Peak TV be damned.
The most exciting and inspiring show on television has been quietly trucking along for close to three decades, without succumbing to the whims and fashions of shifting TV trends. And it’s made right here in Oregon.
Now in its 29th season, Oregon Field Guide is more than a local nature program. It’s the most effectively realized reflection of the Northwest that’s out there—a thriving and evolving document of Oregon’s wildest corners (and beyond), its most breathtaking scenery, and its most at-risk ecosystems.
The show is Oregon Public Broadcasting’s longest-running original program, becoming nothing short of a jewel of the state over the years, and despite its enormous appeal and accessibility, it remains more or less unique in the national television landscape. Oregon Field Guide focuses, without flash or agenda, on the immense canvas that is the world outside Oregonians’ doorsteps—the wildlife, recreation, geologic phenomena, and ecology found in the landscapes that surround us, and the people who make it their life’s work to study and preserve it.
“It was initially the idea of a fellow with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife,” says longtime host Steve Amen, who got the show off the ground back in 1988. “And they wanted an outdoor magazine show that didn’t really deal with controversies or any real issues—they didn’t want to tick anybody off. They’re a state agency and I don’t blame ’em. They have enough pressure. But that’s not what we wanted; we wanted to be able to look at issues. So when we decided that we were going to go ahead with it, Fish and Wildlife said, ‘It’s yours, we wish you the best.’”
When Amen announced his retirement this year, it marked one of the biggest shifts in Oregon Field Guide since the show began. Amen has been the recognizable face and voice of Field Guide, but as he’s quick to point out, the show has always been the work of a larger team of producers, photographers, and editors. One of those, producer Ed Jahn, has succeeded Amen’s place at the helm of Field Guide for the show’s 29th season, and he’s ready to carry on its mission—a mission that’s made possible by the full weight of support from OPB, and the trust that’s placed in the show’s producers to know what will make for a good story.
“This is what makes the job so addictive,” says Jahn. “Because you know what the goal is, and you can kind of just go. You don’t have to go through 10 tiers of management and try to figure out what advertiser you’re appeasing, you know? There’s no criterion other than: ‘Is this a great story, in the outdoors, in the Northwest?’ I mean, that’s a big umbrella. From there you can go anywhere.”
Field Guide underwent another big change this year with the addition of filmmaker Ian McCluskey to the show’s full-time staff. McCluskey had worked at OPB as an associate producer and line producer years back, but more recently he’s followed a career as an independent documentary filmmaker, responsible for work like Voyagers Without Trace and The Echo of Water Against Rocks: Remembering Celilo Falls, as well as founding the arts nonprofit NW Documentary. Taking on McCluskey was an easy choice for OPB, even though hundreds of hopefuls applied for the position.
“His storytelling is exactly what we wanted,” says Amen. “Ian has the same kind of passion for telling other people’s stories that we share. That’s always been our goal—for us to get out of the way and let the people tell their own stories, and then share them with everybody else.”
McCluskey’s more than an empathetic storyteller—he has the necessary taste for adventure, too. His first piece for Field Guide aired recently in the season premiere, and it saw him following three cross-country skiers around the perimeter of Crater Lake at the snowbound height of winter. The days-long journey looked cold, wet, and grueling, and he went with them the full distance.
On a bright, sunny morning at the end of June, I meet McCluskey, along with camera operator Nick Fisher and assistant producer Lexi Kaili, at a marina near the I-205 bridge in Oregon City. They’ve chartered a boat to follow a pair of wildlife photographers who are kayaking to the base of Willamette Falls, just a mile or so upriver. Those photographers, Jeremy Monroe and David Herasimtschuk of Freshwaters Illustrated, are going to the waterfall to document a unique yearly phenomenon: the run of Pacific lampreys as they wriggle, suck, and pull themselves up the churning falls to get to their mating grounds upstream. Oregon Field Guide is tagging along.
There’s already a sense of excitement in the air. The day is shaping up to be a gorgeous one, and we’re about to go to a place few people can access. Willamette Falls—the second largest waterfall in the US, in terms of volume—is a prominent Oregon landmark, and yet most only get the chance to see it in its entirety from a highway viewpoint hundreds of yards away. Surrounded on both sides by functioning and derelict paper mills, a PGE power station, a decommissioned lock system, and other hulking structures, Willamette Falls is a fascinating collision of industry and nature, but most of the buildings are either privately owned or closed to the public, preventing direct access from the shore. Intrepid kayakers who have the muscle can paddle up reasonably close to where the tens of thousands of gallons of water crash onto the rocks below, but for obvious safety reasons, it’s prohibited to actually get right up into the base of the falls. It’s loud. It’s violent. It’s slippery and rocky and primeval. And that’s where we’re going.
“Think of it like a Jacques Cousteau film,” McCluskey says before we head out—fittingly, he’s wearing a Cousteau Society red knit cap. The team has done a large amount of prep work before the shoot, but there’s still an air of suspense around the possibilities of the day. Fortunately, the small crew is lean and nimble enough to follow Monroe and Herasimtschuk all the way up into the froth. Willamette Falls acts as a biological funnel of sorts, concentrating the lamprey run and making it one of the few places where it can be observed in a meaningful way; the prehistoric creatures use their suction-cup mouths to cling to the rocks in the falls, and then leap up the 40-foot basalt walls in gradual increments. Ordinarily, Pacific lampreys are rarely seen, but their exposure during spawning season makes Willamette Falls at the cusp of summer the ideal place and time to document them.
But what’s even more fascinating than the lamprey run is the massive waterfall itself. It cuts a giant, jagged, foaming gash in an otherwise relatively calm stretch of the Willamette River, and the remnants of industry on its shores are spooky, almost post-apocalyptic. As we make our way closer, the buildings tower silently over our boat, like the underside of a disused metropolis that’s been forgotten entirely. But the Falls remain a powerful source of life and motion in spite of the decay around them, and as the river turns into churning rapids, we feel the spray coming off the Falls as our ears fill with its deafening roar. Great blue herons and sea lions congregate to feast on the fish and lamprey, and it becomes impossible to ignore the sheer force of life that thrives beneath all the chaos. It’s thrilling to realize Willamette Falls has been exactly like this for thousands of years.
There will be more to the story McCluskey’s working on than photographing the lamprey run. As with many Field Guide segments, the scope continually expands, even as they’re filming. The crew will return for another day’s shooting to document the annual lamprey harvest with the Begay family of the Yakama tribe, one of a small number that have treaty rights to access the Falls for the ceremonial event. It’s a dangerous undertaking: The rocks are slippery—and so are the lamprey, requiring textured cotton gloves to grab a hold of.
Today, too, poses its own challenges, not the least of which is getting as close as possible to the Falls. Fisher manages some amazing work with a large camera on his shoulder, even stepping out of the boat onto some boulders to get a more stable shot. Monroe and Herasimtschuk both have GoPros, and their footage will be intercut with Fisher’s for the finished piece. Later in the day, the crew will meet with a guide to tour some of the neighboring buildings, to get a greater sense of the site.
The expanding nature of the Willamette Falls story is typical of how Field Guide pieces come together, and tips for new stories can come from anywhere. “When I was working in commercial news,” Amen says, “most of the time, if I ever heard about a story, it was never good. And here, it’s never bad.
“Almost every time I’d go out in the field with Field Guide,” he continues, “I’d be told about another story. It’s unending. You’re talking about this, and they go, ‘You know, if you just went around the corner and talked to Bill...’ and there’s another great story. I kept waiting for that story conference where we all get together and pitch stories for the next year, and I’m looking at a bunch of blank faces. And we never hit it. Because there are just so many of them.”
Jahn provides a rough outline of the process from idea to finished story. “You do your research so you know what the story is, and you do good phone interviews in advance, so you kind of know the aspects you want to pull out of the story. But when you go out in the field, you have to let it unfold in certain ways. You have a plan—say, we’re going to see them in the lab, we’re going to go collect this thing out in the field, we’re going to go see this wildlife—but you give it the space and try to reflect the character of the person you’re with, or if it’s a great landscape you’ll really draw attention to that. It is more like documentary filmmaking in a real sense, where you look at what you have and say, ‘Okay, this is the story we got out of this, and now I’ll shape it.’ We never go out with a script in advance and shoot to it.”
Amen often recounts the time when OPB management asked the crew to put magnetic signs saying “Oregon Field Guide” on the side of the van to help promote the show. “It lasted for, like, two days,” he laughs, “because people just kept stopping and wanting to talk about how much they loved the show and what we were doing and, ‘Oh, maybe you should do this.’ The crew couldn’t get any work done, so we came back to OPB and said we have to take them off!”
The show’s connection with its audience, and its commitment to presenting all sides of an issue without a prescribed agenda, has earned the Field Guide a unique level of trustworthiness over the years. When their subjects feel they’re being represented fairly and accurately—something that’s difficult to do in a sound-bite-style network news segment, for instance—it opens up further gates of access for the show’s producers.
“We’ve been able to stay in touch with the story that people give us rather than the story that we want,” Jahn says. “And that’s really important when you’re dealing with communities that feel like they’re being used to support some other operation, or some other show style. If I’m doing a story where the ranchers are branding cattle, for example, I’m going to reflect what is in front of me. I’m not going to tie it to some news peg about some bigger, broader political social issue. It’s like: Capture this, because people haven’t seen this.
“And you can learn a lot by having a steak and a beer with a rancher,” he adds.
In September, I meet McCluskey and editor Lisa Suinn Kallem at OPB’s offices and studios, where they’re shaping the Willamette Falls footage into a nine- or 10-minute segment for broadcast. There’s a lot in the story that I haven’t seen, including underwater shots of the lamprey and footage from the day of the harvest. Suinn Kallem is using Adobe Premiere to aggregate all the available pieces, including video, audio, and still photographs from the Oregon Historical Society.
Some pieces are still missing, including an underwater shot of salmon that will help illustrate some key points in the story. (They’ll find what they need in OPB’s archives.) McCluskey pencils out some thoughts for a final voice-over to bring the piece to a close. Suinn Kallem checks the levels of the audio, making sure the peaks match—not an easy task for interview footage that has the roaring Falls in the background—and it becomes clear that there’s a lot more to assembling a Field Guide piece than sticking a camera outside and hoping for the best.
I’m struck by how large the scope has gotten; there’s a fascinating chunk on the history of the Falls, which was the site of some of the first electricity on the West Coast. At the moment, the story also includes background on the surrounding paper mills, which used to process acres of Oregon timber into newspaper for much of the country. There are some happy accidents in the editing process, too: A historic photograph lines up almost perfectly with a contemporary shot of the Falls—making for an extraordinary, unplanned time lapse—and McCluskey and Suinn Kallem spend a few minutes trying to see if they can make it work.
I’m also struck by how much the story needs to be squeezed down into a finished segment. The editing process usually takes five or six days, and I’m of the opinion that they have enough here to fill an entire half-hour. But Suinn Kallem keeps the story focused on its most important ingredients, acting as a sounding board to McCluskey and providing an unbiased opinion. It’s a much bigger story than it was at the start—through research and continued inquiry, a wide-ranging portrait of Willamette Falls has begun to emerge.
“This story is reflective of Field Guide’s spirit in that we’re trying to look at a place that people don’t necessarily know,” McCluskey tells me, and I feel fortunate to have been able to join them for part of the shoot. But it also raises a larger question about the show’s impact on the environment. Whenever Field Guide does a piece on a beautiful spot or a rare phenomenon in nature, it can function as an advertisement, and may give viewers the idea to seek it out for themselves.
A lot of the time, that’s great. But sometimes, it’s not so great. The recent human-started fire in the Columbia River Gorge is just the latest example of the potentially devastating impact of crowds in natural areas, but there’s always been a danger in exposing wild places to a wider television audience. I ask how these concerns come into consideration.
“We have that conversation in the halls every single day,” Jahn says, “in both looking at within stories that we’re doing, and how we approach them and what we do and don’t say. We’ve always been a field guide—exposing people to places in Oregon and great things to do—and we’re deliberate about which ones we can say, here’s how you get there and the ones where we’re not going to provide a map how to get there. I think with social media, with everything else, and the way you can GPS photos, it’s a bigger issue than us, but it’s something we have to pay much more close attention to because we don’t want to add to the problem.”
A perfect example is the 2016 story Field Guide did on Valhalla, a previously uncharted slot canyon in a remote part of the Cascades. The place is awe-inspiring, but getting there is incredibly difficult and dangerous—Field Guide did it with the careful guidance of experts—so the producers decided not to disclose exactly where on the map Valhalla could be found. Additionally, they deliberately aired the segment in February, when winter weather made access all but impossible.
“On a bigger scale, who are we to decide who gets to go where?” says Amen. “If it’s public land, it’s public land, and people have a right to know about it. But with every one of our stories, we really try to just simply stress the respect for the place that you’re going to. ‘Leave no trace’ sounds stupid, but that’s really what it’s all about. ”
The continued rapid growth of Portland—a big part of which is due to the city’s easy accessibility to the great outdoors—means the natural places the show covers are continually in flux. “It’s something that we take to heart,” McCluskey says. “We can’t stop the growth of Portland. It’s a bigger social zeitgeist—there’s REI stores and YouTube videos and, quite frankly, a lot of people with GoPros out there doing things they shouldn’t be doing. We can’t keep a lid on the sort of outdoor explosion, but what we can do is provide an intelligent, thoughtful, and respectful voice in that melee out there.”
That attitude is another example of Field Guide’s steady approach differing radically from how current media covers outdoors stories. “We’re not going to become the listicle show,” says Jahn.
With so much changing inside and outside of Portland—and ecological issues coming closer to the forefront of national consciousness with every extreme weather event—Jahn, McCluskey, and the rest of the Oregon Field Guide team are constantly evaluating the show’s role in an uncertain future. In the context of a presidential administration and Congress that’s decided to actively deny environmental concerns in favor of greasing itself up with donors from big businesses, Field Guide’s mission becomes more and more urgent every day. And it has the producers assessing how the show can continue to best serve the topics it covers.
“I think about this all the time,” says Jahn. “Because when you have a legacy show like this that people are still responding to, you don’t want to mess with the good stuff. And so the heart of the show, the character of the show, is really not going to change anytime soon. There’s no reason to. Most of what we think about is, ‘Okay, how do people receive us, and where?’ We think a lot about that—reaching people in different places and reaching different demographics and gaining more diversity throughout the show. But the heart and character of the show is a winning formula, and part of the reason is that no one else has been able to replicate it.”
“Growing up in Oregon,” McCluskey says, “Field Guide had been part of my life and part of the state’s identity. It relays stories out of the grassroots, and I feel very connected to that idea. Even when I was an independent filmmaker, I was telling stories of history and culture and underrepresented voices, so it always aligned with Field Guide’s mission. I have a great love for the state, a love of the rural roots, and Field Guide’s the only sort of program that bridges that connection. It’s not just science and nature, and it’s not just [interviewing] quirky rural people—but put it all together and it’s the face of Oregon.”
Indeed, it is tough to come away from an episode of Oregon Field Guide without feeling like you have a deeper understanding of the Northwest. There’s more to it than the sheer gorgeousness of the photography or the way the show uncovers incredible sites of nature, sometimes right in our backyards. It’s the sobriety and curiosity with which Field Guide approaches its subjects, and its best segments tap into something peaceful yet primal—a yearning, perhaps, to connect with one’s surroundings and to learn how to interact responsibly with them.
“How rare is it,” says Jahn, “to have a show that repeatedly and consistently can ride that line where we feel like we’re just telling the story, and all these different groups feel like it accurately reflects them? I’ve always felt this show is extremely rare in the media environment. Extremely rare. Look at what we are: science, wildlife, recreation, research; we get into issues, and we have this huge span of stories, and we have the Northwest to tell it in. What better place in the entire country is there to cover the environment, and to have a growing audience, and have success?”
“Oregon Desert Trails, Willamette Falls and Pyrosomes” airs Thursday, November 2 on Oregon Field Guide, OPB (Channel 10 in Portland), at 8:30 pm. All episodes of Oregon Field Guide’s current season and a huge selection of past episodes are available for streaming at opb.org and on the PBS app for Roku, Apple TV, Chromecast, and other streaming devices.