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Filming Alaska’s bears

“Roll cameras!”

Blondie, a coastal brown bear aptly named for her fair coat, pokes her head out of the waist-high grass like an actress following a director’s cue.  She swivels her neck to the left and then to the right carefully sniffing the air.  With her two spring cubs in tow, Blondie is the ever so protective mother.  Her senses having assured her and the cub’s safety, the three bears amble onto the tidal flats of Swikshak Bay where Blondie is the first to spot the fortuitous treasure.  A seal carcass, delivered by the receding tides, promises a bountiful family feast.  Within seconds of discovery, Blondie and her cubs gorge on the fatty meat of the seal sating their ravenous hunger while the cameras of the British Broadcasting Corporation, more commonly known as the BBC, record every detail.

During the months of June and August, a crew of filmmakers from the BBC’s Natural History Unit was dispatched to Katmai National Park to document a season with the Alaskan coastal brown bear.  Part of a joint production with the Animal Planet channel, the crew followed the bears through a full cycle of summer activity stretching from their emergence in the spring to the winter hibernation. Tentatively titled “Big Bear Week”, the BBC plans to air five thirty minute segments documenting the lives of the coastal brown bear, polar bear, and black bear.  Animal Planet, conversely, has scheduled a ninety-minute show, which will air on a single night.  Both programs are scheduled to air in August 2006.  With the footage obtained, both the BBC and Animal Planet have plenty of material to offer their viewers, but gathering their material was no simple task.

In order to capture the footage needed for the television show, the BBC and Animal Planet chartered two bush planes to ferry the crew of four as well as two hundred fifty thousand dollars worth of equipment to the Hallo Bay Wilderness Camp located on the southeastern edge of Katmai National Park.    Once in the park, the crew hand-carried the sound and video equipment to the various filming locations throughout the park.   Gavin Thurston, the crew cameraman, loaded a seventy-pound rucksack on his back every single day for hikes ranging from three to five miles.  Other members of the crew slung tripods over their shoulder and hung sound equipment to a belt around their neck.  Their feet sank in the sandy beaches of Katmai’s coast with each laborious step, but not a single member complained of the burden. 

Carrying the equipment was only half of the job, however.  A flare up between two bears or a bear catching salmon in the creek frequently occurred without notice.  In order to capture the video, sound, and commentary necessary for the documentary, the crew had to be able to react quickly.  In one instance, a female coastal brown bear grew perturbed with a sub-adult male who infringed upon her fishing grounds.  Suddenly, she needed to assert her dominance over the sub-adult male.  The ensuing chase, which occurred only fifteen yards away, encapsulated the film crew when the bears raced around them in circular patterns.  The crew’s swift reaction enabled them to capture the entire scene as it unfolded by utilizing multiple cameras to film the three hundred sixty degree chase.  Their teamwork and instinct, which came from their vast experience, allowed them to capture the entire scene. 

During the August filming, Adam Chapman, the producer of “Big Bear Week”, hoped to capture footage of the bears catching salmon and while he did obtain what he was seeking, he also captured footage involving scenes with distinct coastal brown bear behavior.  Since the salmon run was lighter than normal, the film crew was able to capture the different nuances of bear behavior and the struggles to find a place in the hierarchy of their world.  It was during this time when Skinny Legs, a sub-adult male coastal brown bear, asserted himself as a major character in their shoot. 

The young coastal brown bear, who was approximately five years old, was desperately trying to figure out his place in the social system at Clint’s Creek.  Skinny Legs alternately ran and fought for his positions along the creek in search of precious salmon periodically testing the other bears to see exactly what they would allow him to do.  On one occasion, Skinny Legs managed to catch a flounder.  With darting eyes scanning the other bears around him to gauge their interest in his catch, Skinny Legs kept his giant front paw on the fish while it remained underwater.  When he felt assured that it was safe to remove the fish from the water, Skinny Legs carried it to the bank of Clint’s Creek where he started eating the fish.  Unaccustomed to flounder, Skinny Legs grimaced when he tasted the fish and crunched the many bones.  His loud work on the flounder drew the attention of another bear named Ursula, who decided that she wanted the fish.  At first, Skinny Legs ran away with his catch, but halfway across the creek, he realized that he really didn’t care for the taste of flounder so he dropped the fish back in the water.  While Ursula was more than happy to take the dropped flounder, Skinny Legs moved for the relative safety of upstream where he could safely fish for salmon away from the other competing bears.  Of course when he chased a new salmon downstream, he forgot everything he had previously learned.

The behavior exhibited by the bears was an unexpected bonus for the crew.  Each member had their own preconceived notions of coastal brown bears and their experience at the Hallo Bay Wilderness Camp altered those beliefs.  Simyra Hlebechuk, a co-owner of Hallo Bay and the host of the BBC film crew, believes that coastal brown bears are misunderstood. “If one bear catches a fish and another bear gets too close, they posture and, at times, fight because the one bear is trying to steal the other bear’s food.  When a human being comes across a bear in the wild, the bear does not understand that the person is not trying to take the bear’s food away from him and this misunderstanding creates a natural reaction. The bear, who is not trying to intentionally hurt the person, is responding like he would to any other creature in the wild and his actions are meant to protect his food.”  The video obtained by the BBC crew confirms Hlebechuk’s assertions.  When Skinny Legs tried to assert dominance by plotting to steal a fish from a bear named Audrey, the reaction was quick but not as vicious as one would expect.  Audrey, wanting to keep her salmon, charged down a hill and hurtled her eight hundred pound body into Skinny Legs’ chest knocking him down to the ground.  Audrey growled her disapproval but didn’t continue her physical attack.  She used only enough force to assert her dominance.  Skinny Legs was a quick learner.  He backpedaled away from Audrey and was content to search for his own salmon.  This scenario was repeated a number of times between different bears with the participants in the various tests of dominance growling their guttural cries instead of resorting to physical violence.  These displays varied greatly from the inherent stereotypes.  With each day of filming, the crew learned something new about their subjects and these lessons will be passed on to the viewers.

While each crewmember had a title, they consistently worked as a team with each member offering suggestions and advice in regards to filming, sound editing and narration.  There were no egos, but rather, a unified goal to produce a show that is both entertaining and educational.  The BBC and Animal Planet have aired similar shows such as “Big Ape Week” and “Big Cat Diaries” in the past and each were met with huge ratings.  Rob Peppitt, a British citizen visiting Alaska, was on a one-day bear-viewing trip when he learned of the BBC film crew and he was pleased to hear about the plans for “Big Bear Week”.  “I love those shows!  After being in the park and seeing the bears up close, I can’t wait to watch the series on television.”  Chapman believes that the Big Bear series is quality “G” rated entertainment.  “The show airs in prime time on the BBC and we anticipate a number of families watching the entire week.”

When filming began in June, the crew focused on Blondie and her two cubs.  They soon realized the struggles of a mother bear raising cubs in a harsh environment full of predators and other natural dangers.  According to Kevin Copley, a wilderness guide for Hallo Bay, the rate of survival for new coastal brown bear cubs is approximately fifty-five to sixty percent.  With the cameras following Blondie and her two cubs, viewers will see the daily hardships they face and how they survive.  Although they hadn’t necessarily planned for another main character, the comical antics of Skinny Legs along Clint’s Creek left them no choice but to include him as well.  If there was one thing they learned from Skinny Legs, it was that being a bear could be a whole lot of fun.

Overall, the crew was impressed with Katmai National Park’s natural landscape.  Thurston, a twenty-one year veteran of the BBC’s Natural History Unit, was impassioned by the experience and with his extensive travel resume, the compliment doesn’t ring hollow.  “This place rates as one of the top three destinations I have ever been.  There are very few places like this in the entire world.  This is a special, special place.” 

The crew worked countless hours gathering the film and sounds required to produce the show.  On some days, they used multiple forty-minute tapes to capture the action of the day and the multiple trips to Katmai result in hours upon hours of raw footage.  Once the film is returned to England, Chapman and other editors for the BBC will go to work and piece together the footage that will tell the story of the coastal brown bears who reside in Katmai National Park.  Chapman, after spending almost two months in Katmai, believes that he could easily produce a two and one half hour show on the coastal brown bears alone.  Knowing that the series will include footage of black bears and polar bears as well as coastal brown bears, Chapman and the other film editors are going to have a hard time determining which video to use and which video to cut.  With a place as beautiful as Katmai and bears acting like bears, BBC and Animal Planet viewers are in for quite a show.

Michael Bret Hood
Author of Outrage: We The People

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