After my recent trip out to Wyoming, I re-watched a favorite documentary of mine on PBS after eight hours+ at my day job and then some side work, too.
After such a full day, a documentary viewing was a nice way to relax and remind myself why I work. It is not for the employee engagement surveys. 😉
I chuckled as I was rewatching the documentary. The very overlook and even the actual outcropping where I took some sunset photos was recognized.
As I was watching the documentary last night, it occurred to me others may enjoy some of these documentaries as well.
It should be noted I play loose with the outdoor documentary definition. Some are about the ecosystem itself; others are about some history within the defined ecosystem. Some of these documentaries are about travel. And some of these documentaries combine all these aspects into one delightful viewing.
As of this writing, all these documentaries may be streamed. Some even for free.
There are other excellent ones out there, too. But these are a few I’ve enjoyed for various reasons. Maybe you will, too?
- The Sagebrush Sea is an area of over 500,000 square miles extending across the western United States. The PBS documentary by the same name looks into this diverse ecosystem that is teeming with wildlife and vast spaces. The other nickname for this area is “The Big Empty” for a reason! It is wildness in the truest sense. As with The Great Plains, this area is threatened by energy exploration and growth. Splendid cinematography along with a presentation that adroitly sums up the issues being faced by this ecosystem. Available for streaming on PBS Nature.
- Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild is a fantastic, two-part documentary on what I believe to the most definitively American of all our landscapes and ecosystems. Similar issues explored in the documentary above but in more thorough and nuanced manner. The highlight of this documentary are the exquisite photos by Michael Forsberg. Available for streaming on Amazon and iTunes.
- Speaking of The High Plains, the Dances with Wolves overview by History Buffs is an interesting overview of not only the movie itself but the history of the area, a quick discourse on the environment and wildlife in The Great Plains, the grievances of the Sioux, and the current controversy over DAPL. Perhaps the most nuanced, concise, and well-researched overview of all these facets is by a British YouTuber! As an aside, the History Buffs YouTube channel is excellent for anyone who enjoys movies, history, and the discussion of said movies from a historical viewpoint. Available for streaming on YouTube.
- Remains of the River reminds me of many of the more engaging thru-hiking accounts. Meaning lush scenery, memorable stories, and funny moments. But rather than hiking a well-known trail, Remains of the River is an account of hiking and paddling the 1700 mile Colorado River from headwaters in the Wind River Range until where it peters out at the Gulf of California. A bit like River by Colin Fletcher from an earlier time and medium. But the documentary goes beyond a thru-paddle narrative and encompasses the political, environmental, and historical conflicts found along this endangered river. Available for streaming on YouTube and Vimeo.
- Deep Water is the engaging, and harrowing, documentary of Donald Crowhurst’s 1969 “sail around the world.” I use quotes because a cursory look at Crowhurst’s Wiki page will hint at the madness he plunged into when his lies caught up with him before his disappearance. The documentary spells out the madness more. And the repercussions for Crowhurst’s family, too. A sympathetic view overall. A Hollywood movie starring Colin Firth will also be coming out this summer. Available for streaming on Netflix and Amazon.
- Unbranded is a remarkable documentary. A unique 3000-mile journey, on horseback, taking in portions of the Arizona Trail, the CDT, and self-made routes. The journey has the expected gorgeous scenery but also portrays how emotionally daunting such a journey can become. This journey was done with Mustangs and also highlights the issues and history surrounding these iconic Western animals. Available for streaming on iTunes and Amazon.
- The Barkley Marathons: The Race that Eats Its Young would seem to be an unusual title for to me to include. I can appreciate the athleticism of ultrarunning, but do not find it engaging to watch. And my overall ultra experiences were very short lived. But you know what? You watch this documentary, and you see camaraderie, grit, quirkiness, and a tale well told that makes you (dare I say) happy at the end. Available on Amazon, Netflix, iTunes, and Vudu.
- 180° South is about recreating a road trip done by two climbing bums in the 1960s. The name of these climbing bums? Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins. Also known as the founders of Patagonia and North Face. Two gentlemen who pioneered climbing routes and forever changed the retail outdoor market. The makers of this film go on an intriguing adventure in their own right. And cover a little bit of history of the climbing and outdoors, too. My favorite part of this documentary just may be Yvon Chouinard’s quote towards the end of the documentary: “If you compromise the process [of planning an expedition], you’re an asshole when you start out and you’re an asshole when you get back.
Indeed. Available on Amazon, Netflix, and iTunes,
- The Great Unknown is an engrossing account of multi-winning Iditarod and Yukon Quest dog musher Lance Mackey. Nicknamed the “Comeback Kid” for not only his wins but also for overcoming the many personal issues he has faced over the years. A great documentary. Just watch it. Available for streaming on Netflix.
- Ken Burns’ The Dust Bowl is a documentary of one of the worse ecological disasters in modern history. Certainly not an easy watch, but much like Cadillac Desert, all persons who love the American West should heed the lessons told. When hubris meets natural and financial disasters, a tale is told that cuts deeps. The personal accounts of the survivors of The Dust Bowl are emotionally gripping more than seven decades after the events take place. The Dust Bowl also shows the parallels for today that we are repeating with our modern hubris. Next to The Civil War, The Dust Bowl may very well be Ken Burns’ best documentary. But at a relatively short four hours, more easily watched. Available for streaming on Amazon.
The Barkley Marathon was a surprisingly entertaining movie, my favorite of the ones on the list that I have seen. My favorite outdoor movie is Touching the Void. Not a documentary but a true story told by the men who lived it. I thought it was completely mesmerizing and completely unbelievable, except it really happened. Just don’t watch it with a loved one before you head out to climb a mountain.
I saw that one a few years ago. Very good!
Mile, Mile and a Half is a good little documentary of the JMT. It’s one of my favorites that I’ve watched several times. The people, the quirky music, the camaraderie; it’s a great doc.
I watched it before. Thought it was OK. But, many people do seem to like quite a bit. 🙂
You should check out some of Werner Herzog’s documentaries if you haven’t already. Grizzly man is the most explicitly outdoorsy but he has a new one about volcanoes that’s great too.
I loved his one on Antartica: Encounters at the End of the World. Ebert had a wonderful review.
(As an aside, I miss Ebert’s writings!)
I’ve got to get my .02 in here: Journey On the Wild Coast. Makes most other thru hikes look soft. Seriously. I watched it on Amazon, but it does not seem to be currently available. Just take my word on this one.