As we huddled around the bluish light of a custom propane wok kindly tended to by Russell Knight, Alaska’s king of taxidermy, somewhere far, far off the grid in Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, I recall looking down at forty-five pounds of halibut he had prepped and ready to plunge into the hot oil. I was thinking, “Yes, now this is Alaska-life!” Forty-five pounds of halibut for eight people.
The sheer bounty of Alaska, the embarrassing richness of it all, is something that often surprises you. We’re accustomed to thinking of northern climes as barren, empty, forbidding, with nothing to spare. Indeed, Alaska’s winters are all of these things. But so far does the pendulum swing in the other direction during warmer months that it literally can seem like the most productive place on Earth. From salmon streams loaded with brown bears, to tundra loaded with enormous moose, I’ve seen this place resonating with so much life that it seems otherworldly – life literally bursting at the seams. Likewise, after trying to conquer a plate of five pounds of Russell’s delicious halibut, so was I.
We were ten days into filming America the Wild’s “Super Moose” episode and host Casey Anderson and the rest of the crew were pin-balling across the state: from Denali National Park to Anchorage to the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and back again. Our lavish conveyances consisted of two very well loved thirty-five foot RVs. Generally, I’m not one for the RV lifestyle, but fall in Alaska is an intemperate son-of-a-gun. On more than one occasion on this trip, the rigs had come in very handy as we came in saturated from the field to a warm bed and home-cooked meal. In fact, our entire crew became pretty well adjusted to this nomadic lifestyle. Ten days in, we were functioning like a well-oiled mobile machine. Which is not to say that driving these behemoth rigs was still entirely comfortable.
A few days before the halibut feast we had driven from Anchorage to Sterling, Alaska on the only major road heading south out of Anchorage. As luck would have it, it was one of the sunniest days of our entire shoot. Bright blue sunshine, the aquamarine Kenai river glimmering by the highway, and the delicate gold, reds, and ochres of fall blended together into a vivid roadside canopy for the drive: a feast for the eyes. Days like this are rare during an Alaskan fall. You can almost sense how much the jagged landscape appreciated this dose of sunshine, perhaps its last, before the onset of winter really set in for good. Nonetheless, this visual sensory overload was tempered somewhat for me as I sat behind the wheel of this enormous chariot. When you need to keep your eyes glued to the road . . . scenery this good can be downright dangerous.
Luckily, we were able to pull aside a few times to breathe in the fresh air, recalibrate our senses, and soak in some rays. People often ask me about my job – the experience of it. Moments like these, the halibut bubbling in the wok, the experience of cruising down an Alaska highway on a golden-tinged afternoon, are always the hardest to describe. There is simultaneously all the weight of responsibility – the mission, the task-at-hand, the pressures of doing real work, coupled with a tremendous freedom to find yourself wherever you are – and wherever the world takes you. And in a strange way, I think it is a rare privilege to have these two strands of life blending together, not vacation, and not work, exactly. Undoubtedly, this is something that I think most primitive people probably experienced most of their day-to-day lives – out harvesting berries, hunting for elk, fishing for halibut, or even conjuring stories by the campfire. Work and life. Life and work. It’s a privilege in this modern world not to have a life so strictly divided, an existence not so clearly labeled, a cup (or wok) that runneth over.
America the Wild’s “Super Moose” episode premieres SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 8TH, 10PM ET, 8PM MT ON NAT GEO WILD.
- ERIC BENDICK, 2013
6 AM. The sun is just rising over the Sonoran desert. We pull in to the camp where a team from Game and Fish of Arizona has spent the night. The goal for the day: to reinitialize a broken GPS collar on a female mountain lion. I’m in the company of two houndsmen, eight hounds, a veterinarian, two Game and Fish field agents, our camera crew, and our fearless leader, Casey Anderson, tracker extraordinaire. I’m nearly a foot shorter and at least 50 pounds lighter than anyone else in the group. But I heave on my pack full of water, beef jerky, and trail mix for all and don’t think twice about my stature. We’re going to find a mountain lion.
10 AM. I’m sweating bullets. I’ve already learned that the desert is deceiving. At home in Montana, the Rocky Mountains jut up into the clouds. I know that bagging a single summit can mean a two day slog. But here, the swells look manageable. Add cactus, boulders and a cat that has no interest taking the easy route, and by the time I’m going up and over my sixth “little hill” every inch of me is screaming. But I’m determined not to let my gender single me out. I know I can keep up with the guys. Bring on Hill #7.
11 AM. Success. We have a surprise bonus kitty—the hounds have found the daughter of the lion we were tracking. Weight measured. Blood sample drawn. Radio collar fastened. Little kitty is on her way. And so are we. Hill #12. I’ve got you.
3 PM. The team is about to call it quits (thank goodness) when we hear the joyous howl of happy hounds that have found mama lion. Good news for the team. The Bad news: through the binoculars we spot her tail draped over a rock at the top of biggest “little hill” we’ve seen all day. By the time my stubborn boots have marched me to the top, I’m in the company of just a few—half of the guys are still making their way up the “little hill.” But once the dogs surround the cat, things must move quickly. Our Game and Fish field agent makes the perfect shot, tranquilizing mom. As the sedatives do their work, eight dogs must be leashed up and taken away so that neither cat nor dog can pursue their age old rivalry. Four of us have made it to the scene. Hands are full of cameras, dart guns, collars and scientific equipment. Except for mine. The next thing I hear jolts me: “Casey, give those dogs to Avela – have her get them out of here!!” My attempt at toughness has come back to bite me. A look of horror flashes over Casey’s face as he hands me the reigns of three crazed hound dogs. He utters solemnly, “If they pull too hard, just let go. I’m serious, let go.”
3:04 PM – 3:08 PM. Four minutes of my life have seldom ticked by so slowly. Inch by inch, I skirt back down the rocks. These dogs are pure muscle. And they have no desire to make their way down the hill (aka freaking crazy cliff face) with me. They want to get back to the mountain lion. I lean back with every ounce of my weight and it is just barely enough to oppose these athletic powerhouses. One yank too hard and all four of us are tumbling down to the cholla cactus, prickly pear, and boulders on the valley floor below. Casey should have known that I am far too much of a dog person to let them fall over the edge without me.
3:09 PM. Somehow we make it. I deliver the dogs to vastly more qualified hands and collapse on to all fours, proudly showing some weakness for the first time all day. Panting, I raise my head and lock eyes with one of the hounds. I silently thank her for the most exciting game of tug of war I could have asked for. With her tongue hanging limply out the side of her mouth she pants back – satisfied. Dead tired, but satisfied. I know just how she feels.
Avela Grenier, 2013 – Producer
I have worked as Casey’s cameraman since the beginning and have followed him on nearly every adventure he has had in the last five years. When I signed on to document his expeditions into the wilds of North America, I never could imagine all of the sketchy situations Casey and I would find ourselves in. At the beginning of every adventure, we always joke that we are going to get into some sort of dangerous situation that will make for a good story when it is all over with.
For one of the segments of America The Wild: Monster Wolf we headed to the Great Bear Rainforest to tract down some of the wildest wolves in the world. This tract of forest is a sort of no-man’s land just north of Vancouver Island and is part of the largest remaining chunk of coastal temperate rainforests on Earth. Mountain lions, wolves, grizzlies and the rare spirit bear wander through its lush and dense moss covered landscapes. Oh yeah. And it rains. And rains. A cold, cold warmth-sapping rain. Up to ten FEET a year.
So when Casey and I decided to spend an evening 60 feet up a cedar tree in hopes of filming wolves fishing on salmon we were prepared to endure a cold wet evening and knew it would probably be uncomfortable – but the experience pushed our minds and bodies to the brink.
Step one: getting up the tree. A small boat dropped me off about 200 yards from the old Yellow Cedar tree that would become my room for the evening. Casey had already been up in the tree for a few hours and I was bringing additional film gear and supplies for the night. The climbing was more difficult than it looked because of the slippery bark and downward slanting limbs. Not being much of a climber I was more than happy to finally make it to the small 8×8’ platform 60 feet up.
Step two: organizing the gear. Making TV requires lots of gear. And generally this isn’t much of an issue, unless you try to make TV up in a tree blind while on a small wooden platform. We had a bit of a tarp to keep us somewhat covered but when the rain blows sideways there is not much you can do to stay dry. Two grown-men, multiple cameras, a tripod and food make a small platform feel pretty small. Any unused gear hung off the side and Casey and I settled in for the night.
Step three: staying on the lookout. As the hours wore on our bodies slowly starting succumbing to the chill of being constantly wet. In addition to feeling the affects of not sleeping, the cold makes simple tasks a bit more confusing. When we first got up into the blind we were exhilarated to have this eagle-eye view of the almost prehistoric world below. However after ten hours awake in the cold windy and wet darkness, our exhilaration turned to delirium.
Step four: trying not to give up. After hour fifteen came and went, more and more we felt we were on a fool’s errand. The cold and wetness only added to our growing discouragement. After eighteen total hours in that old cedar tree we started to second-guess our decision to spend all night in the blind. Maybe the wolves had heard us . . . or caught hint of our scent before we got a view of them.
Luckily for us, just as we were about to call it quits, a pair of wolves snuck out of the distant tree-line and made our cold, wet evening on an 8×8 plywood platform well worth it. And even if the wolves hadn’t showed. I would still have returned with a good story to tell.
- RICK SMITH, MAY 2013
I can’t swim. Growing up in Montana, swimming just wasn’t a priority. The lakes and streams spend half the year frozen solid, and the other half of the year they are icy cold. The summer was mostly spent honing my skills as a naturalist, hiking through the forest, keeping dry. So when faced with the daunting idea of kayaking the great Colorado River, I felt my life long fear of water shiver inside my soul. My responsibility as a presenter is to represent to the world to the best of my ability and to experience the adventure. To represent the Grand Canyon without including floating the Colorado would be impossible so I had to make a decision: why not tackle one of my biggest fears on international television in front of millions of viewers? Well, I can think of about a hundred good reasons not to.
I remember when I first saw it – the Colorado was as beautiful and majestic as advertised. Then, I heard it. A thunderous roar, destroying rock, and owning the earth. What the heck is it going to do to me? Rapids as tall as my house and whirlpools sucking everything into its depths like a black hole. I’m toast. If I wasn’t sweating from the already 90 degree temperatures, I was then.
Thankfully it all comes down to watercraft. National Geographic would certainly put me in a worthy vessel. Heck, I am the host of the show, they can’t afford to lose me! A sturdy iron-sided ship would certainly guide me safely down the river. Then I saw her. Small, Inflatable, and PINK! I’m dead. Yep, this river rookie, no swimming, scaredy-cat, was about to take on one of the most notorious rivers in the world – in a hot pink, blow-up kayak! YIKES!
Trembling enough to register on the Richter scale, I strapped on my helmet, grabbed my paddle, and slipped off the shore into the water. I picked a calm area in the river for building confidence and some instruction from a guide. After a few clumsy hours, I got down the basics, and now it was time to face a little whitewater. Nervous, I edged toward the rapids, my guide rooting me on. The river took control, and I desperately tried to take it back. Clinching the paddle with my life, I frantically tried to maneuver the boat. I awkwardly made it through the rapid, and found myself in total fatigue. Using muscles I have never used before coupled with intense fear and anxiety. I hadn’t paddled a mile and I was already done kayaking on this trip.
For the next couple days we picked our way through the canyon, taking moments to gain some kayaking skill. With a significant amount of time spent, I was feeling only slightly more confident but what I faced next took all that away and then some. It’s called Bridge Canyon Rapid, and our guide Scotty told me it would be the biggest rapid we would encounter on our trip. We pulled out above the rapid to make camp. I walked to the shoreline and stared. It was gnarly and the wave train smashed right into a cliff wall near the bottom. This was all of my nightmares coming true. I needed to back out. This was certainly too much for me. There is a time and a place for bravery but this wasn’t going to be the time or the place.
That night next to the river, I laid awake in the moonlight, listening to the rapid roar. The words of the Hualapai guide native to the area echoed in my head. He said “If you fear the river, it will kill you. You have to dance with the river, and it will embrace you.” I laid awake rehearsing what he said over and over. While the stars moved across the sky, a peace crept over me. I wanted to dance – I wanted to embrace my fear.
The next morning came with newfound confidence. It was time! The crew took its places; Lights, Camera, and now it was time for some action. I jumped into my kayak and turned toward the rapid with purpose. The Hualapai voice grew stronger in my heart and the dance began. Fear was replaced with excitement and awkwardness was substituted with grace. The river embraced my soul and we moved together as one. I got lost in its rhythm, and before I knew it, I was through.
Safely at the end of the rapid, I pulled out in an eddy. The song and dance was over and reality set in. Only at that point did I truly realize what I just did, and fear attempted to creep back in. Shaking with excitement, I took a deep breath, and let the river’s power erode away my fear. When you look at the Grand Canyon, you can see evidence of how powerful the Colorado River is. Deep chiseled walls, a vast gouged expanse. But inside of me, the Colorado River has moved so much. It has carved and shaped me in a way that will change me for the rest of my life.
- Casey Anderson, August 2011
Humans have a fondness for a very particular kind of fantasy about the last Ice Age: there we were, comfily ensconced in thick animal furs, chewing on medium-rare mammoth steak while snacking on a fresh bag of crunchy sloth rinds on the side. Leisure activities included: cave-painting, saber-toothed charades, and of course, Hearts (come on people, we weren’t total savages back then).
In reality, humans didn’t participate in much of the last real Ice Age. We were in Africa – one of the few places not completely glaciated at that time. The amazing thing is that our expansion out of Africa, between ten thousand and twelve thousand years ago, coincides very nearly exactly with the end of the Pleistocene Era which lasted for the previous three million years. Yes, you read that correctly: three million years of repeated glaciations throughout the globe. That’s quite a snowstorm. It’s humbling to recognize that the real reason humans weren’t fit for leaving Africa was because the weather was simply too harsh, too unforgiving for our delicate African sensitivities . . . we simply weren’t tough enough.
Meanwhile, for at least the last seven million years, wolverines and their ancestors, the larger Plesiogulo from the Pliocene Era, have comfortably made their homes in North America despite these same repeated periods of long glaciations. In fact, they’ve outlasted many of their Ice-Age companions, including the mammoths, the megatheriums, and the cave lions – they are one of the few remaining species still alive today from this time on Earth. Frankly, it’s amazing that they continue to hold their own in the last corners of Earth that continue to resemble the conditions of the Ice Age; these are the northern latitudes where glaciers, ice, and snow are still reign supreme.
Filming in these locations is tough. Not only does it require lots of handwarmers . . . it also requires lots of helicopter fuel. As the culmination of our profile of wolverines, we took a helicopter with host Casey Anderson and Jasper the wolverine above treeline and into the high alpine. From there, the world is one white, undulating expanse stretching as far as you can see. In places, the snow and ice literally swallow mountains thousands of feet tall. Not only does it require absolutely perfect weather to film in these conditions, but its not a stretch to see that none of us, even the fittest mountaineer in the world, is suited for living in these conditions for any real length of time. But that’s where the wolverine comes in. It’s a testament to the ultimate resilience of life itself that a creature like the wolverine not only survives but thrives in these conditions year-round. And it’s a borderline religious experience to see all life from that perspective – as a relentless force that will cling to the very minimum, surviving on bones and marrow if necessary, summiting every ounce of stubbornness, courage, and supernatural determination to maintain its existence. That’s what it takes to be a wolverine.
Sorry to burst your bubble humans but the Ice Age was no picnic. And we wouldn’t know – because we never would have survived the first winter. But thankfully, another animal would have . . . as long as, with a little help from homo sapiens sapiens, they continue to roam these icy, snowbound, magical realms of our planet.
- Eric Bendick