Within this vast expanse of wilderness sat a solitary cabin, where Canadian naturalist Charlie Russell lived for more than 13 years studying — and eventually, befriending — grizzly bears.
Growing up on a ranch near Cochrane, Russell said he was always troubled by what he felt were misconceptions about grizzlies (now more commonly known as brown bears). Could they be as vicious, as dangerous, as bloodthirsty as everyone made them out to be?
So Russell embarked on what turned into a decade-long mission living amongst 400 bears in his little cabin off Kambalnoye Lake in Russia.
“Back in the ‘60s, I decided there were two ideas about bears that were not true. One, that they were unpredictable. Two, that they were inherently dangerous if they lost their fear of people,” Russell said.
“I didn’t think that was fair,” he said. “I could see they needed to share the land with us, but we demanded they were fearful. It was a huge problem for bears because it gave us so many excuses to kill them, and that wasn’t very generous on our part.”
And so for most of the ‘90s and 2000s, Russell lived in Russia, almost completely isolated from humanity with only a rickety old plane to get him to and from where he needed to go.
He set up a small electric fence around his cabin to keep the bears away from his living quarters and food, and began his mission of what he said not many people have bothered to do: form relationships with, and try to truly understand the psychological nature of bears.
It started out slow. Russell would wander down trails, and if he came across a grizzly, he would step politely off the path, giving the bear room to meander by.
By the end of his time in Kamchatka, Russell was not only raising cubs of his own that he rescued from zoos, but was even granted the honour of watching over a female grizzly’s cubs while she took some much-needed alone time.
“There are a lot of bad feelings towards bears, especially females because they’re very protective of their cubs,” he said. “But my experience was just the opposite. If they trust you, they’re wonderful. I even had one leave her cubs with me to babysit — that would never happen in any other situation.”
Raising cubs, going on hikes with his quiet, but inquisitive friends, even helping them fish by teaching them hand signals — this was the life of Charlie Russell for years.
Now living in Alberta on his family ranch near Waterton Park, Russell, 75, has taken a break from his long study of bears to travel around the world educating people about grizzlies.
“I decided bears weren’t the problem — it was what we thought about them,” he said.
“Just because they get up on picnic bench and eat some ketchup, doesn’t mean they should be killed. I know of a bear that was killed for that very reason,” Russell said.
“But I think young people are ready to do things differently — they’re tired of killing bears for what seems like not very good reasons. I want to educate people every chance I get,” he said.
And Calgarians have a chance to do just that — hear about and learn from Russell, who is giving a lecture on bears and his experiences at the John Dutton Theatre (616 Macleod Trail S.E.) Tuesday evening from 7 p.m.-9 p.m. in support of the Great Divide Trail Association.