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Conservation Filmmaker Tracks Elusive Spirit Bear

Andy maserWhile he was still in high school, budding documentary filmmaker and sponsored kayaker Andy Maser trained his camera on the subject he knew best. Before he even had a driver's license, he was churning out VHS tapes of his buddies bombing down the Potomac River's rapids and waterfalls outside his hometown of Baltimore. 

When Maser moved across the country to study journalism at the University of Oregon, he continued paddling, garnered collegiate honors, and searched for ways to parlay his passion for adventure into a career.  

Upon graduating in 2007, Maser stumbled onto his first big break and a meaningful professional discovery. He joined friend, fellow river rat, and National Geographic Young Explorer Grantee Trip Jennings on an expedition through the underground cave systems and tumultuous Class V rapids of the remote and little-known Pandi River in Papua New Guinea. The team hoped the first descent of the mystical waterway would raise awareness about the biological diversity of the area and warrant a conservation designation that would halt planned clear cutting by international logging companies.

The poignant stories Maser heard from local natives and the "Wild Chronicles" National Geographic episode that followed showed him the possibility of weaving a conservation story with flair — one that avoided humdrum didacticism and used a gripping trek as a narrative backdrop.

"My initial impression of conservation films was it was typically very heavy, and doom and gloom, and you'd always leave the screen with a heavy heart," he says. "I never responded well to that. That never engaged me." 

Since then, he has focused on bringing that alternative model to life, layering engaging threads of adventure into the complexity of environmental threats. He tackles "moving water" ecosystems, the troubling developments surrounding them, and the characters who advocate for their protection. His work has been featured in outlets such as Outside Television, National Geographic, PBS, and Wend.

His recently celebrated film, Spoil, takes on the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline and the tanker routes that would pass through the Great Bear Rainforest, an untouched swath of wilderness known for its healthy populations of wolves, salmon, and bears. It follows an elite team of camera jockeys dispatched by the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP) to survey the area in a Rapid Assessment Visual Expedition (RAVE), which tasks them with bringing back iconic photographs that represent the region and can be used in the ongoing campaign against the development (sign Sierra Club BC's petition here). 

Commissioned by ILCP, Maser and his team from the now-defunct Epicocity Project (tagline: Conservation Through Exploration) offer stunning up-close shots of wildlife, insights into what the pipeline project would mean to the local Gitga’at First Nation of British Columbia, and the suspense of pro cameramen battling a three-week timeline to produce prize-winning photos.

Spoil Film Trailer from Andy Maser on Vimeo.

National Geographic wildlife photographer Paul Nicklen and the documentary crew must also struggle to land the most difficult shot of all: that of the rare and notoriously shy spirit bear, a subspecies of white North American black bear with a population that numbers somewhere between 400 and 1000. 

Nicklen and the filmmakers both felt pressured to get candid shots of the special animal to drive home the importance of the preservation effort. And they failed for the better part of three weeks.

"It was stressful," Maser says. "That, above everything else, is what this film was building to. If we hadn't had that moment, we would have to go back and figure out what our story would be."

The day before the documentary crew planned to depart and catch a ferry back to civilization, Marvin Robinson, the Gitga’at spirit-bear guide, invited them and Nicklen into a lush thicket near a creek deep in the woods. Robinson knew that if the group waited until the salmon began running, the bears would descend from the berries up in the hills to snack on the feast waiting in the creek bed. He instructed the photographers to sit at a perch up above the creek and wait. About an hour after doing so, the mysterious white bear ambled down into the stream.  

"That was one of the most powerful moments of my life," Maser says, of sharing the creek with the lumbering animal. "All of a sudden, it just came up and walked right past us. There was this moment when it acknowledged us, and just kept doing what it was doing."

"This spirit bear is the symbol of everything that could be lost, if this oil pipeline proposal goes forward," Maser adds. "Knowing that we captured this moment, that was the most powerful opportunity we had to engage people."

The sequence, which begins roughly at 34:50 in the film (make time for the whole thing if the trailer gets you going), offers a window into a world that few humans, even natives of the Gitga’at nation, have ever seen up close. It also demonstrates the heartfelt connectivity between the beast and its human counterparts. Maser says he felt honored that Robinson was willing to treat them to a sighting which many natives consider a sacred experience.

Even though it premiered at the beginning of last year, Spoil just recently received the award for the best film on a mountain environment from the Banff Mountain Film Festival and will circulate worldwide. It has already received acclaim and honors at several other outdoor and environment film festivals.

Canada's government plans to release an impact statement on the Enbridge project in fall 2013, and the film will likely gain even more traction in anticipation of that document.  

Come decision time, observers will watch closely to see whether Maser's convincing adventure conservation formula can work its magic.

--Ryan Jacobs/photos and video courtesy of Andy Maser

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