"What haunts me is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature," Werner Herzog shares at the end of his 2005 documentary Grizzly Man. Herzog's film follows Grizzly Man Timothy Treadwell for the 13 summers he spent camping in Alaska's Katmai National Park, integrating himself into its bear populations using unorthodox and dangerous methods. Treadwell himself documented many of his wildlife interactions over the years through video, photography, and audio.
Treadwell dedicated his life to educating the public about grizzlies - which are a subspecies of brown bears - and treated them more like friendly companions than wild animals. Those familiar with him were not shocked when they found out how Timothy Treadwell died alongside his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard. The couple was mauled by a 28-year-old Alaskan brown bear in October 2003, and what happened to the Grizzly Man is the first fatal bear encounter in the park.
How did a man known to hobble and groan like a bear while claiming "I am grizzly... I am grizzly..." end up in the stomach of a creature he considered to be his best friend? It turns out Timothy Treadwell made a few serious miscalculations and errors in the weeks and days leading up to his and Huguenard's tragic end.
The brown bears in Alaska begin preparing for winter in September, and most bear watchers leave Katmai during the month, knowing the bears' appetites are on the rise. On September 26, Treadwell and Huguenard packed up their camp in Kaflia Bay and headed to the airport. Once there, though, the couple had a change of heart.
Treadwell hadn't seen his favorite bear, a female he called Downey, and weather forecasts called for rain, meaning more fish would move through the bay's waterways, attracting bears. Treadwell was also put off by the cost of plane tickets back to California - his home state - and decided, after a verbal altercation with an airline employee, to return to the park.
Jewel Palovak, a long-time friend, recalled the conversation she had with Treadwell that day. "You're gonna think I'm crazy," he told her. "But there's a fish run and we're going to go back... and we want to make sure Downey's okay. What do you think?"
The couple knew what they were up against. September was a dangerous month in the park due to all the hungry, feeding bears. "I'm going to make it, unless one of the [unfriendly] bears gets me," he wrote to friends in a letter on September 2.
Kaflia Bay, along the Alaskan Gulf Coast, was one of Treadwell's favorite spots for bear watching, and he spent time there every summer. In his 1997 book Among Grizzlies, he labeled this part of Katmai National Park the "Grizzly Maze" because in order to access it, campers had to traverse the intersecting grizzly trails pounded out in the thick alder brush surrounding the bay.
When Treadwell and Huguenard ventured back to the park on September 29, they traveled deep into the Maze in order to remain undetected by the Park Service, who'd recently imposed a new rule that primitive campsites had to be moved every five days.
That August, Treadwell witnessed some alarming bear behavior while in the Maze, but he still set up camp in the most isolated part of it when he returned. "Much danger for me," he wrote on August 21. "I felt a great deal of paranoia, and rightfully so." A nearby creek "was loaded with bears and trouble. The chemistry between the bears was [volatile] - three [mean] bears... I felt the tension growing."
In addition to traveling deep into the Grizzly Maze, Treadwell also decided to establish his camp along one of the major bear trails, intent upon instigating as many bear encounters as possible.
According to biologist Larry Van Daele, Treadwell did this to ensure "that bears wishing to traverse the area would have had to either wade in the [nearby] lake or walk right next to the tent." Van Daele believes "a person could not have designed a more dangerous location to set up a camp.''
Videos found in Treadwell's tent indicate he understood what he was doing, yet he was convinced the bears would not harm him because they were his friends.
Convinced he had nothing to fear, Treadwell ditched bear spray and an electric fence for his camp. "Doesn't seem fair to the bears," he lamented. "Why should they suffer for me?" While there is no evidence pepper spray causes any long-term damage to bears, and other experts put electric fences around their camps, Treadwell decided to stand apart from the crowd.
Throughout his career, Treadwell's friends questioned his tactics, worried he was putting himself in harm's way. "If it happens, it happens," he would tell them. "God forbid, if a bear takes me, let him go."
Larry Van Daele concludes it was because of these choices Treadwell and Huguenard met their fate. He says, "His decision not to have any defensive methods or bear deterrents in the camp [was] directly responsible for [the] catastrophic event."