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May 2003

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.

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