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Into Alaska's 'Grizzly Maze'

11/9/2005

No matter how many times I experience the sight, whenever I see a bear in the wild my perception of the natural world and my own place in it changes a little. … Bears speak to something primal in the recesses of the human brain, the same quarter of our instinct that makes us hunt in the first place.

— E. Donnall Thomas Jr., in "Longbows in the Far North"


In North America's last great and vast wilderness of Alaska, the sight of a grizzly on the prowl leads to wild-eyed wonder and for some, a primal fear, that combines to give the 49th state some of its rugged aura and potentially deadly mystique.

With vastly different motivations at the start, but perhaps similar reasons in the end, it is that very presence of Alaska's famed Ursus arctos horribillis, better known as the brown bear, which drew two very different men to the Last Frontier State.

One of those men is Nick Jans, a contributing editor for Alaska magazine, who has written the recently published book "The Grizzly Maze: Timothy Treadwell's Fatal Obsession with Alaskan Bears."

The other man was the late Timothy Treadwell, a Californian made famous by his living in close quarters with — and ultimately being killed by — Alaska's coastal brown bears.

For Jans, who was interviewed Saturday on the ESPN Radio's "The Outdoor Show", such bruins are the essence of Alaska's backcountry.

"What do I love about Alaska most?" Jans said in a recent interview with ESPNOutdoors.com. "Bears would be at the top of the list."

To those ends, Jans' book is "— about bear and human interaction seen through the lens of Timothy Treadwell."

"I guess you could say that Timothy Treadwell and I had something in common, although we were very different people," Jans said. "What we shared is a fascination for the grizzly, or the brown, bear."

As a full-time writer living in Juneau, the 50-year-old author remains as fascinated by Alaska's big bears as he was 27 years ago when he penned in his journal that he was going to the state "… because of bears."

Jans — who has lived in the Alaskan bush for nearly three decades, working at a variety of jobs ranging from packer to trading-post manager to teacher along the way — is sure that he is not alone in his fascination with bruins.

"What do we send our kids to bed with — stuffed sharks?" Jans said. "No, it's a teddy bear.

"We're fascinated with them and scared of them at the same time. He's 'Winnie the Pooh,' he's 'Smokey the Bear,' he's 'Yogi Bear,' but he's also on the cover of Outdoor Life."

Such fascination with the big lumbering bears is undoubtedly what caused Treadwell to continue coming back to the wilds of Alaska after his first visit in 1989.

Treadwell's first encounter with a grizzly was in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park along the Chitina River, according to Jans' book.

And those encounters would grow more and more frequent as Treadwell spent 13 summers living among, closely interacting with, singing to and even touching some of the more than 2,000 bruins that call Katmai National Park their home.

"Katmai National Park has more bears, more tolerant bears, than any other place on the continent," Jans said. "They have a lot of food there and are calm bears, not your average grizzlies.

"They get used to each other and to humans."

Such are the bears that Jans said got used to Treadwell.

"He managed to live out among these bears for 13 years in the summer season," Jans said. "He defied everyone's sense of what you could do, of what you should do.

"He worked hard to get them used to his presence. There were a number of bears he could actually touch. It was pretty remarkable."

While such a remarkable lifestyle among the bears of Katmai gave Treadwell a calling and a dose of celebrity status — he appeared on "Late Night with David Letterman," "Dateline" and other TV shows — it also caused some alarm among the region's bear experts.

"The National Park people were pretty surprised when he showed up," Jans said. "The people that knew bears were upset that he was doing the wrong thing.

"Some said that eventually he would get himself killed and get bears killed over him, and, eventually, that is what happened."

In fact, it happened Oct. 6, 2003, during a savage assault by a large and aggressive male brown bear that took Treadwell's life and that of his girlfriend, Amy Huguenard.

Chillingly, the terrifying audio of the pair's demise was caught on a video-camera tape that was rolling. The tape was discovered later as authorities investigated the fatal mauling.

While Jans admits that Treadwell and Huguenard's deaths are part of the "most publicized bear attack of all time," he wrote his book not just to tell the pair's tragic tale.

He also wrote it to educate the public about the truth concerning North American brown bears.

"I wanted to get out as much good information about bears as possible," Jans said. "People suffer through waves of 'bearanoia.'"

"People have these horrible distortions of how dangerous bears are. Certainly, they can be. But people don't think twice about going out and getting in a car (despite the threat of automobile accidents)."

Understand that Jans has no delusions about the raw and potentially fatal power of bears.

In addition to losing one of his best friends in a bear attack and having another friend mauled by a bear two years ago, Jans admits he has had his own fair share of close encounters.

Even so, he remains fascinated by the animals and is committed to their survival in both Alaska, where he says more than 35,000 brown bears live, and in the lower 48 states, where he claims fewer than 1,000 grizzlies are left in Wyoming and Montana.

"They're really remarkable animals," Jans said.

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