For 28 years, Kay Grayson lived side-by-side with wild black bears in North Carolina’s swampy coastal forests, hand-feeding them, defending them against poachers, and letting them in her home. When she went missing last year, the only thing the investigators could find were her clean-picked bones. And that’s just the start of the mystery.
When Kay Grayson called her bears, she liked to sing: “It’s OK, it’s OK.”
It was part of a show she put on for people. Six feet tall, with white hair and the lean body and graceful movement of a dancer, she would walk into a clearing near her trailer in the North Carolina woods, hold out her long arms, and turn her palms to the sky. Then, in a loving voice, she would sing.
Visitors would hear grunts and huffs and the rustle of big creatures moving through brush. And then, out from the forest, black bears would lumber toward her. She called them by name. Munchka. Susan. Highway 64. Betty Sue. David. “Stand up,” she would tell them, and they’d stand, and then she’d feed them peanuts out of her hand.
Kay and her bears lived in the middle of some 5,000 acres of swampy forest, thick with muck peat and goldenseal and pine trees, in Tyrrell County, in northeastern North Carolina. She called her land Bearsong, and locals called her the Bear Lady. It was a nickname of admiration or mockery or hatred, depending on who spoke it. No matter the tone, Kay embraced it. “I am woman,” she once wrote. “A seeker of truth, peace, and sense of fair play, a lover of all things beautiful, be they created by nature or mankind.”
For 28 years, she lived in trailers off a rutted dirt road near the Alligator River Marina in Columbia, a tiny town of around 900. She had no running water or electricity, and used a five-gallon bucket for a toilet, even in her sixties. The only signs of humanity for miles in any direction were power lines and the occasional small, rough path. “It’s a place for wild things,” county sheriff Darryl Liverman says.
In early January 2015, Kay’s friend Shiron Pledger dropped a meal at Kay’s gate. When it was still there several days later, Pledger reported her missing. On January 27, two Tyrrell County deputies walked into the Bearsong woods with the emergency management coordinator and a canine handler, who brought a dog to catch Kay’s scent.
They hiked a half-mile down the muddy, waterlogged road before they found a maroon coat, a black turtleneck, and, in the middle of the path, a plastic grocery bag containing unopened batteries, socks, cigarettes, and Tylenol. Farther back in the trees, across a ditch nearly overflowing from recent downpours, they saw more clothing. They made a bridge out of fallen trees, climbed across, and found a pair of black ski pants, a slipper, and a gray tank top. Over the next hour, they also found a small piece of flesh with some long, white hair attached and multiple bones, all of them picked clean.
Then, on a knoll formed by the roots of a fallen cypress tree, they found a human skull: skin gone, brain rotting. The smell made them gag.
Liverman told a news reporter that bears had eaten Kay, and the story went viral via Gawker, Fox News, People, the Daily Mail, and dozens of other outlets. Reactions ranged from sympathy to admiration to judgment toward yet another human who had tried and failed to become one with the wild. “She should have known better,” wrote one reader on People.com. “Bears are apex predators and even if they seem tame, AREN’T.” Still, Kay’s cause of death remains as much a mystery as her life. The official autopsy is filed as incomplete, the medical examiner refuses to comment, and local theories abound as to how she died and how she lived. Though the people of Tyrrell County are one of the state’s smallest, poorest populations, they have big, rich imaginations: She had been a high-end prostitute working for the Washington, D.C., elite. Or the queenpin of a Miami drug operation. Maybe someone wanted her dead. Or maybe she faked her death and fled.
Liverman thought he might find some answers when he tracked down Susan Clippinger—Kay’s niece—in Kissimmee, Florida. But when he did, Susan said that much of what he thought he knew about Kay was wrong. For example, she wasn’t 67, like the death certificate said. She was 73. Her real name wasn’t Kay Grayson, either. It was Karen Gray.
This originally appeared in the April 2016 issue of Outside magazine, after a year’s worth of reporting. Unbelievable story I had to make sure checked out. Will forever be one of my all-time favorites.