The veteran, expeditionist, and writer has spent his life cheating death. Now he’s helping his closest confidant, the grizzly bear, do the same.
STORY BY Seth Putnam
ARTWORK BY Brian Fencl
A perfect day for Doug Peacock is the one he spends 50 feet from a sleeping grizzly bear.
When the 72-year-old former Green Beret medic and demolitions expert returned from Vietnam in March of 1968, he didn’t have anything to say to anyone. So he went back to the one place he’s always felt comfortable: the wilderness. “In the years that followed, I had found it easier to talk to bears than priests,” he wrote in his first novel, Grizzly Years.
Peacock has been face to face with griz countless times. Most walk away. But here, sitting in his home in sight of the Crazy Mountains in June, he remembers a time that did not go according to routine.
On a trek into the wilderness, he happened upon a hulking male bear. He stopped, dead still. The bear stared at the man. Then it barreled down the path straight toward him. “It’s not the moment you’re exactly looking for peace, but I’m sure my pulse didn’t rise at all,” he says, reflecting that this wasn’t the first time he had come face-to-face with the reaper.
“I’ve been around death and danger enough to know that’s when I’m at my best.”
“My fuckin’ canoe is at the bottom of the Yellowstone River,” Peacock blusters as he stomps through the door of Elk River Books on Main Street in Livingston earlier in the week.
He pops the top on a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and scratches the bump on his fuzzy head, scrunching his eyes tightly as if trying to swab out the cobwebs. This, the tale of how his boat came to be submerged under rushing water, is Peacock’s favorite story at the moment.
A couple of weeks ago, Peacock braved the raging river during a hunt for mushrooms. The reason for today’s vexation has less to do with the lost canoe and more to do with its contents: “You know what it’s full of?” he asks. “PBR. And they’re cold.”
A few days later, Peacock is at a party thrown by Colin Davis, the general manager of Chico Hot Springs. This time, he’s swirling a glass of ’97 Bordeaux as he regales his audience with his boat story.
In the time since he lost his canoe, Peacock hired writer Jim Harrison’s grandson (who’s also his doubles tennis partner) as his belay man on a retrieval mission. “I wanted him in on this adventure,” he says. “I tied him off to a giant stump to make sure he couldn’t drown. It was that kind of situation.”
A local overhears this part of the story and innocently asks what Peacock was doing.
“Rubber-duckying the river in raging flood stage,” Peacock says.
“Bullshit. You floated the Yellowstone today?”
“Two weeks ago.”
“It was dumber than shit, and we failed miserably.”
“Two weeks ago, it was at 30,000 CFS!” the local says, aghast.
“Are you saying I’m stupid?”
“No, no I didn’t—“
“You’d be right! You would be so correct. And I couldn’t leave it alone; I had to go back again today!”
The soiree is winding down, and Peacock looks like he might abandon it at any minute. He advises some of the partygoers to meet at his house the next day and rattles off his address and a final directive: “Give me a buzz when you’re 20 minutes away so I can put on some pants.” Then he’s gone.
GHOSTS OF WAR
“It’s maybe my deepest, darkest, black hole of memory in my life,” Peacock continues. “For three days after that, I don’t know what happened.”
During Vietnam, it was his custom to carry a road map of Wyoming and Montana. He would stare at the blank patches, imagining himself soaring over mountains and into canyons “like a cranky buzzard,” as he told National Geographic in a 2000 interview.
When he finally got out of the jungle, he made a beeline for the seclusion of the Rocky Mountains within 48 hours. “I’m really good at solitude,” he explains. “Always have been.”
Back at Peacock’s home, he’s still on the river story. When the canoe tipped, Peacock found himself looking up at the sky beneath four feet of water. His vision began to dim, and suddenly he was once again in the bloody fields of Song Ba To.
“That’s where I lost two souls,” he says, pointing to pictures from his recent trip to Vietnam to confront the ghosts of his past. “They were Vietnamese, weighted down with their ammo and grenades. I picked them up three days later, miles down river.
BACK IN THE WOODS
In the days since the war, Peacock has spent most of his time locked in a fight for the survival of lives other than his own. “We’ve got some shit coming down on all of us, and it ain’t gonna wait until the end of the century,” he says. So he focuses his efforts on bears. After so much time with them, Peacock can recite quickly their behavior, eating habits, and migratory history. Now, for the second time in less than a decade, there is a proposal to delist grizzlies as a threatened species in Yellowstone National Park—a notion that stokes an “appropriate rage” within him. “I have a grudge list about seven pages long I’ll probably never get to the bottom of,” Peacock says.
In his estimation, grizzlies are perhaps more threatened than they’ve ever been, thanks to beetles wiping out their major food source. “The bears are in deep shit, because the whitebark pine nut is their most important food,” he says. “And it’s gone. It’s never coming back in our lifetime.”
The animals have been forced to turn instead to meat, which Peacock considers the most treacherous food in the Yellowstone ecosystem. “If it comes in the form of winter-killed carcasses, that’s probably the safest,” he says, because it keeps griz away from humans who might kill them. But gut piles, left behind by hunters, pose a considerable threat.
He talks of danger often, but always from the bears’ point of view. “I have a lot of guns, and grizzly country is one place I’d never carry one,” he says. “You simply don’t need one. I feel so safe out there.”
In an encounter with a bear, the idea of human control becomes exposed as a stark illusion. Should he come across one—like the griz charging him in the story he’s telling us now—Peacock doesn’t move.
He stood completely still as the bear loped down the path, his face turned to the side, waiting. The bear put on the brakes, his giant paws skidding through the dirt and rocks on the trail. By the time he came to a halt, his nose was touching Peacock’s pant leg.
The grizzly sniffed. Then he walked away.