True Stories: The Bear Man Among the Grizzlies

Charlie Russell spent 10 years living with bears in Eastern Russia. Now he’s out to show Canada that humans and grizzlies can get along.

1 / 2
Bear Hug

“By treating bears kindly, people can live safely with them”

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.”

(Photo by Maureen Enns)

2 / 2

Seeing things from a bear’s perspective

In the spring of 2003 Russell jumped out of a Soviet helicopter onto the foggy Kamchatka tundra. Anticipating another idyllic summer, he rushed to his cabin with five months’ worth of supplies loaded on his back. But as he flung open the door, he was hit with a stomach-churning stench. Peering into the dark room, he could just make out the shape of a rotten gallbladder nailed to the wall. Poachers had killed every one of his bears.

Heartbroken, Russell (who had since been joined by Enns) fled to the familial comfort of Alberta. “It was a huge shock,” says Dick, Russell’s elder brother. “It’s like having your kids killed.” But less than a year after the massacre, Russell felt the pull of Kamchatka. So when he got a call from Canadian filmmakers Jeff and Sue Turner asking him to participate in a film about his years studying bears in Russia, he couldn’t turn them down.

But Enns did. “She said, ‘I’m not going to have any part of it,'” recalls Russell. “She was smart. God, it was hell going back there.” After four gruelling years of filming, Russell left Russia for good in 2007-but he wouldn’t leave defeated. He had footage of the extraordinary creatures he’d come to know: creatures who nuzzled noses with him after a long winter apart and who galloped beside him on his walks.

Russell knows stories like his are rarely heard. When bear attacks happen, news stories can sensationalize the danger. But the numbers don’t match the hype. Canada is home to about 380,000 black bears and 26,000 grizzlies, and in the past decade fewer than 15 people have been mauled to death. Poor treatment causes bears to turn violent, says Russell, who points to conservation officers’ dealings with bears as an example. A bear that continuously comes too close to humans will be shot at with noisemakers, rubber bullets or tranquilizers. Many are captured and released, which can be frightening for the bear, argues Russell. During what is called a “hard release,” the bear is bombarded with loud noises as it leaves the trap and heads into the forest. Dogs bark and snap at the fleeing animal. The message: Don’t come back.

“But see it from the bear’s perspective,” says Russell. “You can’t spend all day running from things and not be stressed. We make them dangerous.” To prevent bears from becoming nuisances, Russell says, the public needs to keep garbage in bear-proof bins, and parks’ staff should avoid haranguing the animals. “Bears can feel respect and they learn respect.”

But getting respect from ranchers is more easily said than done. When bears wake from their six-month hibernation, they’re looking for one thing: a meal- and fast. They search for weak or dead cattle on nearby ranches and often come up against angry, armed ranchers.

After years of observing deadly runins, Russell took action. He trucked dead cattle from his Alberta ranch to a nearby area just outside the bears’ winter homes. If they had easy access to bounty, he reasoned, they wouldn’t need to sniff around the ranches. The plan worked and bear-rancher encounters decreased. Russell even began adding his neighbours’ deceased cattle to the pile. He is happy that Alberta’s Sustainable Resource Development Ministry has since developed its own successful feeding program using roadkill. It’s not unusual to see department staff fly out to the dens each year, moose and deer carcasses swinging in the helicopter’s sling.

At the end of the night, copies of Grizzly Heart and the film sell out. The high sales indicate to Russell that the public is receptive to his message. If only one rancher changes his habits because of his talk, the years in Kamchatka will have been worth it. “I hope I’ve helped them see these are not the horrible animals they’ve been told about,” says Russell. “Bears give us what we give them. Give them violence, we get violence back. But give them kindness and we get kindness.”

(Photo by Maureen Enns)

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada

Newsletter Unit