An Alaska man pets bears, tends to their health, lets them inside his remote cabin — and admits it's probably a mistake.
Fifty miles northwest of Anchorage, the roadless hills and 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, an environmentalist who lived among the park’s grizzly bears for more than a dozen seasons before he and his girlfriend were killed and partially eaten by a bear in 2003 — Vandergaw has quietly transformed himself into what Treadwell only dreamed of being: a true bear whisperer.
What goes on each summer at the retired Anchorage science teacher’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.
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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, the “Bear Farm,” as it’s known to some, doesn’t look much different from dozens of other homesteads sprinkled across the Yentna and Susitna river basins.
A handful of buildings is largely hidden beneath a canopy of poplars. A nearby airstrip appears little used. A quarter-mile or so to the east, Vandergaw’s floatplane bobs along the bank of a small lake.
The first hint a visitor gets that this place is extraordinary is the electric fence protecting Vandergaw’s plane — an unusual precaution against bears in this part of Alaska. But the need for the fence becomes quickly apparent.
Along the trail to 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, heavily traveled bear trails wind through alder thickets. The impression is of the approach to a wilderness salmon stream thick with bears at the height of the salmon run.
Instead, the trail breaks out onto the airstrip, and there on the far side 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 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.”
Vandergaw eventually relents. Convinced that his love affair with the bears has become so widely known that 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 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.
Charlie Vandergaw, 68, grew up in southern Oregon. After college, he set off for Alaska, got a job with the Anchorage School District and taught there until he retired in 1985.
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.
Now, visitors say, it is not unusual 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 the bears out, though at times, Vandergaw admits, he lets individual bears inside. He says 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 says he saw the fight. Afterward, he says, he went to the injured bear, grabbed its massive head, and inspected the damage, fearing 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 acknowledges, 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 — and that 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.”
Feeding wildlife is illegal, but park rangers and wildlife biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game have largely tolerated Vandergaw’s activities. The Alaska State Troopers have known about Vandergaw for years, and once cited him for feeding bears. Troopers have 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, near Vandergaw’s homestead. If Vandergaw stopped 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.
Among Vandergaw’s close friends, even those who think what he’s doing is dangerous have never pressured authorities to make him stop.
Authorities on bears disagree about whether the sort of thing Vandergaw is doing is more or less dangerous than the activities that led to the death of Treadwell and his girlfriend. Vandergaw’s cabin is 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.
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 difficult if one has patience and determination, bear experts agree.
“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.
“For bears,” Hechtel 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.
Fish and Wildlife Bureau Sgt. Tory Oleck of the Alaska State Troopers detachment in Palmer said he last visited Vandergaw’s homestead in the summer of 2005 after receiving a complaint from a woman whose 10-year-old son had been taken by his father to see Vandergaw’s bears.
Oleck 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 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.”
Says feeding has stopped
Oleck said Vandergaw told him that he no longer was feeding the bears but that the animals continued to come around his cabin because it provided a refuge from hunters and others.
“These 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 said his agency has two options: “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.”
Bear experts say Vandergaw’s interactions with bears are inherently dangerous, that he, like Treadwell, is playing a form of Russian roulette.
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.
Larry Kaniut, a former teaching colleague of Vandergaw’s, is also 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].”