Alaska, Politics, Science

Behind the scenes of Reality TV special with Obama

President Obama took this selfie with Bear Grylls, with Exit Glacier in the background. From Obamas' Facebook Page.
President Obama took this selfie with Bear Grylls, with Exit Glacier in the background. From Obamas’ Facebook Page.

By Heidi Zemach for SCN-

Running Wild, Stranded in the Alaska Wilderness, the hour-long reality television show filmed while President Barack Obama was visiting Exit Glacier in Seward September 1st, airs Thursday evening, December 17th on NBC.  It airs at 10 p.m. EST.

Viewers won’t see the U.S. President doing the gross, sensational survival stuff that Bear Grylls’ reality show fans tune in for, like drinking his own urine, or eating strange raw foods, such as raw fish or fish eyes. The White House and Secret Service made sure those things wouldn’t happen prior to filming. And the two boil the water that Obama gathers off the toe of Exit Glacier. The National Park Service wanted the American president they were hosting to be safe, and to teach the future visitors that glacial water can contain giardia, and should be boiled or chemically treated.

But President Obama did take some real risks during filming while emphasizing the effects of Climate Change to a broader national audience, said Kristy Sholly, the chief interpreter for Kenai Fjords National Park Service.

The interpreter was on site, monitoring the TV show’s filming at Exit Glacier that day to assure that the park and its natural resources were protected, and that whatever took place that day would not impact the visitor experience.

Many armed Secret Service personnel  also were in the park that day, she said. They were nearby at all times, but stayed out of sight.

POTUS, Kenai Fjords National Park, NPS, KEFJ, 2015
POTUS, Kenai Fjords National Park, NPS, KEFJ, 2015

“I felt very safe that day,” Sholly joked, although  the Secret Service bodyguards and White House staff were more used to protecting the president from familiar city threats, and knew little about what to do if a bear or moose happened by.

A Blackhawk Helicopter also had circled over the closed park area prior to the President’s arrival, but due to park regulations prohibiting helicopters from landing in the park, could not land there.

They weren’t exactly “Stranded in Alaska,” as the TV show claims. But President Obama and Grylls did wander off the developed hiking trail, and did some bushwhacking through the backcountry alders, which seemed like wilderness to them and those who accompanied them. The park service had only that morning given the Secret Service a training in basic bear safety. A bear was spotted walking around the camping area later that afternoon, less than a half a mile from where the President and Grylls were filming, Sholly said.

During the show, Grylls talks to Mr. Obama about using bear spray, and demonstrates how to use it. Knowing how it can sting ones’ eyes and nasal passages, Sholly found watching that a little unnerving.


“It was a bit scary because there were people around. You couldn’t see them, but we all knew there were armed park rangers and Secret Service in the forest nearby. So when they were practicing with bear spray I was a little concerned about that because it drifts.”

The President also hiked down a pretty steep, uneven rock surface to access the toe of Exit Glacier, a location that the park service does not encourage visitors to go because of its dangers. The crew had built a temporary rope system with a railing for him to hang onto to meet that concern.

“Safety was really important to the secret service and the White House staff,” Sholly said. “It ended up he didn’t want to use it. The President was like, ‘I don’t need that.’” And he came down on his own.

“It was really interesting,” Sholly said. “They didn’t film him coming down the hill. It was happening fairly quickly. I think those who were there to protect him moved towards him.” Midway down, he and Bear Grylls stopped and took selfies. “It was really funny because it was on the way down, off the area where they were supposed to be, on a large flat rock with Exit Glacier right behind them. The president was standing there trying to get his phone to work. It took a while,” Sholly said.

KFNP map showing Exit Glaciers' retreat. Credit Kenai Fjords National Park
Map showing Exit Glaciers’ terminus retreat. Map credit Kenai Fjords National Park

Obama was surprisingly comfortable outdoors, although the American public rarely sees that part of him, Sholly said. While getting to the filming area he walked and talked with the park rangers and with KFNP Superintendent Rebecca Lassell, and asked many questions about Climate Change and related issues with park management. They came upon a marker with the year of his birth, 1961,  on it, and the graphic example of how far the glaciers’ toe had receded during the course of his lifetime made a big impact on the President. Earlier in the day he had visited a few other receding Kenai Fjords National Park glacier in Resurrection Bay, during a Major Marine Tours boat trip.

The president’s feelings are apparent in the reality TV show, as he talks openly with Grylls how he feels about Climate Change, and about the need to protect his own children and future generations. The Seward visit preceded the unprecedented global Climate Change accord in Paris by only three months.

The NPS doesn’t allow people to build fires outside the campground, Sholly said, but they did give permission for Obama and Grylls to use a Hexamine block, which heats up a piece of slate, enabling them to cook a salmon and make s’mores near the toe of the glacier. They also used it to boil water for alder tea, as gathering alder catkins (flowers) are an allowable activity in the park.

Unlike most celebrities Gryllss features, who are filmed all day long, Obama was filmed for only two hours, and the cameras never stopped rolling, nor were there any re-takes of scenes, Sholly said.

Five local guides from Adventure Sixty North, in Seward were hired by Alaska Film Services to run errands for the film crew in the days preceding the president’s visit, and assisted the production crew during filming. The Anchorage-based film company were looking for people with local backcountry knowledge, and experience with film production—which their guides (Sol DeMoss, Rachel Taylor, Bill Bruner and Jay Allyn ) all had, said Monica Chase, Adventure Sixty North’s general manager. The timing was especially convenient as the staff were unable to take visitors out on the water during the extreme winds that occurred just before the presidential visit.

“It was neat that the film company came to us and asked us to do it, and the timing worked out beautifully because we couldn’t get out on the water anyway, so it was perfect,” Chase said.

Chase, who doesn’t generally watch Reality TV, will make an exception Thursday night, as she watches a show made possible by the help of her employees in her own back yard. She and Sholly believe it will bring more visitors to Seward, as other Alaska location shows have done. “It can’t be anything but good for Alaska,” Chase said.