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Short Film Showcase: A Cameraman’s Wild Encounter With Bears in Alaska

Explore Alaska’s wild side with filmmaker Ben Hamilton, in the latest addition to National Geographic’s Short Film Showcase, as he ventures into the largest national forest in the United States. Traversing land, air, and water, Hamilton journeys deep into Alaska’s great frontier and uncovers the raw beauty of the Tongass National Forest.

In this excerpt from his full-length documentary The Meaning of Wild, Hamilton spotlights the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act with stunning footage of this preserved paradise and its thriving population of bears. According to Hamilton’s guide, wilderness ranger Don MacDougall, “It’s one of the highest densities anywhere in the world, a 1,600-square-mile island and somewhere between 1 and 1.2 bears per square mile.” Together, MacDougall and Hamilton reveal the beautifully connected wild ecosystem in one of the nation’s wild treasures. We asked Ben a couple of questions about The Meaning of Wild.

What is the meaning of wild for you?
Wilderness, as an idea, seems simple, but after spending the past five years working in Alaska in these incredible places, I realized it was still difficult to share and discuss its values. The film follows me on a journey through the Tongass National Forest as I explore different perspectives on wilderness, but you will have to watch the film to see what I discover.

Why did you choose to focus on the Tongass National Forest in Alaska?
Four things:
1. Alaska is one of the last great homes for wilderness on our planet.
2. The Tongass, which is the largest national forest in the United States, covers the southeastern portion of Alaska and is the largest and most intact temperate rain forest left on Earth.
3. The Tongass has more wilderness areas than any other national forest.
4. I knew the Tongass and its wilderness areas well, having traveled there for the past seven years.

How long did it take for you to film the project?
The idea for the film really started in 2010 while on a three-week sailboat trip through the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness. I was working with the Sitka Conservation Society doing wilderness stewardship work and realized that it would be amazing to try to share these incredible places and the values they hold. In late 2012 the Tongass National Forest agreed to partner on the film so we could complete it for the 50th anniversary in 2014. We shot for three months in the summer/fall of 2013, and worked on post-production until February 2014.

Who helped make this film a reality?
There were a lot of incredible people and organizations that made this film a reality. The biggest is the Sitka Conservation Society, which sponsored the project and helped facilitate its creation. The second was definitely the Tongass National Forest, which provided unprecedented access to these remote areas, facilitated logistics, allowed access to rangers, and helped fund the film. Other key organizations include:
Living Wilderness Fund
Wilburforce Foundation
Un-Cruise Adventures
Skaggs Foundation
Audubon Society Alaska
Defenders and Friends of Admiralty Island
Bridgeway Foundation
Alaska Wilderness League
Sound Sailing
Alaska Conservation Foundation

Why was it so important that the film was released for the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act?
The 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act is a unique opportunity to share and celebrate these incredible places because it is one of the few times when our nation’s gaze will be turned to wilderness. This film was made to celebrate and hopefully help inspire the next generation of wilderness advocates, so meeting this deadline was key to our success.

Did you have a favorite spot in the Tongass?
The Tongass is huge and has 18 wilderness areas. It is hard to point to one as my favorite or even one spot, but I have to say that Tracy Arm Fords Terror Wilderness is a place that really humbled me. Sitting in a kayak there, surrounded by 3,000-foot sheer granite peaks and waterfalls, with a glacier off in the distance, is hard to beat.

Were there any close encounters with wildlife during the filming?
While filming in the Kootznoowoo Wilderness, we were surrounded by bears. It is one of the few places on Earth that you can get close to bears without any human structures protecting you. The bears are fairly habituated to people, but [the protected area is] also incredibly strict about safety and food, so it is an incredible place to film and witness bears in their natural environment. We had some come very close to us but never in a dangerous manner. To give some perspective, the telephoto lens I was shooting on had a minimum focus distance of 12 feet, and more than once a bear got too close to focus on it.

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The Short Film Showcase spotlights exceptional short videos created by filmmakers from around the web and selected by National Geographic’s editors. We look for pieces that emphasize National Geographic’s mission of inspiring people to care about the planet. The filmmakers themselves created the content presented here. The opinions expressed are those of the filmmakers, and not those of the National Geographic Society.

To submit films for consideration, please email SFS@ngs.org.