Alaska is seen by many as America’s last wild frontier. In the northwestern part of the United States, wildlife is still thriving and large human settlements are scarce. The Alaskan landscape is mainly formed by gigantic ice sheets and glaciers and is intersected by rivers, lakes and impressive mountain ridges. Due to the continental climate, there is a strong division between the seasons and the enormous area is only suitable for born survivors. Hard times for certain animals mean good times for other species. What is inedible to some means survival to others.
The three-part documentary series “Wild Alaska” produced by the BBC takes the viewer on a beautiful voyage of discovery through Alaska. The format chosen is to follow the seasons. Each episode focuses on a season, with autumn largely disregarded. The first episode focuses on the transition from winter to spring, a period embraced by humans and animals in which the harsh winter cold gradually gives way to the exuberance of the Alaskan spring nature. The summer shown in the second episode, in which the days are getting longer and food can be found more easily and in greater quantity, is the time to harvest for humans and animals. This is most evident in the grizzly bears, powerful icons that symbolize the rugged Alaskan wilderness. During the summer months, the animals feast en masse on migratory salmon, mussels and many kilos of vegetable food to build up the fat reserves necessary to survive the harsh winters. Winter has two contrasting sides in Alaska. On the one hand, there are the scenic snowy landscapes that look great on any postcard. But winter is also a time of cold and hunger that takes many animal lives every year and separates the wheat from the chaff in terms of physical fitness.
Those diverse aspects of nature in one of the most pristine areas on earth are beautifully portrayed in “Wild Alaska”. For example, viewers can enjoy fishing bears, bald eagles bickering over food scraps and hunting wolves, animals and scenes that should of course not be missing in nature films about the North American wilderness. But perhaps the most remarkable images are that of sperm whales targeting Alaskan fishermen’s catch. The immense marine mammals very deftly and almost unseen pluck the fishing lines bare, often leaving their human competitors bewildered and largely empty-handed. In addition, there is also attention for the people who may call Alaska their home, as well as the animals often innovative and hardened survival artists who know how to deal with the extreme climate whims and challenges that their habitat presents. For example, in the first episode, we witness the traditional way spring is ushered in Alaska. On March 1, the Alaskans saw a cross from the heart of the frozen river, into which a tripod is then placed. If the object falls over, it is a sign that spring has officially begun. Spring, incidentally, is called “the breach” in Alaska because it separates winter from summer (the area’s two most extreme seasons). We also witness the craft of a small-scale fisherman who has been catching salmon for years and smoking the fish in the traditional way in his own shed. As we are used to from the BBC, everything is presented with a great eye for detail and the images sometimes almost literally splash off the screen in terms of brightness. Scotsman Dougray Scott’s commentary is not as hypnotic and thrilling as that of someone like David Attenborough, but certainly not bad either.
With “Wild Alaska”, BBC Earth has once again hit the bull’s eye and has delivered a documentary series that will be an asset to any film collection.