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Documentary Review - Alaska: Spirit of the Wild (1997)

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Background

Actor Charlton Heston is the narrator of this wondrous documentary which takes us through the harsh winters that descend upon Alaska to the miracle of spring, showing us how its inhabitants, animals and humans as well, adapt to the changing climate to insure their survival.  The documentary was filmed in Denali National Park in Alaska.

                    

Denali National Park

                                                     Denali Mt. McKinley - Wikimedia

Introduction

Over 18,000 years ago, Alaska was a world locked in the cold, enveloped in the Ice Age.  The snows that refused to melt had been compacted into glaciers.  The waters were imprisoned in ice.  Sea levels plummeted more than 100 meters.  Japan became part of mainland Asia at the time.  As the Ice Age spread, a land bridge connected Asia to America.

In ancient Alaska, bears, moose, and caribou roamed the earth.  The greatest of all predators, human beings, arrived from Siberia.  They were unaware that they were discovering a continent.  They existed on the meat of the native animals to survive.  It was either kill or starve.

Migrants Moved South

As the Ice Age began to recede, it opened the walls of glaciers to the south, so that humans were able to migrate out from the cold.  The descendants of these migrants were from Apache, Sioux, Aztec, Inca, and Amazonian tribes.  Some, however, chose to remain in Alaska.

                                       

Aurora Borealis

                                                            Aurora Borealis - Wikimedia

The Aurora Borealis

The Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights, are caused by streams of charged particles from the sun colliding with the atmosphere.  The lights are strongest from December to March when nights are longest and the sky is darkest.  They can usually be seen as far south as Juneau.

The wildness of the ancient earth never vanished in Alaska.  The last great Ice Age survived here.  The solitude of the past is broken only occasionally by the sounds of the present, such as an airplane flying overhead.  Most of the rugged terrain in Alaska can only be crossed with wings.  Shear walls a mile deep loom below.  There are massive snowfalls which compress the glacial ice.  Only a single color of the spectrum is reflected - an ethereal blue, strangely beautiful.  Native tribes call the glaciers white thunder.  Some blocks of ice are the size of 30 story buildings.  It seems to be a place too hostile for living things.

                                      

Glacier in Alaska

                                                  Portage Glacier in Alaska - Wikimedia

Spring Arrives

Winter lasts for nine months in Alaska, then it erupts with life.  Hundreds of species of birds come from as far away as Antarctica.  For one brief season of abundance, life flourishes.  There are 24 hours of sunlight each day.  The grass is green.  Animals store up nutrients before winter begins.  The bears are famished from half a year of hibernation.  They share the meadows with caribous too fleet to be caught.

As bellies get filled, playtime begins.  Other business is conducted in the deep fields of grass also, the age-old rite of spring - mating.  Bears will remain a couple for a day.  They share rough affection.  The cubs are born in the hibernation den in the dead of winter.

Tidal fluctuations occur in the spring.  Low tides can drain an entire bay.  The brown bears take advantage of the low tides and search for clams.  Any protein is welcome, for a bear’s body can weigh as much as 1400 pounds.  Red foxes take note of the bear’s clamming efforts and join in.

As summer’s warmth deepens, the three million lakes in Alaska become gathering places.  Beavers prepare for the cold weather by preparing their lodges.  Animals thrive on aquatic plants and mother’s milk.

                                       

Black Bear

                                                       Black Bear - Wikimedia Commons

Fear of the Black Bear

The quiet of summer is shattered by the approach of an intruder.  When a black bear is sighted, all other animals scatter.  Although the black bear has a fearsome reputation, it is the most playful of their species.

Life along the coast is eased by the warm season.  Sea lion colonies haul out to sun bathe, to enjoy a day at the beach.  Sea lions have the ease of a circus performer when they are in the water, but they are ungainly on the land.

Like the meadows, the sea blooms with fertility with the arrival of daylight.  Humpback whales travel 4000 miles from Hawaii to take advantage of Alaska’s season of abundance.  Humpbacks fast for eight months.  They depend on the fish in Alaska.  They also breed here and give birth.

                                      

Humpback Whale

                                                        Humpback Whale - Wikimedia

How the Humpbacks Survive

The humpbacks survive through cooperative feeding.  Diving in unison, they surround a school of herring and sing a ritual feeding song.  One humpback blows a circular net of bubbles which totally surrounds the fish.  The entire group rockets up through the bubble bath.  Each species finds a way to survive; humpbacks cooperate.

In summer, a miracle arrives from the sea.  With wave after wave, the salmon arrive.  They spawn in the same streams where they were born.  Salmon have a phenomenal sense of smell.  They sweep into Alaska by the millions, facing a marathon journey upstream, hundreds of miles long.  They persist, even in the face of obstacles.

                                     

Grizzly Bear Fishing for Salmon

                                            Brown Bear Fishing for Salmon - Wikimedia

Brown Bears Thrive on Salmon

For the brown bears, the arrival of salmon is the most important feeding event of the year.  It is their last opportunity to add the bulk they need for the hibernation ahead.  Confrontations for the snatching of the salmon are not bloody; size is power.  The subordinate merely walks away to find another spot.  Most bears fish singly and selfishly.  Only a mother shares her catch with her cubs.

Nothing is wasted. With hibernation approaching, no animal feels the urgency more than the bear.  Bears store up fat by fishing 20 hours a day.  Large males can put on 300 lbs.  Success is reaching one’s sleeping weight.  Some reach it a little too soon, as was seen when one bear went to sleep.

Salmon must make it past its predators in order to fertilize the eggs of the next generation.  In giving life, all will die.  The eggs live in the water through winter, beside the decaying bodies of their parents.  Six weeks of warmth arrive and summer visitors head south.

The first snowfall can arrive in August.  The largest gathering of bald eagles in the world, 4000 strong, gather on an Alaskan river.  They know to return in the fall to the one place that will insure their survival.  

                                      

Polar Bears

                                                               Polar Bears - Wikimedia

Polar Bears Love Winter

Polar bears thrive in winter.  Their body heat is preserved by thick fat and an insulating fir of translucent hairs.  They are marooned on the land.  They survive on stored fat and buried seaweed for now.  While they await, they are playful with each other.  Few cubs survive their first year.  Male polar bears will eat unprotected cubs.  Few animals in nature are as protective as the mother polar bear.

Finally, the sea freezes over.  Fasting ends.  The bears search beneath the snow for moss and sedge grass for food.  Bears have an extraordinary sense of smell.  They can detect a seal 20 miles away.  The feast of winter is about to begin.  Darkness and scarcity arrive in parts of Alaska.

Winter Arrives Again

For a family of wolves, prey are easier to track in the snow.  Their powerful jaws will allow them to crush a caribou’s bones, leaving little behind.  They must cooperate to survive.  Rivalries are brief.  When the full fury of winter arrives, the temperature can reach 50 below zero or even lower.

Elk change their diet in winter.  They feed on only the highest protein available.  Half of all yearlings will not make it.  Bisons are protected by shaggy hair, and develop a winter fir to cover their hind quarters.  Musk ox are outfitted with broad hooves to walk on snow.  They are impervious to the cold, and are the last horned survivor of the Eocene age. 

Humans Learn to Survive Too

Humans adapt to the winter.  They are called Eskimos.  They are descended from people who crossed the ice age land bridge.  For food, they return to the sea.  The hunt, sanctioned by law, is a sacred ritual.  When they haul in the body of the whale, they thank the whale for its life-giving nourishment which helps them to combat the piercing cold.

                                          

Iditarod

                                                                   Iditarod - Wikimedia

The Gold Rush

In 1897, the Klondike experienced a gold rush.  The prospectors unwittingly trudged into an Ice Age.  Some never made it into the gold fields. Their pack horses died by the thousands.  Hundreds of men died from exposure or were buried alive in avalanches.  A quarter million miners came but only four hundred struck it rich.

Inspired by the challenges of this new land some adapted and stayed on.  The descendants of these stampeders commemorate the gold rush annually by the race called the Iditarod.  Winter’s challenges are turned to rugged sport.

As the warm season approaches, the days lengthen and the grasses re-emerge.  Salmon hatchlings will leave to return in another season to spawn.

Countless streams and mountain peaks in Alaska are still unnamed, waiting for another pioneer to fall in love with the country. 

                              

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

                                                     Exxon Valdez Oil Spill - Wikimedia

Some History of Alaska

When Alaska was acquired from Russia in 1867, it was referred to as “Seward’s Folly” because Secretary of State William H. Seward arranged for the disputed purchase.  The discovery of gold in the Klondike in the 1890’a changed people’s minds and created a stampede of prospectors and settlers to the region.  In 1959, Alaska was admitted to the union as the 49th state.  The capital of Alaska is Juneau.  In 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on an undersea reef, and spilled an estimated 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound.  That number of gallons has been disputed.  The oil covered 1.300 miles of coastline and 11,000 square miles of ocean.

[1]

Alaska: A Novel
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Bibliography

  1. "Alaska." History.com. 26/01/2016. 26/01/2016 <Web >

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