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-
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
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
"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
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
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
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.