Exploring the maze

Local author tells story of a man who loved bears to death

Posted: Thursday, July 21, 2005

In the weeks after the remains of Malibu, Calif., bear-activist Timothy Treadwell and his partner, Amie Huguenard, were found near their tent Oct. 5, 2003, on the Katmai coast, the couple was almost universally criticized.

Treadwell was slammed by hunters and National Park Service officials, who thought he was insane for camping in the middle of a grizzly thicket with little protection and rudimentary survival skills.

He was panned by environmentalists, who blamed Treadwell for habituating the area's bears to humans. (The two bears who mauled Treadwell and Huguenard were later killed by authorities.) And he was vilified in the world spotlight, as journalists looked into his past and found it full of exaggerations and inconsistencies.

Juneau author Nick Jans, an Alaska resident for 27 years, didn't know Treadwell. But Jans knew many of the stories about the man, who camped among grizzlies in Katmai National Park and Preserve every summer for 13 years and considered himself "the protector of the bears."

Jans' new book, "The Grizzly Maze: Timothy Treadwell's Fatal Obsession with Alaskan Bears," tries to go beyond the surface of the story, talking with people who know the area and knew Treadwell. It even explores the personalities of the two bears - Baby Letterman and Bear 141 - who allegedly mauled Treadwell and Huguenard.

" 'Macbeth' or 'Othello' or 'King Lear' aren't about those characters, they're about human nature," Jans said. "That's what I really hoped to do, to hit at the heart of human nature and how it happened to be felt in Timothy Treadwell.

"You go out and set up a tent, by yourself, no arms, no nothing, in the Katmai coast," he said. "And you pull that for 13 years in that nasty weather. He was living under real hard conditions and living a real hard life. You cannot fault his courage, and you can't fault his convictions. That's what impressed me. He was a different sort of guy, and the Lord knows we're all too much the same."

Jans will appear at a book signing for "The Grizzly Maze" from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, July 21, at Hearthside Books' Nugget Mall location.

The book, 274 pages long and published by Dutton, came out earlier this year. It evolved out of "Death in the Grizzly Maze," an article Jans wrote for the February 2004 issue of Alaska Magazine.

Jans had just returned from his second home in Ambler, far north in the Brooks Range, when Andy Hall, an editor at Alaska Magazine, called to tell him Treadwell had died.

"He said, 'What should we do?" Jans said. "I said, 'Get me out there.' And so five days later, I stepped off the float plane."

Much of the area around Treadwell and Huguenard's camp was cordoned off. Jans had orders from the National Park Service not to walk ashore, but armed only with cameras, he couldn't resist taking a closer look at the site. It proved to be a dangerous choice. A grizzly, perhaps still tweaked from what had happened five days before, stalked him and sent him fleeing back to the plane.

"As usual, the worst bear is the one in your head," Jans said. "Bears don't want to kill us. They don't want trouble. They want to be left alone, and if we give them space, everything's fine."

Jans too has been living among bears during his 27 years in Alaska, almost 20 on the Brooks Range and four more on Chichagof Island. He's killed 10 - brown and black.

Once, in the Brooks Range, he and a friend inadvertently crawled to the edge of a male bear's den. The bear erupted, then charged down a hill. During a trip to Chichagof a few weeks ago, Jans ran into 14 bears in four days, with no weapon.

"I don't know how many bears I've been within 20 feet of, I've lost count, " Jans said. "Certainly I don't have a death wish. I just like fishing by myself and hiking in the woods by myself. I pay attention and I certainly always carry something.

"I have all the respect in the world for bears," he said. "I think all bears are scary, I don't care how little they are. But the Katmai bears have always astounded me in terms of how passive and copacetic they are."

That, Jans said, makes the deaths of Treadwell and Huguenard all the more puzzling. They are the first bear-related fatalities on the Katmai coast in almost a century of recorded history.

Jans' Alaska Magazine article concentrated on Treadwell's strange interpretations and apparent disregard for bear safety. He would often brush up against them, cooing to them in a sing-song voice and giving them names, such as "Boobie" and "Mr. Bubbles."

The book project began as a discourse on bear science and bear history, with a little about Treadwell. Jans spent 18 months researching and tying in his own experiences with bears from his more than 25 years in Alaska.

The structure of the book changed dramatically when Jans visited Kodiak Island and the Katmai coast in September 2004. He discovered that many of the area guides, pilots and residents - people who were close to Treadwell - were willing to talk.

"Frankly, I was pretty reticent about speaking with some of the people who knew him; I felt like I was intruding," Jans said. "It's a really difficult thing to find yourself working as a detective, prosecutor, defense attorney, judge and jury in the case of a guy you never met.

"I really wanted to write and not let my own personal feelings enter into it," he said. "I wanted to give the reader room to make up his own mind. He was an easy target, but as I went along, I found myself swaying back and forth like a piece of grass in the wind depending on who I last talked to."

Jans and his editor decided to toss out almost 20,000 words of the bear-science portion of the book. He wrote the first 110 pages or so, most of which concentrate on Treadwell before his death, in the two months leading up to Jans' final deadline.

The final version of the book progresses from the events leading up to Treadwell's death to the implications of his mauling and then on to more-technical bear science.

"It was a very difficult book to write," Jans said. "It wasn't linear, it wasn't like 'Sea Biscuit.' It wasn't like 'Into the Wild," with Chris McCandless. It was partly because Timothy Treadwell himself played very fast and loose with time and space, and with when and where and how things really happened, and again, the fact that his death was a media event."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.

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