ShowsBefore You GoBulletin BoardContactAboutSearch
Show and Features |
Culture Watch | Question of the Week | Letters of the Week |
Traveler's Aid | Library | Host's View

The Explorers Club

Thor Heyerdahl, Sir Earnest Shackleton, Jane Goodall, Admiral Peary. What do these names have in common? Each was a member of the Explorers Club. Last weekend the club celebrated its 96th annual dinner, and the guest list was a who's-who of living explorers. The Savvy Traveler's Jeff Tyler was there.

The Explorers Club
by Jeff Tyler

Real Audio Listen with RealAudio          help Need audio help?

At first glance, the crowd in tuxedos and black evening gowns looks like the high society set at the opera or a charity ball. Poised and coifed. Grey haired older gentlemen adorned with medals for distinguished military service. But then the bag pipes begin, and on closer inspection, you find that members of the Explorers Club are anything but conventional.

Explorer #1: "It's an incredible appetizer menu. The exotics include saddle of beaver, kangaroo loin, loin of bear, which was really tough to eat, I must say. And then we get to the interesting scorpions, crickets, and worms."

Explorer #2: "We had some of the insects. The crickets are rather crunchy, but they melt in your mouth."

The cocktail conversation is similarly exotic. Forget stock tips. You're more likely to hear survival stories. Jim Fowler, who wrestles alligators on Mutual of Omaha's 'Wild Kingdom', he has quite a tale.

Fowler: "I had a big 22 foot Anaconda grab me and swallow my arm in the Amazon. It weighed 300 pounds. If you know about big snakes, you know you've got to grab the tail, because they wrap you tail first. I wasn't afraid of snakes and I knew what to do, but I was in a tough situation because my two trusty Indian guides ran off into the jungle."

You might picture the Explorers Club as a place to swap old war stories, and a visit to their tony Upper East Side Manhattan headquarters wouldn't change your mind. The armchairs in the wood-paneled rooms seem suited for men in smoking jackets savoring cigars and recounting close calls, perhaps with a nod to the stuffed polar bear guarding the stairway. Founded in 1905 by survivors of Arctic expeditions, the club was men-only. Times have changed. They've just elected their first woman president. So a portrait of Faanya Rose will go up in the photo gallery next to other famous members like Admirals Peary and Byrd, President Theodore Roosevelt.

Walsh: "Other members include Charles Lindbergh, Sir Edmund Hillary, who with Tensing Norgay, another member, summited Mount Everest in 1953."

But back at the dinner, I learned that, contrary to appearances, the Explorers Club is less about rehashing the past than it is about educating for the future.

Walsh: "We explore to increase mans knowledge of his natural world. It's doing science, but it's doing science through exploration."

That's Don Walsh, who became a member after making the world's deepest ocean dive at 35,800 feet, almost seven miles beneath the sea.

Walsh: "Our test for membership of the Explorers Club is you have to have been a member of an expedition that contributed to knowledge. Even if you wash test-tubes on the expedition, you are part of it, and you contributed to knowledge. But if you just bought a ticket to have someone carry you to the top of a mountain as a gentleman traveler, that doesn't qualify."

In fact, if you describe them as adventurers, most 'explorers' will correct you. It's not about the glory of being first, they say. The mission is discovery. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin put it this way.

Aldrin: "It takes the explorers first, then the rest of humanity comes in a gradual fashion. Unless the explorers reach there, and find out what it is like, then people aren't going to go."

Aldrin and others see the club as a kind of incubator, to foster new ideas and inspire further exploration. For Gary Kopff, a surprisingly young-looking mountain climber in his 50's, the Explorers Club is a haven in a world that doesn't understand his passion.

Kopff: "Those of us who do adventurous things, like mountain climbing, are generally surrounded by people who think we're crazy. It's one of the few places where you can go and feel that there are kindred spirits about who share a sense of adventure and exploration."

His wife Judy is not one of those kindred spirits. She notes that many of her husband's mountain climbing friends have died.

Judy: "I always hate it when he goes mountain climbing because I think he isn't coming back alive. And I think it's unfair to me, but I can't stop him."

And while her husband finds comradery among the daredevil scientists, Judy meets other spouses at the club who share her apprehension. For him, the common bond is comforting. But for her?

Judy: "Not really. It doesn't help me. I still cry. I don't find it at all comforting."

But these folks are survivors. . .of shipwrecks and Anacondas. And they share the lessons they've learned so others can avoid the same mistakes, make a safe trip home and return next year for another Explorers Club dinner.

In New York, I'm Jeff Tyler for the Savvy Traveler.


Savvy Resources:

American Public Media
American Public Media Home | Search | How to Listen
©2004 American Public Media |
Terms of Use | Privacy Policy