Living With Bears, Playing by His Own Rules

Adventurer Charlie Vandergaw survived two decades in the kingdom of grizzlies.


July 8, 2008— -- 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.

"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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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