Filming of reality show near Petersburg could interfere with subsistence hunting

Little Duncan Bay
Little Duncan Bay and Duncan Canal as seen from Portage Mountain west of Petersburg. (File/KFSK)

“Outlast” is a survival show where contestants are dropped into the Alaska wilderness to compete for a $1 million cash prize — it’s kind of a “Hunger Games” for adults. It’s only had one season so far, filmed on Chichagof Island, and the competition was cutthroat. Acts of sabotage were commonplace between contestants — including, infamously, setting rival campsites on fire.

The U.S. Forest Service authorized Netflix and the BBC to shoot the second season of “Outlast” in Little Duncan Bay, a popular fishing, hunting and recreation area about 20 miles southeast of Petersburg.

Ray Born, Petersburg’s district ranger, said a few charter pilots, boat captains, caterers and borough officials told him that this would be an economic boon for the community.

“They’re bringing in about a million dollars into the community for this project,” said Born. “So, there’s economic value that way, as we look at it. And part of our mission is to help take care of the community.”

But not everybody in the community is happy — least of all, subsistence users.

“[It] seems misguided,” said Lee Gilpin, a Petersburg subsistence hunter. “There’s going to be some grumpiness.”

Gilpin was speaking from the exact location “Outlast” is set to take place. He was out hunting moose in late September and saw the film crew staking out the coast. He said he’s not thrilled about them setting up shop right in the middle of the Sitka blacktail season. He said it’s a high-traffic hunting spot — especially for local kids.

“My daughter grew up hunting in this area,” said Gilpin. “Every deer she’s ever killed has been inside the area that’s being discussed here. She’s not the only one. There’s a lot of kids in Petersburg that this is where they get to go deer hunting for the first time because the access is very, very easy.”

The federal government usually prioritizes the interests of subsistence over commercial users in rural areas — but not in this case.

In its decision memo, the Forest Service said the filming will affect access to subsistence resources within the proposed area. But the scale of the impact on subsistence is not significant within the overall traditional use area.

Bob Lynn sits on the Petersburg Borough Assembly, and his house overlooks Little Duncan. For weeks, he’s watched the film crew’s charter boats and planes come and go from the area. At an Assembly meeting in late September, he said he was concerned for local hunters — and for the safety of the contestants.

“I can see a conflict really quick here, where somebody gets shot — not intentionally, but it could happen,” Lynn said. “I think you might want to take a look at a different time of the year. I think we’re asking for some problems we don’t need.”

Bret Uppencamp oversees special use permits for the Petersburg Ranger District. He said the “Outlast” crew has to follow a long list of rules to use the area.

“Essentially, like, if they can cut trees down, or if they can have fires, how they’re going to dispose of human waste,” said Uppencamp. “And for wildlife interactions, like — they need to ensure they’re not overly harassing wildlife.”

Uppencamp said those federal stipulations amount to basic “leave no trace” principles, but there’s not much on the list that specifically pertains to safety.

The Forest Service opened up a week-long comment period to gather feedback on the permit. They notified about 450 interested parties on an email chain, and addressed Petersburg’s Borough Assembly and the local tribe, Petersburg Indian Association. About 50 people responded, and feedback was fairly mixed.

Subsistence users weren’t the only ones taking issue with the project. One commenter noted that the area is sacred to Indigenous people. Uppencamp said the district is looking into this claim, but he and Ranger Born believe the filming activities won’t compromise the physical integrity of the site.

Altogether, Born said it was a tough call to make — but the land doesn’t just belong to Petersburg locals.

“This is a relatively high-use area,” said Born. “A lot of people do go through there, but it’s not a closed area. Forest Service land belongs to all the American people. So, everybody has the right to be in there.”

Gilpin said it all feels a little exploitative — and that even if the “Outlast” crew “leaves no trace” on the land, they’ll leave behind a lost season.

“If you’re growing up … in Petersburg, you have one season of deer hunting that you can’t get to during high school,” said Gilpin. “That’s a quarter of your easy access hunting area, gone. A quarter of the time you can hunt has been put away so somebody could make a few dollars.”

And it’s not the first go around Petersburg residents have had with reality TV shows in their backyard. In recent years, some have opposed the Discovery series “Alaskan Bush People,” which they say casts the region in a negative light.

The “Outlast” cast and crew will film around Little Duncan until mid-November. By that time, one determined contestant will have won the season’s million-dollar prize — but some locals will have missed their chance to get a prize buck.

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