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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.

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.

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