Touched By A Grizzly

Can anyone really know what lurks in the heart of a grizzly? In the wilds of Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula, Charlie Russell believes he is beginning to find out. 

We’re walking into a trap. That much is clear as we pick our way through a dense maze of pine brush near Kambalnoye Lake. Coiled, tangled branches slap at our faces and claw at our eyes; roots snare our boot tops. And now there is something moving in the thicket ahead, something big.

Charlie Russell signals for me to stop. A few yards ahead, branches sway, shake, and snap. I hear the slow bellow of an animal breathing, a low growl. From where we stand, deep in the wilds of Kamchatka, a cold, windswept Russian outpost with one of the world’s largest populations of grizzlies, there is little doubt about what’s causing the commotion. Ensnared in a booby trap of brush with nowhere to hide, just a few yards from a feeding grizzly, I feel an overwhelming urge to run.

But Russell plunges forward. “Come on,” he says. “Let’s go say hello.”

This kind of get-together is precisely what Russell is after. Here in Kamchatka, one of the most remote places left on Earth, this self-styled bear researcher has undertaken a simple yet controversial experiment: to prove humans can live in peace with grizzlies. He’s trying to change the way you and I interact with bears in national parks like Glacier and Yellowstone–and the way we protect critical habitat for the world’s largest carnivores.

Of course, Russell’s research could also get him killed. Some bear experts say his ideas are bold; some say they’re foolishly dangerous. That is not a comforting fact as I hear the unmistakable crack of a solid object being crushed between powerful jaws. “She’s just up here,” Russell calls out. “Come on up.”

As a former backcountry guide and author of two books on bears, I’ve seen hundreds of grizzlies. Yet, those views have almost always been fleeting. Like most hikers, I carry a deep respect for these creatures, a respect edged with fear. In my experience, approaching a bear in a thick tangle is somewhere between surreal and stupid. Still, Russell’s enthusiasm draws me forward into the thicket.

And there she is. I advance into the small clearing to see a grizzly feeding in the brush. Her coat is almost blonde, the color of sun-dried grass, swirling to two dark patches around her eyes. At the sound of our voices, her giant head swings in our direction, nostrils flaring. She appears to recognize Russell, hardly giving him a second glance. She shifts and fixes me in her gaze. I try to exude confidence and a sense of peace, which isn’t easy over my thumping heart. We are just 6 feet apart, a distance she could cover in one bound. The moment stretches until it seems it will snap. Then she visibly relaxes and returns to feeding.

I find myself relaxing, too. As the paralyzing fear dissipates, I feel as though I’m seeing a real bear for the first time. She moves with unexpected grace, bending each branch with her paw, leaning in to nip off a cone with her front teeth. After a few long, beautiful minutes, she moves on and we quietly retreat. Halfway back to Russell’s cabin, I notice my fingernails are still burrowed into my palms.

For me, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime close encounter with a 600-pound grizzly. For Russell, it’s just another day at the office.

Bears and humans have a long, ugly history. In the 1800s, an estimated 50,000 grizzlies roamed the Lower 48 from California to the Great Plains. Since that time, we’ve shot, poisoned, trapped, and uprooted bears until fewer than 1,200 remain isolated in small pockets of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. For their part, bears typically kill two or three people per year in North America, a low number considering the thousands of human-bear encounters. In fact, you are 12 times more likely to die from a bee sting than a bear attack. Still, many campers lie wide-eyed and wrapped in mortal fear every night.

That cloak of fear has shaped the way we see the backcountry. Some people avoid bear country altogether, others try to sweep it clean. Grizzlies are being driven off prime habitat in conflicts with rangers, homeowners, and national park visitors. These conflicts invariably lead to the destruction of “problem” bears in “management actions,” a trend that could spell the doom of an already threatened species. In short, it is a war with no winners.

Charlie Russell would like to change all that. This unlikely peacemaker is a soft-spoken 61-year-old with unruly silver hair, large glasses, and a toothy overbite that causes him to lisp. With just a twelfth-grade education, no university affiliation, and no backing from any government wildlife agency, he’s an anomaly in the bureaucratic, doctorate-laden world of bear research.

Born on a ranch in Alberta, Russell has spent most of his life around bears. He’s known grizzlies that lived for years undetected under the noses of summer home dwellers. For years, he questioned the “shoot first, ask questions later” approach to bear management. He longed for an opportunity to prove that grizzlies and humans could coexist without bloodshed. Then, one day in 1994, deep in the rainforest of British Columbia, that chance came walking right up to him.

Guiding a wildlife-watching trip in the Khutzeymateen Reserve, Russell was resting when a dark female grizzly began stepping across the log he was sitting on. He’d seen the bear before, even close up, but this time something was different. “I had the feeling that if I didn’t move,” Russell once wrote, “she would just keep coming.” She did.

The bear moved closer, 2 feet, a foot, then inches away. She edged so close Russell could hear her breathe, feel her warmth. Closer. Russell knew he was experiencing something that could change his life forever, if only he could muster the courage to stay frozen. He did. For long moments, the man and the bear stared at each other, inches apart.

Then, the grizzly did something unexpected: She reached out her paw and touched him.

That extraordinary encounter did indeed shift the course of Russell’s life. “It proved to me that bears are not the blood-thirsty killers they are too often made out to be,” he says. He knew that radical thought had the potential to alter the entire relationship between bears and humans–if only he could prove it.

The challenge led Russell first to Canada’s Princess Royal Island and a study of rare white-colored black bears, work he chronicled in his book Spirit Bears. But to prove to the skeptics that bears and humans could live together without fear, he had to go further: He had to live among the grizzlies.

Russell’s work has focused on the control of fear and its role in the survival of bears. He thinks our behavior–our fear–is robbing bears of critical habitat. “The first time a bear gets ‘too friendly’ with people, even if it doesn’t mean any harm and is just curious–Boom! It gets blasted by rubber bullets or clanging pots or pepper spray,” Russell says. Even worse, he says, people have built ranches, summer homes, and condos in river valleys and meadows long used by bears, and then driven the animals out. “The only places we say it’s okay for bears to be is in the high country,” he says. “But they can’t survive there.”

The grizzly will endure only if we can overcome our fear, Russell believes. “Think of it,” he says, “if we can alter our behavior even a little bit, fewer bears would get killed for raiding campgrounds, people could enjoy the backcountry without lying awake at night, bears could come down out of the high country and share the more productive areas with humans. “If this whole mutual-fear policy of bear management were working, I’d button my lip and do something else,” Russell says. “But it isn’t. So it seems it’s time to try something different.”

The search for something different literally took Russell to the ends of the Earth. He knew he needed a place where the bears had not already been conditioned to humans, one where a nonscientist unaffiliated with a federal or state wildlife agency could work without interference. Given the intense wildlife management practiced in U.S. national parks and forests, he concluded that no domestic spots (and few in Canada) would fit the bill. “In North America, you can shoot bears, trap them, and douse them with pepper spray,” he says sharply. “But it’s illegal to seek out a peaceful way to live with them.”

Eventually, his search turned to Kamchatka, the California-size peninsula dangling off the eastern edge of Russia. Closed to outsiders for decades in an effort to guard strategic military secrets, Kamchatka has remained wild as can be. Only a single, crumbling stretch of pavement runs even partway down the peninsula. That isolation has been a boon to wildlife. While animal populations have been decimated elsewhere in Russia, Kamchatka still teems with salmon, Stellar sea eagles (half the world’s population), and an estimated 10,000 grizzlies.

Nowhere are the tracks thicker than at Kurilskoye Lake, the blue-jewel centerpiece of the 2.5-million-acre South Kamchatka Preserve. Each summer, fire-red sockeye surge up the Ozernaia River into Kurilskoye, staging up in swirling masses that darken the water before spinning off up the side streams in the largest spawning run on the Asian continent. This unmatched concentration of fish draws bears by the hundreds-and people as well, far too many for the experiment Russell and his partner, artist Maureen Enns, had in mind. “After visiting Kurilskoye, we were beginning to wonder if we were too late,” Russell says. “Maybe there was no place left where this sort of study was still possible.”

But they got a break. Joining them around a campfire one night, a Russian scientist described counting 80 bears in a stretch of river leading out of a lake 20 miles to the south, a spot few people ever visited because of the weather and rough terrain. It was, the scientist said, “Kamchatka’s forgotten place.”

That place is Kambalnoye Lake. After months of negotiations with Russian officials, Russell and Enns won permission in 1996 to build the one-room cabin where Russell and I stand scoping the lake for bears. The dark hillsides are fringed with pine sheared low by the nearly constant wind. A small wind generator buzzes out back, stirring up electricity for a laptop computer. Solar panels out front provide enough juice for an electric fence that surrounds the cabin. Behind us looms the 7,227-foot Kambalnoye Volcano, its summit already dusted with the year’s first snow when I visit in September. The nearest road is 120 miles away.

Remote, unvisited, with a huge bear population unhunted for years, it was the perfect setting–on paper at least. “I don’t know what we expected,” says Russell, “but every bear we saw for that first year seemed bent on just one thing: getting away from us as fast as it could.” There were plenty of grizzlies–25 counted in one short walk–but all the sightings were of the back ends of bears disappearing into the brush. “We spent the first summer scaring bears. It was very frustrating.”

Slowly, things improved. It started in the summer of 1997, when a box smuggled out of a squalid Russian zoo arrived via helicopter. Inside were three bawling, squirming grizzly cubs orphaned by a hunter. Russell and Enns hadn’t planned on becoming foster parents, but without them the cubs would have been shot or sold off to the Asian black market, where bear parts are used in folk medicines. The couple took them in.

Raising the cubs–Chico, Rosie, and Biscuit–gave Russell and Enns a close-up view of bears, allowing them to form the kind of trust they hoped to experience with other bears. On long walks along the lake, they acted as surrogate parents, teaching the cubs to fish by tossing rocks out in the lake near floating salmon and pointing out edible plants. “We didn’t have to show them much,” Russell says.

This bonding process allowed Russell and Enns to gather a lifetime of observations in just a few short seasons. Russell believes that other researchers can spend years in the field and not get the kind of experiences the two of them get nearly every day at Kambalnoye. While others study bears from a distance, Russell and Enns live among them–though some researchers have chided them for relying on habituated bears.

Russell, not surprisingly, disagrees. “These bears were wild by my definition. They took care of themselves. Even that first winter, we were worried how to teach them about denning, and then right in the middle of a raging snowstorm, they disappeared up the mountain and dug their own den.”

But the bears would confront more than snowstorms. Wild cubs face many threats–predatory adults, starvation, drowning, hunters. Even in the best of circumstances, about one in three survives to adulthood. The same held true for these cubs. Rosie was killed by a large male bear the second year, and Chico vanished the next fall. Only Biscuit, the bear we visited in the brush, now 5, remains.

Their experience with the cubs enabled Russell and Enns to jumpstart their relationship with the bears of Kambalnoye Lake. The duo faced their fears, gained confidence, and over time, says Russell, began to earn the acceptance of other bears around the lake.

As we walk along the shore, I get to see that acceptance up close. We have just crossed a small snowfield east of the cabin when a few yards ahead of us a bear’s head pops up over the rise, and then a second, and a third larger one: a mother with a pair of 2-year-old cubs. “I don’t recognize those bears,” Russell says. “Let’s go have a look.”

This act, walking directly toward a family of unknown bears, is the defining difference between Charlie Russell’s work and traditional bear research. Most of this science is done from a distance: Home ranges are plotted with radio telemetry, and scat samples are analyzed to determine diet. Some researchers can go entire field seasons and see the bears they are studying only through a spotting scope. When bears are approached, they are most often trapped or darted, drugged so that they can be weighed, measured, have a tooth pulled for aging, a hair sample taken for mercury testing, blood drawn–all in relative safety.

Not Charlie Russell. “Hello, bears,” he says in a calm tone as we approach the sow and cubs. Russell and Enns sometimes observe dozens of bears at close range in a day. Enns (who is away during my visit) sketches and paints them. Russell takes photographs and studies the way they react to his presence. He doesn’t take a lot of notes or measurements. There are already mountains of charts and graphs, he says–and what good has that done the bear? “I don’t care how many miles a bear walks in a day or how many mouthfuls of grass it eats before it takes a crap. I’m only interested in two things: What pisses bears off and what doesn’t.”

His approach is soft. There is no shouting, clapping, or clanging bear bells, and no guns for backup. Though he carries pepper spray, he’s never used it. “Those are things managers use to make bears hate people, though the word they use is fear,” says Russell, referring to the widely accepted practice of using loud noises or projectiles to condition bears to avoid human encounters. Bear biologists generally agree that conditioning is the best way to keep hikers safe. But Russell’s vehement disagreement with the tactic forms the heart of his argument: “In my opinion, a fearful bear is a dangerous bear.”

He says he and Enns use a more effective tool: their voices. “We talk quietly, trying to indicate very sincerely that we aren’t going to hurt them, that we aren’t afraid, and that they shouldn’t be afraid either. The important thing is the management of fear. I can’t explain all the ‘whys’ of it, but bears can read your intentions in your voice,” he says. Unlike others, he downplays the importance of avoiding eye contact. “It’s like meeting someone in a dark alley. There are circumstances when it’s rude to stare someone straight in the face, and others when the look in your eyes can convey trust, too. Bears can read that just like humans.”

He also scoffs at the conventional wisdom that bears are unpredictable. “If that were true,” he says, “we wouldn’t have lasted a week out here, much less 7 years.” His work, his very survival, he says, is staked on the premise that bears are reasonable, intelligent, sensitive animals with whom it is possible to coexist, provided you treat them with respect.

I’m still struggling with his ideas as the cubs approach. They come closer, sniffing the air, eyeing us sideways. Within seconds we are directly between the cubs and the sow, a classic deathtrap according to most bear experts. The old fear wells up in me again.

“Does that look like a worried mother to you?” Russell asks, as if sensing my discomfort. I turn to see the sow flat on the ground rubbing her belly contentedly on a bush. “They are just so neat to be around,” he says as the cubs circle him inquisitively. That’s classic Russell. He unabashedly admits he loves bears, and claims they love him back. “It’s not like with dogs that get all soupy about it but there is no doubt you can feel that they enjoy our company,” he says, pointing out what he calls “an eye flicker” as a sign they are enjoying this encounter.

Watching Russell walk along the shoreline, swishing through knee-high grasses with his walking stick, a line of grizzly cubs following him like puppies, it does seem like a different world, almost paradisiacal. So often our glimpses of wildlife in the backcountry are flashes colored with fear–our own and that of the animals we encounter. It is as if we walk the earth creating a wake of fear with animals parting, running, hiding, until we pass.

But for just a moment, on a sunlit afternoon in wild Russia, all that seems to have been set aside for something else: The sight of a man walking in peace among grizzlies.

That picture is not a vision of Eden to everyone. “What Charlie Russell is doing is foolish,” says Chuck Bartlebaugh, director of the Center for Wildlife Information, a group that educates people to keep their distance from bears and other creatures. “We’ve spent 20 years building enthusiasm for wildlife among the public without instilling the proper sense of personal responsibility for one’s safety,” says Bartlebaugh, suggesting that Russell is perpetuating that mistake. “He’s teaching people how to get mauled.”

Dr. Chuck Jonkel of the Great Bear Foundation, who has studied grizzlies in the West for more than 40 years, has more mixed feelings. He says he sometimes envies the hours of close observation Russell has experienced. “But I wouldn’t do that because I don’t want to become bear protein.” He also questions whether Russell’s findings can be put to use in places like the Rockies. “The grizzlies in Montana are far different than the coastal bears that Charlie works with,” he says. “There, they can encounter 40 bears a day and get used to contact. A Montana bear just doesn’t have the same social skills. Try that stuff around here and they’ll knock your block off.”

Russell bristles at the notion that people will hear of his work and go running across meadows in Yellowstone thinking they, too, can walk with the grizzlies. “I am not advocating anyone try that in Yellowstone or anywhere else. That would be foolish and I wouldn’t do it myself. I am simply trying to show that peace is possible.”

That, in the end, may be his greatest contribution, says Kevin Van Tighem, a biologist at Alberta’s bear-rich Jasper National Park. “Charlie and Maureen are showing us an ideal, what could be possible if we were as good as we like to think we are in managing people and bears. They’ve given us a goal to work toward.”

Russell, who was once mauled by a black bear (and saved by his 11-year-old son), says he’s not naive. Although Russell says he has never felt threatened by a bear in Kamchatka, tragedy has struck close to home. In August 1996, wildlife photographer Michio Hoshino was dragged from his tent and eaten by a bear at Kurilskoye Lake. A few days earlier, Russell had shared a tent with Hoshino on the same spot. He later learned that the 1,000-pound bear had been fed by a Russian television crew looking for close-up footage and had grown bold enough to rip apart a helicopter where food had been stored.

Russell felt his convictions challenged like never before, but he kept circling back to his deepest beliefs about bears. “I still don’t think there is anything in a bear’s nature that will make it turn on a human for no reason,” Russell says. “There’s always a reason. And with Michio’s death, there were a number of them.”

The tragedy sparked in Russell a rededication to his cause. “After what happened, I was more convinced than ever of the need to search out a way to make peace,” he says. “Our project is more important now than ever.”

With that project entering its eighth season, Russell is contemplating how and when to end the experiment. He recites its successes: evidence that cubs raised by humans may be released into the wild successfully; proof that portable electric fences are effective, nonlethal deterrents; donations of $30,000 a year to help Russian authorities curb poaching; heightened awareness of bear-human coexistence through traveling shows of paintings and photographs, and a book (Grizzly Heart); and, not least, hundreds of peaceful encounters with some of the planet’s most feared creatures.

The decision to leave won’t be easy; there are still plenty of reasons to work and worry. Biscuit is pregnant, and Russell is anxious to see how her new cubs will react to him and Enns. And they fret about the fate of the bears after they’re gone. Still, it has to end sometime. “The critics won’t be satisfied unless we live forever out here without getting eaten,” he says. “But I think we’ve proven our point.”

One windless evening, Russell offers to show me the lay of the land from his Kolb, an ultralight plane he keeps moored along the shore. The sun is low and slants through the gaps in the mountains, lighting up the hillsides in spotlights of gold. On our 90-minute flight above southern Kamchatka, we coast over endless wetlands, tiny lakes reflecting chips of blue sky, thick-grass meadows, fissures that blast steam from the volcanic heat simmering below. Once, we find ourselves flying in formation with a Steller sea eagle. Bears are everywhere–one in a blueberry patch, a mother nursing cubs in the open, a lone male nearly at the summit of a peak. We count 63 bears along the river and even find tracks on the beach when we skim low along the coast.

As the land scrolls beneath us, Russell talks of wanting to see Kambalnoye and the land around it set aside as a special management area–not just for bears, but for bears and humans. He envisions a place where the spirit of his work can be carried on, where small numbers of researchers, activists, artists, wildlife managers, and even the public could come and walk among the bears the way he and Enns have–or at least share the same landscape in peace.

The following afternoon, Russell takes me across the lake to an ancient bear trail. For thousands of years, bears have used this route to cross the low pass to the lake. “You can see where every bear steps exactly in the same spot as the one before it,” he says. The trail seems symbolic of what he’s facing in his efforts to change how we view bears. Old habits die hard, for grizzlies and humans.

As we hike back to the boat, Russell walks ahead, leaving me to assess my own stubborn view of bears. The fear–that twist in the gut that comes the moment you realize you are sharing the land with something big enough to kill and eat you–is not gone. It probably shouldn’t be. Even after spending time with Russell, I’d never knowingly approach a bear anywhere else in the wild, never keep an unclean camp, never walk into thick brush in bear country without hollering.

Yet the experience here has tempered my fear with the idea that there may be other ways to see the world, and the bear. Getting out from under the blinding paranoia, even for a moment, gives us a chance to relax and appreciate the other beauties of wild places. I can absorb the splendor of Kamchatka with a fullness and clarity that wasn’t possible when I got here. Plus, even a small reduction in our fear of grizzlies could give them a chance to reclaim some of the habitat they need, a small but perhaps vital step toward their survival. It would be, as Russell claims, a kind of truce in a war that no one stands to win.

We’ve already pushed the boat off and started the engine when we spot Biscuit fishing just a short distance up the shore. Cutting the motor, we watch her wade out, catlike, eyes peeling back the ripples. Sometimes she puts her head underwater as if snorkeling to locate the salmon. “Look,” Russell whispers as we beach the boat and climb out for a closer look, “she’s picking out the ones with the white fins. They are spawned out and slower.” When she corrals one between her paws and the shore, she drives it to shallow water and pounces, snatching it in her jaws and carrying it to a flat rock to eat. We watch the process repeated successfully five times, moving closer on each occasion.

By her sixth course, we are close enough to see the crimson of blood on her muzzle and hear the bones crunch when she rips apart the fish. In the afternoon sun, the water drips like diamonds off her fur.

Finishing the salmon, she turns, not back to the water as we expect but directly toward us. We are too close–there is no time to move out of the way, nowhere to go. Just 3 feet separate my legs and a boulder on the shore, 3 feet for a 600-pound bear to pass through. I freeze, my hand on the canister of pepper spray. In just a few steps, she is there, moving almost silently through the narrow gap, so close I feel the brush of fur against my leg. At first, I think she will just pass by. Then she stops. I look away, trying not to make eye contact, but then I look back to show her my eyes. I feel her huge head swing in my direction, and then the surprisingly soft touch of her nose against my upper arm. There is a quiet “woof ” as she inhales to catch my scent. And then she moves on.

I wait, afraid to move, cringing at the sound of a huge splash. But it is only Biscuit pouncing back into the lake after another salmon, doing what bears have done for thousands of years on Kambalnoye Lake. My heart is pounding so wildly in my chest that I can barely turn around to look. When I do, Charlie Russell is smiling.