Even before the border slammed shut out of paranoia, I never could understand why Montana folks didn’t go into Canada more. Scriver’s generation almost had to be reminded that there WAS a border, esp. the St. Mary’s Valley and High Line people. Now, with the current local furor over the grizzly bear recovery, it would seem not just logical but highly desirable to join understandings with the Alberta people. Maybe part of the problem is that the wildlife and conservation community that stretches from Waterton to Lethbridge is quite liberal, and on its own turf quite powerful.
Andy Russell was a rancher/outfitter who expanded into writing, film and — inevitably — politics. His son, Charlie, two years younger than myself, was the only son not a biologist by degree but by enterprise. With his artist partner, Maureen Enns (left out by sexist Wikipedia), lived in Kamchatka for ten summers in order to study grizzlies, called brown bears there. They were in wilderness, built their own hut, and managed safety with electric fencing. Expecting only to watch the animals up close, they ended up “cub-napping” three little sisters about the size of house cats and nurturing them into several hundred pounds each of adulthood, acquiring fellow-traveling bear families as they went.
The account of this, which I just finished, is a heart-warming book called “Grizzly Heart: Living without Fear Among the Brown Bears of Kamchatka.” One reviewer calls it “a joy to read,” and indeed it is. Partly because of editing support from Fred Stenson, a noted writer himself, the book reads like silk in spite of some pretty rugged story-line. Charlie’s one soft spot is Timothy Treadwell, whom he approves here (before the deaths of he and his girlfriend), but he does not back off from the gruesome death of Michio Hoshino, noted photographer, dragged from his tent in the night.
He marks another human killed by a bear, but not so close to the authors. In fact, there is a sinister cannibal bear, a big male, who killed and ate cubs, once while Charlie watched — eventually killing one of the three sisters — but not while the guardians were there.
What stays with the reader is the many walkabouts on snow and along lakes, always searching for food which is everything for survival except shelter from the weather which is extreme — much like Valier, in fact. When the cubs first arrived, they were kept in a little hut of their own for a while, but gradually eased out into the world and eventually dug their own dens. It’s soon obvious that those huge claws are for digging, big badger feet, and they loved to dig just for fun as well as to reach roots and bulbs.
One of the most touching moments is when the bears are all grown up, but when their first little hut is opened up, they go in, along with Charlie and Maureen, all stacked together in close quarters. Unexpectedly, the bears begin to “chirr” which is a sound like purring that cubs make while nursing. Clearly they were spacing on childhood memory.
Another similar moment comes after the pair have had to be gone and the hut was guarded by a whole family that included two little girls who loved the bears, which were big by then. The girls would go out in the morning and lie on the ground nose-to-nose with the cubs, except with the live electric wire between them. After the family had gone back home, one cub would come to lie in the usual spot to wait for the nose-to-nose seance until she realized the children had gone. Searching each other's eyes, breathing each other's breath, what were they learning?
One key to this adventure was a Kolb ultralight airplace that came as a kit that Charlie could assemble, repair as needed, and nimbly fly to land in surprising places. He shipped and stored it in parts. Support was provided with helicopters. Kamchatka was once connected to Alaska and much of the business was very much like that of Alaska.
Except that as one learns about the big bears that are the powerful symbol of Russia (Putin riding bare-chested on one) it becomes clear that it is a place always on the edge of starving to death. Whether mismanagement, political corruption, or some ancient curse, the people of Kamchatka live hard lives. Urging conservation of animals on them seems almost cruel, and yet some of the most devoted and ingenious of the rangers existed right alongside monstrous bureaucrats with distorted ethics.
Kamchatka bears fatten on salmon and char runs that fill the waterways with easily caught protein. Their characters are gentle and tolerant, even the ones not raised on sunflower seeds like Charlie’s three “girls.” The influence of this environment on the essential nature of any bears is not considered much in the book, but that’s not the point. What Charlie and Maureen are about is the most literal interface of mammal to mammal. In fact, Maureen bonds with foxes, which exposes her to heartbreak when they are trapped out one winter by a father and son who also break into the hut and trash it.
There is a body of thought called “Theory of Mind” which is about the ability to understand what another living creature is intending. Developed in response to the catch/don’t-be- caught of the dynamics between creatures, it has developed in humans to the point of guiding poker games. What’s interesting in Charlie’s experience is that the bears tried to understand intentions. If he stepped hurtfully on a paw, the bear was upset unless he apologized and expressed sympathy. Then the cub just let it go. At one point a visiting photographer fell over a cub and hurt it. Charlie forced him to apologize, which the photographer thought was stupid, until he did it and saw the bear respond graciously instead of biting him.
Maureen’s contribution was major. Her inserted versions of events are often enlightening, but beyond that she kept Charlie sane and provided an artistic platform for thought and feeling, deeper than the most skillful photo.
Maybe for readers Back East or Overseas these people are far away in a land only imagined, but for me they are local. I hope that the recent wild fires that burned part of Waterton and endangered the Prince of Wales Hotel has not damaged their homes. And I hope their spirits help people in Valier overcome the panic from grizzlies in the streets. I'll give this copy to the Valier library.
• Spirit Bear: Encounters with the White Bear of the Western Rainforest
• Grizzly Heart: Living Without Fear Among the Brown Bears of Kamchatka
• Grizzly Seasons
• Learning to Be Wild: Raising Orphan Grizzlies
Walking with Giants: The Grizzlies of Siberia (PBS, 1999)
Bear Man of Kamchatka (BBC, 2006)