For 13 summers, Timothy Treadwell pitched his tent in Alaska's grizzliest bear habitat. Whether he was operating on a courage surplus or a sanity deficit depends on who you talk to, but consider that his forays were nearly all solo missions done without rifle, mace or electric fence. Treadwell had no scientific credentials or institutional backing, so his presence was something of a puzzler to many. Until he got famous.
When he summered in ground zero of bear country, Treadwell didn't obey its widely accepted edicts. He camped too close to bear trails, too near their salmon spots. He was even known to leave food inside his tent. But that's not the half of it: Treadwell approached mothers with cubs; he even pet a few bears. Repeat: He pet wild grizzly bears. If that's merely stupid, there's also the inexplicable. He was often seen crawling around on his haunches in an effort, presumably, to become more bear than man.
For his efforts, Treadwell was awarded more publicity (by People, Letterman, the Discovery Channel) than any wildlife maven in recent memory. In the media, he took a "grizzly bears have been misunderstood" tack, and promoted a touchy feely image of the creatures, whom he bestowed with names Disney would surely reject for being too cute: "Mr. Chocolate"? "Booble"? 'Nuff said.
In the summer of 1998, I happened upon Treadwell in Katmai National Park. I witnessed no heavy (or light) petting, and he was sure not to get closer than the legally allowed 50 yards. The bears were grazing on tidal grass like big-ass brown cows, which was both dramatic and banal at the same time. So I wound up chatting with Treadwell for a good half-hour. Blond, tan, bandana-clad, sunglasses -- he genuinely seemed like a boilerplate Californian. Except for the fact that he was living in the middle of a tidal meadow filled with grizzly bears. He even had a friendly fox trailing at his feet, which added to an aura that was Pied Piper meets Jeff Spicoli.
For what it's worth, I was along for a "bear-viewing" trip that involved paying a preposterous sum for a float plane that took Lower 48 types to gawk at grizzlies. For someone who goes camping about as often as Woody Allen does, I have an inexplicable fascination with bears. It leads me to spend money I can't afford on trips usually stocked with retired dentists.
Treadwell told me he spent his summer right where we stood. He claimed that after bears had messed with his campsite, he'd get out of his tent and bluff-charge their 800-pound asses. I was riveted by his shtick and left thinking he was only half crazy.
Two years later, I spoke to Treadwell on the phone. I was in Brooklyn trying to write a freelance piece for a magazine; he was in Malibu getting ready to leave for his 11th summer in Alaska. He spent nearly half an hour talking to me about why he wouldn't talk to me. He said journalists asked questions he didn't like. He said the fact that I knew his favorite location -- which was known to any number of commercial pilots, fisherman, park officials and tourists -- might put the bears in danger from poachers.
Prophetically enough, he also used a line he'd cart out repeatedly during his career: That if he was ever mauled, he hoped whoever found him would toss his body in the woods so as to help prevent the destruction of his attacker. On other occasions, he was even more candid, saying he'd consider it an honor to end up as bear shit.
Sadly, this part of his wish came true. Worse still, he took two bears and another human with him. On Oct. 5, 2003, he got what many feared, and some expected. A day before he and his partner Amie Huguenard were to be picked up by bush plane, they were attacked and eaten. Arriving the next day, park rangers filled two body bags with 40 pounds of remains. They also shot and killed two bears acting aggressively near what they saw as their kill.
So what to make of Timothy Treadwell? Environmental martyr or megalomaniacal wing nut? Montana author Mike Lapinski, in his book Death in the Grizzly Maze, argues that Treadwell was hardly the selfless wildlife champion he fancied himself. Well intentioned as he may've been, Treadwell's pathology trumped the bears' well-being time and again. But Lapinski also contends that Treadwell was mentally ill, that he suffered from bipolar disorder. This, he contends, explains how he could put his life at risk. During the highs, Lapinski says, he felt completely invincible. Surely, no 1,000-pound bear could touch him. During the lows -- well, he didn't really care whether he lived or died.
"He needed those bears," Lapinski says. "He needed those bears to justify his existence."
Treadwell's claim of being a scarecrow for poachers, Lapinski argues, was totally unfounded. In fact, some of Treadwell's promotional material included a photo of a "poacher" who turned out to be a pilot and guide for bear-viewing trips. Whoops.
After being busted for getting illegally close to the bears, he promised everyone from park officials to naturalists that he'd reform. But the demands of entertainment outfits like Disney and the Discovery Channel required him to do more than stay at 50 yards' distance because, hey, that doesn't make for edgy television.
This is to say nothing of the off-season educational programs Treadwell performed for elementary school kids, promoting an his anthropomorphized vision of very wild, very dangerous creatures.
Part of why Treadwell's story is so fascinating isn't just its overload of tragic irony. Much like Chris McCandless of Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, Treadwell was an expatriate from middle-class America. Among grizzlies, he made an authentic life that he couldn't find in more conventional settings. To justify this lifestyle, he distorted the truth and was at least partially responsible for the death of his partner, Huguenard.
Americans are encouraged to dream big dreams, but most of us fall prey to the demands of the practical: kids, mortgages and basic cable. Nevertheless, our iconography celebrates a wild country even while so much of it is becoming an endlessly tame, big box bummer. Treadwell found a way to live a whole other life. He was hardly noble, certainly misguided, and in many ways even selfish. But he lived on his own terms and without apology. He basked in a wild America that few ever experience. And it wasn't always a picnic. Awful weather, awful food, loneliness ... and perpetual danger.
Meeting Treadwell in his stomping grounds in southeastern Alaska was a truly unforgettable experience. This was not the kind of man you meet every day. But that's probably for the best. What Treadwell accomplished for himself is obvious, if not wholly enviable. What he did for the animals he proudly referred to as "his bears" is a lot less clear.