Meet Alberta Conservation Association

Alberta Conservation Association collection of footage represents 30 years of nature and wildlife footage — one of Canada’s largest collections of such footage. It’s a uniquely historic encapsulation, shot on 16 mm and featuring hard-to-find species. While the original film is now protected, its digitized files live on at Dissolve.

When Alberta Conservation Association purchased the rights and footage of Karvonen Films in 2012, it was a natural fit. Albert Karvonen’s award-winning nature footage collection spans 30 years and is one of Canada’s largest natural history film collections. And for 20 years, Alberta Conservation Association, a non-profit organization, has conserved and protected fish, wildlife, and habitat in Alberta. Now it has protected Karvonen’s historic footage as well.

A lifelong love

While Karvonen Films was founded in 1976, its origins and inspiration date back much earlier. “My real attachment to nature and wildlife started in childhood,” says Albert. Raised on a farm in the Hollow Lake district of Alberta, he grew up working the land and caring for the livestock. Trees needed to be cut down to make way for crops. Cows needed to be milked — but first chased out of the bush. “I call myself a naturalist. That stems from being brought up in a rural area, on a farm, with all the animals,” he says.

In university, Albert found another inspiration, in the person of Cyril Hampson. Cyril was a professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta, specializing in science. He used to lead expeditions to Beaverhills Lake to see migrating geese and ducks. Albert was fascinated by Cyril’s photography and slide presentations. “He was a wonderful naturalist,” recalls Albert, “and my mentor from a theoretical point of view.”

Albert spent 24 years in the classroom as a teacher and principal, sharing his love of the outdoors with his students. He formed bird clubs in his schools and took students on field trips to his acreage to observe the local wildlife, including flying squirrels. In 1975, Albert resigned as principal. In 1976, he founded Karvonen Films. He was ready to pursue his first love full-time.

What followed was 36 years of nature photography and filmmaking spanning every continent except Antarctica, producing over 120 wildlife films for television worldwide. Albert and his wife, Pirkko, surrounded themselves with a team of subcontractors passionate about nature, from scientific consultants to narrators to directors. (He admits that having a director is “maybe overkill when you’re working with nature.”) He once got a personal letter from Robert Redford, unfortunately rejecting a request for him to narrate a film.

In the early years, they shot first on regular then super 16 film. By 2008, they were adopting HD, which presented its own challenges for independent filmmakers out in the field, who already had so much invested in film and gear. They had a couple 16 mm Arriflex cameras, for instance, each costing $150,000.

The company’s modus operandi was to shoot and record all the time, not necessarily for a specific film. They figured that once they got enough, they’d be, “Hey, we could probably do a film on black bears.”

Close encounters of the bear kind

Filming in nature presents unique challenges. “You can’t just say ‘I’m going to go make a nature film,’” says Albert. “You have to have a passion and experience it, perhaps for many years.” Having spent many years on the trail, Albert has had his fair share of “close encounters,” as he calls them.

On one 14-day trip to Hannington Pass, Albert never saw a bear for 13 days. On the last day, after a breakfast of porridge, he washed the pot and poured the water out. Catching wind of it, the bears decided to pay a visit. One was only about six feet from Albert — “I didn’t need my close-up lens” — and started ripping into the ground.

That’s when Albert started talking, nicely. “I said, ‘Oh, you know what? You’re okay. Everything is okay.’” He continued, “Oh, you’re quite the nice bear … I think you’re close enough.” And with that, the bear turned and walked away.

Obviously, if you’re going to be a wildlife filmmaker, you can’t be scared. Nice-talking only goes so far. “Fear doesn’t work,” Albert says. “They can smell it.”

Now 86, Albert lives in a lakeside forest. He takes a daily nature walk, or cross-country skis in winter, and regularly enjoys close encounters with bears. He still talks nicely to them.

A national treasure preserved

Recognizing the collection’s historic value, Alberta Conservation Association donated the Karvonen Films collection to the Provincial Archives of Alberta — more than 1,000 hours of footage. The original film reels are now stored in a controlled environment, while their digitized files live on at Dissolve.

Alberta Conservation Association continues its important work in the province of Alberta as well. Celebrating 20 years of conserving, protecting, and enhancing wildlife, fish and habitat for Albertans to enjoy, value, and use, the association is working on projects such as stocking fish in over 60 lakes, pronghorn-fencing research, securing new land, and hosting Canada’s largest hunting festival. Find out more about Alberta Conservation Association.

See all footage from Alberta Conservation Association — it’s exclusive to Dissolve.