Alex Messenger is a Photographer and Writer...
and Survivor of a Grizzly Bear Attack
In terms of pure life experience, 35-year-old Alex Messenger is already a wizened soul.
He is a happily married man, and father to two beautiful children – a four-year-old son, Orson, and a newborn daughter, Ayla. He is both a published author and a prolific photographer. Messenger had the amazing opportunity to work for Jim Brandenburg, the world-famous National Geographic photographer based in Ely.
And, oh yes; in 2005, at age 17, he survived being mauled by a grizzly bear.
There in the Canadian wilderness, Messenger was left unconscious and clinging to life. If the bear’s tooth had landed just 1/4” away from where he was bitten, it would have punctured Messenger’s femoral artery, and he would have perished in minutes.
Messenger is undoubtedly one hardy dude who somehow retains an excellent sense of humor about it all. When his son, Orson, was born, Messenger and his wife, Lacey, chose their first-born child’s name with intention - and more than a touch of irony.
“Orson means ‘bear cub’ in French,” he explained. “We just thought it was a fun connection to my history. And, believe it or not, a bear crossed the road when we were bringing Orson home from the hospital.”
Messenger was born and raised in Minnetonka. He and his sister were raised in a fun, adventurous household.
His parents, Skip and Phyllis, both worked in academia. But they also did archeological fieldwork, and the family took several “study abroad” trips to places like Central America, Mexico, and Southeast Asia. These adventures had an immense impact on young Messenger.
“I recognize how unique and privileged I was to have these experiences,” he said. “In a situation outside my comfort zone, I learned about the world around me and myself.”
His first experience with photography was on one of these trips - to Mexico. “At the time, I just had a Nikon point-and-shoot camera, but I found that taking photos helped me be more engaged with the journey.”
The Messenger family also enjoyed plenty of local adventures. They often camped at state and national parks, and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA). “It was amazing to get to experience the beauty of the north woods,” he noted. “Both to visit, but also as a subject to photograph and be inspired by.”
While in middle school, he got his first digital camera, a Nikon Coolpix 775. While it was a simple, entry-level camera, the instant feedback helped spur what would become a lifelong love of photography. When he was attending Minnetonka High School, Messenger took advantage of the robust photography program, and picked up plenty of skills using his high school’s dark room and studio space.
Later, Messenger attended Gustavus Adolphus College, earning a Bachelor’s degree in studio art with a minor in writing and English.
After college graduation, Messenger got a job in customer service at National Camera Exchange in Golden Valley. He got the opportunity to meet award-winning photographer Jim Brandenburg through one of his parents’ colleagues, who was involved in making a documentary about Brandenburg’s life. This turned out to be a life-changing meeting.
“I ended up showing Jim my work, and he was very encouraging,” Messenger said. “Years later, I ran into him again and he told me he was looking for a fine art printer and assistant. It was a really great opportunity.”
Messenger moved to Ely, where he worked for Brandenburg for three years. He also spent time at Brandenburg’s Moose Lake retreat, called Ravenwood. During these years, Messenger picked up an array of photography- and business-related skills from his mentor.
He moved to Duluth in 2011, to build a life with his future wife, Lacey. Messenger spent a tremendous amount of time in the car in those years, commuting back and forth from Ely.
Making a home in Duluth was never a question for Messenger. “Lacey is from Duluth originally – her parents owned the Popcorn Wagon in Canal Park. And I’ve always had a special connection to Duluth and the North Shore.”
Messenger’s career has included a few hops, but all his roles have revolved around marketing and communications. After his three transformative years working for Brandenburg, Messenger was hired at Frost River, where he remained from 2014 - 2018. There, he was an intern, a technical writer, and later a digital marketing manager.
From 2018 – 2022, he worked at St. Luke’s as a marketing and communications specialist. And in 2022, he was hired at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) as a communication specialist, where he works in public relations and provides writing and photography for the University.
He also maintains a robust photography business. “My niche is as a ‘feature photographer,’” he explained. “I try to tell a story through my photos. I love taking landscapes, photos of Lake Superior, local rivers, the BWCA, and environmental portraits.”
Messenger recommends that budding photographers go out and get started. “It’s easy to get hung up on the gear, but you can do a lot with whatever you have,” he shared.
“I would suggest trying to shoot with a prime lens with no zoom. They can be inexpensive and the single perspective forces you to think creatively and be more engaged.”
These days, Messenger mostly uses a Nikon Z7 – a full-frame, mirrorless camera with fantastic image quality, a lot of dynamic range and an array of fast, modern lenses. He also uses a Leica M Rangefinder, a compact camera with a manual focus and aperture. “It helps me be more connected with what I’m doing,” he noted.
Messenger also volunteers his time with the St. Louis County Rescue Squad, which he has done for the last decade.
Grizzly Bear Attack
In 2005, at age 17, Messenger was on a canoe trip in northern Canada with five other young men. On the 29th day of a 42-day adventure, Messenger was mauled by a grizzly bear.
“I went off on a hike on a ridge by myself,” he explained. “I had no idea a 600-pound grizzly bear was right there. I didn’t have my bear spray – it was back at camp. I used my training and spoke calmly and slowly backed away, but the bear saw me as a threat that it had to neutralize. It charged me and attacked, leaving me unconscious.”
Ultimately, playing dead saved Messenger’s life. Once the bear was convinced the threat was neutralized, it retreated. Dazed and bleeding, Messenger somehow made it back to camp, where he could receive medical attention. As noted earlier, things almost ended quite differently.
“Thankfully, the bleeding was controllable,” he said. “If I had been bitten ¼” in a different location, I would have died.”
Today, Messenger still has a bit of soreness on his leg where he was bitten. But the psychological effects have been tougher to overcome. “It took a long time to move past that,” he said. “To this day, I still have a heightened startle response.”
The Twenty-Ninth Day
Messenger turned his harrowing experience into a book, The Twenty-Ninth Day, published in 2019 by Blackstone Publishing, an independent publisher based in Oregon. He also performed the audio book’s narration.
The book, available in hardcover, paperback, e-Book, and audiobook, has received some very lofty recognition; it was a Wall Street Journal bestseller and a 2020 Minnesota Book Award finalist. The Twenty-Ninth Day – a must-read for all adventurers - is available on Amazon, and everywhere fine books are sold.
Messenger is currently hard at work on another book. His second tome will be a survival-themed novel centered around Lake Superior.
The Messenger family (including their Havanese dog, Hartley) lives in Duluth’s Woodland neighborhood. Lacey works at Essentia Health as a physician assistant specializing in cardiology.
The family enjoys spending plenty of time outdoors in their free time. “I love that I can hop on my mountain bike and get on a single track right from my garage,” Messenger noted. “Or we can load up the family and go to a paved trail like the Lakewalk or Munger.”
Messenger also enjoys hiking and trail running, which he usually combines with photography.
Storyteller at Heart
Whether it’s through writing books or taking photos, Alex Messenger has many stories to share with the world. “I’m really motivated by storytelling, and I feel so fortunate that I can do that through my photography and writing,” he said.
“Beyond that,” he added, “Lacey and I want to provide our kids with fulfilling experiences. We enjoy seeing the world again through their eyes.”
To learn more, please visit alexmessenger.com.