Explorers Go to Ends Of The Earth, Just to Broadcast the Experience Back Home
By Tomas Dinges
The seasoned explorer Jon Bowermaster has kayaked on all seven continents in a long career of adventure, but as the frontiers of new exploration are vanishing, his concerns are changing.
These days, he’s more interested in documenting “what the map of the world looks like early in the 21st century” and drawing attention to rarely-reached corners of the earth for those who can’t get there.
“There is plenty of room for adventure for adventure’s sake, and I think we have all done that, but I think it is becoming less and less relevant,” he said. “I mean, how many more times do we need to know about someone climbing a tall mountain? I think it’s a great accomplishment, but it really doesn’t speak to the greater picture.”
Fellow explorer Tom Sjogren sells technology and communications kits used by mountain climbers as well as around-the-world sailors and polar adventurers, whose approach to exploration includes daily updates to their Web sites and frequent communication with sponsors and family.
Sjogren and his wife run the enormously successful Web site, ExplorersWeb.com, “the pioneer’s checkpoint,” where the number of hits is booming. “Content is king. Frequent updates are queen,” it read recently. “Just as you need to practice climbing — you need to practice communicating with your audience.”
Bowermaster, Sjogren and others are on the vanguard of change in the culture of world exploration. Isolated expeditions to the ends of the earth — those glorified by Shackleton, Peary and Sir Edmund Hillary — are being replaced by interactive trips built around streaming video, blog updates and Internet sites that document every trial, travail and observation of a new generation of explorers.
Now, the privileged few with the resources and motivation to get to the North Pole or elsewhere can bring along virtual observers who are actually stuck at home, at school or at work, for both vicarious pleasure and activism.
One example is the upcoming expedition of the renowned polar explorer 63-year-old Will Steger, dubbed Global Warming 101.
This month, Steger is scheduled to lead three dog sleds and seven team members — all under 30 — to the crumbling ice shelves in Northern Canada which are on the frontiers of climate change. His departure preparations are intensifying in Duluth, Minn., but Steger’s Facebook account and well-developed Web site, Globalwarming101.com, have been up and running for some time now.
“I’ve seen a lot of these changes myself, and very few people have seen it, so I decided to take an audience up there,” said Steger.
In the wood-paneled lower foyer of the 104-year-old Explorers Club of New York, club president Daniel Bennett spoke of new projects as gray-haired members and young people alike streamed in for a speech by an astronaut. An attempt to cross Antarctica using gigantic Kevlar-lined tires on an aluminum frame may just be an example of what is changing in exploration, he said.
“They’ve got new technology” for transportation, “in addition to all that stuff that you can have in order to be wired into people who are going to be watching their progress,” he said, including videos and podcasts.
These adventurers may not be covering unique ground, but they have the “ability to communicate that experience instantly, everywhere,” said Bennett.
“I think this is the compelling thing that distinguishes this generation of explorers,” from others, said Bennett. “I think that is what makes exploration still exciting.”
Bowermaster said his new focus on exploration is designed to tell bigger stories, like the effects of climate change. He said he doesn’t consider his kayak trips around the world exploring.
“We use the adventure to kind of lure people into the story,” and publicize the event in magazines like National Geographic and on the Internet, he said. “Then we club them over the head with the issues of where we go.”
Sjogren, a veteran of expeditions to Mount Everest, and the North and South poles, disagrees that the era of exploration is over. He is working to find new ways of broadcasting these experiences beyond the mountain or the ice cap.
He creates technology and software packages designed for use while blogging the Himalayas, or podcasting across the ocean in a rowboat. For $3,000 to $5,000, Sjogren combines satellite phones, GPS devices and PDAs into lightweight and waterproof cases. A blog posting or a route update is just a few clicks away, regardless of where a person is on the map.
A recent entry to the exploration Web site, run jointly with his wife, featured a review of a lightweight, solid-state-memory laptop, as well as tips on how to maximize traffic to an expedition Web site.
Steger is focused on a specific audience: young people.
Polar expeditions have always been a “blackboard” for educational initiatives and to inform policy goals. Now the 60-day, 1,400-mile dogsled trip to the tip of the Northern Hemisphere in Canada will retrace historical routes of the first polar explorers like Robert Peary and Matthew Henson. With the exception of him, all the members in the group are under 30, and the expedition will document how the ice pack has changed since the early 1900s, and communicate the findings in multiple daily Web postings.
“The sea ice ... that’s right where it’s happening, so I wanted to take an expedition up there,” he said.
Photos: In 2007 Will Steger came out of semi-retirement to guide young leaders on a trip to Baffin Island, the first of two expeditions dedicated to issues surrounding global warming.