Main content

The Harriman Alaska Expedition Retraced

A century ago, railroad tycoon Edward H. Harriman, one of the most powerful men in America, decided to take a little vacation - in the form of one of the most ambitious scientific expeditions the world had ever seen.

He invited the top authorities in the country: geologists, botanists, foresters, ornithologists, paleontologists, zoologists, painters, photographers, writers - at least two of each, like a private Noah's Ark of knowledge - to join him on a 9000-mile exploration of the coast of Alaska. Many were famous -- John Muir, John Burroughs, and George Bird Grinnell -- and a few were still obscure - the young painter Louis Agassiz Fuertes and the unknown photographer Edward Curtis. For many of these brilliant men, the journey would alter their destiny.

Over a century later, Thomas Litwin of Smith College organized an expedition to follow the path of the original one. Again, it was stocked with a constellation of scientific brilliance, though this time they were both men and women. It was called the Harriman Expedition Retraced, and its purpose was simple: to go to exactly the same places and see what the effects of the 20th century had wrought on Alaska. 'What we are doing,' said historian William Cronon, 'is seeing this landscape at two moments in time. We're seeing it through that expedition in 1899 and seeing it at the beginning of the 21st Century and we're asking, 'What's the change? What are the dynamics of history that have brought us here, and what do they tell us about where we are headed?'

The film uses both expeditions as a vehicle for understanding subtle as well as dramatic changes in Alaska's environment, economy, and society. While thoroughly researching very specific and specialized issues that surface in Alaska's history - such as the Exxon-Valdez oil spill, the separation of kinfolk during the Cold War, the prosperity of Alaskan natives, and the repatriation of indigenous artifacts - the film also addresses the boom and bust of industry, global warming, endangered species, the state of natural resources, and the influx of tourism to the pristine edges of the world.

It was produced by the award-winning team of Larry Hott and Diane Garey of Florentine Films/Hott Productions, Inc., producers of 'The Boyhood of John Muir', 'The Wilderness Idea', 'The Adirondacks', and 'Wild by Law'. It presents a unique look at 100 years of change in Alaska, and in American attitudes towards the environment and indigenous peoples.

'Combines the best qualities of historical documentary, nature film, and investigative reporting on the modern-day environmental and social challenges faced by the people and ecosystems of coastal Alaska. Offering magnificent photography and compelling is a cinematic tour de force that no one should miss.' William Cronon, Frederick Jackson Turner Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison

'I thoroughly enjoyed watching this film, which masterfully catches the spirit of the original Harriman expedition...The photography is superb as is the assembly of the film.' Vera Alexander, School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, University of Alaska Fairbanks

'It's rare that a documentary film can encompass nearly all of environmental history and ethics in a mere two hours...The history of Alaska, since its purchase by the United States, provides a locus for examining nearly all the environmental issues facing the world today, from oil spills to overfishing, from deforestration to destruction of habitat. Too much for the viewer to handle? No way...It's a fast-paced voyage, full of wry jokes, lovely music, and wonderful wildlife.' David Tebaldi, Executive Director, Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

'A vivid demonstration of how the past can illuminate the present and future. By recreating the Harriman Alaska Expedition, the film shows the environment--and human attitudes toward it--changing over the course of a century...The film is beautifully shot and sharply written and edited. This is engaged historical and environmental filmmaking at its best.' Stephen Fox, author of JOHN MUIR AND HIS LEGACY

'The thing that most impresses the willingness to tackle thorny, sensitive, and complex issues about clearcut logging by Native corporations--an especially divisive conflict...No preaching. No sensationalizing. Just clear-thinking presentation of modern problems and their historical roots, engagingly addressed by people of conscience with a personal stake in differing solutions. What a treat! It engendered much discussion in our small group, and I feel sure it will do the same in living rooms, classrooms, and conference rooms across America and beyond.' Kesler Woodward, Professor of Art Emeritus, University of Alaska

'An excellent teaching tool for many age levels. The film offers teachers an opportunity for exciting, in-depth interdisciplinary work in the sciences, economics, language arts, cultural studies, ecology, history, geography, the arts, etc. Educators will be thrilled with this exquisite documentation of a slice of America over one century.' Doris J. Shallcross, Professor Emeritus, University of Massachusetts/Amherst

'This film exemplifies the best aspects of thoughtful inquiry: first-hand exploration, insightful engagement of history, and the construction of a narrative that raises as many important questions as it answers.' Carol T. Christ, President, Smith College

'Larry Hott ranks with the best documentary film makers today...especially when it comes to films about the environment. The Harriman Alaska Expedition Retraced has all the elements of a great Hott documentary: a compelling and swift-moving narrative that places contemporary Alaska in the context of history; humor and humanity, and stunning footage of the Alaskan wilderness.' Tom Lewis, author of Divided Highways , Professor of English at Skidmore University

'Well received and praised by over 100 Arctic enthusiasts, allowing them to use the film as a tool of understanding the North, our connection to the Arctic region, and respect for all living inhabitants of the fragile, yet dynamic environment.' Scott Pollock, Program Director, Arctic Film Festival Program, North House Folk School

'Beautifully presented, thoughtful and well organized, this documentary presents both an interesting, historical event in wonderful detail and examines the impact of industry and tourism upon the history, environment, wildlife, and native cultures of Alaska... appropriate for all grade levels in the areas of environmental sciences, natural sciences, sociology, visual arts, and anthropology.' Social Sciences Post Secondary, 2003 NAMTC/NMM Curriculum Media Reviews


Main credits

Hott, Lawrence R. (film producer)
Hott, Lawrence R. (film director)
Litwin, Thomas S. (film producer)
Garey, Diane (film producer)
Garey, Diane (screenwriter)
Garey, Diane (editor of moving image work)
Chowder, Ken (screenwriter)
Feldshuh, Tovah (narrator)

Other credits

Edited by Diane Garey, Tricia Reidy; cinematography by Allen Moore, Michael Chin, Stephen McCarthy; music by Richard Einhorn.

Docuseek2 subjects

Distributor subjects

American Studies
Climate Change/Global Warming
Earth Science
Endangered Species
Environmental Ethics
Indigenous Peoples
Marine Biology
Native Americans
Oceans and Coasts
Science, Technology, Society


Edward Harriman, Alaska, scientific expeditions, Smith College, John Muir, Edward Curtis,; John Burroughs, endangered species, environmental history, Exxon-Valdez oil spill, native americans, global warming, William Cronon, repatriation of indigenous artifacts, tourism, fisheries, history; "The Harriman Alaska Expedition Retraced"; Bullfrog Films

Related Films


A brilliantly innovative telling of the story of Dr. John Rae who discovered…

The Great Adventure

A five-month, 13,000 mile journey to record the impact of climate change…