The following appears in the February issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY CHRIS COCOLES
They had a feeling they weren’t in Kansas anymore. They may not have been flying over the Land of Oz, but the Wonderful Wizard must have had something to do with the spectacular views. And if their final destination – Katmai National Park and Preserve – wasn’t the Emerald City, it must have been the jewel of this kingdom.
As the fourth of four total flights landed at their final destination, filmmakers Blake Kresge and Austin Walsh had stepped on Alaska soil for the first time. They had no idea what to expect for their assignment to shoot a promotional video for a remote fishing lodge, but it didn’t take long for the Kansans to realize they’d be in a special place.
“There’s nothing like it. Every place you go feels untouched” Kresge says.
Adds Walsh, “It was pretty wild. It’s almost hard to describe … I don’t even know if I took enough time to stop and absorb it, because we were just in go mode. You’re hiking, you’re doing this and that – just always on the move. So that was great. But the whole week was just incredible.”
FISH OUT OF WATER
Kresge, the lead filmmaker for Mammoth Creative Co. (785-400- 6136; mammothcreated.com), a production company based in Meriden, Kansas (just north of Topeka), and director of photography Walsh, have a diverse portfolio in the projects they’ve collaborated on or done independently – from sporting events to chamber of commerce promotional assignments to portraits of front-line workers during the Covid pandemic. But this Alaska adventure in tagging along with fishing guides and clients of Katmai’s Royal Wolf Lodge (541-993-0577; royalwolflodge .com) and capturing the perfect moments would be a challenge in their own right.
“I’m not a fisherman. You’ve got the guys who shoot for Patagonia; they live outdoors. We get to experience all kinds of stuff. A couple weeks later I’m down in Oklahoma shooting a college football game. It’s so varied, but we love shooting outdoors,” Kresge says. “We really latch onto the outdoors, and so this is up our alley, but we’ve never done it, never chased it.”
Walsh, who is actually based just across the Kansas border in Kansas City, Mo., grew up on a lake in Missouri and fished with his grandfather as a kid, but he certainly wouldn’t consider himself a diehard angler. But telling the lodge’s story through their creative lenses was the kind of challenge they crave.
“For us every week it’s a different story, so we’re always kind of adapting. I’ve done a lot of tourism work, so it’s a lot of adventure and on-the-go type of stuff,” Walsh says. “But what the challenge was, was we got rained on probably every single day and went in and out of airplanes every single day. We’d be standing in running water shooting fishermen while you’re being pushed downstream. It was probably one of the most physically demanding projects I’ve ever worked on.”
As you’d expect, getting from Kansas to Katmai isn’t an easy point A to point B trip – more like points and points and more points. Kansas City to Seattle; Seattle to Anchorage; Anchorage to Iliamna; Iliamna to the lake adjacent to Royal Wolf Lodge.
Some of the flyover enroute to that final watery landing spot was some of the greatest moments Kresge and Walsh would remember.
“We went through a whole bunch of passes that were just beautiful and that sometimes are not super visible. It was a pretty clear day,” Kresge recalls. “I got amazing. With what we do a lot of times, we get put into situations that we’d never been in and we get to experience it and capture it.”
The remainder of the week was something of a voyage of discovery for the Kansas duo. Royal Wolf Lodge’s location alone is a filmmaker/photographer’s dream. But the short flights via floatplane taking off from the lake a half-mile hike away from the lodge meant new locales, new thrills and new chills. Trout in the nearby rivers – a puddle hop away from the lodge – became the focal point for Kresge and Walsh as they filmed the guides and clients casting flies.
If there were supporting actors, it was the bears that shared the water and the fish everyone wanted a crack at.
“We saw a lot of bears. That was wild and we saw so many that halfway through the day it wasn’t even a big deal. When we first landed at this one river, it was like, ‘Hey; there’s a bear; shoot it.’ And then by the end it was, ‘Who cares about all those bears?’ It got so normal,” Walsh admits. Kresge laughed about one of the first times they realized the local fauna would be part of the show when going over plans for one of the days’ activities.
“The clients are talking about seeing bears and Austin and I raise our hands and ask, ‘What’s the protocol?’ They said ‘We’ll be safe about it. We understand their behavior. They’ve had a good summer. They shouldn’t care about you.’ We’re experiencing a bear every hundred feet. You can go through our video and photos and it’s bear, bear, bear, bear. But it’s strange; you just get used to it. It becomes a reality. It goes from, ‘Holy crap! There’s a bear,’ to just kind of quietly point it out so we know our surroundings.”
It was hard to argue with the bruins, which had the same goals as the anglers and the guys with the cameras and the videos.
“They’ll be across the water from you and they’ll get their food. Just from my experience, as long as humans don’t mess with them, they won’t mess with humans. Everyone gets their fish and everyone is happy,” Kresge says.
“We’re taught to be afraid of bears. A healthy fear of bears is fine, but up there it’s pretty clear to me: They become part of the scenery and they’re fishing just like you are.”
What fascinated the filmmakers was the scope of the region of Alaska they explored. Of course, they had no idea what lay ahead on the floatplane expeditions – see the waterfall that the pilot breezed over and brought the visitors back for a closer look.
But there were places even these grizzled locals were unaware of.
“Another thing that was weird, because Royal Wolf has the three planes and kind of go anywhere they want up in that region, I think there were two different times where Nate and another guide said ‘We’ve never been here.’ And I’m like, ‘You live here! This is your area!’” Walsh says. “But there are so many areas to choose from. They’d hear that the good fish were somewhere. ‘Let’s go check it out.’ And that’s what we did.”
Walsh also remembered that on one flight, the plane flew over Battle Lake, a 9-mile-long narrow body of water on the Alaska Peninsula. As the adventurous Alaskan bush pilot and plane full of anglers often do, someone suggested they land on that remote lake and check it out from the water. “Again, it was a case of, ‘Do you want to land in that?’ ‘Sure.’ And you just do it. So that was weird. And it was so blue it seemed like we were standing in a bottle of Windex,” Walsh says.
For Kresge, one of his regrets was not taking up an offer to man one of the fishing rods and pull in one of the many rainbows that succumbed to the flies at the end of the lines. But being there strictly to work and record every critical moment on film, the angling temptation was trumped by potentially missing the money shot.
“I had a camera (version of) FOMO of missing out on one moment. We kept the cameras in our hands at all times. Who knows if you’re downstream fishing and someone else gets the biggest fish of the week? It’s hard. It got offered to us a dozen times,” Kresge says. “And it’s not like we weren’t willing. We wanted to show what the experience is and if the best part of the week doesn’t get captured because we’re playing, I’d never stop thinking about that.”
WATCHING ARTISTS AT WORK
Both film collaborators were asked how they’d approach the process of choosing from the hours upon hours of footage they’d compile to create a short film that would showcase why Royal Wolf Lodge checks the boxes of those fishing fanatics looking for an Alaska trip of a lifetime. As you’d guess, there was a lot of magic that an amateur photographer could make quite a clip out of. So how do they narrow it down?
“You watch the videos (before you go) and kind of visualize it. But until you can see it and smell it and feel it, it’s not real. I’m proud of the video, but it’s just a taste of what it is,” Kresge says. “My expectations were, ‘We’re gonna bust our butts, we’re going to go places we don’t know and we’re going to have to change what we’re doing in 10 minutes.’ Just kind of ‘go out there with an open mind.’ We didn’t go out there with an idea of what you’ll see in a video.”
Royal Wolf’s guides themselves also made the task of sharing the lodge’s story easier. They found some of the most insanely beautiful spots on Alaska’s Bristol Bay and the Peninsula. They did tireless research every night leading into the next day’s adventures.
“If you want to see people who are dedicated to their craft, check out those guides. I’d grab a coffee in the morning and five of them would be sitting there talking about where the next hot spot might be, or what they’d found the day before. They’re drawing maps and they’re sharing as much as they can to get the clients the best experience possible,” Kresge says.
“I know they’re there to work, but a lot of people turn their work off at night, but with them that’s not the case. Not to say they don’t have other interests, as other things came up, but it always came back to fishing. And seeing how excited they were, it wasn’t about them catching fish because they’re guides. If someone is having a great day, they’re having a great day.”
Walsh left the lodge knowing he’d made some new friends. One of the guides who spends part of his season guiding in Minnesota invited him up to join him in the future.
“They’re a crazy bunch; there’s a dozen people who are secluded from the rest of the world for months at a time. And they took us in like one of them,” Walsh says. “We got to know them and we all follow each other on social media now and keep in touch.”
And as they headed back to the Midwest after their late August/early September taste of the Last Frontier, both of the filmmakers moved onto other projects – Kresge shot a college football game and Walsh talked about an upcoming gig promoting hunting and fishing topics with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.
But what about a return engagement to Alaska, whether for business or pleasure? No question they want to get back for another round. Walsh, who found Alaska as intoxicating as the time he and his family annually vacation in Summit County, Colorado, described that flight on the first day when the anglers fished for coho around the Alaska Peninsula coast.
“We woke up, took a half-mile hike down to the lake and we flew to the coast and fished this area that they’d never been to, landed in this tiny puddle of a pond, and it was the only sunny day,” he says. “It was amazing and beautiful. Nobody – the guide, the pilot – had ever been to this place before. And it looked like nobody had been there for months, so it was just the idea of within 24 hours of even being in Alaska, we’re just in the middle of nowhere and in a body of water staring at Mount Douglas. It was just insane.”
Kresge too would like to go back again. He rued the reality that he didn’t get within sniffing distance of a moose in the Alaska wild, despite his pre-trip research that clarified how dangerous moose can be around humans. (“My girlfriend asked if I was coming back or if a bear was going to eat me,” he jokes.)
“We’re trying to figure out how to go next summer. We’ve talked about it. There’s always that itch. For me I’m not often wading around in a river. There’s not a whole lot of experiences like that. But I’d be happy to go back to Alaska next week,” Kresge says.
“It really is a once in a lifetime trip. I hope it isn’t my only once in a lifetime (opportunity). It’s so untouched; it’s wild. It’s a really cool experience. Not often do you get to take a choose your own adventure trip.”
POETRY IN MOTION
Mammoth Creative released a condensed version of the Kresge-Walsh Royal Wolf Lodge video that summarized some of the action they shot. But they were also impressed with some of the down time they spent at their home base for the week.
“The lodge is beautiful. I was there to work, but in the evenings we still got a chance to enjoy it and talk to some of the clients who were there. It was once in a lifetime for them,” Kresge says. “Again, I didn’t walk in as a client, but you’re treated like royalty. I don’t know where else you’d get that experience. It’s great food from start to finish; it’s very capable pilots; I’ve got no negatives. You can have a wild Alaskan experience by day and a relaxing evening by night.”
In the video, a narrator recites the verses of a 1907 poem, “The Spell of the Yukon,” written by late 19th and early 20th century British-Canadian writer Robert W. Service.
At a campfire during one of those quiet evenings at the lodge while Walsh and Kresge were there, one of the guides recited the poem (a former client once also read it out loud to the lodge’s staff). The words moved the filmmakers and resonated so much as they edited their material.
Amid a backdrop of pristine waters, fly anglers casting and landing trophy-size rainbows, floatplanes taking off and landing and bears curiously watching the play by play, Service’s thoughts complement the scene:
“There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless,
And deaths that just hang by a hair; There are hardships that nobody reckons; There are valleys unpeopled and still; There’s a land – oh, it beckons and beckons, And I want to go back– and I will.”ASJ
Editor’s note: Watch the video Blake Kresge- and Austin Walsh-created and -produced film at vimeo.com/765908250/11430d0f10.
WHEN SPORTS AND THE OUTDOORS COLLIDE
One of my favorite parts of being a journalist has always been the anticipation aspect of what might happen – whether it’s been chronicling a sporting event or while on assignment during my stint here at our parent company Media Inc. Publishing.
And as I chatted with the filmmaking team of Blake Kresge and Austin Walsh – their first-ever trip to Alaska had them accompanying fishing guides in some spectacular wilderness areas in and around Katmai National Park and Bristol Bay – I realized that never knowing when a significant event will happen makes the grind worthwhile.
One of the joys of covering sports was equally frustrating and exhilarating. I covered college baseball in Arkansas and I can’t tell you how many deadline-time games changed in the ninth inning when I had most of my story written. A sportswriter’s worst nightmare? Selecting copy and then deleting six of seven now worthless paragraphs and then starting from scratch. But that’s why sports is the best reality show in the world because it’s essentially unscripted chaos.
Still, as I’ve settled into my job at ASJ and my other publication, California Sportsman, I’ve had similar experiences in the field when I’m lucky enough to be on the clock but also enjoying the outdoors.
Last fall, I targeted rockfish on a guide’s boat out of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. Five of us sharing the charter limited out on a colorful cavalcade of black, canary and vermilion rockfish (plus a couple of keeper lingcod). But while I was enjoying pulling off a few perfect eating-size bottomfish, often I’d leave my rod in the holder so I could IPhone snap photos of my brother–in-law and my niece’s husband getting at times nonstop bites to properly illustrate the story I wrote in California Sportsman’s November issue.
I could sympathize with Kresge and Walsh when they talked about trying to stay one step ahead of their assignment to shoot a promotional video for Royal Wolf Lodge and ensure they didn’t miss what could be a money shot moment for a filmmaker and photographer.
Like me, Kansas resident Kresge is a massive sports fan, and while he cheers on his beloved Kansas City Royals from the ballpark, his duties also include shooting sporting events in his region as a member of the working press. In fact, two weeks after he and Walsh returned from Alaska he was on the sidelines with his camera at a fall Saturday college football game. He too saw parallels between both the fishing and football events he captured.
“We might be chasing down the bank or wading in the water to get that (ideal fishing) shot. It’s not a whole lot different than (a football skill player) running for an 80-yard touchdown,” he told me. “There’s definitely a thrill to those moments.”
One of those momentum-changing 80-yard touchdowns or last-cast trophy catch can ruin the story you already wrote or thought you’d told. But it can also make a far more compelling one to share with the readers and watchers. -CC