THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Bear With Me

Salvation, Sobriety, and Salmon in the Alaskan Bush

by Emma Jean Holley

Illustration by Lynnette Munoz

published February 19, 2016


Tick, tick, tick went the wristwatch found by Willy Fulton. 

This is not a story about Willy Fulton, or the wristwatch, either. Part of it is about the owner of the wristwatch, a recovering drug addict from Long Island who had long ago dropped out of college to attain the familiar, and familiarly unattainable, Hollywood dream. And part of the story is about how he failed to make that dream a reality, and instead arrived at stardom in the more roundabout way: sprinting naked along the Alaskan riversides to ward off the floatplanes, which Willy Fulton often flew. 

More than anything else, though, this is a love story.

It was mid-autumn of 2003. The ice hadn’t yet reached Hallo Bay, nestled across from Kodiak Island on Alaska’s southeastern coast. But it wouldn’t be long. The mass exodus of migrating things was tapering off to a last-minute few, no more blankets of wings rustling over the whole sky. Whatever stayed behind would slide into the long sleep that mimics dying, like the little brown bat in its little snug spaces, and the arctic ground squirrel burrowed three feet deep, and the bears.

It was hard to believe that months earlier, the backdrop to this scene was a green so loud as to silence all else, and so big that that’s what people called it: the Big Green. A solid if uncreative choice, as well as a unique honor—it is just one savannah on the Wales-sized expanse of Katmai National Park, where it is impressive to be named at all; many of the mountains have been given no such distinction. Why go through the trouble, and for whom? 

The wristwatch, still running, eventually made its way into the hands of a woman named Jewel. “Oh, wow,” she said. She fastened the gift around her wrist and admired its refractions of light. Tick, tick, tick. It shone clean as a bone. 

There are the stories that begin at beginnings because they might as well, and there are the stories that begin at their chronological endings because we don’t know how else to tell them. Even David Letterman saw it coming a mile away. On his show, the crowd went wild.

        If this story didn’t have to begin at the end, those who retold it could weave in suspense like a string pulled taut. They could pluck it like a chord. Everyone loves a great underdog story. Would the owner of the wristwatch prove the experts and the Lettermans and the roaring crowds wrong? Would he succeed in communicating to the world his vision of empathy for creatures great and formidable and small? 

No. He wouldn’t. Because in the end, Timothy Treadwell was eaten by a bear. His girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, was, too. Some say Timothy was a crackpot, and that all the proof you need for this lies in his camcorder, which got switched on during the attack. The lens cap concealed everything there was to see, but the audio captured everything there was to hear, clear as bells. The camcorder—and the 100 hours’ worth of footage from the past five years, all reeling toward what everybody could now agree had always been the inevitable end—was one of the only things left. 

That, and Timothy’s right arm. On it, a wristwatch.

Tick, tick, tick.

 

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In his 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, the great German filmmaker Werner Herzog crafted what might be the most provocative (and, it follows, best-known) retelling of the Timothy Treadwell story. Much of the work was already done for him by Timothy himself, whose amateur video footage shared his remote little pocket of the Alaska Peninsula with the world. 

From this rich primary source, Herzog stitches together a narrative as only he can—that is, through an intractably grim and psychologizing lens—but it’s not as though Timothy himself was blind to the human soul’s capacity for darkness. At one point, his addiction to heroin had progressed to the point where, in his own words, “I was either gonna die from it or break from it.” He tried programs, and promises, and quitting cold turkey. Nothing took. He’d drink and drink. He was shooting up pretty regularly, too. He overdosed once, almost died. Another time, on acid, he jumped headfirst from three floors up, miraculously saved by the soft mud underneath, which preserved a mold of his face when he pulled it out. 

Some time after his overdose, a friend convinced him to travel to Alaska, where he saw a wild bear for the first time. With the encounter came a revelation. He uses this word, “revelation,” about the contract he wordlessly drew for his soul: “I promised the bears that if I would look over them, would they please help me be a better person? They became so inspirational…that I did. I gave up the drinking. It was a miracle.” 

This is why he would never kill a bear, never hate a bear, and never, ever cause one any discomfort or pain—even just with bear spray, even at the expense of his own life. How could he? He owed them this life; they had given it back to him, and they could take it again if they pleased. 

And so there is another way of telling the story.

 

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For life on the Alaskan riverbeds, everything goes back to the sockeye salmon. And every sockeye salmon lives to go back home. 

The salmon’s story begins, like Timothy Treadwell’s, with death—in this case, the death of its parents, who promptly die as soon as they are parents at all. This exchange of life for death is called “spawning,” and it occurs between summer’s end and winter’s beginning. (Up in bear country, there is not much in-between.) To be spawned is to develop invisibly, in the gravelly underbellies of certain rivers where the water under the ice flows freely. As a hatchling, the sockeye wriggles its way into the quiet solitude of lakes, then the open sea, where it waits for the call to come, carried on falling water and salted waves. The call can only be answered by yielding to a tug more powerful than physical laws—that of sexual instinct on a massive scale. Each summer, up to a million sockeye migrate out of Alaska’s Bristol Bay, up and inland, back to whichever little freshwater stopover aerated them through that first winter. Mating takes place. Afterwards, the female sockeye salmon spawns her eggs, called roe, then dies of exhaustion. 

Sometimes, salmon heave upstream in such thick droves that when they leap out of the water, as they periodically do, it looks like raindrops in reverse. The bears don’t even have to hunt; they just open their great jaws over the river and wait. These are the years they grow torpid and happy. They get fat. 

Then there are the shortages, brought on by overfishing, ecosystem disturbances, or long droughts that dry up the riverbeds and leave the salmon gasping and rotting under the summer sun. These are the times when the bears get tense and mean, their tastes less finicky by the day, their shoulder blades beakier. When things get so bad they have no qualms about turning to cannibalism. This occurrence distressed Timothy Treadwell to no end. During one of these droughts, he went off on one of his on-camera tantrums. 

“We need more rain!” he cries over and over. “Downey is hungry, Tabitha’s hungry, Melissa is eating her babies! I’m like a fucking nut. We’ve got to have some rain! I’m not a religious guy, no, but I’m telling you, I’m just pissed, because—” he pauses, near tears, struggling to articulate why the situation feels like such a betrayal. 

“It just doesn’t seem right” is the phrase he ends up using. He repeats it, for good measure. “It just doesn’t seem right.” 

Much of this violence came at the claws of the Big Red Machine, who lorded over the Grizzly Maze like a despot drunk with power. Even Timothy, who normally saw this kind of bear as a special challenge, a chance to hone his ursine networking skills, had the prudence to back off. “I would love to be his friend,” he mourned, having retreated to the far corner of the Maze, “but he’s not that type of bear. [He’s] from the old days, the old days of when bears came here and the sight, the smell of a person meant poacher, meant death.” 

But Machine ran the Maze on borrowed time. Late one summer, when the salmon started running dry, a new bear came snarling into the thicket. Timothy called this new bear Demon. Demon wasn’t big—or at least, not nearly as big as the Machine—but he was trouble. He attacked with relentless ferocity, and he never lost a fight. When the inevitable standoff came between Demon and the Machine, the Machine was more surprised than anyone at how easily he was toppled from the lofty parapet he’d occupied with such impunity. Demon didn’t let up until he drove the Machine into exile. 

There are some bears, as there are people, who are complicated to love. 

With Downey, who’d known Timothy since the spring she was born, it was simple. She was seven that summer—a sweet, fat, affectionate little lady who found great fun in flopping. She’d flop in and out of the river, ungainly as you please. She would actively seek Timothy out, plodding all hang-dogged over the knolls until she spotted his bright blonde head. Once she found him, she’d flop down beside him and loll about, potbellied and unafraid, content to bask in his blown kisses and his coos. “Like she was my own sister,” said Timothy, to us. To Downey: “You are the most beautiful thing.” To us again: “I will care for her. I will live for her. I will die for her.” Overcome, he cries a little. 

 

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That last summer, near the end of August, everyone was getting hungry and the hierarchy was in shambles. The tension between the bears grew taut and feverish, all of them stalking each other, hairs bristled, teeth bared. In his journal, Timothy wrote: “I felt a great deal of paranoia, and rightfully so… The chemistry between the bears was explosive.” Fights erupted. Downey, frightened, would scamper off to find Timothy, visibly soothed by his presence. But he and Amie were slated to leave at the end of September, when the weather and the hunger got harsh. They hoped she would be okay.

       In the end, it was Downey that did them in—or, at least, their soft spot for her. On their last day in Katmai, they looked for her but could not find her. They fretted. What if she went to pay them a visit, and wondered where they’d gone? What if she’d gotten hungry and reckless, and ventured down to catch a few stray fish where Demon paced low-down grooves along the riverbank, bloody foam speckled on his chin? 

Timothy and Amie were in the airport, all set to board the plane back to Malibu, when they decided they couldn’t do it. Not yet. The weather was calling for buckets of rain, and rain meant a fat, swollen river that would usher in one last salmon run of the season. Why not go back, they reasoned. Just to make sure everyone’s okay. Just to say goodbye. According to several accounts, it was her idea as much as his. So they called up their friend Willy Fulton, who flew them back, full of doubts. He would have hung up the phone on anyone else who’d asked him to enable such an idiotic undertaking, but he’d flown Timothy for all these years and it had always been okay before, hadn’t it?

When Timothy and Amie splashed back to shore, it was a kind of homecoming; they were relieved to spot Downey right away, flopping about in the river and overjoyed to see her friends. They spent a lovely, golden crop of days there before it was time to leave again, for real this time.

They were in the tent, packing, when a bear started bumping up against the tarpaulin. He wouldn’t scram. Timothy unzipped the tent and stepped out, intending to shoo him away.

It’s hard to know if, in that moment, Timothy recognized who he was facing; marginalization had changed the Machine, and not kindly. His formerly massive body had transformed into one that was shrunken and skeletal, sharp of rib and slack of jaw. His fur was mangy. How the mighty had fallen—the Big Red Machine, once the undisputed king of the Grizzly Maze, was starving to death. 

But that night, he feasted. 

When Willy Fulton flew the park rangers into the Maze, the salmon run was long dry. He marveled at what had remained unscathed.

Tick, tick, tick. 

 

EMMA JEAN HOLLEY B’16 is not Werner Herzog.