Dan met Charlie Russell on a windy day in Waterton Lakes National Park. He and his friend, on a boys fishing trip, found themselves at the far end of the lake with a powerful wind blowing towards them, making a paddle back to the parking lot a difficult thing. As such, they decided to make themselves a shore lunch, have a beer and wait it out.
While a few attempted the paddle back, some getting stuck and some having to be saved, they saw one silver-haired man point his paddle in the air, use it as a sail and glide easily to their end of the lake, start casting lines, into the wind, and catch fish after fish.
The man slowly made his way over to them and they offered him a beer. He took them up on the offer and they started chatting.
Dan and Chris say they had a feeling about this man–a feeling that he was someone special. They talked about the parks and fishing and wildlife and bears and then the man sort of off-handedly mentioned that he once lived with bears in Siberia for a long time.
“Wait? What?” Dan asked him.
Yes, he had written a book about it. Grizzly Heart. Dan had the book before I even got home and as he told me little tid bits as he devoured it, I kept wanting to grab the book out of his hands and read it myself.
The barest smattering of details were intriguing enough: a couple, in their fifties, go to a remote wildlife preserve in Russia to live among grizzly bears. They want to prove that grizzlies are peaceful–not violent–creatures. He builds his own plane. They build their own cabin. They raise orphan grizzly cubs.
Yes, it’s all true. And when you read the story it’s
Here are a few things Charlie and Maureen came up against:
- Canadians that didn’t want him to do his project.
- Russians that didn’t want him to do his project.
- Russian bureaucracy (I can’t even describe)
- Coming up with the funding.
- Extremely long unpleasant storms, during which the wind sent the smoke from their fire back into their chimneys – leaving them the choice to stand outside in the brutal storm or inside in their smoky cabin
- More and more unpleasantness from the Russians
- Possibly life threatening health issues
Among other things. If I came up against just one of these, I’d probably give up on it. But they never did. In fact, the truth is that if I ever came up with such a wildly controversial idea I’d probably think to myself, hmmm, maybe, and then never do anything about it.
But I did decide to pitch an article about Charlie Russell to Crowfoot Media. I drove up to meet Charlie Russell on warm winter day. He had sent me directions to find his long driveway – of course, unmarked, because he lives on a whole lot of beautiful land around Waterton Lakes National Park. After one wrong turn, I found it and followed it up to his house – the Hawk’s Nest.
The little cabin is filled with game from his grandfather’s hunting days–a bighorn sheep, an eagle. A stone fireplace sits at the center and books are everywhere.
We sat on his porch for two hours looking out at Waterton together. The sun was so hot, I had to take my boots off. The snow melted. We saw a coyote dart across the field below. He pointed to the creek where hi s mother taught him to fish. It was so quiet. All you could hear were snow dripping and birds twittering.
I’ll let the article speak for what we talked about in those two hours, but afterwards, his brother Gordon invited us in –he had made us a big salad. So Charlie and I ate salad and talked a little more. Here are a couple of things that I remember:
#1. He said, I never really like to call myself this or that. A writer. Or a grizzly bear activist. etc. Because it closes things off.
#2. He was telling me how he never really the learned the names of wildflowers. But in a way, he said, I’m glad, because I feel that I can just experience them for what they are, rather than run through a checklist of fancy names in my head. I told him it made me think of a short story I once read – about a man who decides to abandon language and how it frees him to experience everything in a new, exalted way. He discovers how language diminishes everything – breaks it all apart. I thought about how James, with no language, experiences the world that way. Just the way that it is.
Later, I sent him the story.
He wrote me back: “I thought that you did not get it.” and then he wrote that quote I used for the piece.
“One cannot have lived as long as I have, alone in a wordless world that was as wonderful as I had with my bears, without struggling to be courteous in the human world where most people think…that we are superior to every living thing.”
Charlie kept telling me how difficult and unliked he is. And the truth is that he’s a little (a lot) fed up with humans.
But Charlie had an impact on me before I even met him. He had a really unpopular idea and he made just enough people believe in it – then he made a lot more people believe in it. And even if his work didn’t have the far-sweeping changes he thought it might, to quote Charles Jonkel, a biologist, from the Outside magazine article: “What Charlie does is not science. He knows that. It’s got value, though. Over the years he’s taught even the most diehard so-called experts to take another look at how we think about bears.”
I’m a little more optimistic than him. Maybe, as he suggested himself, I have to be. I have a son. I can’t believe we are doomed. But Charlie makes me want to stop thinking that I am this or that, to believe that I can be the many things that I am, he makes me want to stop asking for permission, he makes me want to seek out that wordless place–where everything is just what it is.