Survived two grizzly attacks
Highland Park High grad fell in love with bears, the American West and photography
Jim Cole died in an unexpected way for the only person in North America ever known to have survived not just one but two grizzly bear attacks — in his bed, at home, of natural causes.
The Highland Park High School graduate moved out West years ago and became enchanted by grizzly bears, photographing them in their natural environment — in the process putting himself at great risk at times. One of the grizzly attacks was so severe that his face essentially had to be rebuilt.
Mr. Cole died at his home near Bozeman, Mont. His body was discovered July 26. He was 60.
He published three books about his work. The title of the last one captures the spirit of his lifelong, if unrequited, love affair: Blindsided: Surviving a Grizzly Attack and Still Loving the Great Bear.
He wrote in that book about how his first encounter with a bear helped set his course. As a boy, he saw a black bear dart across a tennis court at summer camp at Camp Menominee in northern Wisconsin. He was terrified — and entranced.
“His whole life changed,” said his niece, Cara Specks.
Mr. Cole went to the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he was an ace tennis player, said Rich Berman, a former classmate. He worked for several years for Berman in commercial real estate, displaying the singular toughness that enabled him to hike for help when a grizzly sow nearly ended his life. “He just never gave up,” Berman said.
Mr. Cole fell under the spell of the American West. Hiking and nature photography became his passions. He socked away money from his real estate career and, by the early 1990s, decided to strike out as a nature photographer, said his high school friend Ron Giangiorgi.
Mr. Cole was a strong outdoorsman, lean and self-sufficient. “The guy could hike up a mountain on his hands,” Berman said. “I could never keep up.”
He made a modest living off his photography and classroom presentations he would do about bears, Giangiorgi said. He also published the books Lives of Grizzlies: Wyoming and Montana and Lives of Grizzlies: Alaska.
He was first attacked by a grizzly in 1993 at Glacier National Park in Montana, said John Waller, a wildlife biologist there. Mr. Cole was coming up the trail and surprised a bruin.
“The bear thumped on
him,” Waller said.
Mr. Cole suffered scalp and wrist injuries before a friend helped run the bear off with pepper spray.
Waller said he enjoyed Mr. Cole’s company. But he added, “We warned him repeatedly that his actions would lead him into trouble. He followed his passion, and he was drawn to bears because bears gave him something he needed. Unfortunately, it’s not reciprocated.”
In his third book, Blindsided, Mr. Cole wrote about the 2007 attack that cost him an eye. He was hiking near tall grass in Yellowstone National Park. He never saw a mama bear bedded down there, Giangiorgi said. Her cub was nearby.
“She was on me real quick,” Mr. Cole said in an interview on NBC’s “Today” show. “She drove me into the ground like a linebacker driving a running back into the ground.”
Pure adrenaline helped him hike a couple of miles to get help.
“The grizzly raked its claws across his face,” Giangiorgi said. “Jim had to hold up his face so he could look out the one eye and watch the sun to make his way back to the road.”
His nose, jaw and cheeks needed to be surgically rebuilt. After the attack, Giangiorgi joked, “Jim actually had a little better nose.”
Back in 2004, Mr. Cole was ticketed for getting too close to bears at Yellowstone. A worker doing a flyover animal count “observed a female grizzly bear with cubs and could see someone crouched down in sagebrush, 20 feet away, taking photos,” said Yellowstone bear biologist Kerry Gunther.
It was Mr. Cole. He was cited for breaching a National Park Service rule requiring people to keep a 100yard distance from any bears. Mr. Cole explained that he’d stumbled upon them, challenged the citation and won in court.
The rule was later tightened to require that anyone who found themselves in close proximity had to move to a safer spot, Gunther said.
Gunther said that, as “the only one in North America that’s been mauled twice by grizzlies,” Mr. Cole was well-known around Bozeman. He stood out for his eyepatch — a souvenir of the second attack. He wrote bluegrass music, including songs about grizzlies, and performed them on his guitar at openmike night at the Pine Creek Lodge in Livingston, Mont. People would call him “Grizzly Jim” or “Montana Jim,” said lodge owner Ned Shapiro.
Though he moved away years ago, Mr. Cole was a lifelong White Sox fan, Shapiro said.
His work can be viewed online at grizzlystories.com. Some of his unusual photos include a grizzly sow with four cubs, and a bear that appeared to be raising the flag on a flagpole, Giangiorgi said.
A celebration of his life is scheduled 5:30 to 8 p.m. today at the Nite ’N Gale restaurant in Highwood. Another celebration is planned Sept. 12 at the Pine Creek Lodge in Livingston, Mont.
Mr. Cole is also survived by his stepmother, Marcia Cole; stepbrothers Louis and William Grant; and a nephew, Jeff Specks.