Fear Island’s Bradley Trevor Greive talks finding Grandfather, deer teeth, and the future

Bradley Trevor Greive, Jonathan Legg, and Alvin Johnson Sr are in the field. -- Photo acquired via Animal Planet PR
Bradley Trevor Greive, Jonathan Legg, and Alvin Johnson Sr are in the field. -- Photo acquired via Animal Planet PR /

Bradley Trevor Greive will head to Kootznoowoo in search for Grandfather in Fear Island on Sunday. Here’s what he has to say about the search, his feelings during and after, and his future wishes.

Kootznoowoo, Alaska is called that because of the literal translation “Fortress of the Bears” and that’s exactly what it is. Fear Island wraps Animal Planet’s Monster Week in style, with Bradley Trevor Greive going deep into the wilderness in search for evidence that a very particular bear, one named Grandfather by the locals.

Grandfather is considered the largest bear ever to roam Earth. There are stories the locals will tell of this great creature that roams the area standing taller than anything any man has seen before; at least taller than documented. Of course, Greive was initially skeptical but was drawn in by repeated reports of the same creature.

In anticipation for the episode, Greive has given Hidden Remote an exclusive interview about the search for Grandfather, his feelings during and after, and his future plans with Animal Planet.

Hidden Remote: Where did the theory about the Grandfather and the local bears come from?

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Bradley Trevor Greive: I first heard stories about Grandfather from Tlingit hunters and tribal elders during my second year in Angoon. Until then I’d mostly been observing bears along the shoreline from the relative safety of a small boat. There is very little that has been written about Kootznoowoo brown bears, so I was initially skeptical of local tales about bears that were “taller than the combined height of two big men”, or that stood up “taller than the eaves of the old Russian Orthodox church”; which I measured to be over 14 feet. It all sounded very far-fetched, like classic fisherman stories, however, these and other claims were repeatedly backed up by firsthand accounts from serious people I came to know and respect.

Grandfather’s appearance on Danger Point, for example, had over a dozen credible witnesses. Nevertheless, it wasn’t fully convinced until I saw and photographed the bear known as Shé Shaa (Blood Mountain), and took a close look at his prehistoric-looking body geometry and formidable dimensions, that I realized the stories were not greatly exaggerated at all. Not long after that, when I was formally adopted by the Deisheetaan clan (Raven-Beaver clan) and was given my Tlingit name, Yáa Gí Yéil (Raven by the Pond), I asked the tribal elders for permission to explore Kayáash Ká and Tsaagwáa; remote mountainous country where no one has been for 400 or 500 years. Once my Tlingit brother, Alvin Johnson, and I were deep inside this uncharted forest we found numerous paw prints and tree markings that made it very clear that we were in the realm of giants.

Bradley Trevor Greive, Jonathan Legg, and Alvin Johnson Sr. in a boat look for the entrance to Drum Pass Trail. — Photo acquired via Animal Planet PR
Bradley Trevor Greive, Jonathan Legg, and Alvin Johnson Sr. in a boat look for the entrance to Drum Pass Trail. — Photo acquired via Animal Planet PR /

HR: How many were on the research team (apart from the three of you we saw on camera) or has it mostly been you from beginning to end?

Greive: Alvin and I have been working as a team for some years now. Alvin drives the boat, tracks the bears and watches my back as I take photos, collect samples and make countless notes. The terrain and vegetation of Kootznoowoo are so extraordinary, and the bears are so colossal, that television cameras alone cannot do them justice.

For the documentary, we felt we needed someone from the outside world to represent the audience so that viewers can truly appreciate the terrible awe you feel when first set foot on this forbidding island. That is why we asked Jonathan Legg to join us; Jonny is a very experienced adventure traveler who has seen and done many strange things, so I knew we could count on him to hold his nerve and provide an honest perspective.

The other crucial member of our team was not with us in the field, but in a laboratory at the University of New York, in Buffalo; Dr. Charlotte Lindqvist is America’s leading bear geneticist, and she was the expert we relied upon to independently test the DNA samples we collected on the island.

HR: How did you get started?

Grieve: After moving to the USA back in 2010, I was homesick for the dark, ancient forests of Tasmania, so I set to find the wildest place that America had to offer. My personal motivation was almost identical to the mission of our documentary – I wanted to see the biggest bears in the world and I wanted to learn about Native American culture. When I read that 18th century Russian fur traders that were based in Kodiak – another American island famous for massive bears – had refused to leave their ships when they sailed past Kootznoowoo and saw the huge bears patrolling the coastline, and then named the place “Fear island”, I knew that was exactly where I needed to go, and so I booked a ticket for Angoon as soon as I could.

My one famous friend, John Cleese, likes to describe my life as “one long suicide attempt” and, considering my 18 surgeries, countless sutures, broken bones, and five treatments for rabies, he may well be right. But, as I always say, “testicle-shredding terror, minus death, equals adventure”!

HR: You’d spent four years looking for Grandfather. Were you nervous at all going into the research, not knowing what you’d actually find?

Greive: Yes, absolutely! On the one hand, I was confident we would find big bears to film because this is Kootznoowoo, which in Tlingit literally means “Fortress of the Bears”. However I could not guarantee we’d find Grandfather himself, and of course, I didn’t want to disappoint Animal Planet or embarrass the Tlingit people. Alvin and I know the island and the seasonal bear movements very well, and we had narrowed down the search area as much as we could before the film crew arrived, but it was still an overwhelming task. In order to maximize our chances of success, I asked Animal Planet for more camera traps than I’d ever used before, plus a high-tech drone operator, so that we could cover a much larger area – and this made all the difference.

I was also very anxious that something would go horribly wrong during the filming. We assembled a great team of veteran wildlife filmmakers to shoot this film and added some hardcore Alaskan bear security to keep the production team safe. However Alvin and I were so used to being all on our own that it always felt there were too many people moving around us, and we were worried that someone might become overconfident due to our numbers, relax their guard for an instant and make a fatal mistake. Something as small as taking three steps or four into the trees to go to the bathroom can be deadly when you are dealing with the world’s largest land predator. There are literally bears everywhere, more than one per square mile, and they often lay up beside major bear trails that are hidden from view and yet are only a few feet back from the edge of the forest. In terms of bear population density, there is nowhere on earth like Kootznoowoo, and I kept having to remind the crew that the forest was not their friend.

Fear Island -- Monster Week Special
Bradley Trevor Greive and Jonathan Legg, and Alvin John are in the boat. — Photo acquired via Animal Planet PR /

HR: Some of the footage had me on the edge. Just how scary was it to get the footage and evidence you needed?

Greive: To be honest it was genuinely terrifying most of the time. The sub-Arctic rainforest is so dark and dense that you’ll often hear and smell the bears well before you can see even a glimpse of them, which is very unnerving. And in the coastal meadows and marshes, the long grasses can easily conceal a bear lying down; in fact, Alvin and I have almost stepped on sleeping and feeding bears a number of times in the past. In order to stay calm I rehearse the worst-case scenarios over and over in my mind countless times each day before we set out so that I react appropriately if/when things get ugly. This kind of mental preparation is identical to what I did when I was an airborne platoon commander.

That said, there is little that can prepare you for a close encounter with a massive Kootznoowoo brown bear. The first time I found a huge bear looking right at me across a forest glade I was petrified. I’m a member of the Antarctic swimming club, so I know a thing or two about genital shrinkage – but when I first saw a giant bear sizing me up I swear I actually heard my penis gasp. Now that I have a lot more field experience I consciously slow down my heart rate around the bears so that they don’t know that I’m frightened and mistake me for prey.

I never, for one second, forget that at 6’3″ and 280lbs, I am a fragile little guest in a giant bear realm and that I must be respectful at all times. During the really close encounters, when a bear suddenly changes direction or comes out of nowhere, I am so focused on what is going on that I’m not consciously afraid. But then later, when I’m finally home, safe and warm in bed, I have terrible nightmares about being torn to pieces. I really need to buy some braver pajamas.

HR: I was fascinated with the deer tooth. You gave two theories as to why the bear would eat that. Which one do you really think it was now with everything you know?

Greive: I’ve never found whole teeth in bear scat before, and I’ve examined hundreds if not thousands of fresh samples. I kept the tooth and checked it against the records back at base, and was able to determine that the deer was too young to have died of natural causes. I can’t know whether or not Grandfather ran down the deer and killed it himself, though Kootznoowoo brown bears do this all the time. Deer kills increase exponentially as winter draws near, especially when the salmon run is poor, as it was this past year. Also, due to higher temperatures, the berries were in full fruit two months early, which meant that by Autumn there were a great many desperate bears and very little food to go around.

We examined several scat piles while closing in on Grandfather’s trail, and while we found a few more teeth and some small jawbone and possible skull fragments, we didn’t find any other major bone pieces that would indicate he was eating a whole deer. With all of this in mind, my theory is that Grandfather forced another bear off a deer carcass and that he was both too hungry and too big to care what he ate. A bear of his size could crunch up a deer head like Anthony Bourdain would munch a roast quail.

HR: I’ve been in nature before and seen some magnificent creatures in their natural habitat, but nothing like the bears you were near. What was it like to see them so close and seeing the bear trails and things they leave behind?

Greive: It’s both incredibly thrilling and deeply humbling. I now understand why the Tlingit have long believed that the Kootznoowoo bears are magical creatures. To stand before a Kootznoowoo brown bear is to be in the presence of a flesh-eating god from another time. In a way, it’s a little bit like what you imagine Jurassic Park would be if that place was real, except that we’re talking about giant bears and not giant reptiles. With Winter closing in the conditions became increasingly difficult, and the stakes got higher and higher in regards to a negative and possibly deadly bear encounter. However, I would not change a single second. This expedition, while extremely challenging, was a transformative experience for me, and I hope the viewers enjoy it as much as I did. Studying these remarkable giants up close is a tremendous honor, and it’s something I’m delighted to be able to share with the world.

HR: What’s your next mission?

Greive: The Siberian Taiga, the world’s largest forest, is calling my name, but then so are Africa’s legendary Mountains of the Moon; the stunning mountain range that divides Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Bottom line: I love looking for extraordinary creatures living beyond the untamed edge of the world, and I’ll happily go wherever Animal Planet sends me.

HR: Thank you, Bradley, for your time and such informative answers!

Next: Fear Island exclusive peek: Introducing the Fortress of the Bears

Are you excited to see Grandfather in action? Would you like to see the creatures in person? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

You’ll get the chance to experience the search for Grandfather and see some of the intensity on Sunday, June 3 at 8/7c on Animal Planet.