Charlie Russell grew up near Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta and developed an intense passion for grizzly bears while working on a documentary film with his father. That passion has led him to study bears both at home on his southern Alberta ranch and for more than 10 years in Kamchatka, Russia.
His father’s idea to shoot a documentary about grizzlies in the wild was unique for 1960. Other films had looked at grizzlies in captivity, but not in the wild. At just 20 years old, Russell was hired to be a cameraman for the documentary.
“It was an amazing introduction to bears for me,” Russell said. “What I saw was an animal that didn’t seem to fit with all of the stories we told about them…I saw an animal that seemed to be peace loving and wanted to get along with us if we’d ever give them a chance.”
Later, in an effort to give bears that chance, he allowed his cattle to co-exist alongside grizzlies, something that most ranchers would tell you is asking for trouble.
“I wanted the bears to be free to come and go and to be on the place and I saw some amazing things,” said Russell. “In 18 years I don’t think I lost one cow to a bear.”
Eventually, Russell took a job as a guide with a company that ran grizzly bear viewing tours before moving to Russia to study them abroad.
Strangely enough, despite all of his time spent around grizzlies, Russell’s only life-threatening encounter with bears came at the hands of a black bear many years ago. That experience was an eye opener and showed him the potential danger bears represent.
“It got me really thinking. It embarrassed me that I made that mistake (of underestimating bears) and I almost got killed by it,” said Russell.
Timothy Treadwell, the subject of Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man, was perhaps the most well-known person to live with bears. His story ended tragically when he and his girlfriend were attacked and killed by a grizzly bear in Katmai National Park in Alaska.
Like Russell, Treadwell dedicated his life to understanding grizzly bears. The two men, however, had very different approaches towards living alongside bears and Russell had frequent conversations with Treadwell about safety.
“I probably did more to try and keep him alive than anyone,” said Russell. “We had a running argument about whether he should be carrying pepper spray or putting an electric fence around his camp because I was worried about him. I’ve never said that bears are not dangerous. I used to say to him ‘Timothy, there’s a few bears out there that will hurt you and you’ve got to guard against that’.”
Russell will be sharing his stories and experiences in Golden on June 7 through a slideshow presentation at the Golden Cinema.
For more information on Russell’s fascinating journey, visit charlierussellbears.com.