One of the purest feelings when entering a National Park is having a visceral reaction to iconic locations – the ones you’ve seen on TV, in textbooks, and in magazines – and soaking in the gravity of what stands before you.
In a sense, you project what that experience may be like ahead of time; How it feels to look out into the distance after conquering the peaks of the Smoky Mountains; Bracing for an existential tailspin as you feel small against the vast Grand Canyon. You’ll get a varied experience at our National Parks because nature, in particular the creatures that inhabit these locales, is not inherently on display for us. We’re guests in their home.
Nowhere is that more apparent than Yellowstone National Park, where National Geographic has checked in for a short, but meaningful visit. After putting cameras around the globe for last summer’s ambitious Earth Live event, the network is bringing viewers an unprecedented look inside “The People’s Park” with Yellowstone Live. The four-night event, co-hosted by Josh Elliott, Jenna Wolfe, and Chris Packham, will tell the story of America’s most wondrous, yet volatile geological and ecological marvel.
“It is impossible to fully appreciate the scope of this park until you’re in it,” Elliot says. “You can spend day after day in it, and then you look at the part of it on the map that you spent those hours and hours, and it’s just such a small fraction.”
With 34 live cameras, a 200 person crew, and innovate storytelling technology, National Geographic will have that park covered no problem, right? The unpredictability of Yellowstone makes it a far bigger challenge than meets the eye.
A trip to Yellowstone is an exercise in contingency plans. Expect a picturesque summer blue sky? Smokey clouds from wildfires near and far fill the mountain background. Maybe it clears up as you trek further into the mountains, and the Montana sun pokes its head out to shine on the sparking rivers where fly fishermen wave hello to folks whitewater rafting, only for a sporadic hailstorm to deposit gumball-sized chunks in a chilly downpour. I swear in the distance I saw a snow capped mountain, in August. That was just my first 90 minutes in the Yellowstone region, seemingly all four seasons masquerading as a warm midsummer afternoon.
This is all to say that exposure to extreme elements is part of life in the region, and National Geographic, to pull off an event series like this, is prepped for every step of the way. At Nat Geo basecamp in West Yellowstone, a bustling camping town sprung up were the production crew is living and working for the week. If you think it sounds like glamping, the co-hosts and production team were quick to point out the several contingency plans in case of emergency. Just the morning our group of journalists arrived, there was an earthquake, albeit a one on the Richter scale. That’ll happen when you have a National Park situated on active supervolcano. That makes earthquake contingencies a must. Lightning is another real concern, and a strike within 8 miles means the broadcast will have to abandon base camp and get into a safe truck.
For all the safety precautions and threats of supervolcanoes, securing rights to film inside the park can be as elusive as the creatures Nat Geo aspires to capture on film. Yellowstone is notoriously strict when it comes to allowing shooting permits. When Hollywood comes knocking, it’s far from automatic that a crew will receive access to the grounds. When a crew does receive the OK, the park’s priority is to keep the production’s footprint to a minimum. Protecting Yellowstone’s ecosystem from outside interference is the top priority. While most of the show will be live, Nat Geo was able to shoot pre-tapped packages beforehand. Elliot shot an interview at Old Faithful and didn’t receive special access. They weren’t allowed to get too close, as not to disturb the park’s paying visitors.
“There isn’t some velvet rope we’re getting past,” Elliot says. “We brought a pretty average sized crew for an interview, eight, nine people yesterday. And they looked at it and they basically said, ‘Who’s redundant here? Who doesn’t have to go?’ They always make a point of saying, on behalf of the American people, ‘This is your park.’”
Nat Geo did get creative, and innovative, with the access that was granted. Yellowstone Live, if it all goes according to plan, is a lifetime pass condensed into a four-days of cutting-edge filmography. They’ll have 34 live cameras around the park, including a “Magma Cam,” which will pick up thermal imaging inside the world’s largest group of hydrothermal wonders; the steamy gasps of the crystal blue geysers, the punctual eruptions of Old Faithful, and the look-but-don’t touch hot springs. Helicopters using Cineflex cameras will bring aerial views of wildfires, and bring viewers to remote areas of Yellowstone, including the habitat of a wolf pack, and footage from inside of a beaver lodge.
“When you just dig into a little bit of the research, that I think we all know one or two things about every animal,” Elliot says. “If I say a moose, you sort of know you can see a moose, but the third thing you might be thinking is Bullwinkle. So you might think you know about wolves, but then you sort of don’t, and it is such a gift to be able to marinate in this.”
Capturing the harsh reality of Yellowstone, what some call a restless giant, takes a seismic effort. Even if they scratch the surface of 2.2 million acres of wilderness, and the over 400 animal species, for many the show could become a gateway into exploration, what co-host Jenna Wolfe says will take people beyond the scenic postcards and “peel back that first layer there’s an entire world of wildlife that is not touched.”
As ecologist Arthur Middleton put it: “That’s one of the things National Geographic can do through its platforms and through this broadcast is bring the hidden lives of these animals, a kind of natural wonder, to an audience that people like me will never reach otherwise.”
Yellowstone Live co-host Chris Packham looked at the park with envy from his native England, where limited space prevents a national park of this magnitude (Yellowstone would take up about one fifteenth of England in square miles). He’s read about Yellowstone since he was a kid, and recalls seeing images from the park in National Geographic magazine. He even had a National Geographic issue from 1987 in his trailer, which fondly thumbed through during pre-production, the surrealness of a past dream manifesting itself in the present under Montana’s big, blue sky.
“If you have an interest in natural history, conservation, and environmental care, you have an awareness of Yellowstone,” Packham says. “There are very few places left in the Northern Hemisphere where there is this amount of space and freedom and degree of protection for the things that live there.”
Yellowstone Live begins Sunday August 5th.