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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.

One rare 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.

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