Alex Messenger said it was painful for him to think hard about the grizzly bear attack that nearly took his life 14 years ago.
But if he was ever going to finish his book about the experience, he knew he had to transport himself back in time to the Canadian tundra and relive the near-death experience in his mind. And he knew he had to turn those memories into words. So he did.
“It definitely did bother me, mentally, to go back," Messenger said in an interview ahead of this week's release of his first novel, “The Twenty-Ninth Day."
“But I knew that to write the book effectively, I had to go back there," he said. "So, over the course of a week, I got up in the middle of the night, or early in the morning, and went back to the top of that hill on Princess Mary Lake (in northern Canada's Nunavut Territory) and relived it to the point where I could put it into words. Which was a very vivid level of recall to pull up. That was really hard."
It was on the 29th day of a wilderness canoe adventure when Messenger, part of a group of high school students on a trip organized through YMCA Camp Menogyn on the Gunflint Trail, was off hiking by himself near the group’s campsite. He was attacked by a barren ground grizzly bear and suffered multiple wounds.
We sat down with Messenger, who lives in Duluth, to talk about the book, which will be available in stores and online starting Tuesday:
News Tribune: Why did you write this book?
Messenger: I’d always wanted to write a book. I never knew what it would be about; I could never think of what story would be bookworthy. But having an event like this happen, it was pretty apparent that there was a story there. Even before I started telling people the story, it was like, wow, this is a classic, epic story.
There was a lot of figuring out if I was going to be OK that preceded deciding that I was going to write the book. But once I knew that I was going to be all right, I knew someday I was going to write a book about this.
It’s kind of ironic, but what I want people to take away from this book is an appreciation for nature. The desire to go out and have an adventure. Hopefully, not to the extent of misadventure I found myself in. But I want people to appreciate the beauty and the power of nature to the point where they feel moved to go to the Boundary Waters. Where there are no grizzlies.
News Tribune: The canoe trip and the bear attack happened when you were 17. You're now 31. Why did it take 14 years for the book to come out?
Messenger: I didn’t feel ready to write the book for a long time. I was kind of waiting to figure out what it all meant. And, eventually, I learned that you don’t always figure everything out and that if you wait until you do, then you are going to miss out on a lot of things. You just have to put one foot next to the other and one word next to the other and see where the process takes you.
I never set up a time frame for how long it (finishing the book) was going to take. My goal was that it was going to be right when it was done, I wanted it to be of a quality I could be proud of and I wanted it to be something people could enjoy, but also take something away from that’s more than just an action book.
News Tribune: You seem to have a remarkable recall for very specific details. Did you journal extensively on the fateful trip? Or did the details flow back as you wrote the book? Or both?
Messenger: I’d say it’s a bit of both. I’m a (good) note taker and journal taker. I was really lucky in that I got to travel a lot with my family when I was young. Those trips (to Southeast Asia, South America and Central America) were college study abroad trips that my dad was the professor for (through Hamline University) and one of the assignments he had for all of his students was to keep a detailed journal.
Detailed meaning substantive, not just writing down what you had for breakfast. ... So that was also an assignment for me. And I was very fortunate that I got to practice that ... and I journaled every day on this trip.
News Tribune: You had a life-changing event as a teenager. How do you think it’s shaped who you are as an adult?
Messenger: It helps to make me thankful for the things that I have. To the basic extent of being alive. I was pretty sure I was going to die when it happened. That’s a sobering thought to think that you are about to die, especially when you are that young.
News Tribune: Your amazing adventure vacation rapidly became a life-threatening nightmare. Some folks might have shied away from wilderness after that, yet you continue to pursue outdoor adventures. Why?
Messenger: I think it relates to what I get from going out on these experiences. I feel like when you are traveling, those experiences helped to form who I am, and to form my perspective. With international travel, or wilderness travel, you kind of find out who you are and how you see things when you are in these sort of crucible experiences, as I call them. That’s been hard for me to find in other exploits.
That reality, and that rawness, is hard to have anywhere else. It was important for me to get back out. And I really didn’t want to be defined by what happened. I didn’t want to be just "that’s the guy who got attacked by the bear." I wanted to be more than that.
News Tribune: Have you been back in bear country since the attack? Do you carry a .357 magnum?
Messenger: I have. I don’t go the firearm route, but I carry bear mace. I keep it with me all the time. When I’ve gone into grizzly country ever since we are the most bear aware group out there. We went to Glacier National Park, three or four years ago, and ... were in some areas with recent bear activity and it was very nerve-wracking for me.
There’s a lot of things you can do to prevent encounters. But when there's a trigger — fresh scat , or you hear something in the woods — there’s nothing else I’m thinking about at that point. That kind of hair-trigger, startle response is still there for me.
News Tribune: You say in the book that you still have physical pain from the injuries suffered in the bear attack, especially the bite to your leg. You look fine, normal, but do you still have lingering issues from the attack?
Messenger: Yes. I mean, like this morning, throughout the day really, it’s been painful whenever I walk ... in my leg and my hip flexors. Basically, I can't stand forever or sit forever. I have to keep moving. But it’s so minor. It’s more of a reminder for me to be thankful for what I have and not take anything for granted.
News Tribune: What brought you to Duluth? Why did you decide to make this your home?
Messenger: My wife’s from here. We met randomly and were dating when she was going to PA (physician assistant) school in Des Moines while I was living in Ely working for Jim Brandenberg (environmentalist, filmmaker and National Geographic photographer). When she graduated from school, she got a job here in town.
We both really like Duluth. It’s got everything we looked for: enough infrastructure and options to make it feel like we're not isolated, but also enough woods, water and wilderness nearby to make us feel comfortable here and not like we always want to get somewhere else.
News Tribune: The promotional material for the book describes this as your first book. Are there others in the works? Do you see yourself as a budding novelist?
Messenger: Whether the next one’s fiction, or another nonfiction, I’m not exactly sure. But there will be another book.
News Tribune: What's next for Alex Messenger?
Messenger: The next big adventure for me is raising a (now 8-week-old) son. There’s a lot to figure out with that. I’m definitely going to still be doing wilderness trips.
I’m definitely still going to be doing work for the St. Louis County Rescue Squad. We’re helping people out when they are having the worst day of their lives. Being able to help people in those situations, that’s a very rewarding experience.
If you go
Who: Author Alex Messenger
What: Book launch and book signing for “The Twenty-Ninth Day,” a tale of Messenger's attack by a grizzly bear on the Canadian tundra. He will discuss the fateful wilderness canoe trip and what led him to write the book.
When: Tuesday, Nov. 12, 6-9 p.m.
Where: Fitger's Spirit of the North Theatre, 600 E. Superior St., Duluth.
Tickets: $25, includes signed copy of book.
Where to buy: Book will be available starting Tuesday at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Indiebound.
About Alex Messenger
Family: Wife, Lacey; infant son, Orson
Job: Marketing communications specialist, St. Luke's
Volunteering: St. Louis County Rescue Squad
Former jobs: YMCA Camp Menogyn; digital marketing manager, Frost River; printer; digital technician, Brandenburg Gallery
Education: Attended Gustavus Adolphus College
Hometown: Deephaven, Minn.