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Grizzly Heart: Living Without Fear Among the Brown Bears of Kamchatka

by Charlie Russell and Maureen Enns

Their plan had been characterized by many (scientists and government officials included) as irresponsible, arrogant, and above all dangerous. Quite simply, Charlie Russell and Maureen Enns wanted to live with grizzly bears in the wild. Five years ago they were denied permission to carry out their study in Canada. So they moved.

Since then they have spent the warm seasons in the remote Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia, living among the densest population of grizzly bears in the world. Amazingly, the largest threats to their safety and their study (Russell is a naturalist and writer, Enns a visual artist) have invariably come not from bears, but other humans: autocratic government agents, inept rangers, disagreeable scientists, poachers.

These human relationships propel Grizzly Heart’s straightforward and well-plotted narrative. Noteworthy are the often amusing appearances of Russian scientists and bureaucrats (including members of the FSB, the post-Soviet KGB), corruption-prone and intent on cutting the study short. An episode with nature photographer Michio Hoshino, who Russell met in the Russian wilderness days before Hoshino was killed by a bear, is perhaps the most powerful and illuminating of the book.

In addition to this strong secondary cast, ferocious Russian weather continually threatens their plans and figures prominently in the narrative. In contrast, the excessive focus on Russell’s plane, a lightweight Kolb he built himself and shipped from North America, grows tiresome. His aviation and mechanic skills do seem remarkable, but so many pages devoted to flying come off as an authorial obsession with limited relevance to the story. After all, the bears are on the ground.

And the bears ultimately pull this work together. With clear respect for the many bears that surrounded them, Russell and Enns offer deep insights into the bear psyche and eventually prove that it is possible for humans and bears to live together, even to trust one another. More an adventure narrative than a scientific study, the thrilling events of their story should not diminish the importance of what Russell and Enns have shown: humans are the aggressors here, not bears. Their message is strong, at times shocking, and eloquently told.