A dirt gravel road slices ninety miles into Denali National Park and Preserve then dead-ends. For most visitors, this lone byway is all they see. But off the beaten path, over two million acres of primordial wilderness awaits, in an expanse larger than the state of Massachusetts.
During the park’s busiest five month season, the majority of over 400,000 tourists flock to Denali to see its famous wildlife and mountainscapes. From May to September, binoculars are in full swing and the buses start bright and early. But in this park even sightseeing has its hazards. In this sub-arctic landscape, the strong are fierce and the weak are lunchmeat. To survive a terrain this hostile, you must adapt —or die. Across the wilderness, elevation decides the type of battle each creature will wage. From high to low, three distinct ecological zones emerge. Each comes with its own look, a set of hardy residents, and extreme challenges of survival.
In the lowland taiga forest, we follow a biologist into the backcountry to witness ritual combat between moose before a harsh winter shuts down the landscape. From these largest animals in the park, to some of the smallest insects, every creature in the forest has found a way to adapt to Denali’s extreme conditions. On the tundra, a wildlife photographer is on a mission to find the creature responsible for this park’s creation, the Dall Sheep. To uncover his quarry, he’ll hike through dangerous vista and a land full of predators. High in the alpine, we dive under the ice to uncover the forgotten phenomena of Denali, including ice worms that get charged up with the cold. Even higher up, a team of eight climbers brave hell and high wind to make it to the summit of Mount McKinley —the pinnacle of North America.
As the elevation changes we find that each level has its own set of rules, often realized in dramatic ways. In Denali, there is a fine line between living and surviving… that’s what makes this wilderness a place of hidden marvels, mysterious —and totally wild.
Tune in to Extreme Alaska: Denali National Park, tonight August 20th at 8P et/pt.