In the spring of 1994, in the rain forest along the Khutzeymateen Inlet of British Columbia, I sat on a moss-covered Sitka spruce log as a female grizzly bear walked down the log towards me. I knew if I did not move, she would keep coming. I had decided to let her come as close as she wanted.
Occasional slivers of sunlight penetrated the high spruce canopy. I was in a moss and jade world that, until that moment, I had only fantasized sharing with a grizzly bear. This bear and I were not strangers. For five years I had been guiding bear watchers into the Khutzeymateen and, being uncommonly friendly, she had been one of the main attractions. Now, looking into her eyes, it seemed she wanted to push the frontiers of her experience with humans, just as I wanted to embark on something new with bears.
As she made her way down the log, she moved with a swaying nonchalance. I am certain she was trying to set me at ease. I tried to accomplish the same thing in reverse by talking to her in the calmest voice I could muster. There was an uncertain look on the bear’s face, and a similar look must have been on my own.
Finally, she sat down beside me. After a time, she moved her paw along the log towards my hand and touched it very gently. I reached out and ran my finger along her nose, feeling her well-muscled upper lip, which she pronated to explore my fingers. She let me feel her teeth, and then, without understanding why I was driven to do so, I slipped my fingers into her mouth and slid them along the tops of her square grinding teeth. I ran my index finger back along the ribbed roof of her palate. She could have had my hand (and the rest of me) for dinner, but she did not.
Even as it happened, I knew I was experiencing something that would likely change the course of my life. If I could build on this moment, correctly and ambitiously, the significance of what had just happened might have the power to change the relationship between humankind and bears. I know how that must sound -- like advanced megalomania -- but I still believe it is true. So much of the reputation of bears, and people’s fear-dominated, love-hate relationship with them, is based on the belief that the experience I enjoyed is not possible. If I could prove that it was not a fluke, not an anomaly particular to this time and this bear, a huge shift in perception might flow from it. People might learn to live with bears in a way that would not lead to collision, violence, and the ongoing destruction of a threatened species.
I also knew in that moment that I could not back away. What was happening was something my life had been moving towards for decades, and from which I must not swerve. I had to follow where it led.
Where it led was to Kamchatka, to the most remote and wild part of Russia, to the least despoiled grizzly bear habitat in the world.Part One
(1994—1995)Bear as Friend: How Bears Taught Me to Believe
Each year, for a month straddling May and June, the bears of British Columbia’s Khutzeymateen Inlet gather to eat fresh sedge grass on the estuary and at the mouths of several creeks along it. This inlet, Canada’s only grizzly bear sanctuary, slices through imposing granite mountains for twenty miles. When the bears come down to feed, the tops of the mountains are still draped in winter snow. Beyond the wet sedge meadows, the valleys are filled with rain forest.
For seven years, 1990 through 1996, I guided eco-adventurers to this magical spot in the employ of Tom Ellison and Jenny Broom, owners of the Ocean Light
, a fifty-five-foot, gaff-rigged cutter from which the tours were staged. Tom is a tall, good-looking man who once supplemented his university funds modelling for the Eaton’s catalogue, and he takes his captain’s responsibilities seriously. Through thirty years working along the notorious west coast, from Panama to Yakutat, Alaska, Tom and his boat have escaped serious mishap. Tom admits to only one major lapse of judgment in his career, and that was the day he gave me free rein to work with the bears and his eco-tourists.
When we took clients out into the deep and steep-sided Khutzeymateen Inlet, we were able to sail within a few feet of shore. Most bear sightings were made from the deck of the boat. To explore the tidal channels, we used an inflatable boat that held eight tourists at a time.
Most of the bears in the valley were afraid of us. In the country outside the bear sanctuary, both to the north and south, bear hunting was still big business and completely legal.1 Some bears had enough experience with hunters to be extremely wary. We were lucky to get a glimpse of them. But there were other bears that did not fit that mould; the most striking example was the bear I described in the prologue. We called her the Mouse Creek Bear because that was where she was most often found. Mouse Creek was the spot where her mother and brother had been killed by a male cannibal bear when she was a yearling.
Now an adult, this orphaned female was wild in every way, but had decided she liked people. If we had a group on shore, she liked to come near and perform some antic. She would balance on a small log, or bend a tree and let it snap back up. When we were in the inflatable boat, she would wade out near it and grope around in the water until she found some object to her liking, a stick or a rock, then, lying on her back, she would play with it, rolling it around on her belly, flipping it in the air. She also liked to thrash around, creating a turmoil of flying water.
Most often, when we watch animals in the wild, we are voyeurs, sneaking peeks. But this was different -- a mutual experience -- and much more enjoyable. This grizzly wanted an audience. We were happy to provide her with one.
The Mouse Creek Bear had something in her nature I have never read about, not in any of the shelves of books I have collected about her kind. She allowed me to set the limit on how close she could be to my clients. If I firmly said no
and stepped towards her when she approached, she would stop -- and stay at that distance. The bear was so well mannered that I often let her come quite near. She had a way of setting everyone at ease. She radiated respect and what you might even call love for those of us who gave her a few weeks’ company each spring.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Grizzly Heart by Charlie Russell. Copyright © 2002 by Charlie Russell. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Canada, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.