by Andrew Young, filmmaker, Glacier Bay: Alaska's Wild Coast
"The Living Edens: Glacier Bay, Alaska's Wild Coast" is full of incredible camera close-ups of animals. How did the film crew get these incredible shots? As filmmaker Andrew Young explains in the following excerpt from his production journal, getting the desired footage wasn't always so easy. Or safe.
July 17, 1999
The rain hasn't stopped here for the last four days, and I've been getting nervous that this outing will end without any usable footage. Not that there hasn't been any action. This morning, at least six different brown bears visited the creek where my partner, John Hyde, and I are staked out, hoping to film the bears fishing for the chum salmon that have just started coming in to spawn.
One of the regulars is a large bear we've nicknamed Big Red for his beautiful mahogany coat. We notice that every time he visits the creek, he devotes his efforts to a particular swirling pool a little ways upstream. Evidently, the salmon like to take refuge in this backwater, and Big Red is on to their secret. Each time he arrives on the scene, without fail, he dives headlong into the pool and begins rooting around in the depths. What would it be like, I wondered, to see his underwater antics in the same way that the fish do?
I reasoned that, while the rain may be ruining our topside opportunities, underwater the conditions were as good as ever. We decided to abandon the sit and wait approach and put all of our efforts into getting the underwater shot.
After lunch on our boat, we returned to the creek with one of my new toys -- a miniature video camera in an underwater housing that I had built from spare plumbing parts. The camera was attached to the recording deck by 60 feet of cable. The plan was to secure the camera on the bottom of the pool with sand bags. I would then sit in a nearby tree, on a platform we would lash to the branches. There, my scent would be out of the way. I could watch the action on a monitor and record when Big Red took the plunge.
All was quiet on the creek, so we set out to rig the apparatus. Leaving the openness and relative safety of the creek mouth behind, we headed through a thicket on the edge of the forest heading towards the pool. Bear spoor and scat were everywhere, making it impossible to forget that this region is known to have the highest bear concentration of any place on Earth. That, combined with the knowledge that the Alaskan brown bear is the world's largest carnivore, was enough to keep me on my toes.
John had worked around here many times, and had an uncanny ability to "read" bears, something which at the time gave me great confidence. Everything was prepped so that we could get the work done quickly and get out of the way before the next visitor arrived.
Once at the pool, John rigged the tree platform while I set up the camera, all the while eyeing the surroundings. A bend in the creek just beyond the pool made it impossible to see more than about 50 feet in the upstream direction, and the combination of the rain and rushing water made it virtually impossible to hear anything.
Positioning the camera at arm's length beneath the swift icy current proved to be a real challenge. In spite of the sandbags, the current kept pulling the camera from its spot. Just as I thought it was nearly secure, I looked up and saw precisely what I had feared. Big Red was coming around the bend, slightly ahead of schedule. He waded though the creek towards us with a sense of purpose that must have been fueled by an empty stomach. I could barely hear John's whispered shout, "Quick, get out of the water!" In what couldn't have been more than three milliseconds, I was huddled on the bank next to John, who had already removed the safety latch from his can of bear spray -- an aerosol form of hot pepper oil that was our only protection.
Big Red was heading straight for the pool. It was already too late to back off. "Don't move!" exclaimed John. "The wind's at his back, so if we keep still, he might not see us." This seemed like a pretty unrealistic thought, considering that the pool was only five feet away and there was only one skimpy shrub between us. I delicately pulled my bear spray from its holster, and watched the behemoth bruin approach, hoping all the while that he didn't like spicy food.
As if on cue, Big Red lunged into the pool and began splashing around. The camera had once again lost its footing during my hasty retreat, so filming was not an option. We watched with a combination of fear, awe, and irony as he stuck his muzzle right where the camera had been moments before. "We would have gotten the shot!" I exclaimed. "Shhhh, you'll give us away," John hushed.
Big Red was so close to us now that I could hear his heavy breathing. His massive head seemed to be about half the size of my body. (We later estimated him to be about 800 pounds -- not as big as they get, but plenty big, from a few feet away.) He paused momentarily and cocked his head. I was sure he had seen us. "What on Earth were the two humans doing with their faces in the ground?" he must have been thinking. He lunged forward and I braced myself -- only to discover it was a fish he had been staring at. He splashed around desperately. Clearly, he was so focused on fishing that he did not take notice of the crouched, cowering forms behind the bush.
After what seemed an eternity, but was probably less than 10 minutes, he gave up and headed down towards the creek mouth. As soon as he was about 50 feet away, John ushered me to my feet. "Quick, get that camera set up before he comes back this way."
I crept back into the creek and began fiddling with the camera -- this time keeping one eye on the brown blob like a cross-eyed chameleon. "A little to the left. No, that's too far," John barked, checking the image on the monitor. My hands were totally numb by now, and a lot less steady than before. I could not tighten the lock knob on the tripod head. "Drop it, he's coming back" John warned. Sure enough, the brown blob was once again a bear, and closing fast! I leaped behind the bush as Big Red tantalized and terrified us again with his close range antics. I felt like one of those unfortunate humans in the movie "Jurassic Park" -- a mere "between meal snack" trapped in a world ruled by hungry giants.
Twice more, Big Red left the pool, and twice more, he returned before I could set the camera. Finally, after fraying our nerves this way for nearly an hour, he disappeared up the creek. Trembling, I set the camera, triple checking the connections, all the while thinking about the well earned double scotch that awaited at the boat.
By now, it was late in the afternoon, but a few hours of good light still remained, so I climbed up into the tree and waved goodbye to John. I settled into the platform and turned on the monitor. I spent the rest of the day watching the chum salmon revue live from the bottom of the pool. As they frolicked in the depths, I imagined what the addition of thrashing bear claws would do to this peaceful scene. At about eight that night, the walkie talkie crackled with John's voice, "It's getting dark. Time to get your butt outta there." Good idea. Surely tomorrow we'll get the shot, I thought.
July 18, 1999
A discouraging day. I spent 14 rain-soaked hours sitting in the tree platform, swatted over 60 mosquitoes, had both legs fall asleep, and never got a shot. Several bears visited the creek today, including a mother with two cubs, but none came to the pool. Big Red was nowhere to be seen. Tomorrow is another day.
July 19, 1999
Nada. One bear came very close to the pool, but in the end, walked on by. In the afternoon the sun came out, bathing the creek in beautiful light that made me wonder if sitting in this tree was in fact a really dumb idea. Thankfully for my sanity, it was only what Alaskans call a "sucker hole" -- the rains were back an hour later. And no sign of Big Red.
July 20, 1999
We got it!
I had been starting to lose it after another long day on the platform, which was starting to feel like a medieval torture device. Then, at about four in the afternoon, I heard a snort and looked down. Much to my surprise, a bear was looking into the pool, just a few feet below my dangling legs. It was the mother with cubs.
She entered the pool just out of view of the camera, and her cubs followed. At that very moment a hungry mosquito decided to prospect for blood behind my ear, causing me to twitch uncontrollably. Sensing the movement, one of the cubs looked up at me. I held my breath and did not move a muscle, in spite of the fact that I could feel what seemed to be gallons of blood being drained from my neck. The cub cocked his head, and stared at me with a puzzled look. After a moment, he walked on. I guess the image of a person sitting quietly in a tree simply did not compute.
Suddenly, the mother bear stood up on her hind legs, made a coughing sound and ran into the brush, cubs at her heels. Did she finally smell me? I looked up just in time to see Big Red coming around the bend. I hit the record button. The tape was rolling.
This time, it seemed to take forever for Big Red to reach the pool, distracted as he was by darting salmon on the way. When he finally got there, he was like a trained bear hitting his mark on cue. He dove into the pool, appearing in the center of my TV screen amidst an explosion of bubbles. This was the moment I had been waiting for. The fish saw it coming and shot from the pool moments before impact. Big Red's hulking body stood before me, fur swishing in the current -- perhaps he has waiting for the water to clear. Then his lumbering body slowly approached the camera. I looked down from the platform. Sure enough, he was staring at the strange blurry form on the bottom. In spite of its drab appearance, the camera was something new to him, and he wanted to investigate.
I watched the screen as his four-inch claws gently poked at the lens. What a great shot! Then, the investigation got more serious. Big Red started tugging at the rig. "Was this the end of my new toy?" I wondered, half-worried, but still elated by the exciting visuals. Suddenly, with a swipe of his paw, the camera was pulled loose from its anchor. The image spun around frantically, finally coming to rest with a view on the bottom. It was still working! Big Red splashed around a bit more, and was then on his way.
Three days of torture, but one great shot that would make its way into the film. I was energized for days and would go on to repeat the technique with other bears in other locations.
Not such a bad trip after all!