In 2005, Alex Messenger was mauled and severely injured by a grizzly bear during a wilderness camping trip in the far reaches of northern Canada. Fourteen years later, he revisits and squares up to all he experienced in a new book published this month, “The Twenty-Ninth Day.”
Then 17 years old, Messenger joined a guide and four other campers on a monthlong trip planned by YMCA’s Camp Menogyn in Grand Marais. The attack occurred in a desolate part of Canada, a bear and a young man coming together in a random place and moment when Messenger hiked alone from camp. In the book, Messenger compares the sudden meeting to a series of dance moves, but there is nothing light about any of that day — the 29th day of the 550-mile trek. During the assault, the bear bit him in the right thigh, coming within a quarter-inch of his femoral artery and leaving him with a serious infection. (Related book review here.)
In a recent conversation, Messenger, a Duluth resident, reflected on the unpredictability of the encounter and its psychological remnants.
His comments were edited for length and clarity.
Did you think you could evade the bear?
I tend to be an optimist. That said, I knew that I was in a really terrible situation as soon as that bear appeared and pretty much with every step from there.
After the first contact, when the bear started coming back, I thought it wasn’t just going to say, “Oh well, I guess I’ll just leave.” That bear had a goal in mind. I saw how fast the bear could change direction. I didn’t really think that there was no way out.
Realizing the gravity of the situation, the experience would hit me with such force that I thought “Oh, my god, I just got attacked by a grizzly bear.”
Have you contemplated what the universe was thinking that you needed to be there?
That was one of the big questions that I wanted to figure out before I wrote the book.
So many things had to align for this to happen this way. For me to be at that spot at the same time as the bear, and for our fight to go the way that it did, and for me to come out as well as I did. I felt like that gave me a sense of purpose and I really wanted to figure out what that purpose was.
It’s hard to feel like you can’t figure out something as important as that. And on the other hand, it tells (me) just keep doing what you’re doing, keep doing good. Don’t stop and you’ll find it eventually. There’s not necessarily going to be a billboard in front of your face that says here’s what that means. Eventually I realized that there are a lot of things in life that you can’t figure out.
How did your outlook on life change after the attack?
You’re constantly figuring out the answer to that question. Some of the immediate and lasting effects of that are just a deep appreciation for what I have. An appreciation for being alive, at its most basic. I was feeling like I was about to die. I was just really overcome with a sense of loss and the sense of how bad that was and how much wouldn’t happen in my life.
I wanted to live, and the idea that that wasn’t going to happen was really terrible. So it’s really exciting that the lasting impact of the attack is an appreciation for life, and that the experiences and the people that I get to interact with have lasted. A reminder that you don’t realize what you have. It’s really important to acknowledge the things that you have and the people that you have around you. The biggest takeaway from me — it’s just an appreciation for living.
How has your relationship to wild places changed?
I have a heightened startled response.
There’s a lot more work that goes into getting out into the woods for me emotionally than there was before that experience. I think it’s worth it. I’ve been able to go back and do more camping trips and guiding. I do volunteer search-and-rescue work in northern Minnesota.
Have you suffered post-traumatic stress symptoms?
At first, I was seeing bears everywhere and thinking every boulder was a bear.
It took a while of feeling like the possibility of encountering another bear was always there, and constantly looking over your shoulder.
I’ve had some nightmares. I talk about a nightmare in the book that was really terrifying.
In the long term I’ve definitely had dreams and nightmares. I faced them again, reliving the experience when I wrote those chapters for the book. Compared to what it could be, I’m pretty lucky.
Did you see the other campers again?
I didn’t know if we were going to have that reunion (after the trip). Sticking with the guys afterward was really important for me. Being able to be with the group that you have a traumatic stress with helps to reduce the incidence of post-traumatic stress later.
It was a really quiet greeting. I think it was really important for my mental healing.
Lou Dzierzak is a freelance writer from Richfield.