“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 an alluring book by Tucson author and journalist Mike Stark. It’s a great companion to Paul Schullery’s “The Bear Doesn’t Know,” which was favorably reviewed in this space on September 12.
Past visitors to this space know that the reviewer loves up-to-date travelogues based on historical facts. Whether writers are looking for the ghosts of Stonewall Jackson (“Searching for Stonewall Jackson,” August 25, 2019), George Washington (“Travels with George,” October 24) or retired baseball players (“The Wax Pack,” 2 April), the journey sheds light on both subjects and authors. The quest for this book is all the more chimerical in that it concerns a monstrous bear that has been missing for more than 12,000 years.
The Pleistocene geological epoch, also known as the Ice Age or the Age of Mammals, began about 2.5 million years ago. Gigantic five-ton sloths, woolly mammoths and saber-toothed cats were abundant during this time. Just like 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 of these wondrous creatures mysteriously disappeared 10,000 years ago.
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Author Stark has been fascinated by bears since growing up camping in the Pacific Northwest. Much of his adult life was spent living near the black bears and grizzly bears of Yellowstone National Park. Eventually, this led to his obsession with investigating the rare fossil evidence of their missing predecessor.
His trail takes him from a remote Oregon cave where the first Arctodus fossil was discovered to Natural Trap Cave in Wyoming, to the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, to the western plains of Texas and Indiana cornfields.
Fortunately, Stark’s talent as a writer keeps the book from being as dry as bones on display in museums and locked away in dusty cabinets across the United States. His meditation on the necessary passage of species over the vast period of time involved in Earth’s evolution adds emotion to his journey.
A 12-page photographic insert of fossils, replicas of Arctodus and his travel destinations enhances the reading experience. Finally, the author’s perception of the absent bear merges with the memories of his own father.
Readers interested in paleontology, zoology or ecology will find this book fascinating. Those unfamiliar with these disciplines may find their curiosity piqued upon 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 for those interested in learning more about the Pleistocene era.