River of Bears

River of Bears is about the legendary McNeil River Alaska State Game Sanctuary. During the summertime it hosts the largest congregation of brown bears in the world. Bears come from hundreds of miles to the sanctuary to mate, raise cubs, and dine on the abundant sedge grass and salmon. On a typical day in July over fifty bears can be seen at the McNeil River falls, feasting on salmon desperately swimming upstream to spawn. The show tells the remarkable story of these bears as they prepare for the coming harsh Alaska winter, and the visitors and scientists who come every summer to see them. 

Run time: 24 minutes

Poster for River of Bears fulldome film

The Inspiration  

Another video of interest is Making River of Bears.

Accessible only by floatplane, the McNeil Sanctuary is recognized as one of the best bear viewing experiences in the world. The Alaska Department of Fish & Game limits the number of visitors to McNeil and carefully controls their activity, allowing the bears to act naturally "as if the humans aren't even there." This gives visitors an unprecedented view into bear behavior, including fishing styles, dominance play and raising of cubs. 

But the experience is limited to a lucky few. Every year over eight hundred people apply for only 120 permits. And most of these go to Alaska residents, making a visit to McNeil one of the most challenging feats for the wildlife enthusiast from outside the state. The goal of River of Bears is to use the immersive technology of fulldome theater to give the viewer the sensation of being at McNeil, to share in this amazing experience that so few get to experience firsthand. 

How it Was Made 
River of Bears is the first live-action wildlife documentary shot in the fulldome format. Using a Freedom 360 camera, immersive video was shot in all directions to give the sensation of what it is like to be in the small group of visitors watching bears. Video obtained through telephoto lenses is also used to show bear behavior "up close", as you might see with a pair of binoculars. 

To ensure that the bears don't develop a fear of humans (and therefore stay away), all visitor behavior at McNeil is carefully controlled. Every day a small group of ten people, led by an Alaska Fish & Game guide, watches bears from McNeil River falls and other viewing locations. Bears don't like surprises, so the group moves slowly and predictably, as well as stay close together. For the making of River of Bears, our film crew was embedded in the group, giving viewers the same experience as the visitors. 

What to Expect 
You'll share in the sights and sounds of the McNeil experience, seeing what it is like when a bear approaches within ten feet of you in the wild! You'll learn from experts about the complex and subtle interactions between bears as they fish, graze and mate in close proximity. You'll learn about the unique personalities of the bears, including clever strategies to catch slippery fish in the raging McNeil River. And you'll see the profound impact the experience has on its visitors in learning about these often-misunderstood animals.

River of Bears is the first show of its kind for the fulldome theater. It is unlike anything you've experienced before. 

How to Learn More 
To learn more about River of Bears, including licensing for your planetarium, please contact us at planetarium@alaska.edu.