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.

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.

"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.

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.

Vandergaw wades among the bears carrying only a stick for protection. He does not permit the use of deadly force. It is a risk Terry accepts when he follows Vandergaw with his camera, passing within arm's reach of grizzlies that can weigh more than half a ton.

Isolated here in the deep woods, Terry is honing the art of living dangerously. Every day is a learning curve of both survival and the unexpected intimacies of filming close to the great predators.

"I can't film if you put, now look, now you put slobber all over the lens," Terry said when a bear licked the camera lens.

There's even the occasional terrifying run-in at the outhouse, its door long ago ripped off by a marauding bear.

"Right in front of this doorway, here came a great big grizzly. She put her claw inside and grabbed hold of my boxers – and the boxers were attached to me! So I literally had to rip the boxers from her claws and try and push her off with a stick and make a hasty retreat," Terry recalled.

During the half-year shoot done for the Cable TV channel Animal Planet, Terry documented both the strange and the sublime.

There was the evening when a black bear wandered into Vandergaw's kitchen. "Of all the bars, you had to come into mine. Give me a kiss," said Vandergaw. "Come on, give me a kiss."

In another intimate moment, a mother grizzly lay near Vandergaw while nursing her cubs -- as the cameras rolled. "I can't believe it. She's laying down nursing right in front of me. It's amazing," Vandergaw said.

For Terry, having grown accustomed to the strange yet wondrous rhythms of Bear Haven, it has begun to feel like home.

"I'm either going mad, losing the plot, or I'm just becoming soft because this really makes me happy," Terry said.

'One of These Days, the Bears Will Come Back and Not Charlie'

But it also scared him.

Living and working together in the Alaskan bush, the bear enthusiast and the enthusiastic filmmaker have developed an extraordinary trust.

When a large grizzly emerges from the woods, Vandergaw gave directions on what to do that possibly saved Terry's life.

"No bites," Vandergaw commanded an approaching female grizzly.

"I'm feeling a little vulnerable, Charlie," said Terry as he continued to film the encounter.

"Just keep backing away from her," said Vandergaw.

It is a tense moment caught on film and a stark reminder of the constant threat posed by these creatures.

"Just to see someone get that close to the grizzlies and the black bears and all the confusion seems insane," Vandergaw said. "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."

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," said Farley.

Over many summers, Vandergaw has watched generations of bears come and go. He knows most by name, including Walt, a 500-pound creature 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," Vandergaw said.

It is a surprising evolution of a 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 admitted.

Remarkably, much of Vandergaw's transformation from bear hunter to steward of Bear Haven is captured on videotape he shot himself, well before Animal Planet's cameras arrived. His video archives reveal a pivotal moment of a bear seeking contact with Vandergaw in the grass.

Vandergaw recalled the interaction: "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."

Hypnotized by the solitude of grizzly country, Vandergaw has bid a farewell to arms, but others have not.

And after spending more than 20 years trying to teach wild bears to trust humans, his beloved companions are a trigger pull away from being killed.

Can Vandergaw's Bear Haven Survive Legal Threat?

As cameras rolled Vandergaw spotted a rifle-toting hunter taking aim in the woods. He didn't take the intrusion lying down.

"If there's one shot that goes off, buddy, you're going back to town in handcuffs. Put your gun down. Anybody who wants to come here and see the bears is welcome to do that. But no guns, and no one will be tolerated hunting around here," Vandergaw said.

In a disarming gesture, Vandergaw then welcomed the intruder. Whether out of good manners or as a protective peace offering, Vandergaw invited him to watch bears over a cup of coffee. Initially charmed, the hunter was spooked by Vandergaw's nonchalance as black bears draped their arms around his shoulders and neck.

"That feels unnatural," he said as the startling physical interaction played out before his eyes.

Vandergaw will be the first to tell you that by having formerly fed bears at his cabin 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," said Vandergaw.

But for how long? Farley is cautious about the future 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.

For a quarter century, Vandergaw's greatest fear has not been the grizzlies and black bears in his backyard, but human intrusion on his paradise.

Paradise is about to be lost. State authorities are mounting a legal fight, and they're gunning for bears – Vandergaw's.

And watch Richard Terry's six-part series on Charlie Vandergaw airing on Animal Planet's "Stranger Among Bears."

For more information on Charlie Vandergaw and Bear Haven, click here.

For more information on the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, click here.

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