National Geographic : 2013 Jan
risk takers We begin a yearlong series profiling men and women who press the limits in the name of exploration, even when it puts them in jeopardy. By Pat Walters Photographs by Marco Grob THE NEW AGE OF EXPLORATION Extreme Kayaker trip Jennings has paddled white water to explore rivers around the world and in 2008 made a first descent of the notoriously turbulent lower Congo River. The 30-year- old Oregonian now travels by foot, motorbike, and plane as well, heading to remote spots in the name of conservation: collecting elephant scat in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for a DNA map of elephant populations, used to trace the source of ivory sold by poachers; documenting a threatened Alaska salmon migration last summer. You filmed the salmon run from a plane flown by explorer Mike Fay. Mike’s a talented but crazy pilot. We’re flying 10 feet off the river with 200-foot trees on either side, which is terrifying. The whole time I was staring at an iPad showing me what was coming through the cameras mounted on the plane. At times it could feel like a video game. When I’m paddling my kayak, at least I have the veil of control. With or without your kayak, you go way off the beaten track. It’s crucial to get to those last places that are unspoiled, to document them, to show them to the rest of the world in the hope they can stay unspoiled. that’s not always an easy job. In the Congo I’ve been held up at gunpoint, facedown in the sand. My last time there, a warlord issued a death threat to any conservationists working in the area. are you afraid that you might die on one of your trips? I guess I’m not that afraid of death. That said, I don’t want to die on an expedition. I want to die old and in a bed, not in a plane in the wilderness or shot by a poacher. Pat Walters is a staff producer of NPR’s R adiol ab. Photographer Marco Grob won an Emmy in 2012 for “Beyond 9/11: Portraits of Resilience.” His videos of the risk takers featured in this issue can be viewed on our digital editions.