“The Gentle Bear Man of Emo” - Trailer from Reel Productions, LLC on Vimeo.
It all started with a intriguing call from Canada.
On the other line was a man named Michael who had a bizarre and interesting story to tell.
“I’ve called the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and the National Geographic Channel, but no one will come and take a look at what has been happening up here!”
Curious now, I answered with the obvious, “So what is happening up there?”
“Well,” Michael said, “I’ve been hand feeding over 60 wild bears a day that come out of the bush.”
I paused. This wasn’t the first time I’d received one of these kind of calls. After all there was:
- The Ornithologist who called from Pueblo, CO who was convinced that he had discovered the location of a living pterodactyl in a volcanic crater in New Guinea.
- Then there was the call from Mike Harris who salvaged the Titanic and brought 7,000 items up from the cold sea floor over 12,000 feet down, bringing them to the surface. They would eventually be placed on tour in museums around the world.
- And the guy who called me claiming that he had found the location of The Ark of The Covenant famously featured in the Indiana Jones movies.
- Or the call from an older gentleman in Santa Barbara who called to say how impressed he was with one of our programs, and as the conversation continued he revealed that his father was Harry Cohn, founder of Columbia Pictures.
And there have been many more!
I never get used to these kind of calls. I’d have to be dead if a little excitement and imagination didn’t kick in. After all, this is why I fell in love with documentaries years ago. Reality, from my point of view, beats Hollywood’s best scripts every time!
Well, back to Michael.
“You know Michael,” I said cautiously, “you sound like that nutty guy in Alaska that got eaten by Grizzly Bears!” Michael laughed in his gentle way at my directness. This would be the beginning of a year of phone conversations as he began to unfold his amazing story.
Eventually my curiosity got the best of me. Me and my crew would make the trek north to the little town of Emo that sits along the Rainy River in Ontario and see first hand what few have ever seen.
So, I get this most unusual call from Michael Scheibler in Emo, Ontario, and he tells me the shocking story that he’s been hand feeding up to sixty wild bears a day! Well, after being initially stunned by this we continued to chat. Our office was abuzz with comments like: “This guy is nuts and reminds me of the guy in Alaska that became bear lunch.” “Does this guy have some kind of death wish?” And the most important question, “Why?”
I’ve met my share of people. After traveling to over 70 countries of the world I’ve been exposed to the amazing, the unusual, and sadly the loony. I was just trying to figure out where to put Mr. Scheibler, who’s nickname in our office was now simply “The Bear Man.”
Convinced that we needed to witness this first hand, I assembled a small crew. Our cameraman Dalton, Dawn our production assistant, and yours truly. We made our way north flying into Duluth, MN, then drove three hours to the International Falls Border.
As we pulled into the bright lights at the border crossing a young shaved-headed steroid-using bodybuilder with a uniform and a badge greeted us. “Why are you coming into Canada?” he asked.
“Ummm… we are going to visit a wildlife sanctuary in Emo and check out some bears,” I said with a smile, suddenly realizing how weird that sounded.
“Passports please,” he quipped. After looking them over he looked at the car again and asked, “Could you put the rear window down?” Dalton, who was sitting in the back rolled it down.
“Where do you reside?” the officer asked me.
“We all live in Colorado,” I responded.
“How do you know each other?” he probed. There was a clear attitude coming from him now.
“All friends,” I said. After staring at our passport for a few minutes he handed them back. “Well, pull your vehicle over and go inside the office,” he commanded.
We parked and respectfully walked inside. Again our passports were taken and reviewed while we all sat in the lobby. After about 15 minutes of waiting we hear our cinematographer’s named called, “Dalton Walker?” (This is not his real name because I don’t want to embarrass him.)
“Who is Dalton?” the voice rang out.
“Here!” Dalton responded as he sauntered over to the window.
Dalton is a real cowboy. Raised in Texas, his dad has a PhD in law enforcement and was the Head of Drug Interdiction for Tarrant County (Dallas) for years. He has always been a cowboy at heart. His young dreams came true when, in his late teens, he landed the dangerous job of a professional rodeo clown. You know, the guy that runs out in front of the bucking bull when the cowboy riding him falls off in order to distract the bull so the cowboy can run to safety? Touring the country while make huge money with bull-riding events wasn’t bad but his body couldn’t take that life forever, and when I met him Dalton had made the unlikely switch to video production.
I’m not good at doing nothing, so waiting around was taking its toll on me. Dawn and I tried to look unfazed by all of this and continued chatting, but the 30 minutes of waiting felt more like an hour and I began to wonder if something was wrong. ;
Dalton was over at the glass window but we couldn’t tell what was going on. The plump woman officer with the shiny badge on the other side of that window was holding up a print out of some kind, and all I could see was the back of Dalton’s red hed bouncing animatedly as they conversed.
“We really need to move on to keep on schedule,” Dawn reminded me. It was August, and we had come specifically at this time of year because this was the best time to see the maximum numbers of bears. Michael and the bears were waiting, after all, and we had only given ourselves a few short days. There was a lot of work to do.
Looking back over to Dalton talking to the officer, something was obviously wrong. Dalton was clearly passionate as he and the agent conversed.
Then I heard these fateful words coming from the officer behind the window.
“Mr. Walker, our system shows that you’ve had three felony convictions in the U.S. They are only 9 years old, and according to Canadian law you cannot enter into Canada unless they are 10 years or older! Sir, you cannot enter Canada!”
What now? My mind scrambled for ideas but came up empty. That was it! There was no way that we were getting across the border.
This trip was officially scrapped… for now. We would have to return next year. Dalton was a red headed ‘big ol’ boy’ as the Texans say, but at that moment he was crushed. Of us all Dalton was the most excited about this trip, he had talked about it for months. Suddenly everything had changed.
As we made the long drive back to Duluth Dawn worked the phones planning our retreat while Dalton sat in the dark backseat of the SUV and wept quietly. This one really hurt.
Dalton has worked for me as a cameraman and editor, and is a fine man. Like many people along life’s way he had made some terrible mistakes in his youth. I knew of them and he had paid for them. He had turned his life around, had become a family man and had carved out a new path for himself.
I believe in redemption so I believe in Dalton, even though at that moment Canada clearly did not. The whole “The Gentle Bear Man of Emo” project would become about redemption… I just didn’t know that it would start here.
I phoned Michael Scheibler in Emo and told him the bad news. He broke down crying. He had spent almost a year on the phone convincing me to come. We were just a short 30 minute drive away from him and had been stopped. I promised him that I would not forget him and that somehow I would return.
I kept that promise. But that’s another story….
Well, after one failed attempt to enter Canada I would now have to wait another full year to return, as late summer is the time to see maximum bears and cubs prior to hibernation. This was clearly frustrating and getting expensive but I had to believe that God was somehow in this journey… I just wasn’t sure how yet.
The following summer, as August approached, I began to think about “The Bear Man” again and called Simon Scionka, a freelance cinematographer. Simon is a Greek Orthodox believer and he is clearly inspired by the tradition of his faith, with his bushy beard and long hair his look and style could best be described as ‘Greek Orthodox Monastic Cleric’. Simon had a good reputation as a shooter and had worked on some really quality projects, but he and I had never worked together.
“I’ve got a project for you,” I said with a grin over the phone. I knew how this was going to sound. “Wanna go to Canada and film a guy who’s been hand feeding 60 wild bears a day?”
There was a pause from Simon… “My wife’s 8 months pregnant,” he responded. Simon’s wife is Russian and they had their second child on the way. “This is not a good time for me to die,” he mused, “but this is too interesting to turn down! I’ll go!” he said.
I described the project to Simon and filled him in on the history of the story so far. “I don’t know if there is much of a story here”, I said, “but if nothing else this will be interesting and we’ll have the opportunity to capture some beautiful bear footage that I can use for other things.”
Over a year earlier I’d had another serendipitous encounter after I had a cell phone conversation as I was walking in the Park Meadows Mall in south Denver that would have a significant impact on the “The Gentle Man of Emo” project.
After I’d hung up from my phone call a man chased me down and asked, “Excuse me. Are you a filmmaker? I overheard a conversation you were having a few minutes ago,” he said, standing catching his breath. He was with his beautiful, young daughter and explained, “I’m Charles Denler and I do music for films.” He then handed me his card, which I took and put it in my pocket not expecting much.
A full year after this mall introduction we arranged a meeting over coffee. I showed Charles a program clips we were working on and as we chatted it was apparent he had some real talent.
“Man I don’t know what you think about this kind of stuff, and I’m not quite sure who you are and what you do, but I’ve had three dreams about our meeting today!” Charles blurted.
“Really?” I said, not sure what to make of the comment.
“You see I’m a Christian, in fact I was a worship pastor for 14 years and really stumbled into music for film”.
Well, apparently it was working - he had won 3 Emmy Awards! He had just returned from Europe conducting the Prague Symphony Orchestra, and had done a ton of work for the Discovery Channel, PBS and National Geographic.
“I do music for a lot of Hollywood feature films but I’ve been looking to work with a smaller company like yours that has a larger mission. I love your stuff and would love it if we could work together!” he went on. We had a lot of common musical interests, had a great conversation and I ended with, “Tomorrow I’m heading off to Canada to do this unusual story about bears. Why don’t you do the music for the project?” “Great!” Charles responded, “I look forward to it! I know that God brought us together for a reason”.
3:30 am on a pitch-black morning we loaded our gear into my shiny new Nissan Titan truck to make the 1-hour drive to the Denver airport. Driving in the dark cab of the truck I realized that I had never yet met Simon face-to-face but had only talked to him on the phone. I still wasn’t even sure what he looked like.
“You know we’ve met before.” A voice rang out of the stillness. “Really where?” I asked. “About 10 years I showed you a project that I had done.” “You were pretty rough on me,” Simon said.
Like many young production guys Simon had ‘borrowed’ some popular music and used it in a show he had done for a non-profit organization. He held to a common misconception that because the video wasn’t going to be sold, it would be ok to use this music. However, copyright law doesn’t see it that way. Using someone else’s music is without a license is a copyright violation. If a court finds you guilty of a violation like this it’s a mandatory $250,000 fine and worse yet it could come back on the ministry and make them liable. This is basic lesson every filmmaker will eventually learn.
“Just tried to save your Canadian Bacon!” I chuckled. “You were right” Simon laughed back “I’ve learned that lesson now”. I knew Simon and I were going to get along just fine.
But that’s another story….
This time when we approached the US / Canadian Border I couldn’t help but wonder if ‘Mr. Steroids’ would be there to greet us. But this time our border crossing was sublimely uneventful and we would have no problems getting into Canada. Now the little town of Emo lay just 30 minutes ahead.
Sitting along the shores of the Rainy River, Emo was settled in 1880 by homesteaders. It had ballooned to the current population of 1300. If you were cruising down Highway 11 like we were you could easily miss it if you blinked… and we did. Emo was hardly a town, maybe a village. It had a tiny grocery store, a tractor dealer, a liquor store, and a single motel called The Emo Inn, which was to be our new home. The Inn’s website oversold their facility with this marketing language, “Only minutes from amazing walleye, northern pike and bass fishing, we offer immaculate and spacious accommodations, sumptuous licensed dining, and a full-featured sports lounge to anglers and non-anglers alike!” We would take advantage over the next few days of their sumptuous licensed dining.
I called “The Bear Man” and let him know the good news: we had arrived at last! Minutes later, when we pulled up to his property, Michael was there to greet us with a big smile. After talking to him for the past year on the phone it was great to finally meet him. He was a tall, handsome man with a very short haircut and a friendly face.
“Man, I never thought you guys would make it!” he said. “Come on in, I’ve got some dinner on for you guys, then we can go and meet the bears.”
Michael lived in a very simple home. So simple, in fact, that when we entered I thought we were in his barn. But once inside it was warm and comfortable, with green plants everywhere… the only odd exception was the pigeon walking around his kitchen.
“That’s Buddy Coo,” Michael said with a laugh, “we rescued him when he was found injured and now this is his home too!” This, we found later, is typical Michael.
He had established a place for animals that had been injured, abandoned, and orphaned. Interestingly he called his place “The Isaiah 11 Wildlife Rescue and Rehab Sanctuary.” Isaiah 11 refers to an ancient prophecy from Scripture that says:
The wolf will live with the lamb,
The leopard will lie down with the goat,
The calf and the lion and the yearling together;
And a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
Their young will lie down together,
And the lion will eat straw like the ox.
“Something unusual is going on here, I can’t really explain it,” Michael said. “We have over 150 deer a day visit us, and are up to as many as sixty bears and 18 cubs! And then the raccoons, dogs, pigeon, they all get along with each other. Bears will even bring their cubs and will eat out of my hands which is completely unheard of. The animals all get along with each other. Its like a foreshadowing of what’s coming talked about in Isaiah 11 when all will be at peace.” Michael even has had a wolf that comes to visit during the winter snow.
“Do you feed them everyday?” I asked.
“Everyday for 8 years now,” Michael responded. “I’m so glad you’ve come to see all this!”
We wrapped up our first evening together and headed back to The Emo Inn for some much needed rest.
The next morning we arrived back at Isaiah 11 and immediately noticed the back yard was filled with bears.
“Come on! Let’s meet the bears,” Michael urged.
We went out back and Simon began to film from behind a fence.
“These are wild bears that come out of the bush. They come all day long. Oh look! That’s Blondie, our big alpha male bear. Wanna feed him?” Michael asked, looking me straight in the face.
I took a breath and heard myself say, “Sure,” and stepped out into the open yard.
Blondie was huge! I mean Volkswagen huge! He was a brown bear and looked like a blend of a Black and Grizzly bear. He must have weighed 600 pounds.
“Okay, you need to get down on your knees, ” Michael commanded. “It’s important that you’re not above him so he doesn’t feel threatened.”
Blondie began to walk with a sway toward us. Michael handed me a pastry. Ironically, this pastry was a bear claw.
“Bears want eye contact!” Michael continued. “They don’t have great vision, so before he takes this out of your hand he will pause and look you directly in the eyes. Make sure you look him right in the eyes. If you’re okay, he’ll take the treat…. if you’re not… I can’t make any promises!” Reassuring, I thought.
Blondie’s huge mass lumbered up until his face and mine were not two feet apart. This now felt surreal. Right on cue he lifted his gaze and his steely blue eyes looked straight into mine. I held his gaze hoping that I had passed the test. Then as gently as my dog Hudson back home, he took the pastry out of my hand.
With Simon filming the whole event it didn’t take long for him to relax and soon the two of use waded out into the bear community and began to film. At one time we had four to five large bears within three feet of us, but sensed no aggression from any of them.
We spent several days doing interviews and filming bears. Documentaries have a life of their own. Often the story unfolds on it’s own, and for control freaks like me that can be a little unnerving, but this story unfolded like few I’ve ever seen.
Michael was a gregarious, talkative guy that communicated extremely well. He was so pleased that we had finally come to witness his story. At times it felt like he had been living on a deserted island and we were the first visitors in years to show up in his life. He had so much to tell! He had such love for his animals and the people that came his way. A tenderhearted man, he would be reduced to tears as he described trying to save a wounded animal and failing.
The joy and passion for animals that he clearly expressed was the fruit of a long journey that started out very dark. Michael’s parents left Nazi Germany after Hitler’s defeat and immigrated to Canada. Life was harsh and cruel, and sometimes so were they.
The breaking point came when his father took Michael’s most prized possession, his little dog, and killed it. Michael, only 7 years old, and his younger sister began a plot to kill their own parents. His spirit bruised and his soul wounded he would, over time, close his heart to people. Michael vowed he would never trust anyone again. In his early adult years his anger, arrogance, and rebellion would lead him down a path of self-destruction that would run him afoul of the law and send him to prison. As his soul dimmed he would see his own humanity slip away.
The Gentle Bear Man of Emo would be as much about Michael’s story as the bears and wildlife. While he founded the sanctuary for the injured, abandoned, and orphaned we learned that Michael had also been severely injured, abandoned, and orphaned. God would use an unexpected connection with animals to restore his humanity and guide him out of darkness. This was a remarkable journey back, a story of healing and restoration.
We wrapped up filming, said our goodbyes and realized on the drive back to the border that what we experienced was a bigger story than we could have possibly imagined.
But there would be one more hurdle to overcome… this time at the American side of the border. After a US customs officer had reviewed our passports and asked the usual questions, we again were require to step inside.
This time it was Simon, our Orthodox cinematographer. You see in Simon’s passport photo he looks like a choirboy. Now his look is ‘early Rasputin’ (the mad Russian Monk)-significantly different. Customs went back and forth trying to figure out if the passport was truly his! (See his photo below.) Well, after a little convincing they let us back in the U.S., although I’m not sure what the other option could have been.
After returning home it was apparent that Simon had connected to this story and I tapped him to do the show edit. Charles Denler, our Emmy Award winning music writer, would create an amazing and moving musical score, and we would finish “The Gentle Bear Man of Emo.”
When Michael Scheibler finally saw his story on film he cried. Having felt like an outcast most of his life he called me to say how touched he was by the story, and that by watching it he had begun to fall in love all over again with the person God had made him to be.
The show would win top honors and two International Telly Awards for Documentary and Wildlife & Nature and will be released on DVD late this summer.
And that’s my story.
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