Wild in Alaska: Charlie Vandergaw Shares Home With Grizzlies

Grizzly with paw on Charlies shoulder

Alaska is a land of contrasts. Thirty minutes in a bush plane will transport a visitor to another world, somewhere over the rainbow-trout streams. Glaciers of turquoise ice float next to forests in this wilderness. Bear country, as nature intended -- and then altered by man.

It is a fitting place for eccentric bear enthusiast Charlie Vandergaw to play by his own rules.

"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.

VIDEO: Watch Charles Vandergaw and bears (note: footage of feeding from 2007).

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," he said.

By anyone's standard, Charlie Vandergaw lives a life less ordinary. The 71-year-old retired science teacher from Anchorage has spent the last two decades in the remote Alaskan bush where, by his own choice, his closest neighbors are animals powerful enough to kill him with a swipe of their 5-inch claws.

Bear-Lover Shares Home with Grizzlies

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

Vandergaw has admittedly succumbed to the spell of bears. He's carved a life for himself out of pine trees and dirt, constructing a cabin he calls "Bear Haven," along with a few other outpost buildings. Otherwise, his remaining 40 acres are untouched.

Yet such beguiling peace can be deadly, luring visitors into forgetting that this is the kingdom of grizzlies.

VIDEO: Filmmaker tells how grizzly dragged him from outhouse in remote Alaska.

Vandergaw's life depends on his remembering this fact.

"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.

Last year, Vandergaw invited British filmmaker Richard Terry to Bear Haven to document what conventional wisdom had always deemed impossible: that humans and wild bears can peacefully coexist.

'I'm Obsessed With Touching the Bears,' Vandergaw Says

For six months, Terry 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: obsession.

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

Vandergaw's innate ability to decipher the bears' nuanced behavior and sounds, coupled with their habituation to his presence, make him something of 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," he said. "That roaring that the grizzlies do, that's just bear talk. They're just yelling at each other."

Although bears are naturally solitary animals, large numbers can be found surrounding Vandergaw's cabin as they noisily anticipate his arrival.

The memory of Vandergaw having formerly carried a food bucket into their midst still provides a kind of gravitational pull back to his cabin, for black bears and grizzlies alike.

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