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Cover Story

Man, Martyr, Myth

'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.

Don Treadwell, a Ventura retiree, was one of several Treadwells whom Tim Treadwell politely rebuffed when Don once asked him if they were related. "I don't understand what that was all about," he recalls of the incident several years ago. "I don't think it would hurt the image. He appears to be quite the character. He could have lived in the Wild West. He was like Wyatt Earp. He created his own myth."

Treadwell, like Earp, eventually ended up in Alaska.

When Dean Andrew of Andrew Airways in Kodiak found Treadwell and Huguenard in his hangar on Sept. 30, he figured they were packing to head back to Malibu. Andrew and Treadwell were old friends, but Andrew had only met Huguenard the year before. She had come back this year to visit Treadwell at Hallo Bay, just 20 miles up the coast from Kaflia Bay, what he called the "Grizzly Sanctuary," but Andrew was surprised when the couple announced plans to fly to Kaflia.

"They said something [like], 'We didn't say our proper goodbyes to the bears,' " he remembered. "That's all they said. It was a little unusual. It was unusual he'd go against his plan."

Kodiak's Kathleen Parker says she'd never known him to change his plan since he first started hanging out with grizzlies on Kodiak Island in 1990. Parker and Treadwell were close. He stored his gear in the basement of her house. They talked a couple of times a month by telephone.

"Timothy was a very poor young man when he started this,'' she says, but also very methodical. "He never, never went out at the end of the season, especially when he had everything put away. That was a little strange."

"You know,'' she says, "that spot they were killed at, Timothy and I found that in '98 when they were doing a [film] shoot. We were walking through the Maze, and for five, six hours we sat in the creek with five or six bears [that were] eating salmon. They didn't care about you at all."

Treadwell was headed back there via Andrew Airways partly because he had destroyed his relationship with longtime friend and pilot Tom Walters, co-owner of Katmai Wilderness Lodge. Grizzly People had published a photograph of shotgun-toting Joe Allen, one of Walters' bear-viewing guides, walking a beach, and below it a caption proclaiming he was a poacher stalking a bear. Treadwell had taken the photo knowing that many of the Katmai bear-viewing guides carried shotguns for protection, as did National Park Service employees and bear-viewing escorts at the state-run McNeil River grizzly-viewing area to the north.

"Joe Allen wouldn't hurt a fly," Walters says. "It was cheesy. We'd helped Treadwell for years, getting him food and stuff. He was always flying in my airplanes. He stayed at my house. He knew there was no poaching over there."

Katmai's poaching problem was long over by the time Treadwell arrived on the scene, says retired pilot Butch Tovsen, who had introduced Treadwell to the Katmai bears and flew him for years. Treadwell "knew darn good and well" that Allen wasn't a poacher, Tovsen says, but "he had to get the hype up."

Walters called his lawyer and told him to go after the sponsor of the brochure--clothing company Patagonia. "I laid it all out for Patagonia," Walters says. The company collected and destroyed as many of the brochures as it could, and temporarily pulled its support from Treadwell. "I had [Treadwell] on a telephone tape saying, 'I'm sorry. It was a mistake. I didn't think anyone would recognize Joe. It was just meant to portray a poacher.' "

Though Treadwell trumpeted the poacher theme in the Lower 48, he had over the years began to play it down in Alaska. The self-proclaimed eco-warrior who once proudly bragged of confronting bear hunters in the city of Kodiak had even become friends with hunting guide Bill Sims.

"Timothy changed a lot," Parker says. "He became wiser. He became less cocky. Early on, it was like he wanted to change the world, and he wanted to change it right then and there."

Andrew knew the broad outlines of what had happened between Walters and Treadwell--Kodiak is, after all, a small town--but brushed it off as an accident. Treadwell seemed like a nice guy, and everyone said he was doing a good job of teaching kids about bears stateside.

"I kind of liked that," Andrew says, and it didn't hurt that Treadwell occasionally served as a guide for some of the eco-tourists Andrew brought to Hallo Bay or Kaflia to see bears. Andrew was curious about why Treadwell was going back to Kaflia so late in the year, but not concerned. Treadwell had long ago proven himself. His tenure alone spoke loudly in a land that shows little tolerance for human frailties.

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