Our book today is The Grizzly Maze, Nick Jans’ 2006 account of Timothy Treadwell, the self-proclaimed grizzly guru who spent years on Alaska’s Katmai coast filming himself walking around its population of bears, talking to them, even singing to them, all the while talking about them to the video camera operated by his girlfriend Amie Hugenard. Treadwell believed that the bears had received bad press over the years, stigmatized as enormous, short-tempered killing machines, and he claimed his goal was to use his videos to instruct people (especially school kids, with whom he was very popular) in the true nature of wild bears – and to curb poaching while he was at it, a claim scoffed at by all the experts Jans interviews in his book. One of them puts it like this:
He never saw one poacher - I don’t think he even knew what a poacher looked like. And if he had run into someone that desperate to hunt illegally in the park, they would have shot him, stuffed him in a crab pot, and he would have just disappeared. That business of his was a total fabrication.
But of course it’s not his videos or his conservation efforts – such as they were – that made Treadwell famous. No, his brief, problematic immortality came along a route only he would have found unexpected: in 2003 both he and his Hugenard were mauled and then eaten by one of Katmai’s bears. The story became a world-wide sensation, in part because Hugenard pressed the ‘record’ button on the video camera’s audio and so caught the whole six minutes of Treadwell’s death and her own, and in part because of the easy irony that surrounded the whole thing.
One of the main strengths of Jans’ book is the fact that he was able to get normally-reserved experts and field specialists to open up about Treadwell after his death. Virtually all of these experts then immediately apologize for doing so, but their exasperation is mercilessly evident, as when Jans suggests that, for all his faults, Treadwell must have had a ‘way’ with bears:
You must be joking! He was an absolute disaster with bears. You’ve been to Katmai – you’ve seen it yourself. Those bears are so tolerant, so laid back, you could have a day care center out there. No one’s ever been killed in Katmai, not ever. I don’t know how he managed, but he finally goaded a bear into it … Did Tim Treadwell teach me anything about bears? Yeah, it was an incredible testament to their patience. Look, there are only two reasons, from a mature bear’s point of view, why any creature would approach it closely – to mate with it or displace it. That’s the message he was constantly sending bears: I want to hump you or I want to chase you off.
(Equally devastating is the response when Jans suggests that from all accounts, Treadwell at least seemed like a nice guy:
Nice? Nice? Everybody’s nice. That’s not the point here. The measure of a person isn’t how nice they are – it’s what they actually do in the world. A bank robber might be pleasant and funny if you meet him on the street.)
But the dark centerpiece of this book – of any book on Treadwell – must be a re-staging of his horrific death, and here The Grizzly Maze is involuntarily captivating. We can’t know the precise details of that fateful encounter, although it’s possible to infer a lot from the sounds of that tape (which was recovered, preserved, and then tastefully removed from most of the Internet). Although bears often bluff or change their minds, we know this attack was severe from the very start (as Jans points out, Treadwell had been around bears for years and seen a great many of their squabbles with each other, so when he calls out to his girlfriend – clearly audible on the tape – “I’m being killed out here!” – we can assume he knew exactly what he was talking about). We can guess that Treadwell of all people was hopeful of a happy ending even after the initial violence, although Jans points out a haunting alternative:
It could be, though, that things happen much faster. Timothy steps out and instantly senses that this time IS different. He knows this bear. And he knows it means to kill him. He looks the animal in the eye, six feet away, and understands it’s over. There’s scarcely time for that realization to blur past before the bear is on him.
There’s an element here of sheer physical terror, mainly due to sheer speed, an aspect of bears most non-hikers tend to forget. In the world of predatory mammals, once you decide to attack, you give it everything you’ve got. Humans – constantly hoping to avoid injury – seldom reach that point as quickly or entirely as other large mammals, and the gap is always disorienting, as is the gap in raw power involved:
The speed and force of a grizzly attack is overwhelming. Like being hit by a truck doing sixty. Or an avalanche. What many survivors of a mauling recall is the sheer explosion of power that tears into them, sweeps them along like a scrap of paper. One woman describes being grabbed, shaken, and thrown into a tree; anther victim says the most painful and lasting injury he suffered was the deep bruising caused by the bear’s snout slamming into his chest.
The audio tape here is roughly six minutes long, and Treadwell is screaming for about four of those minutes. The bear initially mauls him then retreats (a common practice among bears – if you’re attacked and you do everything you’re supposed to, curling up on the ground, protecting your head and neck, staying still, and the bear leaves, for Heaven’s sake, stay still awhile… the bear is almost certainly watching) – Jans speculates that Hugenard may have rushed out to tend to Treadwell’s injuries. But the bear comes back, and the audio records a deeply disturbing scenario: Treadwell’s cries seem to fade – not because he’s getting weaker (as Jans points out, he’s denied the boon of shock or quick unconsciousness), but because he’s being dragged off into the bush, to be eaten at leisure. For the moment, Hugenard is left alone in the middle of the destroyed camp site, with splatters of fresh blood on the ground all around her.
When the bear returns for her, the tape is still running. Her screams don’t sound human, but then, there was probably very little of the human being left in her by that point.
Jans has done a masterful job in telling a story that should never have needed telling in the first place. Every time I read a book like this, a part of me hopes it’s the last such book I’ll ever read, the last account of some idiot provoking a wild animal to kill him and thereby bringing more misery and death on wild animals just in general. But those books keep coming, mainly because idiots are in no short supply.