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The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.

- Alexander von Humboldt

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Environment

Oct 09, 2019

Forrest Galante: The Modern-Day Charles Darwin

Except biologist Forrest Galante is not searching for the origin of species, more like auditing the books, and in a few very successful instances, erasing names from the roster of extinction.

WRITTEN BY

Douglas Baughman

As host of Animal Planet’s Extinct or Alive, Mr. Galante sets out looking for animals long-presumed to be extinct, or as he put it, “gone from the planet, wiped off the face of this earth.” His searches have cast him across 46 countries. In the process, he has been bitten by sharks and venomous snakes, mauled by a lion, charged by a hippo, stung by a man-of-war jellyfish, and stabbed by a stingray.

Forrest catches a ride on the dorsal fin of a tiger shark.

“Shit happens, like for real—the bee stings, the food poisoning, the allergic reactions,” he says. “I flew into a cocaine dealer’s airstrip in the middle of the Amazon just to gain access to caimans [large reptiles closely related to alligators that can grow to more than 13 feet in length and weigh up to 880 pounds]. These are all real things that we did, and they are all filmed and on the show and part of the challenges we face in order to do the work that we do. The reason we’re so successful is because no one else is doing it. It’s very dangerous and very difficult. And I love it!”

Last year, off the eastern coast of Africa, Mr. Galante captured camera footage of a Zanzibar leopard, a big cat that had been classified as extinct for 25 years. More recently, during an expedition to the Galapagos earlier this year, he found a female Fernandina Island tortoise, a species not seen for more than a century. The finding is one of the most significant wildlife discoveries in decades.

I caught up with Mr. Galante at the wildlife film festival in Grand Teton National Park last month. I specifically wanted to ask him about his early childhood growing up in Zimbabwe and how that experience possibly shaped his perspective of wildlife conservation and influenced his career.

Forrest examines a soft shell turtle in central Vietnam.

Forrest Galante: As I sit here in this beautiful lodge looking out at a few bison roaming around it’s probably the closest thing to Africa that I’ve seen in North America, outside of Alaska. Where I grew up, basically just like this, overlooking a valley and a lake, at any given time, you could see megafauna, large animals roaming the plains of Africa. But sadly that is something unique to the African continent, except for very small microcosms in South America and at one time Southeast Asia, and of course, at one time here. It has disappeared from the world, and it’s disappeared because of human impact and hunting pressure. Growing up in Africa, I witnessed the disappearance first hand. Watching the numbers of large animals diminish shaped my entire being with regard to becoming a biologist who focuses on extinction. I realized that to study those creatures that are not long for this world and try to preserve them is the most important work.

DB: One of the things the conservation movement and environmentalism rarely discusses is the effects of military action in the world on ecosystems and species. Coming from Zimbabwe you would have seen the devastation war and civil conflict wreaks on the landscape.

“What right do we have to take over a habitat that’s been there over millennia?”

FG: Not just directly but indirectly as well. Zimbabwe went from a country that was super-affluent to one that was poor and starving in the span of just 10 years. Every tree suddenly was needed for firewood or building, every animal for food, and that’s an indirect result of conflict. That’s terrible. Culturally, there were many things the Shona people where I’m from in Zimbabwe would not touch, never dream of eating because they had always been affluent. But now, when they’re starving to death, those traditions and cultures go out the window in order to save themselves. That’s terrible for the people; it’s terrible for the culture, and it’s certainly terrible for the wildlife.

Forrest amongst a herd of water buffalo in Southern Sri Lanka while searching for Pondicherry Shark; Near Yala National Park.

DB: When you consider North American history, for example when bison roamed from Montana to Texas, and then compare that time to now, where parks like this exist for the most part as natural zoos, what does that say about the future of wildlife conservation and is preservation from extinction our only recourse? Is that where we are now?

FG: Well, just think how sad that is. It’s terrible, actually. To get a glimpse of what the natural world was like – because this is just a drop in the bucket of what it should look like – and see how stunning it is and how much wildlife there is and then realize it’s gone, to me, is horrific. It’s not fair. So, yes, where are we at in this world? Well, there are eight billion of us. We’ve taken over and pushed out room for the wildlife to be natural. And that’s the problem. It’s overpopulation. It’s an encroachment on habitat. What that means is managing what remains because these little pockets, like this beautiful one we’re looking out at here, deserve to be saved, and the species that reside in them and their carrying capacities all need to be managed.

Testing the effects of hecs technology on a Tiger Shark in the Caribbean.

DB: How do you envision managing it because management means different things to different people? North America, where we had large landscapes to set aside, is very different from circumstances in other parts of the world, like India for example, where establishing a wildlife refuge for tigers means displacing large populations of people. In our effort to preserve wildlife, what is the criteria for establishing an equitable balance?

“Displacing a large population of human beings is absolutely worth it for a small population of wildlife.”

FG: Displacing a large population of human beings is absolutely worth it for a small population of wildlife. If human beings own every piece of wilderness, where’s the balance, where’s the space for wildlife? What right do we have as just another living organism to take over a habitat that’s been there over millennia? That’s the difference between being a humanitarian and being a biologist, and on a bigger scale being a realist? There are 6,000 tigers left in the world. There are eight billion people, two billion of them are Indian. No offense to the Indian people – I’m not a humanitarian, clearly – but the tigers deserve a little land.

DB: What are your objectives in the conservation movement? What would you like to see happen in the next five, ten years, or even the next generation?

FG: I don’t want to see just one thing done. I don’t want to save the bison. I don’t want to save the tigers. I want to see a generation of young people who care about saving all of it together. The message I tell on my show is about hope. We live in a time when we are so callous of ecophobia – a condition, by the way, I absolutely hate! – because species extinction and global warming are in the headlines every day, to the point that you feel nothing anymore. Rhinos are going extinct. Okay, next. I mean, you feel nothing because you see and hear it every single day, so flipping that on its head, giving it a positive message and not saying look at how doomed we are but rather look at what’s left, look at how great these beautiful things are that still exist. That’s the story I tell on Extinct or Alive. Whether I find the extinct animal or I don’t find the extinct animal, either way, along the journey we’ve encountered this incredible habitat, that incredible animal, this amazing interaction and all those little pieces of the puzzle, those little things that still exist in the ecosystem are so mind-bogglingly fantastic! That’s the message I want people to take away. The culmination of all those little things to inspire a generation of people to care about conservation, to care about preservation is what I want to see.

DB: How do you feel about working in television?

FG: I love it. I absolutely love it. I love it because it allows me to reach such a large audience. It’s nice to be able to tune into television that is not just entertaining, but that is scientifically valuable.

Forrest in the Grand Tetons.

Watch the new season of Extinct or Alive, which airs beginning October 23 on Animal Planet.

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Environment

Oct 17, 2019

A Trek to Prevent Iceland’s Apocalypse

In the remote Icelandic highlands, two filmmakers face a dilemma when they realize their 14-day trek across the land they are trying to protect will take twice as long as they planned.

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WRITTEN BY

Davey Braun

A giant army of 200-foot tall steel lattice towers is marching across Iceland.

Like “the nothing” from The Neverending Story, Iceland’s hydroelectric industry is sweeping the nation, indiscriminately destroying any and all pristine nature in its path.

Ryan Richardson and his wife Hailey, two filmmakers from Western Canada, committed to trek across Iceland in an attempt to force the government to protect the highlands region, an area of over 40,000 square kilometers, by granting it national park status. (Listen to the podcast episode here).

Ascending out of the lowlands and into the northern highlands.

“Some of the places we were walking through this year will not look the same next year. They’ll be completely scarred with hydro development and it’ll be like the difference between walking through a beautiful desert glacial oasis and then walking through a World War Z post-apocalyptic scene of nothingness.”

Their intended route, from the northern tip of the island to the south, would cover 230 km, and deviate wildly from the areas where most tourists visit on holiday. However, they faced a serious survival dilemma on day one, when Ryan noticed that after 42 km of hiking, they were still only halfway to their first waypoint. Because the remote highlands are so untouched and even unmapped, the satellite data they based their route on was 40% wrong. When Ryan and Hailey realized that they would now have to traverse over 400 km to achieve their goal, they decided between cutting their food rations in half and doubling their daily mileage – quitting was never an option.

“No other experience could have helped us prepare for this in any way, shape or form. You’re suffering to a degree you’ve never suffered before.”

Ryan and Hailey operate their own small-footprint film production company, Life Outside Studio, in which they actively participate in film projects around the world from swimming with wild orcas in Norway to ultra-running across the Namibian desert. However, nothing could prepare them for the sheer scale and suffering of their 14-day trek across Iceland. While the South Highlands is an international hiking destination, Ryan and Hailey trekked through utter isolation up north for the first nine days of the journey, battling relentless rains and sub-zero temperatures at altitude. One slip up while fording a sub-zero glacial river, and hypothermia becomes a real threat.

Navigating the highlands through fields of snow.

“You’re becoming part of the landscape that you’re moving through. You could smell rivers and streams before you could hear them or see them because your senses were just so heightened.”

Ryan and Hailey earn their stories, and with their grueling trek across Iceland, they’ve earned our attention in helping to protect the beautiful highlands, the largest remaining uninhabited area in Europe. They filmed their experience and plan to release the final product at outdoors festivals this fall. You can watch a sneak peek of their journey in the trailer below.

After completing their goal, blisters and all, Ryan and Hailey returned to Canada with a new sense of awe for the untapped potential of mental strength and grit that lies dormant, not just in themselves, but in all humans.

“Everything that those guys like Rich Roll and David Goggins say about putting your mind to something is true. Although your body feels finished, there’s so much more gas left in the tank.”

The Outdoor Journal connected with Ryan just days after completing the trek to discuss why saving Iceland’s Central Highlands is worth 14 days of suffering, how to craft a film out in the remote wilderness and utter isolation, and the lessons he learned about his own untapped potential and the human spirit. (Listen to the full podcast episode here).

A SIGN FROM THE UNIVERSE

TOJ: Can you describe exactly where you were when this initial idea came about to do an expedition across Iceland?

Richardson: We had just finished a project in Norway in November 2018 and we were on our way home, flying from Reykjavik, Iceland to Toronto, Canada. We were flying with Wow Air and they had this educational pamphlet about the Highland National Park. It was the first time I’d heard anything about it. I was really interested because I’d been to the highlands area quite a few times and I knew, for the most part, that in 40,000 square kilometers of it, probably about 2% of it was protected.

Hailey and Ryan trekking through Sprengisandur plateau with Hofsjokull glacier in the background.

It’s pretty evident when you get there. There are lots of people ripping around on these massive jeeps and cruising overland and there’s little regard for plant life or flora.

So I thought it was pretty interesting in reading about this project that they wanted to implement a national park to protect this entire area. I tucked the pamphlet in my pocket and when I got home, before I even looked at my Norway project footage, I contacted the guys that were organizing the initiative and said I’d love to get involved with this.

“You know that out of 7.5 billion people on the planet, you’re the only two people having this experience in nature all to yourself.”

Hailey and I, because we’ve been on a couple of adventures to Iceland, thought we should do something crazy to get attention or some kind of traction. So we decided to cross the country on foot. We’ve never done anything like that. And what better way to captivate and share the experience of Iceland in the highlands than by walking through it? Instead of being a passenger through a window, we’d experience every bit of the landscape. Especially when some of the places we were walking through this year, next year will not look like how they looked this year. They’ll be completely scarred with hydro development and it’ll be like the difference between walking through a beautiful desert glacial oasis and then walking through a World War Z post-apocalyptic scene of nothingness.

Nyidalur hut is the most remote mountain hut in the country.

One of the most impactful visuals from our trip was on this gravel to paved road at 65 degrees North, almost in the arctic. It feels so ominous because there’s a dam to the left with like 400 lines connecting to 200 feet tall pylons dotting the skyline. And there’s no one around for a hundred kilometers, but there are these perfectly paved city streets everywhere that they use for maintenance access on these pylons. What a shame!

TOJ: You’ve done a lot of traveling on other assignments to places like New Zealand and Africa where you had to push your comfort zone, but how big of a leap was it committing to over 400 kilometers of hiking?

Richardson: It was the biggest leap ever. No other experience could have helped us prepare for this in any way, shape or form. It was so outside of our comfort zone that it was unlike anything to compare it to you because we were pushing our own physicality a hundredfold beyond what we thought we were capable of, but we were trying to film at the same time. We’ve never walked 50 kilometers in a day with backpacks on before. You’re suffering to a degree you’ve never suffered before, but you’re also trying to tap into your creative brain and still get these really scenic shots of you walking along a waterfall or fording a river and crossing to the other side.

TOJ: Did you guys do any training to break in your gear and test what your limits might be?

“It was kind of like stretching before the fight of your life.”

Richardson: What we did, which was probably the most critical element, was a dry run on the east coast trail of Newfoundland. We spent seven days on the trail and, more than anything, it prepared us for what our food situation was going to be like so that we could plan accordingly and also figure out the flow of how hiking and media would work in tandem. It was kind of like stretching before the fight of your life. It doesn’t prepare you in any way. it just helps get the blood flowing.

Standing on a glacier, Ryan takes a moment to assess their surroundings in a brief moment of clear skies.

THE HUNGER DILEMMA

TOJ: How much experience did you have trekking and hiking in Iceland and how much scouting did you get a chance to do?

Richardson: The biggest problem for us was the fact that there are no maps of any of these areas. And there’s basically no data we could find on the kind of route that we wanted to go through. We were completely in the dark. So we based our route off of Google Earth, which told us it was going to be 230 kilometers from north to south.

“I couldn’t conceivably think of anything more difficult or challenging to physically go through.”

But, on the first day, we had hiked 42 kilometers and I looked on our GPS, but we were only halfway to our first waypoint. I knew there was something wrong. The satellite tracking, compared to our expected route, was off by about 40%. So, instead of doing 230 kilometers that we had prepared for, we did 420 kilometers in total. It made everything infinitely more difficult.

TOJ: So on that first day when the realization sinks in that you’re going to have to do so much more, what kind of conversation is happening between you guys? Are you recalibrating your expectations or maybe even thinking about stopping just as you had gotten started?

Richardson: It was the first day when we had that realization that we were potentially in for about twice the amount of mileage that we thought we were going to have to do. But we were in it. We’ve taken flights, we have the food on our backs, we have a decision to make. Do we ration food and instead of doing this for 14 days, we do it for 28 days, or do we consolidate all the days and put two days into one every day. We had a conversation and we decided that we would rather be on our feet twice as long and not be hungry, than have to be hungry for a month and ration food. Those were our options. We never thought about quitting.

TOJ: I’ve interviewed several explorers who journeyed across Antarctica this year and it seems like for the first nine days or so, you were experiencing a similar sense of isolation before you got to the more popular trails in the latter half of the trip. Did you feel scared or did you feel exhilarated by the fact that it was just the two of you out there alone?

Richardson: It was totally exhilarating. On the first day, we walked through basically farmland getting up to the highlands so it didn’t feel very remote. And then the next day we started gaining elevation pretty quickly, but it still felt like hiking through Colorado. But then on the third day, you pass this remote mountain hut and there’s basically nothing for the next week and you know that you’re totally in it. If you were a painter, you couldn’t have painted more beautiful scenes with the midnight sun setting between two glaciers and then rising all at once as it just touches the horizon. And, you know that out of 7.5 billion people on the planet, you’re the only two people having this experience in nature all to yourself.

Read next on TOJ: Running For My Son’s Life – Featuring a short film by Ryan Richardson

SILENT MEDIA COVERAGE

Ryan trekking through the colourful mountains of Landmannalaugar.

TOJ: You titled your latest blog post “Breaking the Silence.” I’m wondering why do you think that there’s so little coverage about the fate of Iceland’s Central Highlands?

Richardson: The fact that there is so little coverage is exactly the scary thing because the hydro companies are taking advantage of that and trying to mobilize and develop right now because no one’s talking about it. When the Highlands National Park Initiative has had more support with the government more on board, these hydro companies stay quiet and they just pray and wait on their opportune moment. In speaking with some of the local wardens in neighboring national parks, there’s this undertone that they’re going to take advantage of the next year or two while nobody’s talking about it.

What is a National Park from Einar Bergmundur on Vimeo.

CALL TO ACTION

TOJ: What sort of calls to action are you encouraging our readers to take? Should they sign a petition or should they donate or should they travel to Iceland themselves?

“The whole point of this was so that we could share this experience with as many people as possible, otherwise it was just a miserable vacation.”

Richardson: The most important thing at this stage is for people to share, talk about it and educate. There’s a lot of people going to Iceland and about 90% of those people, for the most part, are staying in downtown Reykjavik, which is crazy. And then the next 9% will go an extra hour and a half down to the south coast, seeing a bunch of stops along the way. And then 1% will drive around the rest of the country. There’s a very small amount of those people that are traveling from North America and Europe who are actually getting into the highlands and exploring. The more people that see how accessible it is and how beautiful it is and that there are so few places left in the world where you can do that, it’s worth stretching your comfort zone for.

Taking advantage of “midnight sun”, Hailey captures a few photos of our late night trek.

UNIVERSAL UNTAPPED POTENTIAL

TOJ: During one of your lowest moments when you were suffering from so many blisters and even thinking about quitting, you said that some advice from your mom really helped, which was to never quit at night, to get some rest and reassess in the morning. Is your mom an accomplished adventure as well or is that just “Canadian wisdom?”

Richardson: (Laughs) Don’t forget, most Canadians live in Toronto, it’s just like New York City. My mom is a pretty wild adventurer. I definitely admire her and look up to her. She does objectives that I don’t think that I could ever do. But I think that obviously, this project changes that thinking a little bit because it totally opened my mind to think what people are capable of. If you stick to that mantra at night when you are feeling your lowest, then you wake up when the Sun is out with a different mindset.

TOJ: I heard that you commented to Hailey on the journey, “We earn our stories now.” And I thought that was just the coolest ethos or tagline for Life Outside Studio – we earn our stories.

“You’re really becoming part of the landscape that you’re moving through.”

Richardson: I remember that exact moment. The storms were coming in all around us on day three when we were heading into the highlands. I knew that we weren’t going to have to exaggerate how hard our journey was when we got home. No, it was actually the hardest thing every single day, for 14 days straight. I couldn’t conceivably think of anything more difficult or challenging to physically go through.

TOJ: Aside from your camera, was there one piece of kit or gear that really turned out to be the most essential piece or something that you couldn’t do without?

Richardson: The Garmin inReach. I don’t think that you could do a project without a satellite device like that. Being able to receive messages from home, having your brother or your sister say, “Hey, so proud of you,” when you’re out there and you’re emotionally distraught was a huge help. It’d be tough to go and do a project without being able to communicate with loved ones at all. Aside from that, from a safety standpoint, if we didn’t have proper waterproof layers, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.

TOJ: What was it like in those remote areas where you got to fill up your water bottle with the fresh Icelandic glacial water and drink it?

Richardson: Globally speaking, there are very few places where you don’t have to wonder where your water is coming from. It’s just the tastiest thing. And it was all part of the experience of being connected and experiencing and indulging with nature and not just being like a passenger, but really becoming part of the landscape that you’re moving through. You could smell rivers and streams before you could hear them or see them because your senses were just so heightened. You’re getting so in tune with moving through these landscapes. You were so hypersensitive and aware of the nature that you were in.

After days in the desert, we find an oasis lake.

LIFE OUTSIDE STUDIO

TOJ: You just returned from your 14-day, 420-kilometer trek across the entire island of Iceland, which ended up being twice the mileage that you had planned for, and you suffered some near expedition-ending blisters, how is your recovery going?

“I just wanted to have complete creative control.”

Richardson: I’m back in Western Canada. We’re just working on a project in the interior of British Columbia. We flew here almost in a tuck and roll from Iceland. So just finished our 420-kilometer walk, and then within five days, we were back out here shooting a trail running project. It’s a heli-access trail running, ridge running program. So we’re back on our feet and running with camera equipment already. Literally, the second day into this program, I lost like my third toenail since the Iceland project started. I’m like, “Oh man, I need a vacation.”

TOJ: As someone who enjoys shooting and editing myself. I’m curious to know, how did you go from being passionate about photography as a hobby to actually creating your own media house with Life Outside Studio?

Richardson: For me, it was the only option I had (laughs). I didn’t want to just join a different production company and then follow someone else’s vision. I really wanted to pursue stories that I was passionate about and creating Life Outside Studio was the only way that I saw that as actually ever being feasible. I just wanted to have complete creative control. It sounds narcissistic to put it into words like that, but what it comes down to is being able to say yes and no to the stuff that you really care about.

TOJ: Were you looking to start a career that you could do alongside with your wife, Hailey?

Richardson: It was opportunity meeting timing. We just realized that we enjoyed working on projects together. Hailey is strong in areas that I lack or have a weakness. We complement each other really well on projects and I don’t think we could have predicted that or forecasted that in any way.

TOJ: Once you got home with all this footage from 14 days of trekking, what was your process for organizing it all and reviewing it and crafting it into a story?

“Had we known it was going to be over 400 kilometers, we wouldn’t have even done it.”

Richardson: I try to look at everything as objectively as possible from an editor’s point of view, completely removing myself from the capturing of it. Hailey’s really good at looking through the eyes of the viewer who knows nothing about the subject. We’re hoping to stay as true as possible to the entire experience, and keep it as raw as possible too because I think that’s the whole beauty of the project. It’s not like we are walking around with a bunch of gimbals and sliders to setup clean scenics. It was really quite raw. The whole point of this was so that we could share this experience with as many people as possible, otherwise, it was just a miserable vacation.

TOJ: Was one of your goals to make this a plant-based expedition?

Richardson: We went plant-based to vote with our dollar. There are more sustainable ways for eating and it’s so accessible now. We’re convicted because we spend so much time in the outdoors. We felt like that’s a pretty easy way to give back and do our part.

TOJ: Now that you guys realize that you’re capable of trekking 14 days and over 400 kilometers, do you have any ideas in the future of doing something similar, like another multi-week expedition?

Richardson: I wasn’t really impressed necessarily by us, but this experience opened my eyes to what all humans are capable of. Everything that those guys like Rich Roll and David Goggins say about putting your mind to something is true – although your body feels finished, there’s so much more gas left in the tank.

To see more of Ryan and Hailey’s work for Life Outside Studio, check out:

Instagram: @ryanmichaelrichardson
Facebook: @lifeoutsidestudio
YouTube: Life Outside

Subscribe for more episodes of The Outdoor Journal Podcast.

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