Wolf Song of Alaska News

Crew Films in Anchorage -- Where the Wild Things Are

Bear Patrol:  A-list animals get star billing in British documentary about Anchorage's beasts and birds

Peter Porco / Anchorage Daily News / May 13, 2006

The van eased in and out of one cul-de-sac after another. John Brown, from Oxford, England, crept along, scanning the yards and alleys and the forest behind the houses.

This was Thursday evening, at the east edge of Anchorage where urban turns into wildland. Brown and his co-filmmaker, Matt Drake, were looking for bears. They had seen one in the same neighborhood, Chugach Foothills, 24 hours earlier.

The day before, Brown had followed the adult black bear on foot for more than 20 minutes, filming its every step. With Brown now driving , Drake played the tape. It showed the bear coming out of the forest, walking through the Army's new pipe-rail fence, cruising through backyards, squeezing between fences, moving comfortably around the neighborhood, aware of Brown but seemingly unconcerned.

Later that night, in the dusk, they taped the bear scattering garbage stored at the side of a house.

Brown and Drake, who's also from the U.K., are making a documentary for the BBC, a 50-minute movie about Anchorage and its wildlife. It will be like no film ever made, they say, because of the wild critters that inhabit this city, even if only for a short visit.

"All these large animals living in the city -- there really is no place else in the world quite like Anchorage," Brown said. "We have just lovely stuff of the city. People playing in the parks, floatplanes taking off. I mean, a lot of it is just a portrait of Anchorage, and we show it in a nice light, actually."

"The whole salmon story is amazing, too," Drake said. "We've got kids with the fathers and mothers playing in their yards, and the king salmon are there (in Campbell Creek) doing their thing."

They're continually surprised to find that most Anchorage residents seem to take their B-list wildlife -- the birds and animals other than moose and bears -- for granted.

Some ducks in Chester Creek for example, are jaw-droppingly beautiful to them. "But most people drive right by it," Brown said.

They shot a flock of Bohemian waxwings at the Dimond Center where "people weren't paying the slightest bit of attention."

The movie will be broadcast before the end of the year across the U.K. on "Natural World," the British equivalent of PBS's "Nature."

"Moose on the Loose" -- its working title -- will be shown in the U.S., too, on Animal Planet, possibly this year.

In a half-dozen trips since last May, the two Brits have shot moose eating pumpkins and a moose trying to mate with a set of hooded mailboxes.

The installation had four legs and stood 6 feet tall. "Broadly speaking, it had the right elements of the female," Brown said.

They've caught a beaver family living in an East Anchorage lake ringed with homes. A huge flock of ducks wintering over in College Gate on a section of creek that does not freeze. A group of ravens "having a go" at an eagle at the Dimond Center.

But they won't feel they're finished until they collect more footage of the beavers at Reflection Lake with their spring young and until they've taped newborn moose calves. They would die for the chance to videotape a moose giving birth.

Nor have they shot a brown bear -- not yet. That may change when the salmon return to the city streams. Next month, Brown and Drake plan to install a remote motion-sensing camera at a likely location.

They had no wolf until Friday when they learned that the remote camera set up three months ago at the Hiland Road landfill nabbed a gray wolf prowling the edges.

Brown, the principal cameraman, is 33 and has made films on every continent except Australia and Antarctica, he said. Drake, 31, who lives in Los Angeles, is the assistant cameraman and sound recordist. He's made five trips to Anchorage so far, one fewer than Brown.

Both will be leaving Alaska in a week or so, to return in June. They'll edit the film over the summer.

Brown estimates he will have spent 150 days in Anchorage by the time the shooting is done. He conceived of the project, he said, after he'd come here in 2001 filming a piece that became part of a series of six one-hour BBC programs on the natural history of North America.

His footage showed a moose with Christmas lights tangled in its antlers.

"It was so weird," Brown said. Out of the six programs, "the segment people talked about was the moose."

Brown and Drake are not interested in filming animals in their natural context. They will not go to Kincaid Park, for example, where it's easy to find browsing moose. Instead, they want Anchorage cityscapes in the camera's lens as much as its wildlife. And they want only the big town, not places like Girdwood and Eagle River.

"Anchorage is a big modern American city," Brown said. "That's one of the elements of its uniqueness."

The movie also will highlight the work of Rick Sinnott and Jessy Coltrane, the Anchorage area wildlife biologists for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The biologists have helped the Brits find the animals.

Brown and Drake ride around with a map of the city that's now full of holes. The map's margins are filled with Sinnott's notations and arrows -- "good views," "garbage picked up Wednesday," "eagle's nest."

Thursday evening, they started their evening hunt on East Dowling Road, gathering at 7 p.m. Just then, a call came from Sinnott that a black bear was in the vicinity of Coventry Drive on the lower Hillside. The bear had gotten into some garbage.

Brown drove to Coventry, but the bear could not be found. Sinnott was there, elated because the man responsible for the several bags of trash stored in the bed of a pickup had been cited by an Anchorage police officer.

The film will feature Anchorage people, too, whom Brown and Drake have interviewed about animals they have seen and what they think about living in such a place.

Brown and Drake are also hoping to find city residents who have unique home movies of urban wildlife. And, especially now, they are trying to get some good film of bears and of newborn moose calves. If you spot any in your neighborhood, call them at 744-2327.

Daily News reporter Peter Porco can be reached at pporco@adn.com or 257-4582.

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