The Man Who Lives With Bears

the man who lives with bears

This fascinating documentary follows the exploits of Charlie Vandergaw, a retired schoolteacher who lives among bears in the Alaskan wilderness. Vandergaw defies the advice of bear experts by feeding black and grizzly bears on the porch of his cabin, determined to prove that humans can live safely alongside these fearsome predators.

Every summer for the last 20 years, Charlie Vandergaw has moved to his wooden cabin to live in isolation in the heart of the Alaskan wilderness. The cabin lies 70 miles from the nearest road and is only accessible by sea plane. “That’s what I like about Alaska,” says the 68-year-old. “I can live like I want to live… You don’t have to answer to anyone out here.” With no phone or radio, his only company consists of the black and grizzly bears that emerge from the forest onto his lawn. In defiance of all advice, Charlie has befriended these bears by feeding and petting them.

Conventional wisdom holds that bears become more dangerous when they associate humans with food. Charlie’s controversial belief is that, on the contrary, he can make them less threatening by feeding them. His actions contravene state law, which says that it is illegal to feed bears, and he has attracted the attention of local newspapers. Now, for the first time, he has allowed a film crew to follow him for the summer.

Charlie hopes to show that bears and humans can live together peacefully – despite the unpredictable nature of these great beasts. In his first feeding session on camera, a grizzly mother defends her cubs by coming to blows with a black bear – metres away from where Charlie is standing. It is a timely reminder of the knife edge that he walks every day, yet he insists that by being observant and listening to their growls, he can keep out of harm’s way. It is a philosophy born entirely from experience, as Charlie has no professional credentials in the study of bears.

The former schoolteacher explains that he used to hunt bears as a hobby until he settled in the area. Gradually, he overcame his fear to begin playing with a friendly black bear, and since then, has developed relationships with numerous bears. However, it is the black bear’s more ferocious cousin, the grizzly, which truly captivates Charlie. “I love the black bears but there’s just something about the grizzly bear that is just hypnotising to me,” he says. Statistically, grizzlies are amongst the most dangerous of all, and Charlie hopes his relationship with one grizzly female, five-year-old Cookie, will challenge their fierce reputation.

Many experts believe it is only a matter of time before Charlie’s luck runs out. He has been compared to another bear lover, Timothy Treadwell, who was killed by bears in Alaska after 13 years in their company. Charlie is highly sensitive to such comparisons. “I do not consider what I do to be even remotely similar to what Timothy Treadwell did,” he says. “I have tried hard not to invade the bears’ space.”

However, Charlie survives a scary moment when Cookie bites his hand during feeding and runs off into the forest. “She just nailed me, grabbed me by the hand and yanked me off my feet,” Charlie reports. “That was the end of the fun.”

In the wake of the attack, Charlie finds his faith shaken. He makes a trip to his winter home in Anchorage for supplies, where his long-suffering wife, Lanette, reflects on her yearly separations from her husband. “Some years are worse than others,” she admits. “What do they say – ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’.” Back at the cabin, Charlie tempts fate once again in order to track a cub to its lair. And, as winter approaches, Cookie makes a sudden reappearance. But is this the friendly bear that Charlie remembers, or has she reverted to her ‘grizzly’ type?

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