For Charlie Russell and Maureen Enns, it had been a mostly sleepless night. Straight winds of more than 100 miles an hour were not uncommon in remote southeast Russia, and the storms that came with them could last for days. Their tiny homebuilt cabin perched on the tundra was barely a refuge from gusts of air that found their way through the tiny imperfections in the walls, the roof and even the floor, bringing with them deposits of snow, dust or rain. At first light, their worst fears were confirmed: The wind had put their airplane on its back.
Russell and Enns had come to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula for the first time in the spring of 1994 as emissaries of the Great Bear Foundation, an American group interested in a firsthand report on the degree of brown-bear poaching in the area. Kamchatka was an area the size of California, but almost empty of people, and although much of it was officially a “sanctuary,” harvesting the prolific wildlife could be a lucrative livelihood for those who are willing to risk a chance encounter with the “lone ranger” who hiked there. Bear parts, especially gallbladders, brought almost unimaginable amounts of money in third-world markets.
At the time, Russell had no way of knowing that this wilderness area would ultimately become the confluence of his two great passions—flying (he’s been building and flying his own aircraft for more than 30 years) and bears. Raised by a father who was a wilderness outfitter and hunter in Southwest Alberta, Canada, Russell spent some time as a hunting guide himself. But the older he got, the myths he had always been taught, that bears were unpredictable and inherently dangerous, didn’t match his own experiences with them. His partner, Enns, came by her interest in bears as an artist, brought into focus after traveling Banff National Park, in Alberta, on horseback. Now, sitting around a campfire with their Russian guide, Igor Rebenko, they poked at the coals and talked. Finally, Russell and Enns felt comfortable enough to share with Rebenko a rather unconventional thinking about bears.
There was a mindset in the world that bears and human beings were natural enemies. There was one year in Canada when the high-country berry crop failed, forcing the bears into the valley floors to escape starvation. Thirteen hundred of them were killed by wildlife officials and the public before their hibernation stopped the carnage. Even in national parks—areas set aside to ensure the survival of wildlife—bears that get too comfortable with their human visitors are either relocated or exterminated. With the world’s wilderness rapidly disappearing, the species’ ultimate survival might depend on the cooperation of bears and humankind to cohabitate.
The next spring, Rebenko had already laid the groundwork for the couple’s experiment. It was in a remote site on the Kamchatka Peninsula, home to more brown bears than the rest of the world’s populations combined. Russell’s aircraft, a single-engine Kolb, left Seattle on a ship bound for the Russian seaport of Petropavlovsk, epicenter of the Russian nuclear submarine presence during the Cold War and equally infamous as the city where a Korean airliner was shot down in 1983. At the time, Russia was in the first throes of chaos from the collapse of the Soviet Union, and getting permission for an American to fly a lightplane would, in no way, be a certainty.
“There was really no category of aircraft in Russia that the Kolb fit into, and it sort of fell between the cracks,” remembers Russell. “We got permission from one department and not another. Igor did most of the negotiating, editing facts over here and telling the truth over there.”
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