From the bookshelf: Treadwell, bears create haunting tragedy

Posted: Thursday, October 27, 2005


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  'Death in the Grizzly Maze: The Timothy Teadwell Story,' by Mike Lapinski

'The Grizzly Maze: Timothy Treadwell's Fatal Obsession with Alaskan Bears,' by Nick Jans

The Grizzly Maze: Timothy Treadwell's Fatal Obsession with Alaskan Bears

By Nick Jans

Published by Dutton

288 pages


$24.95 (hard cover)

Death in the Grizzly Maze: The Timothy Treadwell Story

By Mike Lapinski

Published by Falcon (The Globe Pequot Press)

192 pages


$14.95 (soft cover)


'Death in the Grizzly Maze: The Timothy Teadwell Story,' by Mike Lapinski

On Oct. 5, 2003, Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard died in Katmai National Park. Bear fatalities are front-page news in Alaska, but this case achieved national notoriety because Treadwell made a very public career promoting bears as gentle creatures and himself as a man with a mystical connection to them.

Cocky Alaskans sneered that the touchy-feely Californian had gotten what he deserved, but journalists discovered there was much more to the story. Two new books delve into Treadwell's strange life and the broader implications of his fate.

Mike Lapinski, an experienced outdoor writer from Montana, and well-known Alaska writer Nick Jans both took their titles from Treadwell's nickname for the site at Kaflia Bay that proved his undoing. The two books overlap a great deal, but differ in details and subtle ways.

Lapinski focuses on Treadwell and Huguenard, the human side of the tragedy. Jans is more interested in bears and their problematic relations with humankind. Lapinski tended to interview people associated with the victims' past in the Lower 48, while Jans networked more with Alaskans close to the case.

What emerges from both authors is a cautionary tale far more problematic and interesting than a mere bear-eats-treehugger drama.

Treadwell emerges as a character as charismatic and flawed as any invented by the best of novelists. A talented loser, he fought addiction and self-loathing, reinvented himself several times and floated through the Malibu surf scene before becoming a born-again animal-rights crusader. Among Alaska's coastal brown bears he found a calling that fell somewhere between epiphany and hysteria.

"My transformation is complete — a fully accepted wild animal-brother to these bears. I run free among them — with absolute love and respect for all animals. I am kind and viciously tough," Treadwell wrote in his last letter, to his friend Roland Dixon, quoted by Lapinski. "People — especially the bear experts of Alaska — believe this cannot be done. Some even bet on my death."

Treadwell's summer trips to Alaska's wilds, starting in 1989, and photographs from them, brought him heady fame. With his friend Jewel Palovak, he formed the group Grizzly People to promote ursine public relations and his own "research." Playing loose with facts, he became a celebrity, collecting donations from movie stars, speaking with thousands of school children and appearing on television.

On the David Letterman show, the host asked him, "Is it going to happen that one day we read a news article about you being eaten by one of these bears?"

Says Jans, "Of course, Dave's line is a big yuk for the crowd."

Yet even as Treadwell's star rose in Hollywood, it sank among bear experts. Biologists, park rangers and most Alaskans came to see him as deluded to the point of danger.

"Timothy Treadwell was the sort of guy most Alaskans loved to hate," Jans explains. "You don't go around on Kodiak Island or Katmai crawling on all fours, singing and reading to bears, giving them names like Thumper, Mr. Chocolate and Squiggle."

After death, Treadwell remains a polarizing figure. An official report, written by Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Larry Van Daele, put the blame on Treadwell, basically saying he had pushed his luck too far for too long.

"A person could not have designed a more dangerous location to set up a camp," Van Daele concluded.

One of many contradictions in Treadwell's case is that his lurid demise led to the prompt deaths of two bears and much adverse publicity for the species he fervently claimed was maligned and gentle.

The two books diverge in analyzing Treadwell's motives and legacy.

Lapinski's goal, he says, was to write a fair and accurate narrative of the controversial affair and to assure that its miserable outcome will never be repeated. The protagonists fascinate him. Unlike Jans, he interviewed the mothers of both victims, plus Treadwell's primary underwriter.

Lapinski devotes an entire chapter to Huguenard, who has been neglected in nearly all other versions of the story. He portrays her as a gifted but naive woman who fatally fell for Treadwell's exuberant optimism. In the end, he concludes that leading her into such peril was Treadwell's most reprehensible act.

Lapinski probes Treadwell's past and his psyche, suggesting that the "bear whisperer" may have had bipolar disorder, learning disabilities, trouble distinguishing reality from fantasy and an addiction to adrenaline. The author also points fingers at the Park Service, for failing to rein in Treadwell's blatant rule flouting, and the nation's entertainment media for feeding off his sensationally dangerous film footage.

Jans sticks to the Alaska scenes and puts himself into the story, telling readers what it is like to visit the death scene and to pursue interviews with Treadwell's contacts in Kodiak, King Salmon and other parts of the state. He was able to speak to some sources unavailable to Lapinski, such as the pilot who made the grisly discovery and the photographer who shot most of Treadwell's films.

Jans talks about the history of humans and bears, hunting and mythology, weaving in his own bear encounters and other anecdotes. He concludes the book with a thorough and almost academic afterword reviewing scientific findings about bear attacks and how to avoid them.

The authors agree that the tragedy was completely preventable. Curiously, both conclude with a hypothetical scenario that just a can of pepper spray, effectively used, could have saved the lives.

Each book, in its own way, is quite well done. Both men are strong writers who display balance, insight and sensitivity. Lapinski sticks to a straight-ahead journalistic style, while Jans bounces the tone around more, ranging from gruesome descriptions of the body recovery to slangy riffs on Treadwell's antics.

By the end of either book, readers realize that Treadwell was neither the moron nor martyr that partisans portray. He and Huguenard were real people, sincere though misguided, trying to make the world a better place when they met horrific ends. To make them the brunt of jokes is tasteless and unfair; to make them role models is foolish and dangerous. These stories of their fate go beyond sensationalism and ask hard questions about people and wildlife — questions that have no pat answers.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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