Capturing Alaska

W.Va. filmmakers convey beauty for National Park Service

W.Va. filmmakers convey beauty for National Park Service

March 20, 2003|by KATE COLEMAN

America's largest national park, Wrangell-St. Elias, is in Alaska.

Named for the volcanic Wrangell mountains and the peaks of the St.Elias range, the 13.2-million-acre park and preserve is larger than Switzerland and as big as six Yellowstones. Wrangell-St. Elias, established as a national park and national preserve in 1980, is home to the greatest concentration of glaciers outside the polar ice caps. Nine of the country's 16 highest peaks stand tall in Wrangell-St. Elias.

"I'm doomed," thought National Park Service filmmaker John Grabowska as he contemplated capturing Wrangell-St. Elias on film. He thought it would be impossible to do the huge wilderness justice on a two-dimensional screen.

He turned to his memories and his mother's home movies of the Grabowska family's 1967 trip to Wrangell-St. Elias. Mel and Helen Grabowska drove 1,200 miles from South Dakota with 6-year-old John and his 9- and 10-year-old brothers in the back seat of the station wagon.


Scenes from the 8 mm family movie are included in the 28-minute "Crown of the Continent," the National Park Service film about Wrangell-St. Elias.

Grabowska has writer, producer and director credits on the project filmed by National Park Service cinematographer Steve Ruth. It took a total of three to four months over a couple of years to shoot, says Ruth, who lives in Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

"You can't beat Alaska for the grandeur and the sheer wilderness," Ruth says.

"The mountains are so much bigger. The scale is just so amazing," he adds.

Chief of Interpretation Edmond Roberts, a native of the Virgin Islands, has been at the Alaska park for five years of his 35-year park service career.

"I still haven't seen the whole thing," he says.

An 18- to 22-minute version of "Crown of the Continent" has been shown at the National Park since August, Roberts says. The full-length video, complete with Grabowska family footage, is available for purchase in the Wrangell-St. Elias visitor center bookstore, which is administered by the Alaska Natural History Association.

The film resonates personally for Gary Candelaria, park superintendent. Raised in Los Angeles, he recalls similar family camping trips to Sequoia and Olympia national parks, experiences that played a large role in his career choice.

Wrangell-St. Elias is beautiful, Candelaria says. "The horizon goes on forever."

"Crown of the Continent" was shown last weekend as part of the 2003 Environmental Film Festival in Washington, D.C. The film has been screened at festivals in the United States and more than a dozen countries, including Italy, Spain, India, Portugal and Nepal.

The filmmakers received a 2001 Earthwatch Film award, an honor given for exceptional environmental and scientific films by the Earthwatch Institute, a nonprofit organization that supports scientific field research.

The film made its public television debut earlier this month on Idaho Public Television. It will be seen on many public television stations on Tuesday, March 24, but has not been scheduled on Washington, D.C.-area public broadcasting station WETA or MPT, Maryland Public Television.

Grabowska and his wife have not yet traveled to Alaska from their Shepherdstown, W.Va., home with their 8- and 10-year-old daughters. The trip is most definitely on the agenda, he says. "But we're probably not going to drive," he laughs.

He calls his childhood trip to Wrangell-St. Elias one of the most powerful educational experiences of his life.

Viewing "Crown of the Continent" is, of course, not equal to experiencing firsthand the vastness of the Alaskan wilderness. But the film, scored by composer and Academy Award-winning soundman Todd Boekelheide, provides glorious images of the gigantic expanse. Ruth and Grabowska also captured delicate details - flowers, streams and "mushrooms on the forest floor."

For information about Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, go to on the Web.

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