From the time he climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with his father at age 11, new Eddie Bauer Adventure Travel guide Richard Wiese has been drawn to the power of exploration. In the years since, Wiese has traveled the globe in pursuit of science, cultural discovery, and the transformative power of personal interaction as a guidebook author, a journalist for publications such as The Huffington Post, and as the Emmy-nominated host of the Born to Explore television series on ABC. His travelogue has included missions that range from bioprospecting for extremophiles in the crater of Mt. Kilimanjaro, where he discovered 29 new species of life, to working with Chilean horse whisperers, experiencing Aboriginal ancestral rituals in Australia’s Northern Territory, and tracking polar bears while examining climate change with the Inuit. In his first post for the LYA blog, Wiese explains what draws him to travel through the lens of a recent journey to the ancient totems and rituals of the Pacific Northwest First Nations. This is his report from the Northwest coast. -LYA editor
Words and Images by Richard Wiese
Growing up with my father, who was a Pan Am pilot, we always had a world atlas or globe lying around. He was more than just a pilot, he was a pioneer: the first person to solo the Pacific Ocean in an airplane. Talk about a lot to live up to! He taught me to look at the world as an exciting place, giving me a passenger seat on his adventures across the globe, and transporting me into his stories.
My father instilled in me a sense of adventure, and the idea that I was a cultural ambassador. I was inspired to write my book, Born to Explore, during a trip I took to Antarctica with a group of 70 high school students in December 2002. The trip was intended to expose them to Antarctica’s wondrous ecosystem in a time of notable global warming.
Aboard a burly icebreaker, we traveled along Drake Passage, which separates North America from Antarctica, when our ship came upon a pod of approximately 50 whales. The whale biologist onboard nearly tripped overboard running to the rails, as he had never seen so many whales together at the same time. It was an extraordinary spectacle of nature that none of us would likely ever again witness.
Much to my surprise, there were about a dozen students who did not look up from their Gameboys to catch what probably was a once in a lifetime sight. Their lack of interest in the world beyond electronics saddened and frustrated me.
My hope is that Born to Explore inspires curiosity in both the nature enthusiast and the nature-impaired, and provides information on the necessary tools to discover and love the outdoors. To that end, I translated my book into a television show with the same name, which I created, host, and executive produce.
Over the course of filming my show, the question I find myself asking over and over is: In today’s interconnected world, is it possible to truly be alone with nature? In my opinion, Canada and Alaska may be the real “Last Frontiers” of pure wilderness. In other parts of the world, even if you’re among the great African animal migrations, or high in the Swiss Alps, you still come across the occasional traveler.
In an attempt to embrace the great wild, I recently visited Gwaii Haanas to film the famous giant carved poles of the Pacific Northwest. Literally called the “Islands of Beauty,” they are also known to naturalists as the Galapagos Islands of North America because of their abundant sea life.
When I landed in my float plane, I was greeted by someone who appeared to be Willie Nelson. A shock of wild hair. A guitar in the back of his Zodiac. This “Willie Nelson” was actually German-born Gotz Hanisch, who left his home 30 years ago in search of true wilderness. Despite his guitar, he didn’t actually know any Willie Nelson songs. I asked.
He was, however, a remarkable philosopher. Technically, Gotz lives well below the poverty line. But he considered himself very rich in the abundance that nature provides him in Gwaii Haanas. Just to put it in perspective, Gotz lived in a nice waterfront house with a studio where he records music inspired by his remote Pacific island setting.
He ferried me to an even more remote part of the island, the UNESCO World Heritage site known as Skang Gwaii. Truly incredible, it is the resting place of very old, magnificently carved mortuary poles. It is also the home of the Haida Gwaii Watchmen, an ancient and noble group. In a tradition dating back before the Egyptians by thousands of years, the Watchmen have been guardians and protectors of the land and its heritage. It is a position of honor, as these poles are sacred and are believed to house the remains of ancestors and ancient spirits.
Fitting in with my escape from the modern world, the Haida carvings are very mystical, with a Lord of the Rings feel. They are certainly a sharp contrast from Gotz’s homeland, which just goes to show that the land of your birth is not necessarily the land of your heart.
During my visit, I was honored and trusted by a Haida Watchman to stand alone amongst these giants and reflect on the many generations of his people who had stood in the same spot. It was a chance to witness a living culture and to immerse myself in the spirituality of their land.
The typical noise of civilization is gone. It’s a warm sunny day, and all I can hear is the chattering of nature without any other distractions. Very powerful stuff. Usually when you try to “drop out and unplug,” there always seems to be interference from the outside world. I gloried in the cathedral of nature. Walking back to the beach, I see “Willie” waiting on a rock with his guitar. I know it wasn’t posed but it almost looked like an album cover for “Willie Nelson Goes North.”
Maybe the universe sensed my thoughts were drifting back toward civilization as it decided to send me a message in a bottle. It floated up to the shore in the form of a volleyball with “Japan Volleyball Association” stamped on it, accompanied by Japanese soda bottles. It was clearly debris from that terrible tsunami that tragically hit Japan in March of 2011.
As I turned the volleyball in my hand on this isolated beachhead, several distinct cultures were brought together in an instant. Debris from Japan, a philosopher from Germany, an American adventurer, and a Haida Watchman.
I reflected on the Haida people’s creed that “all things are connected.” At this moment, I could see the wisdom of their words. In a world where we consider connectivity based on Wi-Fi hubs or hot spots, sometimes all it takes is sitting on a beach in a remote Pacific Island and finding a message in a bottle.
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