Living With Bears, Playing by His Own Rules

Vandergaw does not permit the use of deadly force. It was a risk Alwen accepted when he followed Vandergaw in with the bears and documented an extraordinary scene of faith and fear. At any moment he was only a hand-reach away from grizzlies that can weigh more than half a ton. As aggression erupted within this rare mix of bear species, Vandergaw gave Alwen stage direction that possibly saved his life:

"All right, stay right behind me," Vandergaw directed.

It was a remarkable moment caught on film and never seen before in the United States until now.

"Just to see someone get that close to the grizzlies and the black bears and all the confusion seems insane. But it's like taking something out of context. I mean, you have to see the whole thing, you have to understand the number of years of experience. Of course saying all of that, I can get chewed on tomorrow," Vandergaw admitted.

And that's what has experts like Sean Farley, a bear biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, so worried.

"It's a definite safety concern. One of these days, the bear will come back and not Charlie [Vandergaw]," Farley said.

Bonding With the Bears

Throughout the summers, Vandergaw has watched generations of bears come and go. He knows most by name, including Walt, a 500-pound wild animal who walks right into his kitchen.

"If I can control him in here and keep him from tearing things up then I'll let him in. He's been in here for years," Charlie revealed.

It's the surprising evolution of man who began as a hunter, when this land was a hunter's paradise. Gradually, the hunter hung up his gun.

"I couldn't kill a porcupine if it was chewing on the cabin," Vandergaw said.

Remarkably, much of his transformation from hunter-of-bears to steward of Bear Haven is captured on videotape he shot himself.

"I had a bear that would not approach me unless it was dragging itself on its belly. I let him do that for a while, and then I started dragging myself to him. And when we touched noses, then he'd get up and we'd go about our business," Vandergaw remembered.

That first moment of contact, which Vandergaw described it as "terrifying" and a "leap of faith," changed everything.

Over the years, certain bears have taken up permanent residence in Vandergaw's heart. He feels particularly close with a grizzly he calls "Cookie."

"She was the first grizzly that I ever made friends with. And it was all on her terms," he said. "She just was very timid at first, but then I could tell that she was lonely. And she just, she just liked to play. She'd come in and just play with the irrigation system and I'd feed her. She eventually let me feed her out of my hand."

Vandergaw will be the first to say that by feeding the bears at his cabin -- which is illegal in Alaska -- he has created an unnatural, natural place, at least to the edge of his lawn.

"I've created a fairyland here. This is not the real world. This is a place that they feel very comfortable in. They're comfortable with me, and they're comfortable with other humans here," Vandergaw said.

But for how long? Farley is cautious about the fate of anyone who wants to get close to these predators.

"Why do we want to give a hug to something that's big, warm and fuzzy? The difference here is, this big, warm fuzzy thing will rip your head off and eat you, depending on the circumstance," Farley said

You can watch more of Charlie Vandergaw's life among bears on Animal Planet's "Bear Man Diaries" airing this fall. For more information on Alaskan bears and wildlife, visit the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

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