An Interview with Charlie Craighead: Living the "Wild" Life.
By Gregory Zeigler
Charlie Craighead is a writer and filmmaker who grew up in a family of biologists. Charlie attended Utah State University and graduated with a BS degree in wildlife biology in 1973. He worked on research studies of grizzly bears, elk, golden eagles, Aleutian Canada geese, river water quality, and others before switching full time to cinematography and writing.
His career has evolved through cinematography, photography, script writing, non-fiction books, field guides, and interpretive exhibits. He is currently the producer-writer of Headwaters, a one-hour documentary about issues of climate change and water resources in the West.
Charlie, you have lived most of your life in Moose, Wyoming (13 miles north of the town of Jackson) surrounded by wild creatures in Grand Teton National Park. What changes have you observed in the wildlife?
Even here within the boundaries of the park there have been significant changes in my lifetime. I’d say the two main causes are a warming climate and the relentless human population growth. Climate change is responsible for the gradual shift from cold tolerant species – moose, pikas, cutthroat trout – to species like white-tailed deer, raccoons, and bass that are adapted to warmer temperatures. Of course, it’s not that simple since the natural timing of plants and insects is also affected by warming, and the changes that close a door for one species often open it for another.
"Charlie’s Raven, like all of my Aunt Jean’s books, was based on true events woven into her story. So Charlie is mostly me with bits of cousins and siblings thrown in. My raven was tamed but not trained, and it lived freely." Quote and photo by Charlie Craighead.
As for people, there are just too many of us and we’re everywhere. Places I used to go to for solitude are overgrazed, if you will, and the wildlife has either moved on or habituated to humans. It’s still a wonderful place, just not what it was.
Your most recent project is a film about water in Wyoming. Please comment on the current condition of the Green and Colorado Rivers. What is the greatest water related challenge facing Wyoming?
The Green River drains 17,000 square miles of Wyoming and gathers two-and-a half million acre-feet of water into reservoirs. It’s the largest tributary to the Colorado River. Both rivers are over allocated and entirely dependent on the annual winter snowpack to keep up with downstream demand. So drought, the most likely result of a warming climate in our semi-arid West, is going to be our biggest challenge. Perhaps even a mega-drought.
How did you come by your passion for wild things and places?
I just grew up with it. My father and his twin brother were taught by their father, a forest entomologist, and I got to tag along and learn from all of them. I had the opportunity to spend an inordinate amount of time wandering around in the wilds with PhDs.*
You are an accomplished environmentalist in your own right. But as you mentioned you come from a family of famous wildlife biologists and I might add, authors. What has it been like growing up a Craighead?
For the most part it’s been amazing. The family shared their experiences with us kids and never pushed us to follow their path, so it’s been relatively easy to participate in their world without feeling like we had to. They all knew that through a combination of timing, skill, and luck they were thrust into the environmental spotlight – an opportunity they used to educate and inspire. We always laugh that they were great naturalists but poor businessmen.
"Let’s see…the kids are, left to right, me, my sister Jana, my brother Lance. We’re sitting on Hoover Dam (Boulder Dam at the time) and anticipating what climate change would bring to Lake Mead sixty years later. I’m obviously composing the story in my head, Jana is blissfully unaware of drought, and Lance is rightfully worried." Charlie Craighead.
Another famous person from Moose was Marty Murie, known as "the grandmother of the conservation movement." What is your fondest memory of Marty?
When we were filming "Arctic Dance: The Marty Murie Story" we set up in the kitchen in her old log house, and Mardy told us stories while she mixed dough and baked cookies. Then we sat around for another hour, just drinking tea, eating cookies, and listening to Mardy.
What is your favorite wild creature? What is your favorite wild place?
I’m most inspired when I see a wild golden eagle. My favorite wild place has changed over my life, but I have so many memories of the Hayden Valley in Yellowstone that it comes to mind. I love the Mirror Plateau and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
Charlie at age 15 with his cousin Derek Craighead's trained eagle.
What is your favorite book? What author has influenced you the most?
That’s easy, My Side of the Mountain** and Terry Tempest Williams.
*Charlie's father, Dr. Frank Craighead and his identical twin, Dr. John Craighead.
**Written by Charlie's aunt, renowned children’s author, Jean Craighead George.
Golden eagle photos by Paul Sihler.