SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


An encounter with a bear whisperer
Anchorage Daily News


April 21, 2007

Fifty miles northwest of Alaska's largest city, the roadless hills and boggy swamps of the Yentna River Valley have for years hidden the secret of bear man Charlie Vandergaw.

Far from the bear-viewing spectacle of Katmai National Park, and farther still from the hype that made a celebrity of the late Timothy Treadwell, a retired Anchorage science teacher has quietly transformed himself into what Treadwell only dreamed of being: a true bear whisperer.




What goes on each summer at Vandergaw's remote homestead is so far from the ordinary as to be almost unbelievable. Visitors tell of him petting black and brown bears, playing with grizzly cubs while sows stand by, sitting on bears and teaching them tricks. His own photographs show even more. They capture him easing to within feet of breeding grizzlies and nursing an injured brown bear.

From the air on an overcast day late last summer, the "Bear Farm," as it's known to some, doesn't look much different from dozens of other recreational homesteads sprinkled across the region.

As an Anchorage air taxi turns for its final approach, the scene appears unremarkable. But as the floatplane glides across a lake toward Vandergaw's Piper Cub, visitors get a first hint of the extraordinary. Protecting Vandergaw's floatplane is an electric fence - an unusual precaution against bears in this part of Alaska. Once on the ground, though, the need for the fence becomes quickly apparent.

Along the four-wheeler trail winding toward Vandergaw's cabin, the mud is thick with bear tracks and sprinkled with scat. Closer to the buildings, the bear sign increases.

Across a neatly grazed lawn under a poplar canopy, is Vandergaw painting one of his outbuildings. Ten, maybe 15 feet behind him is a sleek, 150-pound adult black bear acting for all the world like a Labrador retriever. Vandergaw pays the animal no attention.

There are regularly more bears, many more bears.

Sometimes, too, there are visitors, but not today. Vandergaw is alone and none too happy to have uninvited guests from the Anchorage Daily News. He promptly asks them to leave.

"I'm not looking for notoriety," he says. "My talking to you is not going to solve any of the problems you're going to create."

A discussion - some might call an argument - follows. Vandergaw eventually relents. Convinced that his love affair with the bears has become so widely known it can no longer be hidden, he begins to talk. Eventually, he invites the visitors into his cabin to see the huge and stunning collection of bear photographs stored in his computer.

A visiting photographer is amazed to see head-and-shoulder shots of breeding grizzlies taken with a wide-angle lens - photos that would require the photographer to be within feet, if not inches, of the bears.

There are photos of Vandergaw playing with grizzly cubs while their mother lounges nearby. There are pictures of gangs of bears around his cabin, of individual bears in his cabin, and even close-ups of a grizzly's injured mouth.

It might all seem unbelievable if not for the fact that his photos are confirmed, in effect, by those taken by other photographers and by the black bear wandering around the yard.

Vandergaw grew up in rural southern Oregon with dreams of the Last Frontier. After college, he set off for Alaska. He got a job with the Anchorage School District and taught there until he retired from teaching in 1985. The former high-school wrestling coach is lean and fit and looks a decade younger than his 68 years.

The relationship with the bears goes back to about the time of his retirement. Everything started innocently enough, he said. There was only one black bear at first, but then things spiraled upward.

His cabin is surrounded by a fence that can be electrified to keep out the bears, though at times, Vandergaw admits, he lets individual bears inside.

Former Chugach State Park chief ranger Jerry Lewanski admits to once overhearing just enough to know he didn't want to hear more. Lewanski felt that as a law-enforcement officer he would have a responsibility to act if he knew exactly what was going on.

A few wildlife biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game say much the same. The Alaska State Troopers have known about Vandergaw for years and once cited him for feeding bears. They've been back to talk to him on several occasions since but have not issued any more citations.

"It might be worse if he quit," said Mike Williams, owner of Eagle Song Lodge at Trail Lake. The lodge is within 10 miles of Vandergaw's homestead, and biologists say that puts it within the home ranges of at least some Bear Farm bears. If Vandergaw stops feeding now, Williams said, there is no telling where the bears might go looking for food.

Like other neighbors, Williams has never complained to troopers.

Among Vandergaw's close friends, even those who think what he's doing is dangerous have never pressured authorities to make him stop, as at least a few Treadwell acquaintances did in his case.

Bear professionals disagree about whether the sort of thing Vandergaw is doing is more or less dangerous than the activities that eventually led to the death of Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Hugenard. As several authorities on bears noted, Vandergaw does have his cabin surrounded by the electric fence, which would give him the chance to seek refuge from an unruly bear.

As for the legality of what Vandergaw is doing, he knows that feeding wildlife is illegal, but he has done it for years. As did Treadwell.

The bears have obviously become much more than wild animals to Vandergaw. The photographs hanging on the walls in his cabin are images not of his wife, Lanette, who shares his Anchorage home, or his two daughters - Terra, an actress in New York, or Leslie, an administrator with the Anchorage School District - but of bears.

In the conversation with an Anchorage Daily News reporter at the homestead, Vandergaw tearfully admitted that what he has been doing probably isn't right.

"Actually, it's a sickness I have," he said, standing on the deck of his cabin and watching the black bear in the yard.

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Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska