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Environment

Oct 28, 2019

How the Environmental Movement Can Harness the Power of Storytelling

Our Q&A with conservation journalist and storytelling expert Millie Kerr underscores the importance of character-driven stories in conservation.

WRITTEN BY

The Outdoor Journal

Millie Kerr is a lawyer-turned-multimedia journalist focused on travel and wildlife conservation. After three years of practising law, she put her legal career aside, deciding to pursue her primary passions: conservation, travel, and storytelling. Millie subsequently: completed several month-long volunteering stints with Namibian conservation organisations; spent a year writing for the Wildlife Conservation Society; published conservation and travel articles with a wide range of magazines and newspapers, from National Geographic Traveler and The New York Times to The Economist and Popular Science; and presented/produced a digital segment for Earth Touch News. In 2016, Millie graduated from the University of Cambridge with a Masters of Philosophy in conservation. Millie’s final year dissertation was on conservation storytelling; she now works in London as a freelance journalist and conservation communications consultant. Her first children’s book (on British wildlife) will be published in 2020.

What do you mean by ‘storytelling’? Is storytelling the same as ‘communication,’ or is there a distinction?

The distinction is difficult, if not impossible, to make. Look up ‘story’ in any dictionary, and you’ll encounter a range of definitions, from a news report to a real or fictitious account told to entertain. When you factor in today’s constantly evolving media landscape, the task becomes almost impossible. We all know that an incredible novel contains at least one story, but can a Tweet count? What about an emotionally charged non-verbal exchange? When I began researching storytelling for a masters dissertation on ‘conservation storytelling,’ I decided to put this question aside. Instead, I focused my attention on what stories do and how they are crafted. My goal was to put together a piece of work that could help conservationists communicate more effectively.

IN BOTSWANA, SAN COMMUNITIES HAVE LONGSTANDING ORAL TRADITIONS AND USE STORIES TO PASS DOWN TRADITIONAL KNOWLEDGE AND MORAL GUIDANCE. PHOTO BY ISABEL WOLF GILLESPIE

So, what do stories do? What impacts can they have?

Stories play many important roles. They bring people together but are more than tools of connectivity: they convey information, educate and influence, entertain, preserve traditions and values. Stories bridge gaps in culture, language, age and education—and because stories give context to information while stirring emotions, they allow tellers and listeners the chance to mull over the world and their place in it. Most importantly, because listeners find the story’s meaning, stories can prompt listeners to change their minds. Likewise, emotions impact decision-making, so emotional stories can inspire action—something facts alone rarely achieve. These two final points get to the crux of how storytelling supports the environmental movement.

For decades, many conservationists minimized the importance of communication—especially with the general public—but in recent years, environmentalists have begun waking up to the power of storytelling. In January, for instance, Jane Goodall discussed the way environmentalists try to influence people who don’t care about (or agree with) environmental issues, such as climate change.

She pointed out that many approaches make people feel defensive, and I think we can all agree that no one likes being told that he or she is wrong. Goodall went on to say, “What you have to do is to get into the heart. And how do you get into the heart? With stories.”

Sambhar Lake, Rajasthan, India. A group of paragliding enthusiasts shares a video of their exploits with a local camel herder intrigued by the unusual activity.

You’ve described what stories do, but how are they composed? What are the ingredients that set compelling stories apart from their forgettable counterparts?

If you posed this question to a hundred random people with no communications expertise, I suspect that most of them would mention emotional impacts. Some stories are designed to make us laugh; some make us think, and others bring about fear or sentimentality. Like most people, I’ve consumed and told stories for most of my life. for the last decade, I’ve written numerous narratives as a professional journalist, but it wasn’t until undertaking my dissertation research that I formally analysed the ingredients that go into successful stories.

After months of research, I identified what I call ‘core storytelling elements,’ finding that compelling stories:

  • Enchant and inspire wonder;
  • Show, don’t tell;
  • Feature change, drama, and tension;
  • Feature clear characters that are ideally relatable;
  • Depict a hero overcoming obstacles—sometimes on a quest;
  • Pit good against evil using protagonists and antagonists; and
  • Engage the listener/reader/viewer.

Although it’s helpful to consider each of these elements when crafting a story, they aren’t intended to operate as a checklist. In fact, several elements may be mutually exclusive. For instance, a story that hinges on a battle between a protagonist and an antagonist may not enchant and inspire wonder. There are different kinds of stories, each with its own time and place, and a storyteller’s expertise and personality naturally influence her decision to pursue a particular tone. Needless to say, storytellers should consider their goals before diving in, and they must always consider format, media type, and target audience. A scientist speaking at a climate change conference will approach a story one way whereas a filmmaker producing a documentary for the BBC will take a different route.

However, I genuinely believe that the core elements can make or break a story. An example: readers are likely to skip over an article or put down a book if it doesn’t incorporate drama or tension, or introduce stimulating, unanswered questions, early on. Hooks are increasingly important as attention spans shrink. In this article, author Stephen King shared that he spends months, if not years, composing the first paragraph of a new novel. King said the following about opening sentences: “An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.”

Lata Village, Nanda Devi National Park, Uttarakhand, Indian Himalayas. In this remote village, traditional storytelling includes elaborate enactments performed in front of the village temple during special occasions, passing on stories that are many millennia old.

Can you provide any current examples of how storytelling is or isn’t working in the environmental realm?

At the moment, the entire world seems to be watching Greta Thunberg, so it’s worth thinking about how the Swedish activist communicates. For one thing, she’s genuine and full of emotion. The anger and disappointment she expresses taps into the emotions many citizens and environmental advocates feel about the state of affairs. She also uses dramatic language. For instance, in her recent talk at the UN climate action summit in New York, she stated, “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words… People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are at the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth.” She repeatedly refers to “you” and “us,” making world leaders antagonists and citizens protagonists. Of course, Greta is an also character in the wider narrative surrounding climate change, and she’s a classic David fighting Goliath—in her case, corporations, world leaders, and adults generally.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention David Attenborough, the king of nature storytelling when answering this question. Although Attenborough has begun emphasizing the environmental crisis in recent documentaries, he predominantly trades on awe and wonder. His voice alone, with its singsong quality, invites viewers to step into a story. His scripts do the same. In the opening episode of Africa, he states, “Africa: the world’s greatest wilderness. The only place on Earth to see the full majesty of nature. There’s so much more here than we ever imagined.” Coupled with emotive music and dramatic visuals, Attenborough’s opening words depict an awe-inspiring (if idyllic) version of nature.

At first glance, this image depicts an adorable baby bird, but on closer inspection, the story it tells is disturbing since the chick is attempting to eat a plastic bag. Photo by Millie Kerr.

Generally speaking, wildlife documentaries are among the most successful forms of nature storytelling. They have been criticised for painting simplistic and optimistic portraits of the state of the environment, but they attract interest from a wide range of people and can inspire action (research suggests that 88% of Blue Planet II viewers changed their behaviours after watching the series by, among other things, using refillable water bottles in lieu of plastic ones). Notably, wildlife and nature programmes utilise all of the core storytelling elements. They tend to enchant and inspire or play on conflict. Universal narratives—like life, death, and family ties—connect human viewers to animal characters even when films don’t contain clear protagonists. Think of the helpless impala battling for survival against dominant lionesses. Here you have a taste of good versus evil. Family themes are often utilised, as well. The tag line for The Last Lions, a 2011 nature documentary produced by National Geographic Films, read, “The most powerful force in nature is a mother’s love.”

There are plenty of environmental stories that haven’t achieved optimal success, from large campaigns that deliver mixed messages to fantastic stories that never reach the right audiences. As a freelance journalist, I frequently approach scientists to discuss writing about their work for mainstream magazines and newspapers, and I regularly encounter the same set of roadblocks: scientists don’t see the value in communicating with the “general public,” so they don’t carve out time to talk to me; they refuse to simplify their work and are frustrated when reporters condense their often-complex findings into palatable bites of information; and they are so focused on details, they miss the bigger picture.

At the same time, many scientists resist talking about their personal views and professional journeys. Several years ago, I interviewed an ornithologist on camera with hopes of securing interesting details about his career. At one point, I asked if anything dangerous had happened during his time in the field. He paused, mulled over the question, and meekly responded that no, nothing of the sort came to mind. Later, when the cameras stopped rolling, he mentioned being bitten by two venomous snakes during field research. Perhaps he worried about painting snakes in a negative light, but I don’t think so: my sense was that he didn’t consider the incidents remarkable or worth sharing.

Sunset descends on Mt Rainier National Park and its surroundings. Water management and forest management can get tricky – is “no management” a viable alternative? Photo by Lukasz Duda.

What’s unique about storytelling in the environmental conservation context?

There are several special considerations in environmental storytelling. For one thing, environmental issues are often complex, global, and urgent, making their communication challenging. Likewise, storytellers must consider the fact that certain stories work well in the short-term only to generate negative long-term impacts. For decades, campaigners and NGOs have emphasized negative environmental trends without realising that, over the course of time, donors and the public experience environmental fatigue. Besides, if you’re asked to donate money to save elephants when every headline tells you elephants are teetering on the brink of extinction, why donate at all? Many in the environmental movement are now calling for conservation optimism to spark positivity and balance out seemingly endless bad news.

There’s also tension between storytelling and scientific accuracy. Stories require creativity and fluidity, but scientists like caveats and feel the need to give every word meaning. Even the most charismatic and eager conservation storytellers have to confront the fact that translating complex scientific information may require reframing and simplifying. The line between accuracy and entertainment is thin and potentially dangerous: compelling yet evidence-informed stories require special care.

Who should be telling stories about the natural world? Should the task be left to experts—like advocates, filmmakers, and journalists—or can anyone tell impactful environmental stories?

Whether people realize it or not, they constantly tell and receive stories. According to author Jonathan Gottschall, humans are “storytelling animals”. As he says, “We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” However, not all of us are capable of telling compelling stories that attract international attention and inspire action of the kind the environmental movement desperately needs. And not all of us want to. Moreover, as in any sphere, there are professionals working on issues and projects that don’t involve communication. With that in mind, does it make sense for a field biologist working 16 hours a day in the remote wilderness to set aside additional time to learn storytelling skills? Or should conservation organisations instead focus on developing the storytelling skills of their communications staff?

My personal view is that all of us can benefit from improving our communications skills. Besides, whether they like it or not, scientists are increasingly expected to engage with donors, members of the media, and the public, so they have no choice but to consider storytelling. How professionals and organisations pursue development and training is another matter, but I genuinely believe that the core elements listed above can provide useful (and relatively simple) guidance.

Native American lands provide some of the most breathtaking experiences for visitors. Pictured here is Antelope Canyon: a true Arizona gem and example of difficult balance between accessibility and sustainability. Photo by Lukasz Duda

Let’s say you’re a field biologist tasked with writing a blog post about a recent research expedition for your organisation. You can’t figure out how to get started despite knowing the underlying work inside and out. If you spend a few minutes thinking about characters and story arcs, you may quickly discover that you are the protagonist in the story. While in the field, you were conducting work guided by a set of goals, but you met challenges along the way. Perhaps the project is hindered by natural resource extraction in the area or a government (like Bolsonaro’s) that actively impedes environmental efforts.

If you’re a wildlife conservationist, you should consider making a particular species the protagonist. Antagonists could be poachers, climate change, and unsustainable development.

A final example involves the death of Cecil the lion in 2015. Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit was so bowled over by the world’s reaction to the lion’s death, they analyzed the case, finding a “unprecedented media reaction” spanning the globe. The study authors surmised that Cecil’s story resonated because Cecil was a majestic animal with an English nickname that died a slow, painful death at the hands of an identifiable villain.

Looking at my elements, it’s clear that the many stories told about Cecil were embedded with at least four of the seven core elements. Cecil was a relatable character: his English name, the fact that he was an alpha, and the fact that he had cubs meant that people saw him as a father—almost like someone they know. The fact that he died a slow death meant that tension plagued his demise; it also made the hunter, Walter Palmer, a natural villain. Cecil was good; Palmer was evil. Finally, because the story was shared on social media and via numerous news articles, it had an incredible level of engagement, which is essential in the digital age.

Cover Photo by Mike Erskine.

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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 to The Outdoor Journal Podcast for more stories like this.

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Stories From The Sahel: Lake Chad, at the Cross-Section of Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Nigeria

A part of the world that explorer Reza Pakravan considers the most remote region he's visited. A place where millions of people do not feel that they belong to any particular nation.

New World Record: Nirmal Purja Summits the 14 Highest Peaks in Just 6 Months

Nepali ex-soldier Nirmal Purja just smashed the record for summiting all the 8000ers in just half a year—the previous record? The same achievement took Kim Chang-ho, over seven years.

Book Review: Tales from the Trails

From the top of the world to the end of the earth, essays from a marathoner’s odyssey to compete on every continent and the lessons learned of friendship, life and pushing past borders

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