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The Long, Strange Journey of Timothy Treadwell, The Grizzly Man

As the float plane that had ferried us in to the Katmai Glacier shrank to an speck against the clouds, I turned to face the ice.  Hanging above us, the glacier's quarter-mile-thick slab hung like a snow-pillowed eve over the strip of coastal sedge that Timothy Treadwell had called the Big Green.  This was the idyllic, spruce-bordered meadow where, devoting himself to bears, Treadwell had spent the last thirteen summers of his life.  Beside me on the shore was Marc Gaede, Treadwell’s best friend, come here, as I had, to live for a couple of days as only Treadwell had managed.  Shielded by no electric-wire perimeter, or even campfire, we had asked to be dropped off precisely in the midst of the most concentrated population of the largest terrestrial carnivore on earth, Ursus arctos, the Alaskan brown bear, or grizzly.   This was a place, it was clear, where man had not yet established himself as the dominant organism, and if we were abnormal prey for the bears, in a heartbeat a human visitor could nevertheless become just another food animal.

Two hundred yards to our left stood a scraped-bare spruce.  With a chill I realized it was the same tree I’d seen in Werner Herzog’s  Grizzly Man: the big back-scratching post just beyond Treadwell’s tent where he’d filmed, with a telephoto-less home video camera, an ten foot tall grizzly jostling its itching shoulders.  “That is one huge…  Just a big fucking bear!” Tim exclaimed on his camera’s audio track.  Then, as the thousand pound animal had dropped to all fours and --  its shoulders chest-high to a big man -- lumbered to within inches, Tim had cried  “You’re the Boss!  Just no closer.  Please!  No  closer.”

Most of the bears in that film were still here, undisturbed because the area had remained closed to humans (a fact which had called for Marc’s and my surreptitious entry by unauthorized float plane) since that rainy afternoon, two years before, when one of those grizzlies had killed and eaten Treadwell and his girlfriend Amy Hugenard. 

It was an hour before the first Katmai bear found us.

A quarter mile distant, roving a rocky shoreline the grizzly was tiny even through binoculars.  Almost black, leggy and stick-like rather than rolly polly, the bear moved more quickly than any I’d seen on film, and with his first glimpse of my upright form, he’d raised his head and come straight for us.

I nudged Marc.  The grizzly was safely on the other side of a deep, swiftly flowing river, he pointed out.  Still, radiating determination the big male had trotted keenly up the far bank, uplifted snout searching the breeze for the scent wafted from our opposite shore.  “Ribby,” I thought, from the chocolate corrugations girdling his trunk: the way old bears look when they’re about to enter hibernation with too little body fat to sustain them through the winter. 

As the bear reached the end of the far bank’s gravel shelf Marc turned to watch him halt.  But the aged grizzly, now just yards away across fast water, never hesitated.  Without breaking stride he plunged chest first into the current, pale blue with suspended till leached from the glacial moraine, and began to swim.  Almost instantly, despite his lunging strokes he was swept away, carried fifty yards downriver where, it seemed, he’d never make it to midstream.  But he found footing, dug in, and in a fountain of flung spray lurched through the shallows onto our side of the river, wagging his head in search of whatever we were that he’d seen from afar.

It took only a second for him to home in.  As he reached dry ground and came up the slope I saw Marc ready his canister of pepper spray, and as disconnected as if in a dream I heard the hammer click back in readiness on the red plastic flare pistol -- our first line of defense – gripped in my right hand.  Before loosing it, though, Marc and I stood, waved, shouted and, midway up our beach the bear realized his error, saw that we were not his  normal prey and veered away, angling his swift, implacable lope into the tall green sedge that surrounded our campsite. 

Twenty minutes later, hearts barely settled, Marc and I were struggling with the aluminum docketed riddle of his son’s never-before erected tent, when he once more whispered “bear.”  A car-length behind me stood a yet larger male, scenting the tracks we’d left hauling our gear up from the water.  His head,  I realized, was as large as the biggest circle I could make with both arms bowed, but it was evident even in the first glance of recognition that for the moment he was regarding us with a calm, nonabrasive curiosity. 

We froze.  For a long time.  Finally, the bear lowered his log-like snout and trudged on,  passing, like the first grizzly, out into the tall-grass meadow.  There, a couple of dozen yards beyond our still deflated tent, he lay down, and like some cowlick ursine, began to chew on his grassy mattress.

“See?” said Marc, putting the happiest peace and love face to put on things.  “He’s telling us it’s all right.  He’s not after us, all he’s interested in is eating grass.”  It was true that the bear had a possibly benign demeanor.  But any reassurance that might have brought only lasted through his first mouthfuls of salad because this far north dark came early at the end of  September, and within minutes it was clear that we were going to have, bedded down just out of flashlight range, a half-ton, soon be hungry predator.

One whose hunger was almost sure to be of an exceptional caliber.  What I’d somehow failed to pass along to Marc was that I had just learned from Missy Epping, Katmai Preserve’s former supervisor, that at this season every one of these bears was engaged in the annual feeding tumult known as hyperphasia, a last minute binge that reaches near frenzy among older animals become instinctively aware that they are too lean to survive the long fast of their impending hibernation.  Bears like the dark brown boar that had just crossed the river in search of Marc and me; bears like the twenty-eight year old male (the oldest U. arctos ever recorded) that, also late in the season, on October 6 killed and ate Treadwell and Hugenard.

The chill of autumn and the end of day seemed to descend together.  For a moment, above the clouds the sky glowed brilliant orange, and in the last light I saw our still- grazing neighbor heave himself onto his terrible, claw-splayed feet and slosh off toward the frieze of taiga spruce that sprouted like an unkempt beard around glacier’s lower face. 

In minutes it was night, and with the darkness our world shrank into the few yards in any direction lit by our pistol spotlights as the unseen world beyond their searching beams grew into a black infinity of mystery.  Then the bawling started.  From somewhere in the night a long, lingering roar – deep as a bull’s bellow but threaded with the unmistakable, guttural cough of  a carnivore -- ripped in.  Teeth clenched, I looked at Marc, just as an answering roar blew in from the darkness on the other side of camp. 

“Way off, both of ‘em,” he replied slowly, though I could hear the tremor in his voice.  “Back, maybe, by the glacier spruce.”   I nodded, but not only did the competing bellows  not end with their first exchange, they didn’t stay way back by the spruce.  Before long they were coming from all around us, tearing though the darkness somewhere just beyond our watery beams.

When she had tried to camp here, Epping said, those hyperphasia-frantic roars had gone on all night.  Finally, her cooking tent -- set up almost exactly where we first saw the rangy old boar that had come at us -- was flattened by bears she could not see, forcing her to call for help on a satellite phone. 

“No sat. phone,” Marc observed.  “So, what do you plan on for sleeping?” as though the possibility were actually in question.  My plan was to alternate shifts, and as much to hide as to attempt sleep I took the first session in a sleeping bag that, even pulled tight over my head, did not even partially muffle the nearby snarls of skirmishing bears.

An hour later, as I emerged for my watch the rasping bellows had retreated back to the semi-distant  spruce. “You missed the beautiful part,” Marc said. “Two grizzlies right here on the shore.  One down by the water, against the moonlight.”  Then, as he bent to take his turn in the tent he mused “These bears don’t really kill, then devour prey, you know.  Once they have an animal, they just start eating.”

I  knew.  Years ago, at Denali, the bawling of a caribou calf had drawn me into a clumsy-booted jog over a low ridge, coming out almost on top of the adolescent grizzly that had pinned a newborn caribou in the heather.  The fawn’s bleating cries were still strong, despite its being shaken like a rag, but what knotted my chest was the sight of the calf’s midsection, most of which was nothing but a gaping red emptiness, its stomach and intestines having already been swallowed by the long jaws that now gripped its flailing foreparts.

That, of course, is exactly what happened to Timothy Treadwell and Amy Hugenard.  But never mind the circumstances of their deaths.  They were deaths, horrible in their particulars, but yet deaths like many others.  The violent end of soldiers, mountain climbers, bush pilots and NASCAR drivers, cops inured to dangerous streets.  Yet what is entirely unique -- astonishing -- about self named, self created Timothy Treadwell, is how this otherwise unremarkable individual found the undaunted courage to live, mostly alone, through more than a thousand nights filled with the same bawling, roaring horror that I and his best friend Marc Gaede, in order to try to understand this strange man, had come here to experience on his behalf.

Morning’s light brought the ebbing of our terror.  Finally we I could see what was around us.  And what was around us was more bears.  Lots more, but gentler ones, it seemed.  A mama sow with a yearling cub ambled past, another mother and her St. Bernard sized offspring snuffled between piles of driftwood, and a couple of wanderer adolescents moved off ahead of the rest onto the just-exposed tidal flats, searching for stranded marine life and buried clams. 

Here, I saw, was the other side of Treadwell’s world: the Disney-esque demi paradise of  half ton cuddle grizzlies named Mr. Chocolate, Sergeant Brown, and Aunt Melissa.  This was a world where Treadwell eventually became so thoroughly embedded in the lives of bears that busily foraging females would park their vulnerable young near him when the best feeding sites lay close to the territories of the big males always dangerous to cubs.  

Then, when those titans encroached upon each other and launched their gargantuan, galloping battles, ripping chunks of fur and flesh from each others’ shoulders and haunches, somehow Tim managed to be there too, scrambling alongside the flow of battle so close that his little hand held camera caught the finest ringside footage ever shot of those sometimes mortal Brobdignagian struggles.

Staying alive in those circumstances required a hyper-developed ability to read bear moods, which Treadwell, by hair’s breadth trial and error, eventually acquired, although what fueled him to go this far – farther than any other man in historical time – was his vast, often irrational goodwill toward his ferocious neighbors.  Yet Treadwell was never the blindly fortuitous idiot savant.  He knew the danger.  Knew that in his love for bears he was an elf, a sprite among them; a fragile Peter Pan held aloft largely on the tenuous wings of the great beasts’ innate forbearance

In this, Treadwell knew his role, which in spite of his frequent terror was of necessity always one of bold posturing.  “I am Samurai,” he wrote in one of his last journal entries.  “If I show weakness, my friends will kill me; the smell of death is on my fingers.”

This was the strangely interdependent world of man and primal carnivore whose images -- back in the world of men – year after year won Treadwell prizes at the Telluride Film Festival.  Yet this was also a cosm that meant far more to him than any mere gateway to recognition.  It was a world in which, after a decade of effort to get as close to bears as any human being could, somewhere in the course of stretching those limits of mind and body Tim Treadwell actually found his ursine soul mate.  She was pale-furred young Downy bear, the female cub with whom he forged an intense, years-long bond of understanding.  Maybe, during their long, face-to-face communions, even a sort of spiritual intra-species union.  For Downy, Tim finally came to feel a love almost as though for a daughter, and it was to return to look again for her, after she had vanished near summer’s end, that Tim and Amy returned, much too late in the year, to Katmai’s Kaflia Lakes.  It was always dangerous there – a place Treadwell had termed the Grizzly Maze – and though Downy should have been there, fishing for the last salmon of the year, what Tim and Amy found instead was the aged, hyperphasia-hungry, desperate late–season bear who broke the rules, ripped down Treadwell’s Samurai mask of strength, and tore them both to bits.

Only now, seeing how he -- and no one else, ever, was able to live -- only now was it possible for Treadwell’s life among the Katmai grizzlies to make sense.

Copyright: Alan Tennant
October, 2005

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