Jeanne Matthews was born and raised in Georgia, where owning a gun is required by law in certain places and “he needed killing” is a valid legal defense to homicide. Jeanne’s debut novel, Bones of Contention, published in June, 2010 by Poisoned Pen Press, features a conniving Georgia clan plopped down in the wilds of Northern Australia where death adders, assassin spiders, man-eating crocs, Aboriginal myths, and murder abound. Jeanne currently resides in Renton, Washington with her husband, Sidney DeLong, who is a law professor, and their West Highland terrier. Her second novel, Bet Your Bones, and the third, Bonereapers, are available at bookstores everywhere
When you hike in Kananaskis Country near Canada’s Banf National Park, the talk quickly turns to bears. Show up at the trailhead as a twosome and the signs warn you to wait for reinforcements. Parties of six are recommended. June is grizzly season. You don’t want a close encounter of the ursus horribilis kind.
Two summers ago, my husband and I spent a few weeks exploring the back country of Alberta and we took the first lesson of the wilderness very much to heart: you do not want to sneak up on a 600 pound bear and startle her. Grizzlies like their privacy and they don’t enjoy human contact, especially sudden intrusions. You want to give a bear plenty of advance notice of your approach and ample time to mosey off into the woods. But somehow, those itty-bitty jingle bells that hikers tie onto their boots didn’t seem quite loud enough to allay our fears. We sang. We sang the entire repertoire of the Supremes, ran through the Pink Floyd songbook, covered the Eagles’ greatest hits, and even launched into a few rousing hymns from Broadman’s Hymnal. However far off-key we ranged, however hoarse we grew, we weren’t taking any chances. We made sure that any bear that wasn’t stone deaf would know we were coming.
Hikers in bear country tell the same joke over and over. What’s the difference between black bear dung and grizzly dung? The latter has bells in it and smells like pepper spray. Cute. So laid back to make light. But walking on trails where the berry bushes are thick and the bear scat is fresh requires nerve, particularly if you have stayed up late reading BEAR ATTACKS: THE DEADLY TRUTH as yours truly had done. Of course, grizzlies are magnificent creatures and without them, the wilderness would be diminished to a Disney-esque setting where the only dangers were make-believe. It’s a great loss when a grizzly has to be destroyed because it forages too close to a town or attacks a person. In British Columbia, wildlife managers are trying out a new way to prevent such needless bear killings. They have introduced the Karelian dog. The breed originated in Finland where it is regarded as a national treasure. Karelians are utterly fearless and, working in pairs, they can harry a roaming bear back into the woods and out of trouble.
When I began writing my third Dinah Pelerin mystery set in Longyearbyen, Norway, I learned that polar bears outnumber people and that keeping the two species apart is a constant problem. No one is permitted to walk outside the city limits unless they are armed and “loaded for bear.” Polar bears are twice the size of grizzlies. They have smaller ears and tails, thicker fur, longer and sharper teeth, and no taste at all for fruit or berries. They are strictly carnivores and they have been known to consume the occasional human morsel when a seal is not handy.
Location and local color figure prominently in my books and I thought it would be remiss of me not to bring Dinah into proximity with one of the Arctic’s most famous and ferocious residents. And so…On a bitterly cold night, Dinah falls through the snow and permafrost into a collapsed mine shaft and lands on a narrow, crumbling ledge six feet below ground. As she sits shivering and alone, she contemplates the possibility that she will freeze to death before anyone finds her. She has lost her gloves and dropped her phone and the only person in the world who knows where she is happens to be a murderer. And then she sees the massive paw of a polar bear reaching down into the hole like a cat swatting at a fish in a fishbowl.
Dinah is my series sleuth. She can’t die. Not yet. Not completely, as Monty Python might say. I need her to survive at least to the next book. How was I going to write her out of this jam? Animal lover that I am, I couldn’t allow anyone to shoot an endangered polar bear, not even in a work of fiction. And then I remembered the Karelians.
Enough said. You’ll have to read the book to learn how she escapes and the fresh hell that breaks loose once she does. Meanwhile, if you’re interested in helping to save the polar bear from extinction, you can “adopt” one by donating $15 to Defenders of Wildlife. And if you’re interested in seeing a grizzly up close without having to sing or wear jingle bells, you can visit the Kicking Horse Grizzly Refuge in Golden, British Columbia. The bear in the photo is currently its only refugee. His name is Boo and don’t let that “who me?” look fool you. He has escaped more times than Houdini.