Thursday, March 1, 2012

Reflections on Recent (and upcoming) Alaskan Movies

In the past several years, probably since Sarah Palin jumped to the attention of folks in the Lower 48,  numerous movies and TV shows have been set in Alaska.  Below, I won’t critique them or give away any plot elements, but I thought I would address some of the questions that may have occurred to viewers of two recent movies, The Grey, with Liam Neeson and Big Miracle, with Drew Barrymore, and mention an upcoming one still being filmed, Frozen Ground, with John Cusack. 

1)    The Grey 2012, Liam Neeson. 

Plot: A southbound plane from the North Slope crashes somewhere in remote Alaska.  The motley group of survivors is menaced by an aggressive pack of wolves as well as inclement weather and topography.

Information about wolves:  The wolf is the largest canine, but not enormous.  Female wolves rarely top 110 lbs and males tend to weigh about 115 but some can reach 140 lbs.  By comparison to dogs, that means that wolves rarely reach the weight of a Rottweiler, and are certainly smaller than big dogs like St. Bernards and Great Danes. Some are mostly black, and others mostly white ones, but in general, their coats are multi-colored: black, gray, white, beige, like the first one the viewer sees. Wolves are opportunistic carnivores.  Depending on what is available in their vicinity, they hunt caribou, moose, deer, sheep, goats, beavers and share them with the pack, generally hunting every 2-3 days, according to tagged, observed wolves.  They also eat small mammals, birds and fish.  Generally they pursue the youngest, oldest, weakest animals available, and when they can find no live food, they will scavenge.             

Wolves tend to move at a trot but, when hunting, can speed up to 20-40 mph for ten or more minutes.  They hunt in packs, the size of which depends on how much food is available and how many wolves one alpha male can sire and “supervise.” An average pack is 6-7 animals, although packs up to 20-30 have occasionally been observed.  Groups of wolves rarely overlap hunting ranges which vary in size depending on the fecundity of the area.  One scientist gave an average of 600 square miles per pack.   The wolves routinely travel 10 – 30 miles on a winter day and generally bring back food to their den.  They will defend their territory against intruders.

Like the dens of bears and foxes, wolf dens are not open “camp sites” but are invariably protected from the elements, such as natural or created caves under a fallen tree or within or under a rock wall.  They will stash food under the snow or other ground cover. (Even people dig snow caves to get out of a blizzard!) 

For communication with friends and foes, they use howling and other vocalizations as well as scent markings.  Their sense of smell is supposed to be exceptionally acute – 100 times more so than a human.

People do not eat wolf because they taste really bad, and apparently they smell really bad too because they tend to roll in the packs’ excreted liquids and solids that help identify them to others.  However, wolf pelts are really lovely, and the outer layer of hair is quite long.

The estimated number of wolves in Alaska is around 10,000.  Incidents of wolf attacks on humans are very rare, and in fact, they are not often seen up close. Since 2000, the only reports in North America were these: in 2010, a teacher in a remote Alaskan village was attacked and killed by two wolves when she was jogging.  In 2005, a man in Saskatchewan was killed while hiking.     

Because wolves hunt big game desired by human hunters, too, like caribou and moose, Alaska occasionally implements predator control programs to reduce populations.  Since 2000, about 1000 wolves have been killed, mostly in the Interior (around Fairbanks).  Some of these programs, particularly aerial shooting (from fixed wing planes and helicopters) are controversial partly because aerial hunting is perceived as "unfair" and partly because it is difficult for the hunter to get a clean kill shot.  In addition, the causes of population declines in various animal populations include a number of factors, such as weather, food availability, and disease, and groups against intensive management of wolves say that these canines are overly blamed.  

We hear wolves and coyotes at our cabin, but have never seen them in person.  Our one long term, full time neighbor says he has only seen one wolf trot by in 12 years.    

2)  Big Miracle  2011.  Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski

Plot:  Three whales are stranded at a small breathing opening in the ice near Barrow, AK.  A fictionalized account of a true story in 1988, the film depicts the havoc caused in tiny Barrow by a major influx of news, military, Greenpeace, and oil interests, and how everyone, from locals to visitors, want to get something out of this whale of a story.  

While the characters may be fictitious, the broad outlines of the story are true, including the elements that seem most unlikely, like the Russians coming to help, as well as military and politicians and oil magnates.   For whatever reason, the story did indeed capture a lot of attention in the news the month before a national election!  Below is information about Barrow and gray whales.

Information about grey whales:   Gray whales are a mottled gray and white and range from 16 feet (newborns) to 50 feet (adults) and up to 40 tons in weight.   They can live a lifespan comparable to many humans – 50 – 70 years.   They are baleen whales (eating krill) and have two blow holes.  Generally,  they leave Alaskan waters in October, heading south to the warmer oceans and bays off Southern California and Baja, where they bear young in January.  The mothers nurse for seven months, even as they travel north again for the summer. 

Gray whales are extinct in the North Atlantic and nearly so in the western Pacific, near Korea and Japan.  They have been protected from large scale hunting since 1949, but limited, subsistence hunting is allowed.

An interesting question that scientists are exploring is one that lay whale watchers have pondered, too.  Why do whales breach (break the surface)?   One theory being studied in Alaska is whether whales breach to sniff the air through their blow holes.  In this way, can they smell krill, for example?  If you notice how whales turn as they breach, are they turning into the wind for this reason?  Inquiring minds want to know.  

If you wanted to see the annual migration of 20,000 gray whales in an Alaskan setting, courtesy of various cruise ships and tour operators in Seward and elsewhere, a good time of year is April-May.  If you wanted to see belugas chasing salmon or orcas chasing belugas, an easy spot is along the Seward Highway between Anchorage and Girdwood.  This is one of the country's loveliest drives, along the Turnagain Arm (of Cook Inlet).   (Isn't that an evocative name?)  There is a well named Beluga Point.  This is a rather narrow waterway, so the view of the whales is spectacular.  I don't think I have ever seen any animal so white, even more so than the curls of the waves.     

What is Barrow like?   It is the northernmost city in North America (latitude 71), on the Chukchi Sea, a three hour flight north of Anchorage, AK (latitude 61).  Today, the population (majority Inupiat) is about 4400. Subsistence hunting and fishing remain a high priority for remote communities, but subsistence includes snow machines, nylon nets, and other modern accoutrements.   

The story in the film took place in October, when the average temperatures are +13 - +22 degrees F.

Overall, Barrow experiences an average of 324 days per year below 32 degrees F.  The area can be quite windy, all year round for two reasons.  (1) The landscape is flat and surrounded by the sea on three sides, and (2) it is tundra over permafrost, which supports no trees or other natural windbreaks. 

Within town, roads are unpaved because of permafrost/ice heave issues.  Outside, no roads connect to Barrow at all.  Transportation relies on snow machines, boats, and planes.  As a result, visitors should not be surprised to find its 4 hotels and 8 restaurants unimpressive and expensive.  All supplies have to arrive by plane or boat.  When a shop or restaurant owner says he or she is out of something, that means out until the next shipment from far away!  Currently, Barrow is a dry town.  Like many native or majority native communities in Alaska, the residents voted to outlaw the sale and/or public consumption of alcohol because of the high incidence of alcoholism and related crimes, diseases, tragedies in many native communities).

The movie made a point about prices rising as Outsiders pressed into the tiny town.  It is certainly true that there are distinct price points throughout Alaska for tourist vs. non-tourist seasons, and for tourists vs. locals (true in Hawaii, too).  I can’t speak to Barrow, but I can give examples, from personal experience, that the cost of a rental car in Anchorage is $100/day during the summer and $30/day during the winter.  Similarly, a motel room in that city is $200 in summer and $119 in winter.   Many remote fishing and hunting lodges charge $1000 for a weekend because they have had to provide/build food, lodging, power, supplies, guides, at great expense and difficulty).    

 (We have to pay $0.50/lb to fly in supplies to our cabin, which is a 30 minute flight from Anchorage, or deliver by snow machine trailer cross country in the winter, or charter and fill an entire small plane (See blog on “How we get stuff” and “Float and Ski Planes”).

3)  Frozen Ground is a movie is currently being filmed, in part in Anchorage with John Cusack.  It is about an infamous serial killer in Anchorage in the early 80’s, Robert Hansen, depicted in a book called Butcher, Baker.  The heinous villain appeared to others as a mild mannered, married man who owned and ran a local bakery.  However, another aspect of his personality was that he was an excellent, award winning hunter, and when that got old, he picked up prostitutes, flew them out (in his private plane) to remote locations where he hunted and killed them.  The movie is about how he was identified, impressions to the contrary, and the evidence amassed for a conviction.           

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