Even if you get some good looks at how big the United States is, you probably won’t see it captured much better than the 28-minute “Elk River.” With an ecologist, an artist, a photographer, plus some backcountry pack trip assistance, elk migration is the central theme.
“My petri dish is the greater Yellowstone ecosystem.” The ecologist does more than put tracking collars on elk. He does more than report that elk walked exactly here or that here involves nine separate migration routes across an area five times the size of Yellowstone National Park.
The documentary provides a marvelous sense of big panoramas that parse into one Rocky Mountain high after the next and the next. Personable human beings adventure the distances on horse and on foot without it feeling like it’s a story about them. They mimic the steep, stony, snowy elk route, including 6000-foot elevation gains and losses. They peer from a distance at elk grazing in low lying places and elk hunkering amongst formations at ridge tops.
“Camera traps” gather brief visual records (briefer because elk and bear knock over some of these static placements). Patient waiting yields a special close-up dynamic. The herd crosses a river torrent. You wonder if the elk wonder whether they’ll make it across.
In this film, there’s no river called the Elk. It’s the ecosystem’s flow being documented. It’s the feeling of a set of grand watersheds, big swaths of the United States that resist the feeling that the world is growing smaller.