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.
A DAY ON THE BEAR FARM
From the air on an overcast day in 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 Yentna and Susitna river basins.
Largely hidden beneath a canopy of leafy, green poplar trees, a handful of buildings are scattered around a clearing hacked out of the wilderness. A nearby airstrip appears little used. A quarter-mile or so to the east, Vandergaw's single-engine, two-seat floatplane bobs along the bank of a lily-pad-filled lake hardly bigger than a pond.
As an Anchorage air taxi turns for its final approach, the scene appears unremarkable. But as the floatplane glides across the lake toward Vandergaw's Piper Cub, visitors get a first hint of the extraordinary. Protecting Vandergaw's plane 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 that winds through stunted black spruce and muskeg toward Vandergaw's cabin, the mud is thick with bear tracks and sprinkled with scat. Closer to the buildings, the bear sign increases.
Near the airstrip, where alders choke in on the path, the sheer abundance of bear sign becomes unnerving. Heavily traveled bear trails wind through the thickets. Bear scat litters the ground.
The impression is of the approach to a wilderness salmon stream thick with bears at the height of the salmon run, but there is no McNeil River on the other side of these alders.
Instead, the trail breaks out onto the airstrip, and there on the far side, across a neatly grazed lawn under the 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.
With only one bear in the yard, it is a quiet day. 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 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.
A photograph on the Internet shows a more typical day with what can only be described as a herd of black and grizzly bears. The photo serves as the banner on the Web page for the board of directors of the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (www.aidea.org/directors.html). Other photos, including some of Vandergaw astride the backs of bears, have floated around the Internet for some time.
IT STARTED INNOCENTLY
Charlie Vandergaw grew up in a rural corner of 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.
Vandergaw today remains the down-to-earth science teacher. He is thoughtful and well-spoken. He has a shock of tousled gray hair and round, professorial glasses. A former Dimond High wrestling coach, he is lean and fit and looks a decade younger than his 68 years.
His 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.
Visitors say it is not unusual now to find half a dozen or more black and brown bears lounging in the well-trampled yard. A pilot flying overhead one day last September counted 10. Photographs show bears lining up for feedings outside Vandergaw's door.
The cabin itself is surrounded by a fence that can be electrified to keep out the bears, though at times, Vandergaw admits, he lets individual bears inside. It is all part of his friendship with the animals.
On one occasion, he said, he helped nurse back to health an 800-pound grizzly boar whose front teeth were ripped loose in a fight with another bear. Vandergaw witnessed the fight. Afterward, he said, he went to the injured bear, grabbed its massive head, and inspected the damage. He feared the bear might die.
Though Vandergaw is adamant that the bears are not his pets, he often treats them otherwise.
At his cabin last summer, while talking about training grizzlies with cubs to follow him to scenic locations for photos, he lamented his inability to train black bear sows to do the same; they are afraid to leave the forest, where their cubs can climb to safety if danger approaches. The instinct is so strong it trumps any treats Vandergaw can offer.
Food, Vandergaw admits, is central to his relationship with the bears. Years of food conditioning have allowed him to "befriend" the animals.
Nationwide, wildlife managers have long held that "a fed bear is a dead bear" because wild animals fed by humans can become dangerous pests, which gets them killed.
Vandergaw strongly disagrees. Twenty years of close observation of fed bears have convinced him that the animals -- or at least his animals -- know better than to demand food from people. When the bears leave his place, he said, they act like wild bears.
"This is a bogus environment," he acknowledged. "I've created this. This doesn't exist in nature.
"I do things with bears people shouldn't do. (But) I've introduced hundreds of people to life-changing encounters, people who had preconceptions of bears. When they left here, they were never the same."
DON'T WANT TO KNOW
The number of people with some inkling of Vandergaw's activities is large and varied. That's not surprising. The Vandergaw family has deep roots in Anchorage and is well known to many.
"I hear rumors about his relationship, his love affair, whatever you call it," said former teaching colleague Larry Kaniut, author of the well-known "Alaska Bear Tales" books. "Three or four years ago, he showed me ... pictures of black bears in his cabins."
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. In the absence of serious problems, Bush Alaskans tend to tolerate odd behavior in their neighbors. Nearly everyone in the community of Alexander Creek to the south of Vandergaw's cabin shares that live-and-let-live philosophy -- even those with an old-school, shoot-on-sight attitude toward bears.
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. Vandergaw himself says he doubts the fence would stop a determined grizzly, but it does keep curious bears at bay.
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.
CONDITIONING WITH FOOD
As biologist Tom Smith once said of Treadwell's pet fox, Timmy:
"Tim said, 'This fox loves me.' But as I told him, 'No, it doesn't. To that fox, you're just a two-legged vending machine.' "
Treadwell never had the resources to transport into Katmai the food necessary to expand his conditioning program from foxes to bears, but Vandergaw does.
Inside his cabin last summer were 18 neatly stacked bags of Old Roy and Pedigree dog foods. Outside, in the yard, there were no dogs, nor any sign there had ever been a dog, just the bear.
Training bears with the use of food is not all that difficult if one has patience and determination, bear experts agree. It's not unprecedented in Alaska, either.
John and Mildred Walatka, managers of the Kulik Lodge in Western Alaska in the early 1960s, for years had a grizzly named Charlie Brown trained to come when called to get treats. He provided regular entertainment for lodge guests.
"Thousands of feet of movie film and hundreds of slides of Charlie exist all over the world," John wrote in an article for Alaska Sportsman magazine in 1966.
Attitudes toward bear feeding have changed since then. Yellowstone National Park decades ago removed the bleachers that once surrounded the dump where it fed bears to the delight of visitors. But the practice continues quietly in some places.
"There's a guy in Churchill (Manitoba) who does this same thing," said John Hechtel, a state Fish and Game biologist who studied food-conditioned grizzlies in the Prudhoe Bay area. "He brags about being the world's foremost expert on food-conditioned bears. People do it in circuses, too.''
Food, Hechtel said, might be a more powerful tool for manipulating the behavior of bears than it is for dogs. "For bears,'' he said, the "game is maximum calories with minimum effort.''
That's what leads bears to human garbage, and the attraction to garbage is what long ago caused Alaska to make it illegal to feed bears, accidentally or otherwise, as Vandergaw knows.
"He's been, at least in the past, feeding bears or been associated with feeding bears," said Fish and Wildlife Bureau Sgt. Tory Oleck of the Alaska State Troopers detachment in Palmer. Oleck said he last visited Vandergaw's homestead in the summer of 2005 after receiving a complaint from a woman in the middle of a child-custody dispute.
In her son's dresser drawer, she discovered photographs of people cavorting with bears. When she asked her 10-year-old about the photos, the boy told her his father had taken him to visit a friend with pet bears. The woman was horrified and contacted Fish and Game. "She knew it was wrong,'' said Anchorage area wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott. "This guy (Vandergaw) is Timothy Treadwell times five."
Sinnott passed along the story and photos to wildlife biologist Tony Kavalok in Palmer, who promptly notified troopers. Kavalok and Oleck flew to Vandergaw's cabin to investigate.
"Obviously there were a lot of bears in the area,'' Kavalok said. "It was pretty obvious bears were spending a lot of time there.''
Vandergaw, however, was nowhere to be found, and Oleck couldn't find an obvious bear-feeding station. Because they lacked a search warrant, they also couldn't enter the cabin where Vandergaw stores dog food. Kavalok did, however, see enough to recognize that the situation was in no way natural. Oleck and Kavalok agreed they needed to find Vandergaw and have a long talk with him.
Oleck eventually did both. He said he even investigated bringing charges of reckless endangerment against Vandergaw for allowing a child to be near the bears but decided it would be difficult to support the charge. All the Bear Farm visitors Oleck interviewed denied that they had felt threatened or in danger.
Oleck himself felt differently.
"It was not comfortable,'' he said. During one visit, "there had to be 13 bears in the yard. Some of them came right up to me and put their feet on me. We had to chase them away. They were all lying around like they owned the place."
Oleck questioned Vandergaw.
"I had his word that he was not feeding the bears," Oleck said.
At the time, according to Oleck, Vandergaw insisted the bears only came around because his cabin provided a refuge from hunters and others. It was a claim that strangely echoed Treadwell's argument that he was protecting bears in Katmai park from poachers and pestering bear-tourists.
"These (Vandergaw) bears feel real comfortable there," Oleck said. "(Vandergaw) is bothered by it. He says, 'What do I do? I'm getting older. I enjoy these bears. This (feeding) is how it all got started,' but now the feeding has stopped, and the bears just don't want to go away."
Oleck left Vandergaw's in the summer of '05 convinced the bear feeding had stopped and that Vandergaw truly wanted his summers with the bears to end.
"We have two options," the trooper said late last summer. "We can leave it be and hope it resolves itself over time, or we can charge in there and kill all the bears. The man's got an electric fence around his house to keep the bears out. Truly I think Mr. Vandergaw realizes his mistake. He's pretty much got a long-term bear problem there that he created for himself."
'A SICKNESS I HAVE'
Friends say Vandergaw became increasingly obsessed with bears after his fascination with hunting bears turned into a fixation on getting to know them.
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.
Bear experts say Vandergaw's interactions with bears are inherently dangerous, that he, like Treadwell, is playing a form of Russian roulette.
Not to mention seeding the countryside, they contend, with human-conditioned bears that could run up looking for treats and instead get a bullet from a justifiably terrified human. One rural neighbor of Vandergaw's, in fact, claims to have shot a bear doing just that last summer.
In the conversation with a 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.
Some of his many Anchorage friends would agree. At least one who has known Vandergaw for decades says he has a death wish. Another says Vandergaw is afflicted with the same bear-love demons that captured Treadwell.
But others point to nearly 20 years of injury-free bear taming as proof that Vandergaw knows what he's doing.
"What's wrong with it?" asked pilot and former big-game guide Chuck Wirschem. "Charlie is just doing a really good, sweet thing." And if that happens to be dangerous, what's the difference between that and extreme skiing or race-car driving?
Vandergaw's daughter Terra defends his bear-friendly activities as odd, but safe. Over the past 20 years, she said, she, too, has spent a considerable time with the bears and never suffered an injury. She and her children still visit her father and the bears at the homestead, as do other visitors, and no one has ever been hurt, she said.
Still, as safety experts point out, doing something dangerous for years without injury doesn't make it safe.
Like Vandergaw, Kaniut is fascinated by bears, though his fixation is decidedly different. Kaniut's books about Alaska bear maulings have become north country classics. He warns of the unpredictability and danger of bears in "Alaska Bear Tales,'' a collection of true-life stories with chapter titles such as "They'll Attack Without Warning'' and "They'll Really Maul You.''
"I don't want to be throwing rocks at him,'' Kaniut said. "I just hope I don't read about him (being eaten)."
Vandergaw doesn't deny there is danger. He just thinks it's overblown. He blames Treadwell for making it seem insane for someone to want to touch and play with bears. He believes he has demonstrated that the animals can be conditioned, as Treadwell's California-based Grizzly People advocated, "to live in peace with ... humans."
"I nurture these creatures," Vandergaw said. "This is why the mother bears bring their babies to me. I don't think I'm harming any bear or any animal. How can you have a bear come 15 years with babies if you're harming them?"
Daily News Outdoors editor Craig Medred can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4588.