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Man, Martyr, Myth

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'Bear Whisperer' Timothy Treadwell's Life Was a Tangle of Passionate Environmental Activism, Idealistic Half-Truths and Outright Lies. And With His Shocking Death in October, It All Began to Unravel.

December 14, 2003|Craig Medred | Craig Medred is Outdoor Editor of the Anchorage Daily News.

Timothy Treadwell, the avowed bear man of the Alaska wilderness, lived poor and little known for most of his 46 years despite a desire for the spotlight of celebrity. He claimed to have led a life of drugs, brawls and booze until, in the late 1980s, he found his way to the grizzlies, most recently in Katmai National Park and Preserve on the Alaska Peninsula about 300 miles southwest of Anchorage. His cause: to save them from hunters and poachers who apparently didn't exist. Those efforts brought him national recognition. He attracted even more when he told David Letterman on national television that the sometimes ferocious grizzly bears were really nothing more than big "party animals."

But the party came to a macabre end when, on Oct. 6, 2003, Treadwell and his girlfriend were found dead after being attacked by a 1,000-pound grizzly bear. Though captured on an audio recording, the deaths remain the topic of much debate. They brought to a dramatic end what had become Treadwell's Hollywood life, but they opened a new chapter in the saga of the man some had come to call "the bear whisperer."

Winter was coming fast to the Alaska peninsula in late September when bear man Timothy Treadwell stomped aboard a floatplane in Kodiak for his last flight into bear country. Going with him was girlfriend Amie Huguenard. What years before began as a long-distance relationship after Treadwell conducted a grizzly bear seminar in Boulder, Colo., was blossoming into something more.

Huguenard had recently moved west to join Treadwell at his winter residence in Malibu. To support herself, she took a job as a physician's assistant for a neurosurgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, but she also was active in Grizzly People, the Malibu-based nonprofit organization that for years had supported Treadwell's forays into the Alaska wilderness to commune with the bears. The 2002 masthead for Grizzly People News listed Huguenard as the organization's "expedition coordinator & consultant."

This time she would be joining Treadwell as a companion in the bear tunnels--the dangerous paths pounded through the thick brush by years of animal traffic around Kaflia Bay on the Gulf of Alaska coast of Katmai National Park and Preserve. It was the scary nature of the terrain that led Treadwell to label it the "Grizzly Maze" in "Among Grizzlies," the book he co-wrote with Malibu's Jewel Palovak in 1997.

Usually, Treadwell would have been long gone from the Maze by late September. Snow already coated the Aleutian Range mountains, but this year, for some reason, he had decided to go back late in the season, when he believed the bears to be at their most dangerous. On Sept. 2, Treadwell dropped a note to California friends Marc and Marnie Gaede expressing his thoughts about the trip.

"It's September," he wrote, "and I'm into the historically toughest and most exciting month. Tremendous storms, and huge gatherings of extremely hungry bears, more and more darkness--intense isolation. I'm going to make it, unless one of the killer bears gets me. There are plenty this year. Lots of beautiful sweet bears, but as my work success takes greater affect [sic], more tough dominant giant male bears come back . . . to their rightful place--to rule--free of poachers."

The statement about poachers was fund-raising hype. State and federal law enforcement authorities, along with the many scientists who have devoted the past decade of their lives to monitoring the bears of the Katmai coast, say the poachers disappeared nearly 20 years ago. But some believe Treadwell's claims of danger were very real.

Why Treadwell went back, and why he took Huguenard with him, has become an Alaska mystery. Even more so is the question of how one of the most experienced bear men on the Katmai coast came to die, along with his girlfriend, in the jaws of a 1,000-pound grizzly.

People all over America came to know and love Treadwell through documentary films about his work. They grieved his death. Their suffering only increased as scientists questioned Treadwell's behavior around grizzlies, and others suggested--sometimes viciously--that he'd gotten the sort of death for which he asked.

Left unresolved was the question of whether Treadwell's fans grieve for a man or a myth.

Look into Timothy Treadwell's life and you begin to glimpse a picture far different from the one he crafted for Grizzly People. There, he was "the bear whisperer," a common man with an uncommon talent for communicating with the largest omnivores on the planet. He was charismatic enough to charm not only bears, but also jaded Hollywood celebrities.

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