Every year, residents of North America shell out Canadian and U.S. dollars, Mexican pesos and so forth to hop on planes or cruise ships to explore the wonders of South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania, in search of spectacular natural landscapes and impressive wildlife.
What many of them don't realize is that they don't have to cross an ocean -- or even much more than the Panama Canal -- to get just that.
Over seven Sundays at 9 between tonight and June 16, Discovery Channel aims to enlighten these folks with the natural history documentary "North America," narrated by Tom Selleck and executive- produced by Keith Scholey, with Brit Huw Cordey as series producer.
Shooting over three years, in locations ranging from the Canadian tundra to the tropical rain forests of Panama, the "North America" film crew spent 2,830 days on 250 separate expeditions, using 11 types of cameras -- including ultra-high-speed and submarine ones -- to create more than 850 hours of footage.
As for why he's including lands south of Mexico as part of North America, Cordey says, "That's a good question. It's one that we've had to deal with quite a bit over the making of the series. But the important thing to realize is that this was the continent of North America. There is no continent of Central America. North America, as a continent, starts in Panama.
"Three million years ago, the two continents, North and South, joined at Panama. That's the blink of an eye in geological time. So when we were looking at the continent of North America, it goes from Panama all the way to northern Canada."
The first five episodes reveal intimate stories of animals, from the elusive desert jaguars of Mexico to grizzly bears diving after salmon in Alaska. That's followed by a "Making Of" episode that chronicles the challenges of the production team, which included battling Hurricane Irene. The final installment reveals which natural location online voters chose as their favorite via Discovery's "My North America" Facebook page.
Discovery also is offering a digital and mobile experience around the miniseries, through its second-screen, mobile iPad app TV Plus. Viewers will have access to bonus videos, photos, interactive quizzes and rich content, synced to the TV airing. Discovery also is planning a mobile/Web natural history app and will be partnering with a zoo to offer a live camera feed of North American wildlife.
While the spectacular large fauna of Africa, the unique marsupials of Australia and extremely cute critters such as China's pandas get most of the TV attention, North America's wildlife -- except for cable's fascination with alligators and feral hogs -- gets short shrift.
"I've said this a few times," says Cordey, "what I want this series to get across is how incredibly varied and diverse the wildlife and the environments are in North America. I think this is a definitive -- nothing can be utterly definitive -- but I think this is a definitive series of the natural history story of North America.
"Strangely ... nobody's done that before. This is a first, taking North America as a whole like this and making a ... series. Your average American will see lots of things that are very new and fresh.
"To me, a hardened old natural history filmmaker, I know most of what lives in various places, but there are some really unusual things in North America. We think North America is just this first-world power that's just built up and developed; to understand that there are these incredible wild places with this really cool wildlife -- it will surprise the audience."
While the show covers big, impressive animals such as bears, bison, mountain lions, jaguars (which have been spotted not far from Tucson, Ariz.), wolves, elk, horses and so on, it doesn't ignore some of the continent's smallest inhabitants.
"We filmed a segment with chipmunks," says Cordey. "I love them. In one of the programs, there's a chipmunk gathering nuts for winter, and he has a slight problem with one of his neighbors stealing his nuts.
"There's a big fight-off. It's quite funny. Chipmunks are only the size of your palm, but when you see these little things going hammer and tongs, they can be vicious. They have a lot of attitude for a little animal."
As for Cordey's favorite, he says, "I have an affection for prairie dogs. They're feisty little things. I did a film on them for a year a while back, and I've had a sweet spot for prairie dogs every since."