Division of Wildlife


Popular wilderness survival instructor Papa Bear Whitmore, who dedicated decades of his life to teaching Coloradans and others about outdoor safety, passed away recently. Wildlife officers—who were among his many students—his family, and other admirers will not forget his story. They say his contributions serve to highlight the work of all Colorado Division of Wildlife volunteers who teach hunter education classes, sharing firsthand knowledge with others.

Papa Bear Whitmore, internationally renowned for his wilderness survival skills, passed away recently, but his big-hearted approach to teaching hunter education classes to thousands of Coloradans will not be forgotten by wildlife officers and others who knew of and respected his work for more than four decades.

Born Robert Clyde Whitmore in Albia, Iowa, Whitmore died October 22, 2003. He was 76. Funeral services were held October 25 in Lakewood, Colordo.

His former students and those who worked alongside him said his life serves as a good illustration of the contributions made by the 613 volunteer instructors who teach hunter education classes at the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW). Without hunter education volunteers, the DOW could not easily pass along safety and survival skills to the state’s thriving community of hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts, DOW officials said.

Mark Cousins, a district wildlife manager and acting hunter education administrator for the DOW, said Whitmore helped establish teaching standards that remain in place today. Cousins learned about outdoor survival from Whitmore while in training. He said he still uses some of the training films Whitmore helped produced years ago. When word of Whitmore’s death spread, Cousins said he and other wildlife managers began swapping stories about Whitmore’s unique survival tips.

“He came in, this fairly small, round individual with boundless energy,” Cousins said. “We all expected him to bounce back. The man had basically cheated death a couple of times. Word was he was on his deathbed, and—boom—a few days later he’s teaching hunter education. They’d get him started and he’d be right back at it.”

DOW hunter education records dating back to the1960s indicate Whitmore taught 10,664 students in 160 classes. However, Cousins said Whitmore’s sphere of influence encompassed more than 20,000 students, beginning in 1959, before such records were kept. By the early’90s, Whitmore had become a master hunter education instructor. He worked alongside other private citizens and DOW employees who volunteer their time to teach others about wilderness safety and survival.

“He had his heart in the right place. He wanted to help people learn how to appreciate the outdoors, recognize when they were in a dangerous situation, and learn how to come out alive,” said Gary Berlin, program administrator for the human resources and training section at the DOW headquarters in Denver.

Whitmore honed his survival skills by roughing it alone for weeks at a time in Colorado’s rugged backcountry and elsewhere and by working with search-and-rescue groups. He was famous for teaching others how to start fires and build shelters with a wide variety of materials and under an array of worst-case scenarios.

Sid Sellers, a retired engineer who worked with Whitmore as a DOW volunteer, said he always admired Whitmore’s ability to teach safety through demonstration.

“He put safety into the minds of a lot of people who had never heard about it before,” said Sellers, who is president of Outdoor Buddies Inc., a non-profit group that takes disabled hunters and anglers into the field. “He was proud of his ability as a safety expert and he loved to teach it. He just loved it. It was his life.”

Whitmore’s journey into teaching survival skills reportedly began in the early-1950s when he helped search for a missing girl along a river. Whitmore said he found the girl’s body, but never forgot the senselessness of her death, according to a web site for his company, the Wilderness Institute of Survival Education, or W.I.S.E.

Founded in 1970, W.I.S.E. specializes in teaching everyone from Boy Scouts to military groups the basics of cold weather and wilderness survival. The institute also has taught government officials, corporate executives, school children, and pilots. Class topics range from water purification to avalanche safety and how to avoid snakes, bears and mountain lions. Besides a handbook he wrote for the DOW, Whitmore co-authored the book “The W.I.S.E. Guide to Wilderness Survival.”

Mike Stone, former hunter education administrator for the DOW, said Whitmore was one of the agency’s early instructors and was instrumental in establishing outdoor survival classes for the state. Stone said Whitmore wrote a popular and user-friendly booklet that is still handed out to students who attend hunter education classes.

Stone said Whitmore illustrates the caliber of volunteers who sign up to teach hunter education classes. He said instructors have included a broad array of people with a wide spectrum of experience, including stay-at-home mothers, doctors, lawyers, law-enforcement officials, school principals, and Sunday school teachers. Classroom topics range from gun safety and outdoor survival to the unwritten hunter code of ethics, a philosophy that encourages safety, courtesy and observation of all state laws.

“They are people who like to hunt and fish and just want to volunteer their time to teach others about hunting,” said Stone, who retired to Cody, Wyo., recently. “They do a great job for the Division of Wildlife, the hunters of the world, and their students.”

In a 1989 interview with The Rocky Mountain News, Whitmore said he had documented 33 cases in which people’s lives had been saved because of what they learned in his classes. Among his coups was the case of a woman who saved her husband and herself after they crashed their snowmobile in a snowstorm.

According to the newspaper story, the woman built a shelter, started a fire, and kept her injured husband alive for a day and a half until help arrived, all by using skills Whitmore had taught her when she was a teenager.

“You know, the majority of people who die in the wilderness die needlessly,” Whitmore said in the interview. “With a little education, most of those lives could be saved.”

It’s a message Whitmore’s students and co-workers will never forget.

For more information about the Colorado Division of Wildlife Hunter Education classes visit Division of Wildlife.
For survival courses visit the Wilderness Survival Institute.