Judge Clark Douglas prefers the Creek of Eternal Doom.
A honeymoon adventure in Idaho's wilderness.
Most of PBS' Nature specials are crisp, professional productions made by seasoned nature documentary pros. However, River of No Return offers a change-of-pace by delivering a considerably more ramshackle, intimate production. While I certainly wouldn't want this sort of thing to become the norm for the series, it's an approach that works quite well for this particular episode.
The hour-long special is shot and hosted by Isaac Babcock, who works as a resident wolf biologist for the Nez Pierce tribe. He and his young wife Bjornen are both avid nature enthusiasts, so they've decided that rather than taking a conventional honeymoon trip to, say, Hawaii, they're going to spend a year in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. It's a park in Idaho so harsh and untamed that even Lewis and Clark felt the need to find a way around it. It's the largest roadless area which exists in the continental United States; a haven for wildlife of all sorts.
Over the course of the documentary, we observe as Isaac and Bjornen encounter animals of all sorts: wolves, coyotes, otters, elk and much more. We're given brief tidbits of information about the specifics of these creatures, but the documentary really comes to life when it delivers some of its more personal moments. We eventually learn that Bjornan suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, a condition which makes it exceptionally difficult for her to traverse the harsh landscape of the wilderness. However, she's unwilling to allow her condition to prevent her from experiencing the glory of nature, so she presses on regardless (though there are certainly moments in which the couple's progress slows to a halt when Bjornen is feeling particularly intense pain).
The greatest moment River of No Return presents is a beautiful mystery. An elk is injured, which in this part of the world means that the elk will soon become dinner for the wolves. However, just as a wolf is preparing to make an attack, a healthy elk intervenes and protects its injured comrade. This is certainly atypical behavior, and Isaac is awestruck by the sight. "If survival of the fittest is really the way the nature operates, then where is this compassion coming from?" he muses. He doesn't have an answer, but I couldn't help but recall the enigmatic scene in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life in which one dinosaur shows inexplicable compassion for another.
Though the documentary demonstrates some unique qualities, there are moments when you'll wish someone a little more experienced was at the helm. The narration (mostly from Isaac, but occasionally from Bjornen) tends to be flat and uninvolved; it's a pretty dull reading of some generally well-written material. Additionally, the video quality tends to vary pretty dramatically—for every great shot of a baby wolf, we're given a pretty sloppy footage of something else. These two are passionate about what they do, but they're not always up to the task of conveying that effectively. Still, the flaws are outweighed by the virtues.
The DVD transfer is perfectly satisfying, delivering pretty impressive detail whenever the footage being used is actually strong enough in and of itself. A lot of stuff does look blurry or rough, but that's the nature of the documentary. The Dolby 5.1 Surround audio track is similarly hit-and-miss depending on the original quality of the material, but the gentle score gets a decent mix and most of the dialogue doesn't require subtitles. As usual for Nature releases, there are no extras included.
River of No Return is a reasonably satisfying episode of Nature, albeit one that has different strengths and weakness than most installments. It's worth a look.
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