Global Adventurer

Explorer Jon Bowermaster of Stone Ridge writes about his travels

Author: By Deborah J. Botti
Posted: Tuesday, June 17, 2008
For explorer Jon Bowermaster, an unexpected dinner guest is an elephant attracted by cooking aromas wafting from a West African campsite. And a tough commute is the hours spent negotiating the raging currents of a tributary of the Yangtze River through a narrow canyon – from the seat of a kayak.

“It makes your heart pound,” says Bowermaster, who turned 54 in June. “And when you survive these things, the rest of life is easier. It’s hard to get worked up when a Stone Ridge road isn’t plowed.”

The irony of it all is that Bowermaster, who has been pushing his body to the limit during two decades’ worth of death-defying expeditions, was born in Normal, Ill. Another irony is that in his quest to tell the bigger story of the world and its people through adventure, he finds himself drawn to the simple values embraced by those he meets.

Perhaps that’s because he, too, had a normal Midwest upbringing, one that began in 1954 as one of four children.

“I think my parents had an adventurous instinct,” he says. After all, he was named after Charles Lindbergh’s son, Jon, who was born to the renowned aviator and his wife the same year as the infamous kidnapping and murder of their firstborn.

With a curiosity fueled by Hardy Boys books and Boys’ Life magazine, young Bowermaster got his first taste for exploration during summers spent on Lake Michigan.

“My dad wasn’t into water, but he was helpful by providing the canoes and kayaks,” Bowermaster says.

Bowermaster strengthened his body with individual school sports like running and nourished his mind studying government and politics. By the time he was 15, he knew he wanted to write, and on some level he recognized that his formal education would ultimately bridge his adventurous spirit with the ability to make a living off his adventures.

After graduating from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, he headed to American University in Washington, D.C., where he earned a master’s degree in public affairs reporting. “I couldn’t wait to get out of the Midwest,” he admits.

There was a time he thought being a sports writer would be the ideal career – washing down a hot dog with a beer and then returning to the office to write. “That was so boring.”

But he continued to write, carving inroads and cultivating contacts with his words. His first book,Governor, was about the changes to that job during the 1970s. 

And his adventurous pursuits continued to punctuate the drone of day-to-day activities, adventures such as sailing a racing boat across the Atlantic Ocean or being the first to descend the length of the Futaleufu River in Chile on a raft. These were assignments for magazines, assignments he gladly accepted not only for the experience, but for pure adventure.

His last formal job, an editor with Rolling Stone magazine, brought the then-Brooklyn resident to Stone Ridge in ’88.

“I was looking in Woodstock,” he says, “but Stone Ridge was more affordable – thus I could buy more land – and closer to Manhattan.”

The year 1987 was also when he received his first assignment from National Geographic to write about a seven-month dog-sled expedition in Antarctica, the southernmost continent with no permanent
residents and no government. Protected by the Antarctic Treaty, this trip coincided with discussions to amend the treaty, prompted by renewed interest in mining.

“National Geographic magazine was committed to write about the expedition, but they had no writer,” says Bowermaster. “I happened to be a friend of the American team leader, Minnesotan Will Steger. We met at the Explorer’s Club in New York City, soon after he’d returned from a historic dogsled expedition to the North Pole. We’ve now done three books together and traveled all over the world.”

This assignment fed into all that the avid adventurer and writer had evolved into. There was extreme physical challenge in an arena with international interest and environmental concerns.

His first book was about politics; his second, the environment. Nearly 20 years after publishing Saving the Earth, in which he identifies 14 environmental risks and solutions, the same risks still exist.

“We’re still looking at the same 14 big environmental issues, with some incremental improvement – certainly more public awareness – but not a lot of progress toward solutions. The solutions are all varied,” he says. “We have a tendency to destroy the places we love.”

Although Bowermaster admits that he wasn’t a particularly skilled polar person, it didn’t hamper his enthusiasm for this Antarctic adventure.

“You don’t wake up in Brooklyn one morning and find yourself in Antarctica the next,” he says.

He trained for two years, in ’87 and ’88, before leaving for Antarctica in July of 1989. This extensive training even included a trip to Greenland to learn how to hitch the dogs, feed the dogs and survive in temperatures that can plummet below minus-100 degrees Farenheit in the winter.

"You do feel the cold, so you run or ski alongside the dogs to stay warm,” he says, admitting that once sleeping inside the small tent, you often don’t want to get out.

While certain daily rituals – such as showering – were put on hold for the three-and-a-half months that he traveled with the dog-sled team, others bodily functions still needed to be addressed. “You learn how to be very quick,” he laughs.

Following Bowermaster’s maiden trek and the subsequent article, the international community agreed in ’91 to expanded protections for Antarctica. The treaty was amended to keep mineral and other exploitation off the continent until 2041.

“This was one of the things we talked about during the expedition: using adventure, in this case dogsledding, to talk about bigger issues,” he says.

Personal opportunities expanded for him as well. “It led to 10 years of writing about expeditions,” he says, primarily for National Geographic.

Because of his enduring love of water, many of these expeditions involved the gnarliest of running rivers throughout the world. “I can paddle as long as it’s light out – but generally for five or six hours,” he says.

He’s found solitude on isolated shores, shores hidden from tourists but still haunted by man’s waste. “It’s disturbing to see plastic pollution on beaches that comes from far away,” he says.

For a change of pace, six months were spent in Kenya with photographer Peter Beard in 1992, resulting in a part biography, part social history titled, The Adventures and Misadventures of Peter Beard
in Africa. “All of a sudden, you come upon lions sleeping in the sand in front of you,” Bowermaster recalls of that trip. “You start walking backward very slowly.”

These journeys laid the groundwork for Bowermaster’s next daring decade. “OCEANS 8 was completely my idea,” he says, referring to a series of expeditions to explore the world’s oceans from the seat of a sea kayak.

Each year for 10 years, an expedition of four or five people went to the coastline on each continent to look at the health of the world’s seas and the lives of the people who depend on them.

Depending upon the expedition, National Geographic contributed between 15 percent and 80 percent of the costs. This seed money totaled $250,000 over the decade.

“Used as both transportation and as floating ambassadors, sea kayaks allow me and my teams – comprised of some of the world’s best photographers, filmmakers, scientists and navigators – to reach corners of the world rarely seen. The goal of each expedition was adventure crossed with exploration of local cultures, histories, environmental issues and the future of these varied regions.”

The OCEANS 8 project brought Bowermaster’s team to such destinations as the isolated coral-reef atolls in the heart of the South Pacific, home to people now dependent upon monthly cargo boat deliveries that he likens to a floating Super K-Mart.

“I saw better CD collections than I have. On first blush, it’s too bad that they’re not fishing and are losing their way of life,” he says. “But they just want what we all want – to get ahead – and they look to us, because we have it.”

The team brought their kayaks to South America’s Altiplano, the mountainous desert region that crosses the borders of Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, looking for water in the driest place. “The people assumed we were all from UFOs,” he says.

In North Vietnam, there was not one hint of animosity – just an acceptance by people who depend on the sea of a group of men who showed up with boats.

“I’m struck by the more simple guy, the one who comes home for lunch every afternoon, who knows what his life will be year after year. I’m envious of that constant,” says the man who averages only half a year at home in Stone Ridge, in between expeditions.

“So, I’m not married and I have no children. That’s the sacrifice of a traveling life.”

But could he live that traditional lifestyle a part of him so envies? “No.”

The OCEANS 8 project concluded in January 2008 with another trip to Antarctica, one of eight he’s made since the first, to explore the Antarctic Peninsula and the effects of global warming.

“Without question, it’s still one of the most remote, pristine places on Earth. It’s big and beautiful, wild and rugged. It’s like 40 Alaska vacations piled on top of one another,” he says. “And it offers the truly rare opportunity to experience solitude.”

He’s also had the rare opportunity to experience firsthand the effects of global warming – while attempting to climb slushy peaks or in the form of never-before-seen torrential rains.Bowermaster’s immediate future will be spent trying to stay afloat in the OCEANS 8 aftermath – working on the film and writing the book. “I’ll be around [in Stone Ridge] a little longer this time.”

And then he’ll start planning his next adventure. “It’s a big world, and I’ve only seen about 75 or 80 countries,” he says. “My biggest regret is that so much of the Middle East is off limits.”

But he’s only glimpsed Asia and Africa, and he’s yet to kayak the Caspian Sea.

Because he uses adventure to tell bigger stories, if he’s not writing or editing film, he’s lecturing. He finds it particularly rewarding when his words spark that familiar light in a young person’s eyes, eyes today that are too often dulled by video games or television. “I enjoy talking to kids and perhaps being a mentor, even in a tiny way,” he says.

And he shares his stories and films with family at holiday time. His parents probably never quite expected that the seeds of adventure they planted would have sent out roots to all the world’s nooks and crannies.

The crocheted pillow his mother sent him says it all: “Call your mother. She worries.”

Deborah J. Botti is a freelance writer. She and her family live in Orange County.
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