PBS film focuses on Alaska expedition

Historic Harriman journey is focus of television documentary

Posted: Sunday, December 03, 2000

EmmyAward winner Lawrence Hott is making a documentary about both Alaskas.

"There's the Alaska of the imagination and the real Alaska, where people live and work," Hott said.

Hott, who has produced 15 major films aired on PBS, has been in Alaska over the past two years and will be back next summer to finish filming the Alaska documentary, called "The Harriman Alaska Expedition Retraced." A good deal of his work has been done in Juneau and Southeast.

The filmmaker is using the 1899 Harriman scientific expedition as a vehicle to look at issues surrounding the nature and culture of Alaska.

"Having the expedition as the spine of the film give us a beginning, a middle and end, and that's always good for storytelling," Hott said, adding that it also focuses the documentary on Alaska's coastal people and environment.

The original Harriman expedition was launched in 1899, when railroad baron Edward Harriman financed a scientific and cultural survey of the Pacific Northwest coastline from Seattle to the Bering Strait. The expedition included 25 of the nation's top scientists, artists and writers. Harriman and his 125 guests cruised the Northwest coast from Seattle to Yakutat via the Inside Passage, then headed west and north across the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea all the way to Siberia.

"Harriman was in Juneau and visited the gold mine there," Hott said. "Harriman of course was very interested in industry, and visited all the industrial sites in Alaska. Timber wasn't such a big industry then, but salmon fishing was very heavy."

The 9,000-mile trip was a vacation for Harriman, at that time one of the richest men in America, and he and his family wanted first-class company. John Muir was on board, as was the founder of the Audubon Society, George Bird Grinnell, and C. Hart Merriam, the head of the U.S. Biological Survey. Renowned Alaska naturalist William Dall, artist Louise Agassiz Fuertes and photographer Edward Curtis all participated. Probably the biggest name was John Burroughs, who was one of the country's most popular authors in his day.

The trip was a major scientific undertaking. The voyagers collected artifacts and specimens, met with Alaska Natives and other coastal peoples, and returned to Seattle with 5,000 photographs and colored illustrations and more than 100 trunks of specimens, including Tlingit totems and ceremonial objects removed from the uninhabited village of Cape Fox near Ketchikan.

Harriman's people also made recordings, and Hott acquired an original cylinder recording of Native people speaking Tlingit. The recording was a mystery for years. Hott said that because researchers were unfamiliar with cylinder recordings, they mistakenly played it backwards, and for decades they were baffled by the strange language they heard. Someone finally figured it out and when they realized the language was Tlingit, Hott enlisted the help of Nora and Richard Dauenhauer. The Juneau linguists translated the recording, and Hott interviewed them last summer for the documentary.

Harriman visited Sitka and the Hoonah area, and Hott also has returned to these sites. Hott interviewed Todd Antioquia and Susan Bell from Goldbelt, Juneau's urban Native corporation, and interviewed Byron Mallott when he was the head of the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. He also met with Rick Harris from Sealaska Corp. in Hoonah. Sealaska is the regional Native corporation for Southeast.

"One of the things we're doing is looking at what the issues were 100 years ago and what they are now," Hott said. "Tourism is one of the big issues in Southeast and has been for 100 years."

As an example, Hott said that John Muir made a total of eight trips to Alaska. He was one of the first to explore Glacier Bay in the 1870s, and visited the glacier there that bears his name.

"When he returned (with Harriman) he looked at the Muir Glacier and there were boardwalks all over it," Hott said. "The steamships had put them there so the tourists could walk on them."

This coming summer Hott and his crew will retrace the original Harriman route from Prince Rupert to Nome in the company of 19 scientists, artists and writers. Hott's 2001 voyage will involve not only scientific and cultural investigation, but also the repatriation of several of the Cape Fox items.

"The Harriman expedition created a time capsule that helps us look at the way exploration and science has changed," Hott said.

Hott's plan to retrace the Harriman route by sea was scheduled for the summer of 2000, but the ship he had originally chartered foundered last winter in the South Seas, was looted by pirates and then stolen.

KTOO in Juneau received a $50,000 grant from the Paul Allen Foundation for the Arts to help fund Hott's project. Jim Mahan at KTOO television said the Juneau public broadcasting station and PBS affiliate is channeling the money to Hott.

"We're not directly involved in the production," Mahan said. "It's a common occurrence with public television programs that are funded from a lot of sources,"

Hott and Diane Garey of Florentine Films/Hott Productions have produced 15 major films, which have been broadcast nationally on PBS. They have received an Emmy Award, two Academy Award nominations, five American Film Festival Blue Ribbons and numerous other national and international awards. He lives in Hadenville, Mass.

Hott expects the Alaska project to be completed by January 2002, and he said the "The Harriman Alaska Expedition Retraced" should air in the spring of 2002.

Tom Lintwin, director of the Clark Science Center at Smith College in Massachusetts, is the executive producer. "The Harriman Expedition Retraced" is a collaboration of the Smith College Alumnae Association Travel Program and the Smith College Environmental Science and Policy Program. More information on the project is available at its Web site at florentinefilms.com.



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