Brown bear watching and wildlife tours on the wild coast of Katmai National Park in Alaska.
Brown bear watching & wildlife tours on the coast of Katmai National Park, Alaska
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The Myth of Timothy Treadwell
by John Rogers; Katmai Coastal Bear Tours


Timothy Treadwell happened upon Alaska the same year I happened upon the Katmai coast, 1989. Timothy was searching for himself and a reason to live life, while I was hired by the National Park Service to transport biologists and scientists to survey the Katmai National Park coast after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. My interaction with Timothy during those first few years was minimal, mostly from a distance. He refused efforts to communicate and avoided being seen. On the occasions when contact took place, his reaction was to mimic what a bear’s reaction would be, not wishing to remain in the area, close to humans or larger bears.

Hallo Bay

My contract with the National Park Service ended in 1992. The following summer, I started bringing tourists and photographers to view and photograph bears along the Katmai coast. For the next four years, both Treadwell and Katmai Coastal Bear Tours spent the summers mostly in Hallo Bay, and our encounters increased. Timothy became ever more possessive of the bears and the area he loved. He spent countless hours immersed in his own thoughts and became wary of people who invaded “his” part of the National Park to view the bears. He was sometimes hostile to "intruders", and would readily imitate the behavior of bears, fleeing from people and watching them from behind bushes, sometimes bursting forth with less than courteous remarks and threatening gestures. This is the same man who became gentle and childlike when talking to groups of school children.

Such contradictions between Timothy’s words and behavior made it hard for me to determine the actual reason for his presence in Katmai National Park. On the one hand, he said he wanted to educate people about the bears, and, in fact, he was amassing a library of videotape and using it to educate school children and raise money for his bear activities. However, when major film companies like the BBC came to create documentaries that would educate millions, Timothy disrupted their filming by yelling and charging up and down streams to scare away the bears. Another of Timothy’s stated goals was to protect the bears, but he located himself in Katmai National Park, the largest bear protection area in the world.

By 1997, Timothy’s self-taught abilities were shining through. His knowledge and understanding of bears was equal to the experience of any commercial bear viewing guide or bear specialist in Katmai National Park, better than most. Just a handful of determined people ever get to the level of mental and physical comfort that allows them to camp in such a harsh environment, where bear activity is widespread. Out of this handful, not many embark on lengthy camping expeditions in bear country such as Katmai. Even fewer set out to camp alone. This level of comfort can only be achieved through an exceptional understanding of bears. Timothy Treadwell reached this level. Moreover, his bear etiquette was impeccable. His campsite was kept in immaculate condition, and he had developed extremely good habits in terms of cooking and eating away from the tent. Over the years, the bears became accustomed to Timothy and his tent, and generally ignored both. His electric fence and pepper spray eventually seemed unnecessary, and he stopped using them.

Until now, Timothy had camped mostly in Hallo Bay, making short excursions into other areas. During this time, he co-authored Among Grizzlies: Living with Wild Bears in Alaska, which would help in laying the groundwork for what was to follow; six years of acting in his own film-making. In 1998, he started splitting his time between Kaflia Bay and Hallo Bay.

Kaflia Bay

The years of 1998 to 2001 saw Timothy Treadwell spending long periods of time in Kaflia Bay, and his film-making desires reaching unfathomable limits. The salmon runs were good, and bear activity couldn’t be better. Inevitably, other film-makers and producers were attracted to the area, and Katmai Coastal Bear Tours was often chartered to guide them. This was unnerving for Timothy, who claimed these were the bears he was here to protect. Kaflia Bay being close quarters, encounters between us became frequent and hostile. I defended my right to be there and Katmai Coastal Bear Tours’ respectful demeanor towards the bears; he did the same, all the while filming and promoting himself and his ambitions. This led me to speculate that the real purpose of this would-be actor was to star in his own documentary, which is exactly what came to pass in the Werner Herzog film Grizzly Man.

At this time, the bear experts he wrote and called asking for information and acceptance were voicing concern about the message Timothy was sending to the public. He was under a lot of pressure from Park Rangers, who urged him to control his odd behavior. There has been speculation about Timothy receiving special consideration in the Park around bears. He didn't enjoy special treatment; if anything, he was watched more closely. I believe Timothy mostly operated within Park rules partially because he was watched so attentively. He received tickets for inadequate food storage and possession of a small generator.

He felt unjustly targeted by the Park Rangers and blamed his perceived harassment partly on me. Our complaints ended up on the National Park Service superintendent 's desk. Both of us were operating well within Park regulations, and neither of us won or lost this personal, self-contained “battle”. I did get an apology from Timothy, and we did stop having conflicts, mostly because after 2001, poorer than average salmon runs caused a decline in bear activity at Kaflia Bay, which meant less than ideal bear viewing opportunities. I seldom went to Kaflia after 2001.

During the summers of 2002 and 2003, Timothy and I learnt to tolerate each other and to converse in a friendlier manner. Both summers, in mid-July, Timothy communicated via VHF radio that he was leaving Hallo and heading for Kaflia Bay, and that this might be his last year. I remember the conversations well, and always assumed he was referring to his last year at Kaflia. Now, I wonder whether he was really referring to being killed.

Timothy Treadwell never allowed me to know him well enough to like him. I had a dislike, not of Timothy, but of the annoyance we caused each other. Despite our differences, we couldn’t help but agree on most aspects regarding caring about the bears along the Katmai coast. I don’t know what he really thought of me. As for myself, I have always admired his mental and physical toughness, endurance, and determination to camp alone in Katmai for such prolonged periods of time.

Part 1 - The Myth of Timothy Treadwell
Part 2 - My Relationship with Timothy Treadwell
Part 3 - About the Attack & Final Note


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