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Man, Martyr, Myth

Cover Story

'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.

She also says he had a good message beyond the bears, telling the kids to stay in school, study hard and avoid drugs. "Every year he said that. He was a darling. Every time he came to my classroom, he brought another photograph. He did not ask to be paid. I said, 'Why do you do this for free?' He said he was just working for the bears."

Roach settled for making a contribution to Grizzly People.

Long before Timothy Treadwell became famous, biologist Vic Barnes met him at Camp Island in the middle of Karluk Lake, the largest lake on Kodiak Island. Barnes was then leading brown bear research for the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. Now retired and living in Colorado after 17 years of work with Alaska bears, Barnes remembers Treadwell.

"He came in a skiff," Barnes recalls. "He's got on shorts and hiking boots. He jumped out in two feet of [50-degree] water. I asked him, 'Why aren't you wearing hip boots?' He said, 'That's the way the bears do it.' "

Right away, Barnes knew Treadwell was different. In the years to come, Barnes' team would observe Treadwell regularly engaging in bear-like behaviors--splashing in streams, bending down to run as if on all fours, fleeing from visitors--and ponder what he saw. Treadwell claimed to be studying the bears, but Barnes observed something else. "I think he really wished he could be a bear," Barnes says. "It made no sense what he was doing otherwise. It was contrary to any sort of research."

Where trained researchers try to disappear from view, so as to observe the behavior of bears free of the influence of man, Treadwell did exactly the opposite. He walked right up to grizzlies to prove they weren't dangerous and often camped among the bears. And each year he seemed to get bolder, touching bears, letting a bear lick his hand, kissing a bear on the nose.

"It was stupid," Barnes says, not only because it was dangerous, but also because "it just made no sense based on what he said he was trying to accomplish." Any observations Treadwell made were based on how bears interacted with him, as opposed to observations on how bears behave. More than once Barnes tried to explain to the newcomer from Southern California that he was contaminating his own research, if it could be called that. Treadwell didn't listen. Neither did he wish to be lectured about the risks he appeared to be taking around grizzlies. He had already concluded that he could handle the bears in one way or another.

Aumiller, the most experienced bear man on the Katmai coast with his many years at McNeil, once considered whether Treadwell and a handful of others were capable of taking human-bear interactions to some misunderstood "next level." Aumiller contemplated but finally rejected the idea of humans and bears developing personal relationships.

"I just don't think [the bears] give a rip," he says.

Barnes is more blunt: "They're wild animals. I've watched them tear each other up, or just thrash an elderberry patch because they were having a bad day. If you fail to respect bears as wild animals, you've lost it."

Barnes is one among many bear biologists who expected Treadwell to be killed by a grizzly. That he got away with tempting fate for 13 years, they say, mainly demonstrates the tolerance of the bears. Barnes remembers breathing a sigh of relief when Treadwell left the Kodiak Island refuge for the national park on the other side of Shelikof Strait. By then, the biologist had heard Treadwell observe that it would be an honor to be eaten by a bear.

"I thought, 'C'mon, give me a break,' " Barnes says. "That doesn't make any sense." By getting himself killed, Treadwell would only just make grizzlies look bad, reinforcing their image as bloodthirsty killers.

"I'm probably one of many who tried to tell him the mission he described for himself would be harmed if he died," says Sanders, the Port Hueneme photographer. "You can't write your own legacy. He can't control how people think about this now. It's had a real negative side toward him, toward bears, toward wildlife."

But Treadwell was stubborn. To do what he did in Alaska, he had to be.

few can grasp the simple day-to-day difficulty of Treadwell's Katmai life. This was a pioneer existence, something more akin to living in a Plains Indian encampment of old than anything anyone can imagine today. He spent his time largely alone in a tent for weeks at a time in one of the most hostile environments in North America.

"You know, there must have been times when he was really cold and really wet, and he couldn't make a big old pot of chili because every bear in the neighborhood would be on him," says Sanders.

"I don't know how even someone from Alaska could go out there for weeks at a time," says John Rogers, owner of a 70-foot-long bear-viewing boat that tours the Katmai coast. "Sometimes, for days on end, it's just pouring, pouring, pouring, blowing, blowing, blowing. It's miserable."

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