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Pritchett: In praise of Colorado and grizzly bears and especially Enos Mills

As hibernation approaches, I share with the famed naturalist and father of Rocky Mountain National Park an obsession with the grizzlies no longer here

Coloradans love their state, and I am no exception, and with each new season comes a new kind of love. Me, I take a cue from the bears: Fall signals hibernation, which signals books, which signals reading about my state, particularly the areas I’ve just tromped through in summer months. After all, as they say, “Curiosity is the best definition of love.” 

One of my recent obsessions is Colorado’s grizzlies—the ones this state used to have, that is. And as sometimes happens, I’ve fallen in love with my teacher, Enos Mills. He died a hundred years ago, but it doesn’t matter: I’m smitten. Crazy-wonderful hair, crazy-wonderful eyes. But also, he seemed to be the human who knew Colorado grizzlies the best, and probably spent more quality time with them than any other. He’s also the man who helped me really know them—not the myths and the fears, but a real sense of the animal itself and the state we used to be.

Laura Pritchett

Enos was 15 years old when he moved to Colorado, 16 when he built a cabin, and 28 when he earned the homestead. A few years ago, I snowshoed up to his cabin, still standing near Estes Park, with his great-granddaughter and my daughter. As one might imagine, it’s a simple, small home—about 12 x 13 feet, with one window, one door, one stove, one table. There were various newspaper clippings on the walls, maps, a handwritten note from Helen Keller, a telegram from Theodore Roosevelt. Mills raised two orphan grizzly cubs there, giving them their first saucers of milk, trying to keep them alive without their mother. 

With this cabin as his home base, he hiked and snowshoed great distances, wrote about bears and geology and wildlife, and worked hard to create a national park that might preserve them, which you can see right outside the window, Longs Peak being perfectly framed by logs. 

Mills has been called the John Muir of the Rockies and the father of Rocky Mountain National Park. He was a self-educated, self-made man who started early and lived strong. He became a speaker, a naturalist, a conservationist, a writer, and he tried his best to change deep-rooted fears about the grizzly. With his words, he tried to paint a different portrait of an animal who, although could be provoked into dangerous behavior, was mainly an intelligent, curious, playful, creature, and not “man killers,” as they were often then described. He also did his best—though he ultimately failed—to keep grizzlies alive in Colorado.

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Raised a Quaker, Mills was against blood sport and seemed inherently at peace with being curious about the natural world; his observations of everything from grizzly to beaver are those of a man who could sit still and watch. But he could move, too: When Mills wasn’t leading groups up Longs Peak (he climbed it over 300 times), he was traveling and speaking, advocating for the creation of RMNP, and taking snow measurements in the high country for our state. 

But it seems to me that he mainly worked so that he could be outside, in the company of bears. He was desperately trying to repaint the cultural assumptions of grizzlies, which were leading to their rapid extermination. “In a grizzly bear we have the leading animal of North America . . . He is self-contained and is prepared for anything . . . He has bulk, agility, strength, endurance, repose, courage, enthusiasm, and curiosity,” he wrote. 

Indeed, of all the readings I have done on bears, “The Grizzly,” Enos Mills’ 1919 book, is my favorite. It’s full of accounts of watching grizzlies play in the water, or grizzlies watching river otters play. Grizzlies digging for roots or mice, grizzlies stretching and enjoying the sun. He records grizzlies from North Park, Middle Park, South Park, Longs Peak, Grand Lake, the San Juans, and the “No-Summer Mountains” (now called the Never Summers). He covers the ground near my own home, even: “One gray February day, snowshoeing along the Big South Poudre, I chanced to look across an opening . . . and saw a grizzly walking round and round.” 

Noting that sensationalist evil-grizzly stories are “purely fictitious, and, though not even pretending to be fact, appear to have been taken seriously by thousands,” he continued to report peaceable grizzlies, who wanted nothing more than to sleep, eat, dig for grubs, play with cubs. He noted that “it is practically impossible for the average individual to know the real grizzly bear. It is a national misfortune,” and one of his greatest wishes, as he gently put it: “It would be a glorious thing if every one appreciated the real character of the grizzly bear.”

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The guy loved our state, worked hard to protect it, and I often wonder if we should have an Enos Mills celebration day—or if this is just me crushing on him. Seriously, those eyes! 

On a recent outing with my daughter, we hiked a creek bed covered with snow, and I kept my eye out for bears (black, not grizzly), since a few might still be roaming about, hungry. As we walked, I yammered on about him and this trip we’d taken to his cabin. 

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“You and Enos,” she sighed, rolling her eyes. “You realize that I know more about Enos than anyone else my age.”

We reminisced about how, upon leaving his cabin, I’d gotten our Subaru stuck in a snowdrift and had to shovel out with snowshoes, how although she was quite young, and barely able to reach the pedals, she had to drive while Enos Mills’ great granddaughter and I pushed it out of the ruts. 

“Good times,” I said. “See? His adventuring caused you to adventure.”

“Yeah, I’m in love. With Colorado,” she replied, to which I could only agree. 


Laura Pritchett is the author of five novels and winner of the PEN USA Award for Fiction, the WILLA Award, the Milkweed National Fiction Prize, the High Plains Book Award, and several Colorado Book Awards. She directs the MFA in Nature Writing at Western Colorado University. More at www.laurapritchett.com.


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