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  March/April 1999 Features:
Running With Bears
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Sierra Magazine
Running with Bears

A visit with Charlie Russell and Maureen Enns, who came to Kamchatka to prove that Ursus horribilis can be a cream puff if you talk to him nicely. Luckily the hip waders kept our knees from knocking.

by Paul Rauber

After a breakfast of fresh-caught char and the best coffee in Kamchatka, my wife, Marian, and I pull on our thigh-high rubber boots, hook canisters of pepper spray onto our belts, and head out with Maureen Enns into one of the beariest areas in the world. The dew is still heavy on the sedges and iris as we hike in the general direction of the Kambalny Volcano, over low hills and through thickets of low-growing pine and alder.

We walk quietly; Maureen and her partner, Charlie Russell, don't believe in the bear bells, shouting, and clapping that make hikes in North American bear country sound like revival meetings. ("All that noise would just annoy a bear," opines Maureen.) We pause at a mud hole to see who's been in the neighborhood-a couple of bears, including one in the heart-stopping 1,500-pound-plus category, a fox and its kits, a mountain sheep on a lowland vacation-and then continue our tramp.

Suddenly from behind us comes the sound of galloping. I wheel around to see three grizzlies in a full-tilt charge right at us. They're only seconds away, so outrunning them is obviously impossible. Excitedly I call out-

"Hello girls!"

Maureen and Marian exclaim enthusiastically, too: "Chico! Biscuit! Rosie!" While we frequently encounter the friendly two-year-old orphan cubs on our jaunts, this is the first time they have actively sought us out. Once they've caught up to us, the sisters wander ahead placidly, pausing frequently to bite the tops off flowers or chew on sedge or bear grass. We follow after, chatting and taking pictures, as comfortable and easy as if we were walking the family dogs. Rosie, the baby of the litter, grazes inches from my boot, eyes rolled slyly up to check my reaction. She is testing me, Maureen says. "She likes you."

Clearly this is not the sort of human/grizzly interaction most people would consider "normal." No alarums and excursions, panicked flights, tearing flesh, or gunshots. Instead, Maureen and Charlie are exploring a heretical proposition that they believe is the key to survival for wild grizzlies in the next millennium: that humans and bears can coexist as neighbors in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

The genesis of this revolutionary idea was not here in the windswept wilds of the Russian Far East but in the parks of western Canada, where Charlie and Maureen independently came to question conventional wisdom about the nature of bears. Maureen's moment of revelation came as she was resting her favorite horse after a long ride through Banff National Park. A young grizzly charged them, but instead of bolting, the horse merely rolled its eyes, and the bear calmed down and wandered off. "Did my horse know something I didn't?" she wondered.

At about the same time, Charlie was running his ranch abutting Waterton National Park in Alberta. He writes in his book Spirit Bear about how a large grizzly he called Old Ephraim approached a meadow full of grazing cattle. "The grizzly seemed to make a deliberate attempt to be courteous as he selected his travel route through the resting cattle. To my amazement, virtually all the cows and their calves remained lying down, even when the bear passed by within ten feet of them.

"For a moment I sat on my horse dumbfounded. I then decided to follow the same route. When at least twelve cows jumped to their feet as we passed through, I laughed out loud."

Together with his father, legendary Canadian conservationist Andy Russell, Charlie made a film about grizzlies in western Canada and went on to write his book about the "spirit bears" of Princess Royal Island. He writes in particular about one extraordinary bear that boldly approached him, "examining me and my trappings as though I were a novelty, a cousin from the big city come to visit." The two became friends to the point where they would play tug-of-war, and even sleep soundly side by side.

Bear scientists, as a rule, don't talk about friendship between humans and bears. As a naturalist rather than a biologist, Charlie has more latitude. (As a fine artist, Maureen has even more: she is working on a series of abstract paintings depicting bears' emotional states.) Charles Jonkel, a veteran bear biologist at the Ursid Research Center in Missoula, Montana, has known-and argued-with them for years. However, he adds, "There are days I wish I knew what they knew. They've found out things about bears that I don't know because I wouldn't try it."

Much of Jonkel's research has been in "aversive conditioning" of bears-teaching them to flee at the sight of a human. This is greatly to the bears' benefit in the national parks of the United States and Canada, he points out, because when humans and grizzlies tangle, "the people sometimes lose, but the animals always do. The animal always pays with its life."

But if bears didn't have to fear people, Charlie and Maureen wonder, would people have to fear bears? Charlie poses his theory of "extreme trust" like this: "If a bear likes and trusts you, he will not hurt you." He emphasizes that he does not recommend this approach to anyone else, and accepts the possibly fatal consequences for himself. "One mistake," he notes, "would undo my whole life's work."

To test his theory, he and Maureen needed to find a place where the bears had not been trained to fear humans through encounters with hunters, wardens with rubber bullets, or biologists shooting hypodermic needles. This ruled out most of North America. And then they learned about Kamchatka. In 1996, after much negotiation with the Russian authorities, Maureen and Charlie were allowed to establish a research station in the South Kamchatka Protected Area.

A California-size peninsula sticking out from northeasternmost Russia into the Pacific, Kamchatka has many thousands of bears and a human population that is small and getting smaller. It is hard to imagine a place more remote. Until ten years ago Kamchatka was a closed military zone that not even other Russians could visit. (When we first landed at the airport near the capital city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, we passed over row after row of grass-covered bunkers with MIG jets parked outside. On a picnic outing with some Russian friends, one humorously suggested that I avert my eyes from the rusting tank half hidden in the shrubbery, its barrel trained over the coastal plain.) Life is very harsh now for the half-million people living here; the hardship subsidies that residents used to receive are long gone, and the recent financial crisis left many without heat or electricity for extended periods this winter.

While Marian and I awaited permission to visit southern Kamchatka, we took some local kids to the Yelizova "zoopark," a miserable little establishment that boasts of being the only zoo in Russia east of the Urals. It houses a young moose, a reindeer, a parrot missing half its feathers shivering on one foot, some Himalayan monkeys sadly regarding their lunch of potatoes, a crocodile in a pool of filthy water, and an aquarium full of terakan amerikanski -American cockroaches. The kids told us that in the dilapidated pen next to one sheltering three foxes and a puppy there used to be medvedi, bears, but they were too expensive to feed so the zoo got rid of them.

After several days, our trip is finally authorized by the State Environmental Committee-expedited by a substantial contribution to its anti-poaching program. Poaching bears for their bile (used in traditional Asian stomach medicines) and hides is a very serious problem; poachers kill many times more bears than the legal annual quota of 450. Ironically, the most zealous anti-poachers are those profiting from the lucrative big-game hunting business. "Foreigners pay a lot for a chance to hunt," observes Anatoly Efimenko, chair of the State Environmental Committee. For example, wannabe Hemingways pay Ameri-Cana Expeditions of Edmonton, Canada, $6,400 for a hunting trip, plus a $2,500 "trophy fee" for bagging a bear. "The hunt is very suitable for the seasoned hunter who is not necessarily in top physical shape," the company promises helpfully, "as most of the hunting is done on snowmobile or sled."

Kamchatka has a few rough roads, but most of it is accessible only by all-terrain-vehicle, boat, or helicopter. Maureen and Charlie's camp is at the far southern tip of the peninsula, in good weather a two-hour helicopter flight from the capital city. Due to a strong headwind, we flew as low as 40 feet over knife-sharp ridges, magnificent beech forests, strange deserts of volcanic ash (the result of a large eruption in 1904), and two young grizzlies tussling in a field. Just north of the Canadians' camp we passed over Kurilsky Lake and the cabin outside of which famed Japanese nature photographer Michio Hoshino was dragged from his tent and killed by a grizzly two years earlier.

When we arrive at Charlie and Maureen's little cabin at Kambalny Lake, our pilot, Sergei-who resembles Minnesota Governor Jesse "The Body" Ventura-asks for $2,400 rather than the expected $1,600. I try to bargain, Marian translating. "He says if we don't pay him, he won't come back for us," she reports. End of negotiation.

Within minutes of our arrival, Charlie finds a bear in his spotting scope across the lake. We soon think it odd to look out and not see bears; shifting the scope from one spot to another is like channel surfing. Here a young male approaches a mother fishing for her three spring cubs. At the same time, an energetic fisher bear on the south side is splashing and pouncing with great vigor. Back to Mama, who chases the young male up the hill, where he lurks above the cubs, so she has to keep an eye on him while continuing to fish. Meanwhile the fisher bear isolates a salmon, chases it into the shallows-and straight into the jaws of yet another bear, who runs away with it.

A spin around the lake in the motorboat one afternoon reveals 17 bears working its perimeter. The day before we arrived, Charlie had flown his homemade Kolb ultralight airplane the ten miles down to the west coast to see if the pink salmon were running yet, and spotted 80 bears. He estimates 400 bears in the 450-square-mile Kambalny watershed, and no wonder-in addition to bountiful runs of six species of salmon there are tons of berries, protein-rich sedges, and astronomical amounts of pine nuts. More importantly for Charlie and Maureen's purposes, there has been no hunting in the immediate area for six years, and little poaching, compared with the rest of Kamchatka.

This is their third season in the field. "We spent the first summer scaring bears, basically," says Charlie. "Everywhere we went we bumped into bears, and they were very fearful of us. It was kind of depressing; we didn't want to be so intrusive."

With time, however, they started learning how to respond to chance encounters. "We carry bear spray all the time," says Charlie, "but we've never used it. We've discovered an even more effective tool, and that is our voice. We talk to the bears in a calm voice, 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 ask about another bear researcher who tells frightening tales of grizzly attacks. "Him?" Maureen replies. "He's afraid of bears." Charlie and Maureen are not. While they do not seek out contact, neither do they avoid it (as, it should be emphasized, would be prudent for those in North America, where bears are much more likely to be hungry, irritable, and dangerous). Given the density of the bear population in southern Kamchatka, their encounters are fairly constant. "We're gaining a lot of experience in a hurry," says Charlie. "A summer here is like a lifetime in Glacier."

Fear management, however, is easier said than done. We spend our first night at Kambalny in a flapping tent outside the cabin. Even though we are within an electric fence, our situation is reminiscent of that of Michio Hoshino. His cabin was crowded with a visiting Japanese television crew, so Hoshino-who abhorred snoring-chose to sleep in a tent. Guide Igor Revenko later gave this self-translated account: "The tragedy happened at 4 a.m. I woke up by call of cameramen. 'Tent! Bear! Tent!' In two seconds, I and my brother and the rest of the crew got out and heard Michio's cry and bear's growl. It was dark and we flashlighted the tent being destroyed and bear back in the grass ten meters away.

"Immediately we started to yell enormously but bear didn't even rise a head. I found shovel and metal bucket and started to bang, three to five meters from bear. Bear rised head once very shortly, then took Hoshino's body by teeth and disappeared in the darkness."

After a fitful night, we awake to a strange throaty purring outside the tent. Eyes pop open-and then we remember that Maureen had warned us that the cubs often come by early in the morning, and that Rosie likes to suckle the fur of her sister Biscuit while "chirring." I'm just about to stick my head out to take a peek when Marian blows her nose loudly. The next sound we hear is that of stampeding plantigrade feet. Charlie follows the tracks in the dew, and reports that the cubs fled for hundreds of yards out of sight.

"Bears don't like to be surprised," Maureen explains. In cases where "negatively conditioned" North American bears might attack, she says, Kamchatka bears can be expected to flee. She also believes that bears can be positively conditioned to accept the presence of humans (a dubious approach, she admits, if those humans might include hunters or poachers). A visiting Russian photographer once accidentally stepped on Chico, Maureen says. "She was really leery of him after that, but it did not cross her mind to strike."

Charlie and Maureen never intended to be surrogate parents to the Three Bears, but in May 1997 they heard about three cubs at the Yelizova Zoo who had been orphaned in the spring hunt. The zoo's owner, as we knew, couldn't afford to feed them. If the cubs were lucky, they would have been killed; if not, they might have been sold to a Chinese bear farm, where they would live in tiny cages with catheters tapping their gall bladders for bile.

Charlie and Maureen concocted a plan to reintroduce the cubs to the wild, eventually winning the endorsement of the State Environmental Committee and the zookeeper. Despite the dire predictions of the Russian bear biologists, reintroduction turned out to be relatively easy, thanks largely to the abundant food supply. Until the cubs learned how to forage on their own, Charlie and Maureen supplemented their natural diet with porridge and sunflower seeds, which they set out in plastic tubs very early in the morning. They take pains to make sure the cubs never receive food directly from their hands. While the cubs could not help but generally associate people with food, we never see them beg in any way. We never eat in their presence, and when we catch a couple of spawned-out salmon across the lake (being careful not to handle them), we leave them in shallow water by the shore where the cubs often walk in the morning, to teach them how to patrol for dead fish.

On our first morning, Maureen, Marian, and I set off from the cabin after breakfast. Within a hundred yards, a pair of tawny ears appears coming toward us over a hillock, followed by the rest of the bear trio. Once met, we all proceed at a bear's leisurely ramble around the lake, Marian getting the odd sidelong glance from the cubs to see if she is going to make any more scary sounds.

At a spot where the big red sockeye come to spawn, we surprise a mother fishing for her two new cubs-in conventional bear wisdom, just the sort of situation that can lead to a ferocious attack.

"Hello, Mama!" Maureen calls out. "You sure have some pretty babies! Don't worry, you know we aren't going to hurt them." The bear stops to listen and then ambles calmly off around a point, cubs in tow. That leaves the fishing ground to us. Maureen clambers out on a rock in the water and points at the swirling salmon. The bears watch intently, but don't quite catch on. Real grizzly mothers fish for their cubs through the second year, but these cubs have to learn without a role model. We later find a pool with a dead fish at the bottom. Again we point, leading both Biscuit and Chico to jump in and swim about. We toss rocks into the vicinity of the fish, and Chico even pokes her head underwater, but stirred up mud has obscured the fish. Clearly frustrated, Chico comes out of the water, approaches Maureen, and grabs her boot between her powerful claws, earning a sharp rebuke and an unprecedented swat on the nose.

Some might call this a human/pet relationship. Maureen and Charlie see it as that of surrogate parent and child in need of manners. "It depends on what you call wild," says Charlie. "What if the bears befriended a raven, does that make them less wild? Does it make them a pet because they make a friend of a fox? I don't understand this whole thing. I'm part of nature; just because an animal likes me doesn't make it less of an animal." For Charlie the determining factor is independence, and these bears are far more able to care for themselves than other cubs their age, who are still largely dependent on their mothers. "They went up the mountain in the middle of a storm last winter and dug their den," he says. "We didn't even see it. That wins a lot of respect from me."

The cabin by the lake has three very powerful bear attractants: a flimsy metal box full of food, a compost pile for garbage, and an outhouse. (Bears love to roll in and eat human excrement.) Yet no bear has ever gotten into any of them because of the electric fence encircling the perimeter. Bears new to the area come to investigate the intriguing smells, sniff the wire, touch it with their nose and zzzot! get a stiff but harmless jolt of a couple thousand volts.

Bears don't have to be taught something twice. The system works so well that it has been adopted by the larger research station at Kurilsky Lake, which has had decades of problems with bears getting into human food and garbage.

"They were a little skeptical at first," says Charlie. "Now they're ecstatic; they can't believe how easy life is." Kids at the village can now play outside or sleep in a tent-things they couldn't do safely before-and the bears can still pass by to fish in the river without getting shot at. This spring, he says, the manager at Kurilsky noticed bear tracks coming up to where the fence used to be, turning at right angles, and continuing around the fringe of where the fence was. "He was very impressed with that."

Electric fences are fine things, but people coexisted with bears in Kamchatka for thousands of years before they were available. How did they do it? The historical record is slight, but there is a reference by an 18th-century Russian explorer to the Itelmen, a pastoral fishing people who used to live on the shores of Kambalny and Kurilsky. The Itelmen and bears gathered berries on the same hillside, and the worst that occurred between them was the occasional theft of a basket of berries. Another major food source for the Itelmen was salmon, which they would dry on wooden racks on stilts. Of course these had to be guarded from marauding bears-a chore that was performed by grandmothers armed with sticks.

But what about the marauding bear that killed Hoshino? Maureen and Charlie were intimately familiar with that sorry scene, having visited Kurilsky both immediately before and after the attack. Even before Hoshino arrived, Charlie says, a very aggressive bear had broken into the cabin and gotten food. When the Japanese crew's helicopter landed, they put some butter into the lake to keep it from melting, and the bear got that, too. "It was a very bad situation that was getting worse by the minute," says Charlie. Then a visiting Russian who owned a television studio in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky arrived and filmed the bear while it ate his milk and sausages-after which the bear smashed the window of his helicopter in search of more food.

"You know how we love bears," says Maureen. "But when we saw what was going on, we both looked at each other and said, 'That bear ought to be shot.' " Yet there was no one to deal with the bear, and although Charlie and Maureen expressed their horror, nothing was done. "Eventually this very aggressive bear figured out that maybe he could eat somebody," says Charlie, "and he did."

Far from contradicting his thesis that grizzlies and humans can coexist, Charlie sees Hoshino's tragic story as evidence that it is up to humans to learn how to behave around bears: to keep them out of food and garbage, and to manage problems as they arise. If we expect bears to adapt to our own irresponsible behavior, says Charlie, the grizzly is doomed. A similar outcome is assured if we insist on absolute safety. "If we keep eliminating bears until they're all gone," he says, "then we'll be truly safe."

Marian and I are only scheduled to stay for a few days, but the weather closes in and even Sergei doesn't dare fly into it. Fine with us: we get to continue our studies in grizzly decorum. We notice, for example, that when we startle bears, they look at us suspiciously while avoiding direct eye contact, which can be a sign of hostility. Out in the skiff one day, we spot a large, increasingly agitated male. Marian is sitting in the bow, staring transfixedly. "Relax your shoulders," Maureen advises softly. "Now turn and look a little bit to the side. When you show your side you're showing trust." It works; the bear settles down and moves quietly off.

Another time, out with Charlie, we drift just offshore as a big, dark, swag-bellied male of about 800 pounds walks down the beach toward us. He can clearly see us, but keeps coming. "Hey there big fella!" calls Charlie. "Don't worry, we won't hurt you." The big fella doesn't seem to be worried in the slightest-in contradistinction to the passengers in the skiff. When he is about ten yards away, we motor discreetly off. Marian finally exhales. "Glad I wasn't sitting in front," Charlie jokes.

In fact, if Charlie is ever afraid he doesn't show it. He writes of getting to know a young female grizzly in British Columbia: "I decided to let her have the final word regarding how close we could be from each other. This required as much nerve as I could find in myself because no sooner had I decided this when she hopped up on the far end of the log I was sitting on and started slowly walking to my end. I could tell she was trying to do it in a way as to not frighten me but that part wasn't working very well. Somehow I stayed put as she came up the log and sat down beside me. With my heart pounding, I reached out and ran my finger along her nose and she let me feel her teeth and reach in her mouth and run my index finger along her corrugated palate."

Warning-do not try this at home! In fact, this is the aspect of Charlie's work that most bothers bear experts like Jonkel. "There are certain bears you can develop a relationship with, and certain bears you can't," he says. He fears that pictures of Charlie next to a bear might encourage others to try the same thing-with disastrous results for both human and bear. "We could have a different relationship with bears if we all learned how to relate to them in a different way," says Jonkel. "That day will come; we're already doing it with whales. Gradually, I think, we're going to change our relationship with bears, and wolves too. But people like Charlie are going too far, too fast."

"I don't advocate that other people do it," responds Charlie. "I'm just saying, let me do this. I want to look at [human/bear trust], but I want to look at it carefully. If you make a mistake, you die, and that doesn't do your credibility too much good."

During our week at Kambalny, Marian and I have no desire to touch the cubs or any other bears. But we do become accustomed to their company, so much so that we're disappointed if we walk out and fail to meet them. Being with them is a profound gift; it is as if we are granted a glimpse of the Peaceable Kingdom, before all the terrible mistakes were made that led humans to believe they exist outside of nature. We never forget that these bears could kill us, and know well that, in a pinch, we-or our avengers-could kill them, and indeed all their kind. But what we experience walking side by side with them is a deep calm, a balance of power born of mutual curiosity and mutual respect.

On our last day we stroll through the meadow near Char Creek, gathering larkspur and orange lilies that smell of tangerines, visiting a fox Maureen has befriended. She speaks to it in her chirpy animal voice and it trots over toward us, catching a large vole right beneath our feet. Nearby we find the spookily distinct trail to a bear rub site; as bears approach the bush upon which they leave their scent, they very deliberately step in each other's tracks, so the last few yards are pitted with the depressions of decades of measured paws.

A strong wind blows the sedge in billowing waves. Maureen is explaining her theory that Kambalny's rich habitat allows its bears to be more socially developed, because families can stay together longer than they could in a poorer place. (Maureen says she has seen three generations of bears together, the grandmother minding the cubs while the mother fishes.) Then the cubs appear from the southwest, only their ears and humps sticking above the grass. We form the usual procession, and pause near a mudflat across which has marched a behemoth bear. Suddenly Biscuit, the middle cub, goes out of her way to the point where the tracks begin. Very carefully she walks across, putting each paw squarely in the larger prints. Mystery ritual concluded, she returns to her business.

Late the next evening, moments before nightfall, we hear the sounds of a chopper: Sergei has come back for us after all. Since he arrives so late, he has to sleep over in the small shed Maureen uses for a studio. He is a brave pilot, but he's uneasy here in bear country, even within the confines of the electric fence. I sit next to him at dinner, and see his hands trembling. He turns in early, while we sit up to polish off a farewell bottle of vodka.

Suddenly, big, brawny Sergei appears at the door, pale and shaken. "Medved!" he stammers. "There's a bear out there -and not so small!" We get out the flashlights and peer into the night beyond the electric fence, but don't see any bears, not even the cubs. Who could be afraid of them? Sergei doesn't understand why everyone is smiling.

Paul Rauber is a senior editor at Sierra.

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