A 25-year-old backcountry wanderer, a man happiest exploring wild places with his dog, Dan Bigley woke up one midsummer morning to a day full of promise. Before it was over, after a stellar day of salmon fishing along Alaska’s Kenai and Russian rivers, a grizzly came tearing around a corner in the trail. Dan barely had time for “bear charging” to register before it had him on the ground, altering his life forever.
“Upper nose, eyes, forehead anatomy unrecognizable,” as the medevac report put it.
Until then, one thing after another had fallen into place in Dan’s life. He had a job he loved taking troubled kids on outdoor excursions. He had just bought a cabin high in the Chugach Mountains with a view that went on forever. He was newly in love. After a year of being intrigued by a woman named Amber, they had just spent their first night together. All of this was shattered by the mauling that nearly killed him, that left him blind and disfigured.
Facing paralyzing pain and inconceivable loss, Dan was in no shape to be in a relationship. He and Amber let each other go. Five surgeries later, partway into his long healing journey, they found their way back to each other. The couple’s unforgettable story is one of courage, tenacious will, and the power of love to lead the way out of darkness. Dan Bigley’s triumph over tragedy is a testament to the ability of the human spirit to overcome physical and emotional devastation, to choose not just to live, but to live fully. Visit Dan Bigley's site or Beyond the Bear.
Dan Bigley grew up in Ohio, California, and Malaysia, where he took up with an acrobatic hip-hop dance troupe and got a black belt in Taekwondo at 14. While earning a degree in natural history and a minor in environmental education at Arizona’s Prescott College, he spent several months a year living out of a backpack. Dan has ways felt the most at home in wild, quiet places. He loved sharing the magic of the natural world with the kids he guided on wilderness trips throughout his college years and beyond. He dreamed of starting his own outdoor school someday.
Dan’s need to go where roads are rare drew him to Alaska, where things started falling into place for him. The last few months he could see, he had the most challenging and rewarding job he’d ever had, taking emotionally disturbed kids on outings for Alaska Children’s Services.
Losing his eyes meant giving up much of what he loved. Upon rethinking his future, he decided to go for a master’s degree in social work. As a newly blind graduate student, he felt at times like he was climbing El Capitan in flip-flops. He not only got through it, including Statistics, which couldn’t be more visual, he graduated with a 4.0 grade point average. He was hired a week later as a clinician for Denali Family Services, a nonprofit counseling center in Anchorage for emotionally disturbed children and their families. A year later, he was promoted to director of foster care for DFS, the largest therapeutic foster-care provider in the state.
In 2008, the Governor’s Committee on Employment and Rehabilitation for People With Disabilities presented Dan with its Alaskan of the Year Award. Prescott College honored him with a Distinguished Alumni Award that same year, and in 2010, a Desert Star Award, which recognizes alumni carrying forward the Prescott mission.
Dan and his wife, Amber Takavitz Bigley, and their two young children, Alden and Acacia, live in Anchorage. When Dan’s not working or on active dad duty, he’s playing guitar or the stock market. He studies yoga and Tai Chi. And he fishes every chance he gets.
Debra McKinney is a fourth generation journalist, born into a family tradition that began when her great-grandmother bought the Hillsboro Argus in Hillsboro, Ore., in 1904. Once Debra got her journalism degree, it was assumed she’d add her name to the masthead of the family paper. She took off for Alaska instead, where she staked mining claims and worked as a surveyor and a cook at remote, helicopter-supported, mineral exploration camps, and where she encountered her first bear, alone, armed with a saucepan inside a dark Quonset hut.
As a long-time writer for the Anchorage Daily News, she found stories all over the state. She’s interviewed surfers at a secret, fly-in surf spot along the Gulf of Alaska, mountaineers on Mount McKinley, whale researchers surrounded by orcas in Prince William Sound, and Eskimo elders preparing for a young girl’s “First Dance,” a coming-of-age potlatch that drew villagers from all over the region.
Debra received numerous state and regional awards from the Alaska Press Club and the Pacific Northwest Society for Professional Journalism from the mid-1980s until leaving the paper in January 2010. She won the Pacific Northwest’s C.B. Blethen Memorial Award for distinguished feature writing in 1994, and that same year, the national $10,000 Dart Award for coverage of victims of violence. Excerpts from her story of three woman dealing with incest, and an interview with her, appear in Covering Violence: A Guide to Ethical Reporting About Victims and Trauma, by Roger Simpson and William Cote, published by Columbia University Press, 2000.
Debra was also part of a team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989 for the People in Peril series on alcoholism and despair among Alaska Native people. Her story, “Youth’s Despair Erupts,” was among the handful chosen from the 10-day series for Pulitzer Prizes: 1989, a Touchstone Book. It was also the only story from the Pulitzer series reprinted in the “Press” section (along with selections from Jimmy Breslin, Anna Quindlen, and Mike Royko) of Popular Writing in America: The Interaction of Style and Audience, fifth edition, published by the Oxford University Press, 1993.
Debra lives in Palmer, AK, with her teacher husband, Paul Morley. In summer, they live at their off-the-grid cabin up north, an oasis of simplicity powered by sun and wind, where they garden, smoke fish, and do some serious hammock time.