Exploring Alaska: Q&A with Environmental Filmmaker John Grabowska

As part of the Environmental Film Festival, the museum will present the world premiere of The Ends of the EarthJohn Grabowska's documentary about the Alaska Peninsula, a cloud-cloaked landscape where bears outnumber people and the sockeye salmon run is the largest in the world. Jeffrey K. Stine, the museum's curator for environmental history, recently asked Grabowska about some of the challenges of filming in an exotic land of towering volcanoes, rolling tundra, and the greatest concentration of brown bears on earth.

The reason there are so many brown bears at the “end of the Earth:” the most prolific sockeye salmon run in the world. Credit: Roy Wood.
The reason there are so many brown bears on the Alaska Peninsula: the most prolific sockeye salmon run in the world. Credit: Roy Wood.

Stine: The title of your new film, The Ends of the Earth, hints at the remote nature and isolation of the Alaska Peninsula. What difficulties did you and your crew face?

Grabowska: There aren't many days with bluebird skies on the Peninsula. It's accessible only by air or water, and transport is by small bush plane, so when you're socked in with clouds, you're not moving—flying through clouds is a good way to fly into a mountain. Once we sat in an old cannery building on Aniakchak Bay for four days, "weathered in" a long way from anywhere. Although we had blue skies, no one else on the Peninsula did, so the plane back at King Salmon couldn't even take off. I had to call my daughter on a satellite phone to tell her we would miss the Nats [Washington Nationals, the local baseball team] game that weekend.

 

“The Ends of the Earth” filmmaker John Grabowska. Credit: Roy Wood.
"The Ends of the Earth" filmmaker John Grabowska. Credit: Roy Wood.

What surprised you the most during the project?

Well, the first time you're charged by a brown bear makes for an indelible memory. On a planet of seven billion people, finding oneself outnumbered by bears is a rare and powerful experience.

But the biggest surprise was that the most dangerous moments had nothing to do with bears. There are thousands of bears in Katmai National Park and on the Peninsula but they're really not that interested in people. They're interested in being bears: catching salmon, grazing, breeding, playing, raising cubs.

 

Bears outnumber people on the Alaska Peninsula. Credit: Roy Wood.
Bears outnumber people on the Alaska Peninsula. Credit: Roy Wood.

The most hair-raising moment came while portaging during a raft trip out of Aniakchak caldera. We had to haul about a thousand pounds of gear through a narrow gorge called "The Gates," where the river is at the bottom of a scree slope and rocks the size of bowling balls would come tumbling past us and splash into the river.

Size 13 wading boot compared to brown bear paw print. Credit: John Grabowska.
Size 13 wading boot compared to brown bear paw print. Credit: John Grabowska.

All your films examine enormous landscapes with complex ecosystems. What criteria do you apply in choosing what to explore and what to leave out?

Even before the first location scout, I try to learn the landscape by reading everything I can get my hands on, mostly science and field guides but also history, literature, and art. Then the key is to spend as much time as possible in the landscape, both to absorb it all, so I know what to film, and because getting great images requires an enormous investment of time.

The story begins to take on its own internal logic. Some favorite shots are always left out of the show but you have to go with what works in a sequence, what fits, what feels right. Editing is a process of unrequited filmmaking and I watch the finished show with a certain degree of melancholy, missing the images I chose to leave out.

Bald eagles are drawn by the most prolific sockeye salmon run in the world. Credit: Roy Wood.
Bald eagles are drawn by the most prolific sockeye salmon run in the world. Credit: Roy Wood.

Most of us who watch The Ends of the Earth will never be able to visit Alaska. Can you share with us some of your favorite aspects of that state and its wildlands?

I have a friend who has never even been on a hike but went to Alaska on a cruise. She returned hyperventilating with excitement and said to her 20-year-old son, "Don't go to Alaska until you're 50! You haven't lived long enough to appreciate it!" The vastness of the land, the sheer abundance of wildlife, the intact ecosystems, the stunning scenery—those are things unique to Alaska.

A few years ago, I was on a float trip down the White River, which hadn’t been run since 1983, and we were on the river for more than a week, paddling 200 miles from the headwaters in Alaska into Canada where it met the Yukon. For a week we heard sounds of the natural world: no traffic, no people except ourselves, not even a jet. A wolf appeared on the river bank one morning and stared, likely never having seen humans before, and it trailed after us for the rest of the day. Magic moments: that's what I find in Alaska. Every trip.

Aniakchak Caldera on the Alaska Peninsula. Credit: Roy Wood.
Aniakchak Caldera on the Alaska Peninsula. Credit: Roy Wood.

What's your next project?

First, it's preparing a version of this film for PBS broadcast. But audiences often ask about the stories behind the pretty pictures, all the mishaps and misadventures behind the camera, so my next project is a book about film making in the Alaskan wilderness. Equal parts adventure travel, natural history, and memoir.

Grabowska's award-winning films, which range from the subarctic to the subtropics, are broadcast as prime-time specials on PBS. The museum has explored the environmental dimensions of the American experience for the past 20 years through its participation in the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation's Capital and will be screening many films this year.

Posted at 10:46 am EST in Public Programs