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PBS Wisconsin sends cameras airborne, underwater to capture Northwoods natural beauty

Ben Meyer
PBS Wisconsin videographer James Donovan films field producer Emily Julka, serving as a subject, on a paddleboard at Day Lake in Vilas County.

At 6:45 a.m. on a Wednesday last month, PBS Wisconsin videographer James Donovan sent a drone airborne above Day Lake in Vilas County.

It was a chilly fall morning, but the water temperature remained warm, so majestic fog rose off the lake.

“When the timing is right, when it does work out, you just kind of go, go, go as fast as you can [to capture the shot],” said PBS Wisconsin field producer Emily Julka, who stood nearby.

Julka herself was busy filming from ground level.

“When we are trying to capture the feeling of a place, fog is one of those things that can really visually bring a feeling of peace and stillness and place,” she said. “With a show like this where you’re trying to capture the feeling out in nature, you look for moments like that.”

The footage Donovan and Julka collect is taken from the air, from land, aboard a boat, and even underwater. It will become part of a documentary series called Wisconsin’s Scenic Treasures.

Laurie Gorman calls the series “a child of the pandemic.”

Last fall, when COVID-19 precluded PBS Wisconsin from filming in-studio, filming with groups, and long travel, the team decided on a novel approach.

It created a documentary that was shot all outdoors, all within two hours of Madison.

Ben Meyer/WXPR
Videographer James Donovan and field producer Emily Julka synchronize camera settings before boarding boats for filming.

“That was really the goal, to bring to light some of the well-known places, but also the lesser-known [places] that really are pretty close to where you live,” said Gorman, the series’ executive producer.

Wisconsin’s Scenic Treasures: Southern Vistas featured out-of-the-way wetlands and prairies and even Wisconsin deserts.

The documentary included no interviews and few people on camera, but instead had a rich soundtrack and striking visuals.

It went from idea to air in just nine months, an unheard-of timeline in the business.

“We never conceptualize an idea and then, within a year, turn out an hour-long doc,” Julka said.

“What we did last year was really satisfying because we pulled it off,” Gorman agreed. “We didn’t know we could.”

Ben Meyer/WXPR
Videographer James Donovan, field producer Emily Julka, and conservation biologist Thomas Meyer board boats filled with camera equipment at Day Lake.

The first Scenic Treasures was a successful pledge-drive fundraiser for PBS Wisconsin and generated plenty of chatter.

Extending the series was only natural.

“People got excited. We immediately got feedback that people wanted the northern part of the state covered,” Julka remembered. “Before it was even shown, people were like, when’s the North?”

Planning started in May, leading to the initial northern Wisconsin filming in September.

Ben Meyer/WXPR
Field producer Emily Julka uses a camera with underwater housing to capture footage from below the surface at Day Lake.

On that Wednesday at Day Lake, I watched Julka pull on a wetsuit, set to capture yet more angles of the pristine lake.

“I’m stoked for this shoot because we’re getting underwater,” she said. “This will be very cool.”

I didn’t come across PBS Wisconsin’s Northwoods field work at random.

My dad, Thomas Meyer, is a DNR conservation biologist based in Madison.

He helped select natural areas for the first documentary and suggested Northwoods shooting locations for this edition, including Day Lake.

““It is what we call a sterile rosette lake, or a very oligotrophic lake, meaning it is very low in nutrients,” he explained. “When you come out on Day Lake, you don’t see the typical kind of greenish algae-infused water. It is a very, very clear-water lake.”

The lake’s shoreline is protected as a State Natural Area, so there is no development.

That’s the concept behind the documentary: showing off lightly-traveled but beautiful places in the north.

“The idea was not to focus on places that everyone is familiar with. For example, Rib Mountain State Park is probably not going to make it into the show,” Meyer said. “[We look for places] that people might not be familiar with but that are kind of evocative of the Northwoods.”

What scenes might make it?

“Forests and lakes and fishing and paddling and great scenic vistas of forested landscapes,” he said. “Big trees. Wild ricing.”

Thomas Meyer
Thomas Meyer
Early-morning fog blankets Day Lake.

The team shot for about seven hours at Day Lake from the air, surface, and underwater.

All of that work will yield roughly three minutes of visuals in the finished program.

But the process isn’t tedious, Julka insisted. It’s necessary.

“The longer we’re at a location, the more we start to understand it, which feels really important to us, in terms of feeling the sense of place,” she said. “Also, things reveal [themselves to us] over time. We actually prefer to be [out] and work our way though all of the different equipment for that amount of time.”

From their week of shooting at places like Day Lake, Copper Falls, and Germain Hemlocks, the PBS Wisconsin crew returned to Madison with two terabytes of footage.

They’ll come back to film the Northwoods through winter, spring, and next summer.

The documentary is set to air in 2023.

Ben Meyer/WXPR
Field producer Emily Julka films fog at Day Lake.

Ben worked as the Special Topics Correspondent at WXPR from September 2019 until November 2021. He now contributes occasionally to WXPR. During his full-time employment, his main focus was reporting on environment and natural resources issues in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula as part of The Stream, a weekly series.