Inside Karen Bass’ life as one of the very few female wildlife filmmakers

NatGeo’s Karen Bass’ life is enviable to say the least. While most of us are brainstorming Thanksgiving meals and preparing for the holidays, Bass is trekking through Madagascar on a monthlong adventure with her husband. She’s calling it a vacation but reckoning it will most likely turn into her next project.

Thus is the life of a documentary filmmaker.

During her time in the field, she’s traveled solo throughout the Middle East while working on a David Attenborough project and braced herself against Wyoming winters while filming Nat Geo Wild’s gorgeous new Wild Yellowstone, of which she is the executive producer. And while the tales she illustrates on-camera are certainly interesting, it’s some of her behind-the-scenes stories that shed the best light on her life.

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Anyone who has spent a decent amount of time in Yellowstone National Park has a grizzly bear story. From the tour guide who was charged by a bear while carrying a wolf’s head on his back to the bus of tourists watching a grizzly slumber atop an elk carcass a mere football field away, they are all encounters you never forget. However, Bass’ grizzly run-in is much more terrifying (and funnier) than most.

“Casey is watching for bears coming from behind us. And I’m holding the camera battery packs, so they don’t swing around and the cables for the phantom, so it’s not sliding into the river and getting wet. So, I’m in my waders, and I hear [heavy breathing, snorting noises]. I look at Casey’s face, who is someone well-known for knowing a lot about grizzly bears, and he’s going [eyes wide, jaws dropped]. And he goes to get his iPhone. So, I know it must be something big. And I look and, I kid you not, the face and the big black nose is right there.”

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The biggest concern? Why her bear spotter was reaching for his iPhone, instead of his bear spray. Bass quickly admitted, though, that Casey was right: She knew she was relatively safe, and she definitely wanted a picture with the massive bear, known as 747. Casey’s iPhone was dead, so no picture exists. But the look in Bass’ wide eyes leaves no room for doubt. She had a run-in with one massive grizzly.

Coming face to face with a grizzly seems terrifying, but it’s just another one of Bass’ great stories of adventure. It’s not always brave faces and good laughs, though. Sometimes it’s a broken leg from humping too much gear over tough terrain. And oftentimes, it’s just another game of hurry up and wait while Bass and her crew of guys stay settled in the brush or snow, crossing their fingers and hoping nature’s story will serendipitously unfold before them. And, yes, even with all the advances women have made, Bass is still practically a lone wolf amongst the men.

“It’s getting better,” Bass said of the gender diversity in filmmaking. “When I started about 30 years ago, there were practically no women. So, it’s definitely changing.”

Still, it’s not as cut-and-dry as picking any of the amazing female cinematographers out there. When working with wildlife, for better or worse, you have to consider brawn just as much as brains. Could Bass reasonably pick a new, untested girl to trek up mountains or into deserts with her, with hundreds of pounds of gear in tow, without knowing if she can handle the physically demanding aspects of wildlife filmmaking? And is it better for anyone if you’re hiring someone for the sake of gender diversity versus sticking with the guys you know can do the job?

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“I always try to create the best teams for the project or shoot irrespective of gender, age or any other consideration except ability to do the job, and the mix of skill sets, experience and personalities,” Bass shared. “These days, there are a lot more women in TV than when I started out. I have been lucky enough to work with some awesome women who have contributed to making great teams.”

In Bass’ most recent project, Wild Yellowstone, her name is one of the very few feminine names you’ll see when the credits roll. The doc is visually stunning, thanks to new filming techniques and the massive equipment Bass and Jackson Hole’s Brain Farm crew were able to haul into Yellowstone. The stories told are truly captivating. Yellowstone is a constantly changing ecosystem, and in this instance, it’s captured by a much ever-evolving group of people.

Check out Bass’ work and fall in love with Yellowstone when the film premieres on National Geographic Wild on Sunday, Dec. 6.

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