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Does National Geographic's 'Alaska State Troopers' make state police look bad?

Craig Medred
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A new season of "Alaska State Troopers" has started on cable TV, and as an Alaskan one can't help but be embarrassed for the state police force. Actually, that's probably an understatement. One should feel horribly embarrassed for the state police force, and even that might be an understatement: any rational Alaskan should find it hard to believe troopers really waste their time worrying about grizzly bears eating drunkards at the Girdwood Forest Fair.

And yet this is exactly what the National Geographic Channel depicts troopers doing as the network opens the third season of "Alaska State Troopers" with the episode "Alaska Mushroom Madness."

It's enough to make one wonder who, exactly, has been eating the 'shrooms.

"Combining drugs and alcohol in the heart of the wilderness can be fatal," a narrator intones as the cameras lead us to the Forest Fair in Alaska's only ski town -- or, as National Geographic puts it, "the heart of the wilderness." Trooper Daron Cooper picks up the story line there, informing viewers that "Girdwood has its fair share of bears ..."

Cut away to the grizzly bear ambling down past what appears to be a sandstone cliff, of which there are none in or around Girdwood. Then it's back to Cooper.

"So if they (drunks) happen to fall asleep, and a bear happens to stumble upon them, you can imagine what would happen there," Cooper says.

Cut away to two brown bears on a tidal flat -- it's clearly not Turnagain Arm on the edge of Girdwood, by the way -- and then to another bear ripping at a chunk of flesh. And then to a third bear that could be in the woods anywhere. Cut back to that smooth-talking narrator: "There have been multiple maulings in the past few months, so troopers are on high alert," he says.

Multiple maulings in the past few months? Reality check: the Girdwood Forest Fair ran July 1-3. After that date there were, indeed, "multiple maulings" -- especially high-profile multiple maulings -- when students from the National Outdoor Leadership School were attacked July 23 by a grizzly bear in a remote area of the Talkeetna Mountains far north of Girdwood.

Prior to that date? Well, let's see. Not counting the death of an elderly woman killed by a black bear in British Columbia, which is probably close enough to Alaska, there was the attack on Wes Perkins near Nome in May. That was apparently it.  Or maybe there were some maulings that weren't reported. Nearly all serious maulings in Alaska make the news, but maybe there were some minor maulings. 

Who knows whether someone had a finger bitten off and sewed themselves up with fishing line? It could happen, right? Aren't TV producers supposed to focus on things that could happen? As Cooper observed, "If a bear stumbles upon them, you can imagine what would happen there."

And if an asteroid strikes Earth, you can imagine what would happen here. Yes, you can. The imagination is pretty much boundless. It's easy to imagine all sorts of things. Obviously Cooper has a good imagination, or someone with a good imagination wrote lines for him to read.

And geologists say asteroids did once hit Earth. And someone who's been drinking in Alaska did once get mauled by a bear. It's close enough to reality, right? 

Some wildlife biologists believe George Tullos might have downed a few drinks before he went to sleep beneath a blue tarp lean-to in Hyder in July 2000. He was killed there by a bear. He was also camping in an area known to be frequented by a lot of bears. Noted bear researcher Steven Herrero later observed he "was within hundreds of yards of the local landfill where grizzlies had been feeding for years. But in July 2000 there was a particularly aggressive garbage-feeding grizzly that in the middle of the night killed and partly consumed Tullos."

National Geographic's unreality

Of course, none of these conditions exist in Girdwood. Girdwood has no landfill. It has a "waste transfer station" specifically designed to keep human refuse from attracting bears. In the real world (versus the imaginary world television usually inhabits) black bears are sometimes a problem in Girdwood. In the real world grizzly bears are an uncommon visitor to Girdwood. The Forest Fair has never had a problem with either, and it has been around since the 1960s.

In all that time, not one fairgoer has reported being threatened by a bear, let alone mauled. In fact, no one can seem to recall anyone being mauled anywhere in the Girdwood area in the last 100 years. Cam Toohey, who grew up at Crow Creek Mine in the 1960s, does, however, wonder about miner Jonathon Winter. He was reported to have gone up Winner Creek prospecting more than a century back. He was reported missing sometime in 1906. There was a search of sorts. No hint of Winter was ever found. It is possible he was eaten by a bear.

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Since then, however, there have been no disappearances in which bears are suspects, although a woman named Erin Gilbert did, like Winter, disappear. She was last seen at the Forest Fair in 1995. No sign of her has ever been found. It is not known if she chose to disappear or became the victim of a violent crime. She is still being sought.

One might think her cold-case one of those things troopers would try to bring to the public's eye when given a forum like "Alaska State Troopers."  One would be wrong.

"Alaska State Troopers" seems largely about making heroes of troopers and buffoons of Alaskans. Truth be told, Alaska -- like any other state -- obviously has no shortage of the latter, but does Alaska really need to subsidize a TV show that depicts its troopers hunting them out to put on TV? Trooper brass have touted the show as a great, national recruitment tool. Apparently there is a shortage of Alaskans willing or capable of filling the trooper jobs.

And if "Alaska State Troopers" is just about advertising, maybe accuracy doesn't matter, although you still have wonder about how the show makes troopers look to their fellow Alaskans. The Girdwood Forest Fair nonsense is, after all, the least of it.

Alaska's Keystone Cops?

When a trooper out Bethel way loses radio contact with a coworker on a snowmachine who's tracking a woman allegedly lost on the edge of what "Alaska State Troopers" hypes as dangerously thin ice, Bethel's finest decides to come to the rescue by taking off cross-country in a four- wheel-drive truck. Woo-hoo! If the ice won't support a 500-pound snowmachine, what makes this officer think it will support a truck weighing two tons or so?

Fortunately, the truck doesn't get far off the Kuskokwim River ice road before it gets stuck in snow. The "lost woman," who sounds fairly coherent, says she was simply planning to go on a walkabout 12 miles upriver to Kwethluk. Nonetheless, she's rescued by the trooper on the snowmachine, who then ferries her to a Bethel patrol car summoned to the scene. The two troopers then go about digging out the truck.

The whole scene is somewhat reminiscent of another Keystone Cops moment in 2003 out at Lake Sevene on the Kenai Peninsula. First a pair of Alaska Wildlife Troopers tried to drive a patrol truck onto the lake so they could check anglers for fishing licenses. The truck got stuck in snow. The troopers called for backup. A second trooper truck arrived. It too became mired. A third truck was summoned. Same story.

With three trucks stuck, troopers brought in the big gun -- a bulldozer -- from the Alaska Department of Transportation. It managed to free one truck. It was trying to tow another toward firm ground when it went through the ice.

DOT had nothing with which to free the dozer. So it rented a 22-ton excavator. Mats were set out so the excavator could safely drive out onto the ice next to the dozer. It hooked up the machine and promptly pulled itself off the mats into a trap of ice, muck and water. The state eventually had to hire a private contractor to rescue the excavator.

Now there's an incident that would have made for a great, real-life episode of "Alaska State Troopers." It would have been good enough that National Geographic producers wouldn't have been forced to start "making things up." 

And speaking of making things up, what happened to National Geographic anyway? The non-profit scientific, education and adventure society that founded National Geographic Magazine way back in 1888 used to be a bastion of journalistic integrity. Nowadays it feels compelled to mix Girdwood video with that of bears from far away, concocting outlandish bear dangers to increase its television market share? Talk about tarnishing a once-iconic brand. National Geographic should be as embarrassed of "Alaska State Troopers" as those wearing the uniform.

Alaska Dispatch encourages a diversity of opinion and community perspectives. The opinions expressed herein are those of the contributor and are not necessarily endorsed or condoned by Alaska Dispatch. Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com