Conversations With Explorers, enRoute

Published in the June 2008 issue of enRoute

The Explorers: Colin Angus, Julie Angus, Wade Davis, Bruce Kirkby, Jean Lemire, Meagan McGrath (see end of story for bios)

The Conversation
How is exploration different today?

Expeditions of the past were a different ball game. Crossing the Atlantic Ocean the way Julie and I do – self-powered – wouldn’t previously have been within our capacity. Now, with technology at our fingertips, it’s possible. It’s lucky that we’ve had these adventurous desires in the present era.

Meagan It’s more accessible now. An Everest trip nowadays is completely different from an Everest trip in the 1990s. It’s far more affordable and commercially available now.

Bruce In the last 20 years, most of the uncertainty or danger with trips to remote places has been removed. I was just in Patagonia. It was a strange experience to stand on the main street of El Calafate and realize that, 20 years ago, this small village was considered the most out-of-the-way place. Now there is busload after busload of tourists.

Wade The travel industry didn’t exist on this kind of scale in our youth. Now it’s one-stop shopping. You can buy your way into virtually any corner of the planet; it’s just a matter of making a toll-free call. A good litmus test of this is to consider where your parents went, where you’ve gone and where your children are going. What I find so astonishing and positive is the ease with which my children’s generation moves around the world. I have two teenage daughters, and they’ve been virtually everywhere. It’s a kind of new world culture.

What are the benefits of having remote regions of the world made so accessible?
I’m a strong believer that the salvation of wild places lies in not hiding them. I see it when I’m guiding in the North. We get 10 or 15 folks who leave a hectic life and are plunked down on the Yukon River. Within about five days, which is half the trip, they get a sense of their place in the landscape – not just of the North but also the landscape they inhabit at home.

Jean I tell people that if we could bring 50 percent of the population to Antarctica, we could solve 50 percent of our problems. Of course, we shouldn’t actually bring that many people to Antarctica, but we are so far from nature in our daily life that just seeing these places can change our way of seeing the world.

Julie People have become increasingly aware of the impact of their travel and their purchasing power, whether it’s bringing dollars to a community or working with a company that supports sustainable practices. People care that where they go has a positive impact.

But hasn’t exploration always offered up these kinds of benefits?
Sure. If you look at countries such as Peru, there’s been a re-examination of the relationship between the nation-state and the indigenous peoples, partly facilitated by the thousands of young backpackers and travellers who went down to Cuzco in the 1970s. They weren’t interested in the bourgeois luxuries of Lima; they were fascinated by the remnants of the Incas. That profoundly influenced an entire generation of young Peruvians. The awareness and insight that a new generation acquires by being exposed to different cultures will be a tremendous source of strength.

Jean In the early 1980s, we brought the first real tourists to watch the whales in Tadoussac. Then, it was an expe­dition just to get there. Maybe in some places we’ve created a monster, but there are certainly benefits to bringing the whales to the public.

Wade Jean, you’re being too modest! If it hadn’t been for your work, the whales would be dead. It’s literally that kind of expedition that has kept those species alive.

Are there drawbacks to exploration being more accessible?
Of course. The easier travel is, the less engaged people tend to be. I was once in the Arctic, and a woman recited a litany of places she’d been. She mentioned Sarawak in Borneo, so I politely said, “I lived there for a while. What did you like about it?” And she said, “Actually, I don’t remember, but it was all very interesting.” Apparently not interesting enough to remember.

Bruce That brings back a memory of a photography trip that I once led in Bhutan. “Hello” in Bhutanese is kuzu zangpo la – it’s not that difficult. But we had 17 people in our group, and over 12 days I couldn’t convince one of them to say hello, which is what you should know before you even step off the airplane.

What are some of the responsibilities of the explorer?
We are so interconnected. It’s critical to recognize that the actions we take at home impact remote areas, which most people never have the opportunity to see. It’s important to show the public the beauty of these areas but also the risks that these places face.

Jean It’s part of our responsibility to do our homework. You have to try to understand the local population. It’s easy to arrive and look through the eyes of your own culture, but it’s important to follow the local rules.

Wade Explorers who explore just for the sake of movement sometimes fail to understand the peoples and the places through which they move. I was once hired as a guide to walk the Darién Gap with a British journalist who planned to walk from the tip of Tierra del Fuego to Alaska. He’d been walking along the Pan-American Highway for a year and a half, and he knew absolutely nothing about the land through which he moved. He didn’t speak a word of Spanish, and he referred to his journey as an “ongoingness into a never-endingness.”

Bruce Wade, I agree with you. I hate the verb “do” or “done” when applied to travel. As in “I did India.” I much prefer the word “learned.” The actual travel is only part of the experience. Reading and learning before you go and when you come home is also very important.

What motivates you to explore?
For me, it’s about meeting new people, having new personal challenges. As a kid, my dream was to get a little sailboat and sail across the ocean. When I was 19, I bought that boat and spent the next five years exploring the South Pacific. That was a real eye-opener. That first sailing journey made me intrigued about the world we live in, and it all evolved from there.

Julie I grew up mostly on military bases, and my parents weren’t that into nature, but I went camping with Girl Guides, which sparked my interest in the outdoors. Then I moved to the West Coast for my graduate degree. I was so close to the mountains and the oceans, and it snowballed from there.

Wade My explorations are driven not by physical geography but by intellectual curiosity. My recent explorations have been of Tibet, the science of the Buddhist mind and the wayfinders of Polynesia. I’m interested less in where they went in their sacred canoes and more in how they got there and what their knowl­edge of navigation tells us about a different way of being, about a different way of thinking. These are explorations that really stretch your imagination, your soul and your spirit as much as the physical act of getting there.

Jean I don’t think of myself as an explorer but as a storyteller. My mission is to draw attention to our impact on the world. I go where my mission tells me to go. Right now, I think the real challenge facing humanity is the access to fresh water, so I will go to Africa and Asia and South America to see what we’re doing to address this basic need.

Why is exploration appealing to the rest of us?
To me, the foundation of exploration is curiosity. Now that I’m a father, I can see how innate this is in my young boy.

Colin I think it’s inherent in all of us. As far back as we go, people have been exploring the world. And though expeditions like going to the poles or to the top of the highest mountains make the mainstream press, exploration is really about challenging yourself and experiencing new things. Whether you’re in your vegetable garden or in a park you’ve never visited, it’s all exploration.

Meagan Because there are so few virgin areas out there, the point nowadays is to explore what you’re capable of doing. Everyone seems to be seeking his or her own adventures. We want to explore the depths of the ocean and the strangest, most far-off points of the earth to see for ourselves what the world is made of.

What is your advice for the amateur explorer?
First of all, I love the word “amateur” because it comes from amare, the Latin word for “to love.” In our wanderings, I think we’re all amateurs.

Bruce Learn at least four words of the language before you land in a country. Read at least one book on the country on any subject. And if you ever get the opportunity to travel independently, I think that’s when you’ll really learn more about a place.

Julie Let a place seep into you, so you can maximize what you take away from that trip.

Wade Above all, give more than you take. North Americans tend to be incredibly parsimonious with their hospitality compared to most peoples around the world. I think about the times we’ve been welcomed into a Tibetan hut or invited to an Indian wedding or given a bed on a rainy night. That’s not something to take for granted.

Colin Angus
Angus wrote about his 43,000-kilometre human-powered circumnavigation of the world in his book Beyond the Horizon. Currently, he and his wife, Julie, are on a 6,500-kilometre self-propelled boat and bike expedition from his ancestral Scotland to her homeland of Syria.

Julie Angus
A molecular biologist and filmmaker, Angus is also the only woman to row across the Atlantic Ocean from mainland to mainland. Rowboat in a Hurricane, her book recounting that 145-day trip and looking at the future of our oceans, is due out this fall.

Bruce Kirkby
This engineer-turned-photographer-and-writer has ridden a camel through Arabia’s southern desert, motorbiked across Mongolia, and hiked across Patagonia with his seven-month-old son. Kirkby, who hosted CBC Television’s No Opportunity Wasted, is the author of The Dolphin’s Tooth: A Decade in Search of Adventure.

Wade Davis
Ethnographer, writer and National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence Wade Davis appeared with Robert Kennedy Jr. in the recent documentary Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk. Just back from Colombia, Davis is currently making a film about that country’s Arhuaco tribe. He is also editorial director of the online magazine Cultures on the Edge.

Meagan McGrath
An aerospace engineer with the Canadian Air Force, this mountaineer is the youngest Canadian woman to climb all Seven Summits. Just back from the Marathon des Sables in the Sahara Desert, McGrath will be leading a bush camping safari and climb of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania this August.

Jean Lemire
Filmmaker and marine biologist Jean Lemire spent 15 months in Antarctica for his film The Last Continent. (Look for his three-part series “Antarctic Mission” on The Nature of Things, June 28, July 5 and July 12 on CBC Television.) Lemire won a Canadian Environment Awards Citation of Lifetime Achievement in 2007. His next mission: promoting global access to safe drinking water.