The amazing wildlife of the Mississippi River.
Midway into the first episode of “America’s Mississippi” (begins Wednesday, 8 p.m., Smithsonian Channel), you’re confronted with a pair of eyes that seem to be looking warily, and a trifle beseechingly, into your own. There should be, by this point in the film, little that’s startling in the pictures of the wildlife along the river—we’ve already seen spectacular sights of wolf packs, of bald eagles awaiting their moment to swoop down on the ducks trapped in the icy water below, of a fearsome battle between two bull moose with huge antlers, and much more. Including the priceless beaver family busily engaged in felling trees and related engineering.
But here, nonetheless, are these eyes with their strange look jolting in its familiarity. They belong to a young black bear, age 2, who’s been moved by a deceptive ray of stray sunshine that reached him in his hibernation cave, and moved him to crawl out. Once outside, he’s alone—he pokes at the frozen ground, which yields nothing to eat. Soon there’s the sound, and the sight, of his mother, calling him home. Obedient, he returns and heads back toward the cave, but not before we catch sight of that look, a compound of resignation and resistance, the end of daring impulse. Anyone who has lived with dogs will recognize it. The bear casts a last piercing glance—it’s caught in close-up—at the outdoors he’s leaving before lumbering back into the den.
This visually astonishing three-part series (produced by Red Rock Films) yields encounter after encounter with specimens of river wildlife so intensely detailed, so immediate, it may be impossible ever to think of the Mississippi again in the same way—as, that is, America’s great river. The first thing to recognize about this documentary titled “America’s Mississippi” is, indeed, that while there’s plenty of basic information about the river, this is in fact a work almost entirely focused on the immense world of living creatures it nurtures.
The opening episode addresses the river’s origins—a Minnesota lake now called Itasca. The drama of those origins—the smallish overflow that became so mighty a force—is enormous, and the film’s writers make the most of it. The Mississippi’s beginnings, at the Minnesota lake, suggest no hint of what it will become as it drives its way through the American heartland for 2,300 miles before entering the Gulf of Mexico. Before reaching that destination it will have drawn water from 31 states.
Each episode establishes the essential facts about the river’s origins, its pathways. There’s oddly little, however, on the cities along its route, though there’s a noteworthy pause for the Civil War history of Vicksburg, Miss.—the last major Confederate-held city on the river. In 1863, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant led 17,000 troops there, in the largest amphibious operation in American military history up until Normandy. That Union victory won control of the river, the film’s narrative declares, and ultimately the war.
The stops for history may be few in this story of the Mississippi, but the depth of illuminating detail, the irresistible life and distinctiveness the filming confers on every creature on which it trains its cameras, is more than enough compensation for such shortcomings. That holds true the length of this series filled with wonders, among them the great rocklike mass that is the alligator snapping turtle—the one onstage here is 50 years old and, we learn, will likely live 50 years more. He weighs roughly 150 pounds, a creature whose hunting enterprise consists of lying still on the river floor with his mouth wide open so that the worm-shaped appendage on his tongue can lure curious fish into the great darkness that is his mouth. And lured in those fish are, as we are shown.
The American gator we meet is up to more productive pursuits—she’s an expectant mother, a zealot guarding her eggs, stored under a nest of grass. The film captures the hatchlings breaking out of their shell casings, and an exquisite sight those gator babies are. Theirs is an intriguing incubation process—one in which the temperature of the nest determines the gender. Below 86 degrees ensures all females, while 92 degrees or above produces males, the film informs us. If the American gator young survive the first year or so—they’re vulnerable prey—they can reach maturity at an imposing half a ton in weight and 14 feet in length—fitting for the breed considered the top predator of the bayou.
Every denizen of the river world is engaged in a struggle for survival, none more affectingly than the red fox of the final episode—a new father of four who searches every inch of landscape for prey to bring home. He has mouths to feed—his young won’t be old enough to hunt for themselves for seven months. He stalks the land agile, skilled and a glorious sight—one among many in “America’s Mississippi.”