Charred trees lay scattered on denuded ridges, looking as if God played pick-up sticks. A skinny wolf slinks by and peers over its shoulder to ensure it's traveling solo, making it, yes, the lone wolf.
The roar of water mutes all other sounds, and rounding a corner of ancient boulder, the Undine Falls comes into sight. This one spot alone in Yellowstone National Park could make anyone appreciate Earth, which National Geographic Channel does in its four-hour miniseries "Untamed Americas," airing Sunday and Monday, June 10 and 11.
"So what's not to love? It's continents of extremes," producer Karen Bass says in a Montana restaurant after spending two days with journalists in Yellowstone. "The good news is you have some fantastic extremes because what you want is the epic extremes these creatures face. You have an epic landscape and intimate stories of survival. My mission was to get the epic and the intimate. The epic is the fantastic habitat, this amazing, gorgeous landscape. And the intimate is how does this creature survive?"
Josh Brolin narrates the segments, featuring exquisite footage of North, Central and South America from Alaska to Patagonia. Divided into episodes -- "Mountains," "Deserts," "Forests" and "Coasts" -- the miniseries is full of superlatives. Among them: the longest mountain chain, the Andes; the driest desert, the Atacama; and the largest rain forest, Amazonia.
The longest free-flowing river in the lower 48 states is the Yellowstone. Here, the senses feel heightened; the brightness of the colors, the crispness of the air, the stillness that comes from listening only to animals and the steady patter of an exceptionally informative bus driver.
Bass looks out the bus window for the bear that takes down elk calves in "Mountains." Casey Anderson, Yellowstone expert and host of "America the Wild," has a bear hunch -- he knows he's going to spot one.
"That's what we call a rock bear," he says, peering through binoculars. "You see something, you swear it's a bear. I'll sneak up and take a lens and get out there, and it's a rock. One out of 10 rock bears turn out to be a bear."
However, Anderson's intuition is right. He spots a grizzly beyond the giant sagebrush at the mouth of the Lamar Valley. Through a scope, the grizzly doesn't look all that menacing, but distance is the sanest way to observe.
The scene stealer in "Mountains" is far tinier: an equatorial bat, which has a 2-inch body and a 3-inch tongue, giving it the largest tongue-to-body-length ratio of any mammal. Watching this tube-lipped nectar bat pollinating a rare flower, one can't help feel a little sorry for Gene Simmons.
"There was a little hole at the base of the flower, and [we used] a macro lens light that does not affect the behavior of the animal, because you never, ever want to affect the behavior of the animal," Bass says. They captured this on film for the first time by using phantom cameras and slowing down the action 40 times.
The series tells animals' stories without anthropomorphizing. Producer, writer and director of photography Andy Mitchell likens engaging the audience with nature to getting his sons to eat vegetables.
"I equate it with getting a kid to eat broccoli," Mitchell says. "You pour cheese all over it. If you can get people to care about a mouse or a baby sea lion, and they care about a character, then maybe they will take a step back and appreciate the big picture, and maybe the next time they won't throw their Taco Bell wrapper here," he says, gesturing toward the Undine's pristine beauty.
The park's majesty cannot be exaggerated. Elk, pronghorn sheep and bison graze. Baby bison, born a month earlier, are orange. The males are enormous, weighing about a ton, and though they might look cuddly with their shaggy fur, make no mistake -- they are not. If you get in their personal space, which Yellowstone is, they can have very short tempers, run 35 mph and jump a 6-foot fence.
At the other end of the scale, but no less fierce, is the grasshopper mouse in "Deserts." It slays a centipede twice its size and bays at the moon. It's worth watching "Coasts" for the male Gentoo penguins' mating jig. And in "Forests," a jaguar attacking a caiman is classic nature documentary - survival, grace in the hunt and the cycle of life.
The series, two years in the making, has impressive behind-the-scenes numbers: 27 cameramen logged 600,000 miles of travel to 43 locations in 20 countries. More than 170 days were spent in portable camouflage blinds, and crews braved temperatures from subzero to 120 degrees.
"It is crazy to assume that anything virtual could replace the real world," says Bass, who started her career as a researcher for renowned nature documentarian David Attenborough. "My dream is that people are a) aware of it, b) start to care about it and c) go and try and experience it themselves.
"Let's not kid ourselves that we really understand our planet and have visited every bit of it because we haven't. One of my fears is whenever we are filming someplace is, 'Is this the last time anyone will get to film it?' "
Photo/Video credit: National Geographic