July 28, 2008

Geo Beach: A Swamp Yankee in the Last Frontier

... by Walter Brasch

When Geo Beach looks you in the eye and says that “Tougher in Alaska,” his 13 week series on the History Channel, isn’t Reality TV, you believe him.

It might be the sincerity seen in his penetrating blue eyes.

It might also be that not many will challenge a bald-headed 6-foot-3, 225 pound man who looks like he could have been a pro football linebacker, but was really a firefighter/medic, logger, and commercial fisherman.

But, it’s probably because, above everything else, Geo Beach, an award-winning journalist, knows the media. And right now, he knows that his series definitely, absolutely, is not Reality TV.

“Reality TV isn’t real but something that a Hollywood producer has come up with to make money,” he says, with the raspy staccato voice of authority that perfectly depicts the life of a blue-collar journalist. To Geo Beach, what is called Reality TV is “really Orwellian doublespeak.”

“This,” he says about his own series with absolute honesty and conviction, “is non-fiction documentary journalism,” one that puts him into the story to experience the life of the people he reports about.

“Tougher in Alaska,” an in-depth look at a variety of people, was shot between April 2007 and March 2008.

Once called “Seward’s Folly”—Secretary of State William H. Seward negotiated the sale of Alaska from the Russians for $7.2 million in 1867—the 570,000 square mile arctic wilderness attracted thousands of prospectors, and led to the development of hundreds of settlements and the creation of cities, when large deposits of gold was discovered near Dawson City in the late 1890s. Appropriately, the first episode of “Tougher in Alaska” is one that looks at the life of the modern gold miners. With the price of gold going over $1,000 an ounce, “there’s been a new gold rush, a new chapter in Alaskan history,” says Beach. One of the purposes of the series, he points out, “is to show the links between the historical and the present, and look to the future as tied to the past.”

In the second episode, Beach went salmon fishing on Bristol Bay, one of several thousand fishermen awaiting the annual run of millions of sockeye salmon to their spawning grounds. In another episode, shot mostly in the summer months, Beach and his crew went into nearly inaccessible forests, steep valleys, and coastal mountains to work alongside loggers who had to build roads to get to the timberlands, and then use trucks, barges, and helicopters to remove the fallen trees, some more than 100 feet high.

In later episodes, Beach traveled with scientists who track glaciers, erosions, volcanoes and avalanches, worked in shipwreck salvage operations, and with postal carriers who could deliver mail only by using hovercrafts.

Unlike Reality TV, there aren’t thousands of people desperately trying to do anything to be on camera and become almost-famous. They aren’t willing to humiliate themselves by eating live bugs, swapping wives, exposing their weak vocals to snippy judges, jumping off buildings, or plotting intricate revenge schemes. To get Alaskans even to agree to be on television often took “a bit of an effort,” says Beach. He says the people “just did their jobs. They didn’t think anything they did was special or newsworthy; certainly not entertaining.”

Unlike Reality TV that depicts two-dimensional characters—“they can be fun if you’re reading Dickens or a comic book”—the people in “Tougher in Alaska” are real. “We wanted to communicate the humanity of the people of Alaska,” says Beach. Unlike the stereotypes the people in the “Lower 48” may have about Alaska, Beach was going to demythologize some things. “The weather is tough. The workers are tough,” he says, “but they’re not brainless animals.” The series shows toughness— and intelligence, humor and humanity. “My subjects don’t play to the cameras,” he says. “They do their jobs. We work with them. We get a story.” Beach says he wanted his audience to see an organic whole, “to look at the people and their families, their work, their struggles, their lives.” Because of the sparseness, Alaskans have learned they “just gotta do it, you gotta find it, make it, fix it by yourself,” he says.

Reality series often have crews of dozens, including chefs to cook for them. “The Tougher in Alaska” A-team crew was Beach, a director of photography (Dan Lyons), audio recordist (Joe Laney), and a field producer (Mike Rozett). All four carried cameras. “The real test,” says Beach, “is that the production company staff did real research and advance scouting work, so when we went into a location there was never a story that was forced.” The story, says Beach, “is the awesome nature of the subject, of every character, of Alaska itself and the challenges that Alaska produces. “The basic elements—Alaska and the workers—added up to a good enough story that we didn’t need to make up anything,” says Beach.

Working with the people of Alaska meant working in some of the harshest weather on earth. “It’s 50 below, and we’re driving up the Haul Road,” says Beach. “I’m in a big rig, pulling 36 inch diameter pipe, and the crew is out there filming. They’re not Hollywood boys. They’re workers, and every one of them worked as hard as I did.” It didn’t take long, says Beach, for the Alaskans to realize there wasn’t any difference between them and the story tellers. Against wind and temperatures that dropped to 20 below, Beach and his crew helped linemen restore electricity to Kasugluk, one of the most remote villages in the nation’s most remote state. With temperature in the 80s during July 2007, Beach worked with crews on the Alaska Highway near Kluane Lake, near where Army construction crews working from the north and south met to complete the original 1,400 mile highway in 1943. Like the workers, whether they were soldiers during World War II or public works employees in 2008, Beach helped dynamite rocks, drove bulldozers, graders, and dump trucks.

In the final episode, filmed over several months, with temperatures ranging from the mid-80s to 70 below, Beach and his crew worked with the Alaska State Troopers. They traveled in cars, snowmobiles, trucks, helicopters, fixed wing aircraft, inflatable fast boats, and 32-foot patrol boats. In June 2007, with temperatures hovering in the 40s, Beach and his crew, after extensive training, experienced arctic survival. “We were pushed off a boat, and had to swim to shore on an island and survive for two days,” says Beach, as matter-of-factly as if he were going for a dip in the spa swimming pool.

“Nothing was constructed for this show,” says Beach. “Nothing was set up; no one was paid to do anything. We don’t compress or extend time, or use trickery,” says Beach emphatically. Unlike the macho-hosts of similar reality series, Beach isn’t afraid to allow viewers to see him make mistakes, even get injured doing the job. “Selective editing could make me to be a ‘hero’,” says Beach, “but that would be Reality TV and not reality. It would also take away the humor, which is a crucial part of humanity.”

Airing about the same time as “Tougher in Alaska” is the Discovery Channel’s “The Alaska Experiment,” a seven episode series which the network describes as “Four groups of ordinary people attempt to live in the Alaskan wilderness for three months.” The media have already begun describing it as a “Survivors” knock-off. Beach doesn’t discount that show—“”history, Alaska is one big experiment—people coming here to make it,” he says. But, he contrasts “Tougher in Alaska” with “Man vs. Wild,” a Reality TV show that also airs on the Discovery Channel. Host Bear Gryllis, after appearing to be surviving harsh winters and desert summers, hypothermia and dehydration, actually “survived” in luxurious hotels when the day’s filming was over, according to the Times of London. Even some of the situations he faced while on camera were set-up and orchestrated for television.

Beach also swipes at “adventurers” who come to Alaska, lured by Reality TV series. “Alaskans will risk their lives to help others,” says Beach, “but it’s really stupid, and just plain impolite for people to come up here, not know what they’re getting into, and senselessly put others in a position to lose their own lives.” Some of the “adventurers” are journalists, looking for a “good story,” but not prepared for the genuine Alaska. “These are the Parachute Journalists,” says Beach, who points out, “They drop into an area, do a story, go home, and never understand the people of their circumstances.” Beach is unimpressed with national news coverage of issues, peoples, and cultures. “Igloos and Penguins” is his term, based upon an NBC-TV news show about the North Pole that included file footage of penguins, the closest of which, except for those in zoos, are about 12,000 miles to the south.

Geo Beach grew up in New England—“I’m a Swamp Yankee,” he says proudly. His mother became a counselor after graduating from Bennington College in 1953, a time when not many women went to college. His father graduated with honors from Western Reserve University (now Case-Western), and later completed a second bachelor’s degree in sacred theology from the Harvard Divinity School, and became an ordained Unitarian minister. He was a newspaper reporter (Boston Sunday Advertiser, Boston Record-American, Cleveland Press, Columbus Citizen-Journal), a radio news anchor (WEEI-AM, the CBS-owned station in Boston), and a syndicated columnist—“Saints and Sinners” was published by more than 200 newspapers over a 32 year period.

“I grew up in a house with a lot of books and discussions,” says Beach. Although encouraged to speak out, to challenge others and be challenged by them, he “had to show facts to back up his opinions,” something today’s media pundits and prognosticators often forget or deliberately sidestep.

Geo Beach’s own formal education stopped with graduation from the elite Phillips Exeter prep school in New Hampshire, where he was on the school newspaper and radio station, planning for a career in writing. He graduated early, and with honors, and accepted early admission to Brown, but never attended. “My brother and a hundred or so of my friends from Exeter were at Yale,” he says, “and that’s where I ended up.” But, because of Ivy League rules, he was forbidden to enroll at Yale for two years, so he became a “drop-in.” He became involved in theatre and writing, including regular publication in the Yale Daily News Magazine. After two years, he “just took off,” on a never-ending quest to experience life in order to find stories worth telling. His first stop was a year driving land rovers in the Sahara. “When I came back,” he recalls, “I was working enough on my writing that I just never enrolled.”

Over the next few years, he wrote poetry, fiction, newspaper and magazine articles—“anything and everything.” In his early-20s, he went to West Virginia, and began working on “Mountain Stage,” a new music show that would become the longest-running music show on public broadcast history. He later worked in Atlanta before exploring the Last Frontier.

In 1983, then in his mid-20s, he went to Alaska when a friend asked him to visit. “I was always attracted to the mountains,” he says, “and I missed the ocean when I was away from it too long.” But, when he got to Alaska, during the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, he found himself near Homer, at the southern end of Alaska Route 1. Around him were the Kenai Mountains. The Japanese currents that flow into Kachemak Bay give the area a warmth that is similar to that of New England. He had the water and mountains he so loved. “I thought I’d be up here a year,” he recalls, “but time spins around a little different at the top of the planet.”

During the past 25 years, Geo Beach, like his father became a columnist. The Alaska Press Club honored him as the state’s Best Columnist for his weekly “Top O’ the Planet” column in the Anchorage Daily News, the state’s largest newspaper. “It’s sorta on hiatus right now,” he says, noting the demands of his work on “Tougher in Alaska,” including a heavy demand to promote the series. But, he continues to write magazine articles and do the popular “Uncommontaries” for public radio, which earned him the prestigious Sigma Delta Chi medal from the Society of Professional Journalists. His commentaries have aired on National Public Radio’s “Living on Earth” and “All Things Considered,” and Public Radio International’s “Savvy Traveler” and “Marketplace.” He has also won an Atlantic Monthly poetry prize, top awards from the Pacific Northwest Press Association, and the Mencken Award for “independence of mind, fearlessness in reporting, excellence of style, and above all, intellectual liberty.”

But awards aren’t what drives him. “It’s journalism,” he says. “It’s telling the stories of people; it’s helping others see the world around them.”

Whatever Geo Beach’s next project is, readers, listeners, and viewers can be assured it’ll be real and, most assuredly, not Reality TV.

[“Tougher in Alaska” is seen 10 p.m., Thursdays, on the History Channel.]

Posted by Walter Brasch at July 28, 2008 10:00 PM | Guest Writings | Technorati links |