Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Where the Wilde things are

Ketchum naturalists talk at nexStage


Photo by Wilde Images

For some nature photographers, a "close-up" is more than a compositional technique. When strictly interpreted by the passionate naturalist, the extreme close-up becomes a defining trope, not just of the photographs, but of lifestyles as well.

Take Buck and Diana Wilde, who will talk about their experiences this Friday at Ketchum's nexStage Theatre. These naturalists live with Alaska's brown bears, camping in total human isolation among dozens of the creatures, for months on end. In his 15 years as a cohabitant with North America's largest predator, Buck has been scared to actual paralysis. But, he says, has basically moved beyond fear.

Diana has been encircled by several 1,000 pound adult males, who were threatening both her life and that of a cub she was attempting to reunite with its mother. Despite a near complete emotional breakdown, she still returns year after year.

Surprisingly, the Wildes are rather sane people. "For us, working 9 to 5 would be crazy," said Diana with a laugh.

They are consummate professionals, caring naught for the thrill their occupation may bring. Even in the aftermath of the highly publicized bear mauling and subsequent death of Timothy Treadwell—a fellow brown bear documentarian—and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, the Wildes have not doubted their career choice.

"It's very much a pursuit of passion. I wouldn't trade it for anything," Buck said. A former engineer and marketing executive, he quit his day job in 1990 to pursue a life in the wild.

Over the years he has built his credentials as a bona fide photographer and behavioral specialist. Diana holds doctorate degrees in both education and art and this past spring the couple co-authored their first book, "Wetland Wonders."

Buck has filmed for National Geographic and Discovery Channel, and has worked with the BBC's David Attenborough. In addition to books and films, he shares his knowledge and expertise by taking clients on private excursions to visit the famed brown bears of Alaska's Kodiak Island.

For a first timer on such a journey, it can be overwhelming to fly into the wilderness and be deposited among dozens of huge carnivores, Buck says.

Buck has been "bluff charged" roughly 40 times A tactic used by bears to scare a human out of an area, they will charge without intending to harm you.

During his first year in the field, on Kodiak Island, Buck had one of his most memorable scares. He was photographing a mother bear wading in a tidal pool with her cubs. Then, without warning, the bear rose from the water and charged him.

"(She was) standing on her hind legs and roaring over me, and the volume of her roar was like standing in front of a bass speaker at a rock concert," he said.

Such early charges provided Buck with what he describes as his first out-of-body experience. "I psychologically removed myself ... I was standing 10 feet away watching this happen."

He walked away from such encounters unharmed, he says, precisely because he was frozen with fear.

"I have two golden rules. The first is 'Don't Run' and the second is ... 'Don't Run' ... Some people run. Those people aren't here to tell about it."

One such person was Treadwell, focus of the recently released feature-length documentary "Grizzly Man." Directed and narrated by Werner Herzog, the Lion's Gate Film release explores both Treadwell's true passion for bears and his eventually fatal blurring of the lines that exist between humanity and wild animals.

"The psyche of wild animals universally reflects on all species, including humans," said Buck. In those overlapping areas, when the bears exhibited affection to Treadwell's overtures, there existed gray areas, where men can forget the power of the animals they interact with.

In September 2003, Treadwell was in Alaska's Katmai National Park, filming bears not far from the Wilde's camp. One day, he told them about a rogue bear that had been expressing its displeasure with his presence in its territory.

Treadwell "felt that he had the ability to win this rogue bear over and get it to tolerate him," said Buck.

"He had done some great work, but in the end, I think, some important lines were crossed," said Diana. "You have to respect the wild in wilderness."

Despite the gravity of Treadwell's gruesome death, the Wilde's do not doubt their profession, but have come to realize the singularity of their talents.

"We do not advocate doing what we do or what Timothy did," Buck said.


An evening with Buck and Diana, "Wilde about Wilderness," will be held this Friday, Aug. 26 in association with Idaho Rivers United. The presentation begins at 7 p.m. at the nexStage Theatre, in Ketchum, and costs $10. For more information, call 208-343-7481.

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