The quest in this book is even more quixotic since the subject is a monstrous bear which has been extinct for more than 12,000 years.

The Pleistocene geologic epoch, also known as the Ice Age or the Age of Mammals, began roughly 2.5 million years ago. Gigantic, five-ton sloths, wooly mammoths, and saber-toothed cats were abundant during this period. So was Arctodus simus, the fearsome giant short-faced bear, which could stand 10 feet tall and weigh nearly a ton. After ruling North America for 1,000 millennia, all these wonderful creatures mysteriously vanished 10,000 years ago.

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Author Stark has been mesmerized by bears since childhood camping trips in the Pacific Northwest. Much of his adult life was spent living near the black and grizzly bears of Yellowstone National Park. Eventually this led to his obsession with him to investigate the scanty fossil evidence of their extinct predecessor.

His trail leads him from a remote cave in Oregon where the first Arctodus fossil was discovered to the Natural Trap Cave in Wyoming, the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, the plains of West Texas and the corn fields of Indiana.

Fortunately, Stark’s skill as a writer keeps the book from being as dry as the bones displayed in museums and locked in dusty cabinets across the United States. His meditation upon the necessary passing of species during the vast amount of time involved in the Earth’s evolution adds poignancy to his journey.

A 12-page photographic insert of fossils, Arctodus replications, and his travel destinations enhances the reading experience. Eventually, the author’s perception of the absent bear merges with him’s memories of his own father.

Readers with an interest in paleontology, zoology, or ecology will find this book fascinating. Those unfamiliar with these disciplines may find their curiosity piqued by opening the book.

J. Kemper Campbell, MD, is a retired Lincoln ophthalmologist who recommends a road trip to the Ashfall Fossil Beds in Antelope County to those interested in discovering more about the Pleistocene Epoch.

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