Commotion in the distance catches Charlie Russell’s eye and he squints into the sun to make out the shapes of three brown bears. They are heading towards him—fast. Snow explodes around them every time their massive paws hit the ground. But Russell stays put. When they get a metre or so from him, the towering animals slow down to a stroll. The leading bear holds her face very close to Russell’s. She nuzzles his nose with her own and Russell breaks into a smile. “Hey, little bear,” he says.
Here the audience holds its breath. It’s 2010—five years later—and we’re in Whitehorse, Yukon, where a whitehaired Russell stands before a crowded conference room as a documentary about his life, The Edge of Eden, flickers behind him. Local citizens have come to get, first-hand, the story of the “Bear Man of Kamchatka.”
Russell, now 70, earned this title after he relocated to the easternmost part of Russia, built a cabin at the base of a lakeside volcano and spent more than ten springs and summers living with brown bears—the taller, heavier cousin of the North American grizzly.
“No question, bears are dangerous,” says Russell, but he also argues that demonizing them prevents us from recognizing their intelligent, playful and peaceful nature. “They attack us because we abuse them,” he insists, and for the last two years he has travelled across Canada, lecturing in communities where bears are considered a nuisance. “What I want to do now is work on the human side of the problem,” Russell says. In a country where cities spread deep into the rural landscape and hunters kill about 450 grizzlies annually, he is determined to change the way we treat our ursine neighbours.
Russell was raised with the idea that “the only good bear is a dead bear.” His father, a hunter and outfitter, shared stories of bloodthirsty grizzlies with his five children. However, when the family’s hunting business faltered in the early 1960s, Russell and his brother joined their father on an expedition to film grizzlies in Alaska. Russell couldn’t help but wonder why bears behaved aggressively towards gun-toters, but left the filmmakers alone. “I suspected they didn’t like cruelty,” he says.
In 1994 he tested out his theory in British Columbia’s Khutzeymateen Inlet, where he took tourists on bearviewing excursions. One afternoon, while resting on a log between guiding trips, Russell sat still as a female grizzly casually approached. “I knew if I did not move, she would keep coming,” he later wrote in his 2002 book Grizzly Heart. “I had decided to let her come as close as she wanted.” Russell spoke to the bear in gentle tones and she sat down beside him. She put her paw on his hand and Russell reciprocated the gesture, touching her nose, lip and teeth. These were the iron jaws featured in his father’s campfire stories, now no more threatening than the snout of a puppy. If he could repeat similar moments—and perhaps photograph the encounters—Russell believed he could prove that “just by treating bears kindly, people can live safely with them.”
The place to go was the Kamchatka Peninsula. At 1,200 kilometres long, the area has one of the densest populations of brown bears in the world—as many as 1,200 roam the government-controlled sanctuary. In 1996 Russell settled next to the pristine Kambalnoye Lake with his partner, artist Maureen Enns. With the closest town more than 200 kilometres away, Russell felt the location was remote enough to study the bears without distractions—or poachers looking for bear gallbladders, a hot commodity in traditional Chinese medicine. “What I wanted,” explains Russell, “was to befriend the bears, to be the only human influence on them.”
Russell and Enns began mingling with the animals immediately, without incident. “I had so many bears around,” he says, “I couldn’t go to the bathroom without an encounter.” The next year, however, things took an interesting turn. He heard about three orphaned cubs at a nearby zoo. The cubs were caged and ate only the popcorn and candy that children tossed to them. Russell and Enns knew the cubs would grow big enough to swipe at people through the bars and therefore be shot. So they bought the cubs from the zoo and helicoptered them to their cabin.
At only six kilograms each, Chico, Biscuit and Rosie were too small to venture off on their own, so Russell housed them behind an electric fence—meant more to keep predators out than to keep the young bears in. Experts warned Russell and Enns that the cubs would quickly become aggressive. But in their seven years together, these bears never turned on the couple. When the shrubs exploded in berries, Russell took the cubs to forage. When the salmon moved inland, he taught the cubs to fish. It took them a while to get comfortable in the water, but soon the bears were paddling confidently behind Enns in her kayak. The couple was suddenly saddled with more cubs when a sow began using them as a babysitting service. “She figured it was safe to drop them off with me while she went hunting,” says Russell. “What a wonderful way to be taken advantage of.”