Book review: Alone in the Fortress of the Bears

fortress-of-the-bearAccounts of the simple pleasures of enjoying the outdoors are not popular today. Perhaps it is the influence of reality television or Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame now becoming not just an observation but a demanded right, but it seems it is not enough to revel in time spent outdoors.  

Being outside and enjoying the simplicity, beauty and enjoyment of nature, when even a description of shoveling a driveway is an epic worthy of Homer, is not adequate.  

Everything must be larger than life and, well, epic.

But this genre of “epicness” is not really about the outdoors per se in many, or even most, cases. It is about a journey that happens to take place outdoors. The outdoors as a stage for a person’s own theatrical production.

It is a genre of literature that can be good, or bad but is mainly mediocre I find…perhaps even boring. (Others, the vast majority, may disagree).

We all have our own tastes. Some people may think my favorite short story author was a drunken adulterer for example and his short stories are dreck.

Point being, my personal tastes means I just want to read a story about the outdoors at times. And not read about a journey of self.

Not that an outdoor focused narrative can’t be about the journey or be reflective. River is perhaps my favorite book about a journey taken outdoors.  But it is a journey told as part of the outdoors rather than the outdoors being merely a backdrop to some drama.

Then there are the simpler tales of the outdoors in terms of the telling.

Where the tale is just told.

No ruminations or deeper meanings readily apparent on the surface.

Dick Poenneke’s journal, photos and popular PBS documentary are classic examples of this “do, don’t tell” style of story-telling.

The joy in the story comes from reading or seeing about a life lived as a person wants.

Which is a long preamble to the latest book I finished reading: Alone in the Fortress of the Bears by Bruce “Buck”  Nelson.

I met Buck several years ago as he was hiking the Continental Divide Trail (CDT).

But the CDT, a tough trail for many (myself included) is just one of many jaunts he’s done. Jaunts pretty amazing by any standards. Traversing the Brooks Range in Alaska, pioneering a little known route through Nevada and Idaho, paddling the Mississippi….  Buck just plans well, goes out there and does his planned jaunt. And enjoys it.

I finished Alone in the Fortress of the Bears during a much more milder jaunt this past weekend.

As I was in my sleeping bag and enjoying the warm glow of a candle lantern, the book was finished one page turn at a time.

Buck spent seventy days fishing, hunting and foraging in Alaska. No supplies were flown in or out. It was a trip that he had been dreaming about since childhood…he did it.

It was not a tale of “epicness” where every day was a hardship.

It is a tale of a competent outdoors person who was able to eat fresh salmon, hunt deer, find huckleberries and other edible plants. Hiccups happened. But calmness and experience overcame these issues.

Buck did not plan to be a hermit. He’d say hello to the occasional (rare) person who came into the Alaska cove he called home for a summer. And he’d check his email and update his blog every so often at a nearby (relatively speaking) small fishing resort.

In the Fortress of the Bears is not a book to be read about for any great insights into the human condition.

It is not meant to be.

Rather it is refreshing to read a story about outdoor experiences that is not hyperbole and “just is“.

And among the practical narrative, a few reflections do peek out:

“These mountains, those trees, Wild Bay, are here day after day, but it’s the quality of the light this evening, this very minute, that makes the experience of being here so magical.”

While reading the book, I could almost smell the salt water, feel the cool rain and see the morning fog of a remote cove in Alaska.

Those who enjoy a narrative about living in the outdoors, while being self-sufficient in a remote area, will find the book to their liking.

The book is not dramatic. It is not full of angst. And it is not about performing one Herculean task after another.

It is an enjoyable yarn told well about a competent outdoors person who is enjoying the beauty and bounty of the natural world.

Read the book. And enjoy the narrative that is about the outdoors.

Note: Buck sent me an electronic copy for review. As mentioned, we met before and have corresponded for years. I felt honored to receive  a copy.   This book, among other books and videos, may be purchased at

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Buck Nelson
Buck Nelson
8 years ago

Thanks for the review, Mags! I absolutely agree with you about excessive hype in reality shows and books nowadays. In telling this story I wanted the experience speak for itself. For example, not bringing any food for a two month trip in unfamiliar country was a big challenge and I don’t think there was a need to over-dramatize it. Things never go quite like you planned! The two main foods I’d planned for on my arrival, the “sure bets,” salmon and berries, were almost completely absent at first. With no food, it was a scramble for a “Plan B.” Likewise,… Read more »

8 years ago

Thanks for the review… I didn’t realize there was a book about this adventure. Buck gives a thorough account in his blog as well. He brings a great perspective and awesome humility to a sincere and formidable test of an adventure. I loved reading the blog posts and will have to seek out the book now. Cheers!

8 years ago

I remember reading the blog posts and thinking that it was a very cool experience. I just looked at Buck’s page and got sucked into the posts again, I guess I am adding another book to the stack

8 years ago

Very enjoyable reading. You could smell the salt air, feel the mist on your face and feel the water running down your arms picking berries. You could feel his pain when the jars cracked in canning, have done that myself in the luxury of my home. I have enjoyed all his books and movies. Did Buck pick the location because a fellow former resident of Chisago County had gone there before?

8 years ago
Reply to  Red

That was a coincidence. I knew a guy named Red from Chisago County at one time. Another coincidence!

8 years ago

Now that it is winter again, what is your next trip and book/movie?

8 years ago
Reply to  Red

Hey Red,
I’m going to attempt the Lewis and Clark route, walking and paddling, from the Mississippi up the Missouri, across the Lolo Trail then down the Columbia River system to the Pacific.