Living With Bears, Playing by His Own Rules

Alaska is a land of contrasts. Flying 30 minutes out in a bush plane will transport a visitor to another world, somewhere over the rainbow trout streams to a place where one man's dreams do come true.

A look out the window reveals glaciers floating near lush forests. It's bear country, unspoiled, as nature intended -- and then altered by man. It is a fitting place for Charlie Vandergaw to play by his own rules.

By anyone's standard, Vandergaw lives a life less ordinary. The 70-year-old retired science teacher from Anchorage, Alaska, has spent the last two decades in the remote bush, where by his own choice his closest neighbors are animals powerful enough to kill him with a swipe of their 5-inch claws.

VIDEO: Watch Charles Vandergaw and bears (note: footage of feeding from 2007).
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"That's what I like about Alaska, because I can live like I want to live. Fish or hunt, and you don't have to answer to anyone out here. You're not controlled by other people," Vandergaw said.

But he does need to answer to the grizzlies. They are among the largest predators walking the planet, quietly moving through the last remnants of wild nature and into Vandergaw's imagination.

"I think I'm mesmerized by grizzly bears. I love the black bears, but there's just something about a grizzly bear that is hypnotic to me," Vandergaw said.

Under the Spell of Bears

Vandergaw has admittedly succumbed to the spell of bears. He carved a life for himself out of the pine roots and dirt on 40 acres of land in this last frontier.

"I got started on this innocently enough," Vandergaw said. "I was living out here alone, and they became friends. They sought me out. A couple different ones actually came in and sought my friendship, and once I had that happen to me I was lost."

He built a cabin called Bear Haven and a few outpost buildings but has left most of his land untouched. Yet such beguiling peace can lure visitors into forgetting this is the kingdom of grizzlies.

Vandergaw's life depends on his remembering.

"There's something about their aura, the way they look at you. It's a whole different energy level than the black bears. You know something is about to explode when a grizzly comes in," Vandergaw said.

Can Humans and Bears Live Side by Side?

Last year Vandergaw invited British filmmaker Jon Alwen to Bear Haven to document what conventional wisdom had always deemed impossible: a human peacefully co-existing with a bunch of wild bears.

For 51 days, Alwen filmed Vandergaw in his hidden world, one where the line of what's possible -- and what some experts say should never be dared -- was long ago crossed by a man driven by something more powerful than instinct: his own obsession.

"I'm obsessed with touching the bears," Vandergaw admitted

Vandergaw's innate ability to decipher the bears' nuanced behaviors and sounds, coupled with his food handouts conditioning them to his presence -- has transformed him into a modern day Grizzly Adams.

"You've got to listen constantly. After a while, you find out that certain vocalizations demand more attention than others. That roaring that the grizzlies do, that's just bear talk. They're just yelling at each other," Vandergaw said.

Defying Conventional Wisdom

Although bears are naturally solitary animals, on any given day large numbers can be found surrounding Vandergaw's cabin as they noisily anticipate their handouts. Vandergaw's food bucket is a magnet for black bears and grizzlies alike as he wades into the crowd of bears carrying only a stick for protection.

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