Discovery Channel films Donner story at Alpine Meadows
May 2, 2003
ALPINE MEADOWS — Heavy snow this week made for an ideal setting for the filming of a Discovery Channel documentary about an ill-fated Donner Party.
Producers originally intended to film the show in Montana, but Placer County convinced them to bring the production to Tahoe.
As part of a year-old Discovery Channel series called “Unsolved Histories,” Los Angles-based Termite Act Productions filmed on private property in Alpine Meadows, the same location used by Warner Brothers Television last month to film a MacGyver pilot.
If it weren’t for the determination of the Placer-Lake Tahoe Film Office, the Donner Party documentary would have been filmed in a much less authentic location.
Beverly Lewis, director of the film office, met show director Dan Gagliasso at a trade show two weeks ago. When she learned of plans to shoot the documentary in Montana, she offered to help the production team find a hotel and change their air travel if they would come to Tahoe.
“It’s about our local history. I would rather have it here than Montana,” Lewis said.
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The series of April snowstorms also persuaded the production team to move their film shoot to Tahoe. The private property was chosen over Donner Lake for its similarity to the Donner area and the ease of filming on private property.
“The terrain looks very much like Donner Summit,” Lewis said.
The first two days of filming focused on examining history through modern forensic science. Termite Productions brought in Mark Baker, a winter survival expert who trained Daniel Day Lewis for “The Last of the Mohicans” and Mel Gibson for “The Patriot” to assist the show’s host, Daniel Martinez, in survival techniques.
Trying to recreate what the Donner Party went through, the pair camped out on the Caldwell property Friday night with only primitive tools — two knives, an axe, a canvas tarp, and period snowshoes.
Despite the constant snowfall, they had to find dry wood and build a fire and shelter. Producers measured the amount of calories they burned using a device attached to their arm and skin. An infrared device was also used to detect how much body heat escaped.
Gagliasso said he was surprised by the results, which showed the two men used 800 calories an hour just snowshoeing. Baker, dressed in period clothes, also lost more body heat than Martinez in modern clothing while simply laying under the buffalo robe and wool blankets they had to sleep in. Their clothes damp and sweaty from snowshoeing in the storm, both went to bed wet and had trouble getting warm.
Baker and Martinez built a half-face shelter using trees and the canvas tarp, lining it with pine limbs for insulation. Even trying to sleep in such a primitive structure requires twice as many calories as lying in a heated room with modern blankets.
Baker, who has read the diaries of Donner Party members, believes those who survived did so because of two traits — mental fortitude and belief in a better future. The six-month trip across the country also conditioned them to face difficult times, he said.
The one-hour Donner Party documentary will air Oct. 15 on the Discovery Channel.