One on One with Sea Kayak Expeditioner Jon Bowermaster
Days away from final leg of Oceans 8 Project
After finishing leg seven of his Oceans Eight project in February 2006, in which he paddled around Tasmania, sea kayak adventurer Jon Bowermaster spent 2007 taking his kayaks to Patagonia, Kerala, India and Zanzibar, all while planning logistics for the final piece of his eight-year Odyssey in January 2008: a first-ever sea kayaking adventure to the Antarctic Peninsula’s Weddel Sea. Dubbed the Larsen Ice Shelf Expedition, the journey plans to explore the calving coast of the Larsen Ice Shelf. “We’ll be kayaking and climbing along the edge of the peninsula with a great team,“ he says, highlighting expedition partners Will Steger, Chilean climber Rodrigo Jordan, and Croatian climber Stipe Bozic.
We’re sitting at the dinner table at the home of one of his sponsors, Mountain Hardwear, in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. He’s in town to give a presentation for the annual Weather Summit. Over chicken stew, food he would have killed for on any of his expeditions, he continues to try and put a finger on his life’s progression. “I’m a writer,” says Bowermaster, an adventurer who has done more for the sport of sea kayaking in the last seven years than perhaps anyone. “I stumbled in this by accident. In the beginning it was just four guys going out and doing something slightly extreme and knuckle-headed.”
However, he got there, Bowermaster, on the cusp of completing his nine-year project, has emerged as a modern-day pioneer in the world of sea kayaking.
“As a writer, I wrote about people going on all these expeditions, and learned how you put together teams and logistics,” he continues. “Then I stopped writing about their dreams and started putting together my own.”
His own trips fall into a newly coined category of expedition he calls “exploditions,” sort of a cross between an exploration and an expedition. His plan, which he pitched it in 1997 to National Geographic, was to sea kayak around the world one continent at a time. He derived the concept from his friend, Ed Viesturs, who recently became the first American to climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks without supplemental oxygen. “Here he did this great thing revolving around mountains, and I thought, ‘How can I come up with something similar that’s water oriented?” he says. So he came up with idea of exploring the coastline of one continent a year (seven, plus Oceania), looking at the different coastlines and cultures along the way. “I didn’t steal the name from Brad or Angelina, or even the Rat Pack,” he maintains. “It’s for the seven continents, plus Oceania.”
Seventy-five percent of the world’s population, he adds, lives within 35 miles of an ocean coastline. And that’s where the theme of his trip fits in: exploring the planet’s seas and the cultures that depend upon them. He’s lined up an all-start cast to accompany him on many of his expeditions, including whitewater videographer Alex Nicks, who now lives in New York City, and action photographer Pete McBride, both of whom will be joining him in Antarctica.
He began his odyssey in 1999, and has already completed sea kayak expeditions to the Aleutian Islands, Vietnam, French Polynesia, Bolivia/Chile/Argentina, Gabon, Croatia and Tasmania. “In Bolivia we experienced the shallowest, windiest, saltiest paddle we’ve ever done,” he says. “In Croatia, we explored the plight of 600-lb. tuna industry. In Gabon, we retraced part of the route of my friend Miek Fey, who walked across Congo in one and a half years and whose findings led to 11 percent of country being preserved as a national park.”
Bowermaster’s first film, Birthplace of the Winds, chronicles his 1999 trip to Alaska’s Aleutians, where the Bering Sea meets the North Pacific to churn up some of the roughest weather in the world. “One partner described it as living in a refrigerator for a month,” he says, adding that the trip was a way to connect with the world’s greatest kayakers of all time, the Aleut. “The water was only 36 degrees, so we basically just sprinted from island to island.”
One thing he’s been grateful for throughout the years is the advancement in video technology. “In 1999 I just took an old digicam borrowed from the National Geographic office,” he says. “But on my most recent trip in Tasmania, we shot everything in HD. The change has been amazing.”
Just as amazing is the change taking place in Antarctica, which is what Bowermaster hopes to document. The final feather in his Oceans 8 cap is January’s five-week exploring of the Larsen Ice Cap on the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula in the Weddel Sea. “It started calving in 2002, spawning a berg as big as Rhode Island,” he says, adding that his team plans to sail down in 70-foot boat and then kayak alongside and climb on the peninsula. “Antarctica is the pump that drives the whole world, the thermodynamic engine that drives the circulation of ocean currents, redistributes the sun’s heat, and regulates climate. It affects all our lives. This expedition will provide an empirical look at how the seventh continent is changing and evolving and influencing the world’s oceans. And it offers both a perfect capping to my 10-year-long OCEANS 8 project, as well as a unique combination of adventure and environmental reporting.”
Curveball Thrown Before Trip Even Begins
Before even dealing with calving icebergs, Bowermaster was on site for something even more unexpected. In November, he was on the scene when rescuers saved 154 crew and passengers from the ill-fated M/S Explorer, which sunk off the Antarctic peninsula. “There was a long line of black rubber Zodiacs and a handful of orange lifeboats strung out,” he told the New York Times. “It was surreal because it was a very beautiful morning with the sun glistening off the relatively calm sea.”
Scouting the area for his January expedition, Bowermaster was aboard the rescue ship, National Geographic Endeavour, and was interviewed via satellite phone. Another ship, the Nordnorge, ended up transporting all the Explorer’s refugees. Of all the people affected by the sinking of the M/S Explorer, he says, no one was more so than Sven Lindblad. The Explorer was as an integral part of his father’s company as the Lindblad Explorer until his father sold the ship in 1982. The ship has since pioneered expedition travel to Antarctica. “I’m not too sad about the ship itself because I know that in conceiving her and exploring with her, an idea so powerful, so meaningful took hold – our need and right to explore our planet,” he writes on his company’s Web site (www.expeditions.com).
Recent Bowermaster Updates from Antarctica:
USHUAIA, ARGENTINA – It’s late spring here at the tip of South America, the ever-present winds warming, the skies bluer every day, but I am off for a much colder place – Antarctica. Locals call this bustling city both “the end of the world” and “the beginning of the world” – while South America winds to a stop near here, Ushuaia is arguably the gateway to the seventh continent. Most scientific expeditions, grand adventures and tourist ships headed for Antarctica from the western hemisphere begin here. I will spend two weeks aboard the National Geographic Endeavor scouting for my upcoming sea kayak expedition. We will also be dropping off our big, 21′ 10″ long fiberglass and Kevlar kayaks on King George Island – to be picked up when I return with my team during the first days of January 2008. I will also be keeping a steady watch on satellite images and weather reports from the Antarctic Peninsula since the word on the docks in Ushuaia is that it’s been a very cold and icy winter down south. I hope you’ll tune in often during the scouting trip for interviews, video, photographs and more from the ice.
November 22, 2007
Last night was Thanksgiving night and I found myself doing something I’d never done before on Thanksgiving: zipping through a bay filled with icebergs to deliver kayaks to the Harbor Master on King George Island. We negotiated an arrangement for the National Geographic Endeavor to help me by stopping at King George Island to drop off the kayaks there, where they’ll be stored there for a month until we sail down on the sailboat on New Year’s Eve. I spent yesterday refitting, reconfiguring the boats, adding brackets so that we can mount cameras on them. There was kind of a rush today to get everything done before packing them back into their packing and then throwing them onto zodiacs and zipping into the bay where we were greeted by a small group of Chileans at the Harbor Master’s office who’ve been here for a full year. They said they could wait for nothing more then to get back to the warm and sunshine. For us we were on our way back to the Endeavor soon. It was another great day. We sailed out of the bay around 10 PM, around sunset. It was very, very, very beautiful.
November 26, 2007
We passed through the narrow, seven-mile-long LeMaire Channel just after eight o’clock this morning. Often chocked with ice it was mostly clear as we motored through, the tall mountain peaks of Booth Island to the east, the Antarctic Peninsula just west. We were headed for the snow-covered dome of Petermann Island, to visit the Oceanites Society’s penguin counting operation: Three penguin counters live in tents on the mile long island, for month-long stints during Antarctica’s summer months. The Washington, D.C.-based environmental group has been inventorying wildlife along the Peninsula since 1994; at Petermann they monitor Gentoo and Adelie penguins, as well as blue-eyed Shags.
You cannot come to Antarctica and not be both mesmerized and surrounded by penguins. While the Antarctic Treaty asks that visitors stay 15 feet away from the waddling birds, they are relentlessly curious, in the thousands and do not hesitate to walk right up to you. On Petermann, the numbers of breeding pairs of Adelie are down from a few years ago, from 500 to just over 100, while the Gentoos have increased to nearly 3,000 pair. Climate change – warming seas impacting the krill that are the Adelie’s main diet – is part of the reason for the shift.
Bowermaster is sponsored by National Geographic, Mountain Hardwear, Mion, Kokatat, Outdoor Research, Necky and Werner Paddles
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