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Three Things I’ve Learned, with Charlie Russell

March 26, 2016

THREE THINGS I’VE LEARNED
WITH CHARLIE RUSSELL

By Sky England

Nature is our greatest teacher. Charlie Russell learned this over a lifetime, as a child on his father’s ranch just outside of Waterton Lakes National Park, as a rancher himself, an eco-tourism leader in British Columbia and, most famously, living among grizzly bears in Russia. Sky England interviews Russell, now 74, about his life’s work and what the natural world has taught him.

Photo courtesy Charlie Russell.

Photo courtesy Charlie Russell.

Charlie Russell knows a lot about grizzly bears, even if his education has been far from conventional. In their 50’s, Charlie and his then-partner, photographer Maureen Enns, built a cabin on the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia where they lived with and studied grizzly bears. They became the first people to adopt orphan grizzlies and reintroduce them to the wild, found the funds to start a ranger program to protect bears and salmon in Russia, and wrote the best-selling book Grizzly Heart about it all. Charlie spent 13 summers in Russia. Now, at 74, he lives in the house he grew up in.

The Hawk’s Nest—a modest cabin—is perched high atop a hill, just south of Twin Butte in southern Alberta. His grandfather and three families (clients of his outfitting company) built The Hawk’s Nest as a lodge. The families gave it to Charlie’s parents as a wedding gift in 1938. From the front porch, the view is all prairies and rolling hills, bumping right into the Rocky Mountains of Waterton Lakes National Park.

He’s famous for his grizzly bears, but Charlie’s relationship to his family’s land numbers among his most important. He and his neighbours, in partnership with The Nature Conservancy, have worked tirelessly to preserve it.

Living close to nature is imperative to Charlie. He still remembers how jarring it was to come back to Canada from the Siberian wilderness in the winter. He would ‘hob-nob’ with wealthy people to ‘talk them out of their money’ to fund his work the following summer. The contrasting worlds struck Charlie: his bears, living in harmony with the world around them, versus people, dependent on an economy driven by development, often at the expense of the natural world.

“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,” he said.

Charlie’s work in Russia led him to the conclusion that grizzlies are not inherently unpredictable and threatening. Bears that trust humans, rather than fear them, he argued, are not dangerous.

Photo courtesy Charlie Russell.

Photo courtesy Charlie Russell.

His work and message sparked controversy both in Russia and at home. One summer, he arrived at his cabin in Russia to find a bear gall bladder stapled to the wall. Many of the bears he had gotten to know had been killed by poachers.* But, determined (and at the expense of his relationship with Maureen Enns), he returned for six more years and adopted seven more grizzly cubs.**

Upon returning to Canada, Charlie said, “My hope and naiveté was that I would change people’s minds about bears and the way they were managed.” He presented all over the world. And while the public received his message well, bear managers in the national parks struggled with Charlie. His work wasn’t science-based, which hurt his credibility.

“[Bear managers] were so entrenched in this idea that bears have to be fearful,” said Charlie. “And to keep them fearful, we have to rough with them. Rubber bullet them. Adverse condition them. Tell people they’re dangerous.”

He eventually teamed up to present with Kevin Van Tighem, former superintendent of Banff National Park, who had a similar message about bears in his book, Bears Without Fear.

Charlie feels things are beginning to change. Just last spring, he was invited to speak to the Waterton Lakes National Park bear management team.

But, to Charlie, his life’s work is about more than the bears. “It was a learning process about nature,” he said. “Humans have gotten too far away from following the laws of the universe. We’ve become too arrogant. Too privileged. My grizzly bears taught me this.”

Photo courtesy Charlie Russell.

Photo courtesy Charlie Russell.

These days, Charlie spends his afternoons outside. He has stents in both legs and needs exercise to keep his circulation going. He fishes, kayaks and takes long walks.

He walks the trails he walked as a kid, trails no one else knows, back in the bush. He crawls over logs to get his blood pumping.

“When I go on these walks, I can just relax,” he said. “I can think about things. I can observe things. They’re familiar things because I’ve been there before and it’s a beautiful thing because I can put all the troubles of the world aside and look at nature and think about things like Truth…There are no lies in nature.” 

16-0206 Subtitles 1

1/ We have to learn how to fit in with nature.

I think it’s critical for our survival as a species.

2/ Relationship with land is one of my main interests.

In a world that is constantly developing, in a society that wants more, more, more, it takes a lot of work to protect and maintain natural land.

3/ Sustainability is the highest intelligence.

I think we as a species have been on the path of unsustainability ever since we began agriculture, about 6000 years ago. We have to redefine how we measure intelligence. Before we arrived, our First Nations people lived sustainably off the land. In my estimation, this intelligence far exceeds the technology and development that drives our economy.

*You can read one investigative journalist’s inquiry into the incident in Outside Magazine’s article  “A Message in Blood”

**The Edge of Eden, which won Best in Festival at the Telluride Mountain Film Festival, touches on Charlie’s work in the years following Grizzly Heart.

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Sky England is a writer, hiker, backpacker and skier. She lives in Calgary with her husband and son.

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