Falling in Love with the World
Climbers, botanists, deep-sea divers...The adventurers of St. Louis have kept an Explorers Club chapter running for 30 years.
Hand burning on the rope, Gig Gwin slid the last of the 50-foot drop and walked along a wet limestone ledge, flashlight playing on the dark ripples of the subterranean stream. He was on Niue, a coral island deep in the South Pacific, about to hold his breath and brave a long, narrow underwater channel without a clue as to what awaited him when he surfaced.
Gwin came up gasping and hoisted himself into what looked to be a virgin cave, its stalagmites and stalactites untouched—at least, until he wriggled through a tight space on his belly and knocked a little one down. He cursed. As soon as he could stand, he pulled out his treasured Nikon, encased in three plastic bags, and started snapping.
After a labyrinth of dark, claustrophobic passages, a sharp turn brought him into a room as vast as a baseball stadium. Gwin was flooded with wonder—but it couldn’t drown the tiny voice in his brain, already dreading the return swim through that tunnel.
Then his eye caught a faint light. He looked straight up and realized that it was a natural shaft. He could pull himself up with vines, then climb the steep rock to the jungle floor. He wouldn’t have to swim back.
Gwin had traveled to every country on Earth, but only when he entered an uncharted cave did he qualify for the famed Explorers Club, “You have to do something,” he explains.
We’re on the terrace of the Deer Creek Club, the sun flashing orange through a stand of oak and hickory trees. Members of club’s St. Louis chapter have wandered out here to relax before tonight’s dinner. It’s a small, congenial group, all of them old enough to have lived well, young enough to retain a sense of ease and vigor. They sip pinot noir, its clear red glowing in the slanted light.
“At least I was able to rescue some of the photos,” Gwin continues.
“Saltwater?” one of the men asks.
“No, it was fresh.”
“Ah, well, that gives you a fighting chance.”
Alas, the Nikon never worked again. But Gwin had won entrée to the next black-tie Explorers Club dinner at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. In celebration, he gulped down two deep-fried California tarantulas at the bar.
Chapter president Marguerite Garrick chuckles at Gwin’s recollection. At these legendary annual dinners in New York, the exotic is de rigueur: antelope mousse, fried termites served with tweezers, pickled African honeybees, canapés made from the marrow of a 50,000-year-old horse found in a glacier, whiskey poured over million-year-old ice from Alaska.
“It’s the tarantulas that stick in everybody’s mind,” she says, “and throat. Once, the chef didn’t know to burn the poisonous guard hairs off the legs, and people’s throats went numb. Nobody complained—these are explorers, dammit. ‘Oh, I’m sorry. I can’t talk. I was eating a tarantula at the Waldorf’ is so much better than a lawsuit.”
Bagpipes play the guests into the ballroom, where a scientific or geographic explorer speaks (once it was Neil Armstrong, another time Stephen Hawking) and Jim Fowler (who co-hosted Wild Kingdom with Garrick’s father, Marlin Perkins) once draped a 10-foot python around somebody’s neck.
Gwin reminisces about the time “Jungle Jim” released a bird of prey—“I think it was a hawk”—that swooped through the ballroom and refused to return.
“An average red-tail has a wingspan of 51 inches,” remarks a woman in a sheath dress, her muscular legs crossed and one foot swinging.
“It was a hawk,” confirms Rick Holton. “That was the year [late St. Louis sculptor] Bob Cassilly got mad about something and stormed the stage.” Holton extends his arm along the back of the settee, too urbane to storm anything. When someone mentions how his wife, Carlota “Lotsie” Hermann Holton, saved the chapter from stodginess, he just smiles. He’s well used to her adventures.
Blonde Lotsie, almost as tall as he is, chose him as a friend when she was 7 because “he was the only kid in the neighborhood who’d climb the highest tree.” For his 50th birthday, she gave him a MiG-25 Foxbat flight at the Gromov Flight Research Institute, near Moscow—but wanted her own turn, too. The plane shot up 80,000 feet and reached Mach 2.6, its needle nose tearing through the sky until she could see the curve of the Earth. It was queasy hot in the cockpit, but when the pilot, Vladimir, gave Lotsie some stick time, she took a deep breath and guided the plane through a series of rolls and loops.
Recently she was drawn to a place far more serene: Bhutan. Tonight’s speaker is Tshewang Wangchuk, the first National Geographic explorer from that country and an expert on its tigers. He talks about using Calvin Klein’s Obsession for Men to trap a young female cat. Then his smile fades: “Our tigers escape into India.”
“Are they baited across the border?” asks Garrick. There’s a global black market, because tigers’ bones are thought to have healing properties and the penis is considered an aphrodisiac. Wangchuk describes the camera traps that help track both tigers and snow leopards. A moment later, he brightens. “We’ve had interactions with The Explorers Club. One of our princes—at one time, they were heavily into finding the yeti…”
Garrick leans over to me and whispers, “My dad settled that whole thing.”
In 1960, Marlin Perkins (who’d become director of the Saint Louis Zoo a few years later) was invited to investigate all the physical evidence and decide once and for all whether the Abominable Snowman existed. He played recordings of indigenous animals to Bhutanese villagers, and midway through, people exclaimed, “That! That is the yeti!”
It was the mating call of the snow leopard.
Next, Perkins examined the sacred talisman of Kunjung: a scalp that the village’s fiercest warrior had supposedly torn from the head of a yeti. Looking closely, he detected faint striations left by a wooden mold. Step by step, he figured out how to replicate the yeti scalp with the tanned, henna-dyed, molded hide of a serow goat.
By now he’d pretty well scotched the legend. But as he trekked back down the mountain, he noticed inexplicably huge tracks in the snow. He froze, staring. Then he pulled out his camera and started taking pictures and careful measurements as he followed the trail down the slope, into a valley, and up the other side.
When he reached deep shade, the prints shrank into fox tracks. The sun had melted the snow and elongated them.
“So that was both satisfying and disappointing,” Garrick says with a grin. “That ‘scalp’ sat in our living room my whole childhood—along with the narwhal, a whale tusk that spirals to a point and had gotten stuck in Arctic ice—and the South Americanpoisoned-dart blowgun. We’d put a LIFE magazine on a chair and shoot.”
Marlin was already a member of The Explorers Club when he came to St. Louis. His wife, Carol Perkins, was invited to join by Audrey Spafford Jung, who founded the St. Louis chapter (its members now spanning Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, and Arkansas) in 1988.
A schoolteacher with a lively curiosity, Audrey had explored the northern coast of Honduras and its ancient Mayan ruins with her second husband, engineer and archaeologist Joe Spafford. As soon as he retired, they planned to join an expedition with a friend, Brother Nicholas Sullivan, a biospeleologist who was terribly excited about a group of caves near Chillagoe, Queensland, Australia.
The day before his retirement party, Joe suffered a fatal heart attack.
Unwilling to let grief paralyze her, Audrey packed alone for the expedition. She’d never caved before—literally or figuratively.
“You’d stand in the entrance, completely surrounded by bugs that didn’t want to let you in, and once you entered, it was a whole new world,” she recalls, the spell still in her voice three decades later. “It was just beautiful—a sight you will never see aboveground. We were searching for new species, and we found some.”
“You’d stand in the entrance, completely surrounded by bugs that didn’t want to let you in, and once you entered, it was a whole new world,” she recalls, the spell still in her voice three
She remembers scooching into narrow spaces and lying on her back for hours, plucking bugs from the ceiling. Late at night, they’d preserve and catalog the specimens, trying to ID them. “You don’t necessarily know what you’re looking for, but you don’t miss a thing,” she says, “and every day is new and different. I think as you get older, you are ready for that, ready to learn more.”
“I’ve always had sand in my shoes,” adds Audrey, who’s now 94.
“She’s been almost everywhere in the world except Angkor Wat,” her daughter inserts proudly.
“Well, it’s not over yet, honey.”
Dogs, their back muscles bundling and stretching beneath rough coats, pull the sled across Arctic Ocean ice 6 feet thick, heading toward the magnetic North Pole. It’s April 1987, and Dr. Sherman Silber, an infertility specialist who spends his spare time having adventures, is way off the grid. At home, his wife presses the back of her hand to her lips as a radio announcer says of the Chernobyl nuclear explosion, “Thank goodness, the radioactive cloud isn’t going toward Europe—it’s headed for the North Pole.”
Silber’s clueless about danger overhead; he’s worried about what lies beneath him. The terrain is rugged, with heaped ice shards and icebergs, and the dogs are moving fast, and—the sled’s runners break. They can be fixed, but there’s no way to make them glide. Normally you’d mold mud to the bottom of the runners and it would freeze, and then you’d dip a caribou-hair brush in boiling water and paint the mud until it froze smooth. But here? They look around the frozen white landscape with dismay.
“We might die,” the native Alaskans say. Silber looks up sharply, because they’re laughing—their culture’s way of detaching from worrisome realities. Like the polar bears stalking this area for prey. Desperate for a solution, Silber lets his brain spin—and suddenly remembers the “white man’s food” he’s been shunning, preferring to eat seal with his guides. There’s pancake mix. He makes a thick batter, and they paint it on the runners and let it freeze. For the next two weeks, they travel on frozen pancakes.
Silber craves such experiences. He’s exchanged long sentient gazes with gorillas in Rwanda; backpacked for six weeks in Mongolia; camped out with Hadza bushmen in southwest Tanzania. He’s recorded polar bears, grizzlies, moose, caribou, tundra swans, eagles, wolverines, beluga whales, walruses, seals, and arctic foxes in Alaska.
There’s never been a diversion that could compete, he says. “I felt—I still do—that most of what we’d do for entertainment outside of the wilderness was synthetic.”
The Explorers Club started with two Arctic explorers who almost didn’t make it home. They vowed that each year on the anniversary of their rescue, they’d meet and stuff themselves silly with fine food and wine. In 1904, one of them widened the circle and its purpose, inviting a museum curator, an archaeologist, a war correspondent, a professor of physics, and an ethnologist to join them. Jungle explorers soon joined the polar explorers, with astronauts and deep-sea divers on their heels.
This century’s preoccupation is conservation. Garrick co-founded the Forest Park BioBlitz. Her parents helped save the red wolf and the Mexican gray wolf from extinction. Rick and Lotsie Holton bought land in Michigan so they could remove a dam and let salmon complete their journey. Randy and Fiona Woods launched the Deer Creek wetlands cleanup in Ladue and restored a ghost town on a mountain in Colorado. Thomas Paradise is an archaeologist fighting to save the ancient city of Petra, in Jordan, from tourists. Another local member created a fish farm in Zambia “after the Chinese scooped up all the resources and most of the fish.”
Both Peter Raven, former director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, and Peter Wyse Jackson, the current director, are fellows of the club (dubbed Peter the Great and Peter the Wyse).
“One-fourth of all species are in danger of extinction,” says Wyse Jackson. “We are still discovering about 250 species a year, and by and large, as soon as they’re discovered, they go on the red list of endangered species.”
Discovering a new species is a bittersweet triumph unless you can protect its future.
Randy and Fiona Woods set out from Switzerland in a hydrogen-lift balloon, rising fast from the base of a steep cliff, then soaring over the Alps and landing in Italy’s Po River Valley—in an apple tree. The orchard irrigates its trees from the top, and one of the pipes is stuck in the balloon’s wicker basket. They drop a rope, and the villagers tug them off the tree. Their chase crew is still in Switzerland, trying to get through the mountains. Deciding that the Woodses are a good omen, the villagers press wine and pasta on them and ask things like “Where do you go to the bathroom.”
“We have a bucket,” Fiona says. “Not very glamorous.”
On other flights, she’s on the chase crew, feeling rather like a spy as she switches languages and currency at each border crossing and calls airport control towers to learn whether anyone’s sighted the balloon. On one trip, Randy lands in a parched, drug-trafficked region of Mexico, a spot where the Colorado River disappears into the desert and law-abiding locals are forbidden to travel. Sighing, he sets out with his co-pilot to walk back to the States.
On lighter occasions, the Woodses launch a hot-air balloon from their St. Louis backyard. One wall of their home office is covered in charts and maps because they spend most of the year on their 20-knot cruiser, the Jupiter. This summer, they sailed up the Inside Passage to Auke Bay, near Juneau, Alaska, visiting tidewater glaciers and watching sea lions amble on their front flippers and humpback whales create nets of bubbles to confuse their prey.
Along the way, they saw “naked ice in every conceivable sculptural form, sometimes compressed into deep blue metamorphoses as hard and brittle as translucent metal.” That’s a quote from the blog they write—when they can. There’s cell reception maybe two days a week; otherwise, their only company is each other, nature, and anyone they meet along the way.
Both the solitude and the travel come easily: Fiona is from Scotland, and when their kids were little, they lived year-round on Eustatia, a 28-acre island with two other homes. “We collected all our water off the roof,” she says, “and it was a half day over an open ocean just to get to a grocery store. The house was just a roof, no windows. Birds flew through; snakes crawled through. We could shut the louvers in a storm, but there were no locks.”
“We wouldn’t trade our roving life for anything,” Randy says.
“Putting yourself in a position where you’re at risk or resources are limited, you come to rely on and appreciate the minimal things you need and the people you meet.”
“It makes you realize that everybody really is the same,” Fiona adds. “I could be a fisherman’s wife in Alaska; I just happen to be Randy’s wife in Ladue. It’s a roll of the dice.”
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro proves harder than Benjamin Hulsey expected. First, he’s kidnapped by a Tanzanian warlord. “They wanted 15 grand apiece from us,” he says afterward. “They didn’t quite know how to deal with an American lawyer, though.”
He finds a new guide and starts the climb. At one point, to stay on the trail, they have to scale the Barranco Wall and slide down to a granite shelf about 6 by 6 feet. Hulsey stands near the edge of that shelf, looking down.
“Last week, an experienced porter did a head-first off this,” the guide says casually.
Hulsey shoots him a look. “You had to tell me this now?”
They continue along the Machame Route, working their way up a 1,000-foot cliff. Each day the air’s thinner, and Hulsey’s lungs hunger for oxygen.
The final climb is at night, timed for a full moon. The goal is to reach the summit by daybreak, because storms roll in by aft-
ernoon and the trek becomes dangerous.
They’re standing atop Kilimanjaro at first light.
“You’re above the clouds,” Hulsey says, “and it’s like you can see for three light-years. All that tiredness goes away.”
He feels the same transcendent glow when he hikes to the ice caves of Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands, reachable only in certain years, when the ice freezes thick enough. The caves are formed where water seeps out into the 90-foot-high cliff walls and freezes into an icy Gaudí cathedral. “It’s translucent—all different colors, depending on what minerals are in that part of the cliff: green for copper, red for iron…” Hulsey says.
Next, he wants to climb Aconcagua, in Argentina. It’s 22,841 feet, the highest peak in the Southern and Western hemispheres.
The small boat makes its way across the Baltic Sea. The eight-hour trip feels even longer to Mark “Sharky” Alexander; everybody else on the diving team speaks German. Finally, they reach the sonar-mapped location for the wreck of the Graf Zeppelin, Adolf Hitler’s aircraft carrier.
They slick on the rest of their gear, check their equipment, and go in. Alexander dives through 30 or 40 feet of mud-dark water. When it turns gem clear, there’s no more ambient light, so the water’s pitch black. At 330 feet down, his light beam catches the carrier.
“It’s absolutely gorgeous, 700 feet long, sitting on its keel,” he’ll tell his wife later. “It never saw combat: It was supposed to be married up with the Bismarck, and if they’d gotten that working, it would have changed the tide of the war.”
He swims forward to explore the bow. The salinity’s so low and the sea so cold that the 8-inch teakwood is almost perfectly preserved. Alexander sees the burns left when the Soviets tried—68 times—to bomb it underwater. In the end, they had to use a torpedo.
Studying the giant anchor chain—each link about 6 feet long—Alexander gets tangled in the cotton netting draped over the bow. Calmly, he cuts himself free: “If you panic, you’re going to die.”
His courage does have an outer limit—an emotional one. He’s lost three friends to the Andrea Doria wreck. “I’m done,” he says. “I’ve dived it 25 times, but no more. The last time, I was a hermit—even my wife couldn’t get hold of me. I just couldn’t handle it. One minute you’re talking to him, the next they’re calling your name for help and you can’t get what you need because you’re 110 miles offshore.”
And still he dives.
A paramedic in St. Charles, Alexander spends whatever time possible in Florida, where he owns Sharky’s Underwater Expeditions and goes shark diving to record great whites, bull sharks, tiger sharks… You might have seen him on the History Channel, festooned with tanks and hoses, diving the most elusive deep-sea wrecks. He was the first American to dive Hitler’s Wilhelm Gustloff, which, when it sank, took 9,343 lives with it—six times more than died on the Titanic. He was also part of the team that discovered “the vanishing Dutchman,” the Diemermeer, an 18th-century wreck off Sierra Leone.
“To be able to touch a wreck that no one has touched since it sank”—that’s what keeps him diving. That, and the paradox: The deep waters that terrify the rest of us—and stole his friends’ lives—are his safe place. No ambulance sirens, no one in pain or hysterics, no chaos. Just beauty and peace.
Dr. Marcus Raichle explores…but mainly inside the brain. Years ago, though, a good friend of his, a prominent Danish researcher, was recruited to climb Mount Everest. He’d travel with mountain climbers who were also scientists, and they’d measure blood flow in the brain at high altitude. Raichle was crazy jealous.
A few months later, his friend called and said he’d just blown out his knee. Would Raichle go instead?
He notified his dean at Washington University and began preparing.
The team members pitched their tents around 18,000 feet and stayed about two weeks. As it turned out, the scary part was going back on a single-lane gravel road cut into the gorge of the Indus River. “Legend has it that China built this road as an exit in case Russia ever invaded,” he says. “It was the most hair-raising thing I’ve ever done. So that’s how I ended up in The Explorers Club.”
As a brain scientist (Raichle shared a 2014 Kavli Prize for discovering specialized brain networks for memory and cognition), he’s pondered the impulse to explore. “Is creativity doing scary things, or solving everyday problems? Either way, you have to be open. Exploration is a willingness to accept the unexpected—and to find it not troubling but enticing.”
Even when club members “just” do adventure travel, they tease fate, throwing themselves into what’s least familiar. Cindy Peters (who proved her chops on a rigorous medical expedition to the Everest base camp) joined four other Explorers Club St. Louis members on a trip to a remote part of eastern Myanmar. Stumbling over tree roots in the black of night (no flashlights allowed), they followed the village elders through the forest as they sought the right tree for their Kay Htoe Boe ceremony. When a ritual indicated that the spirits had accepted their selection, it was cut and stripped of bark so it could be erected as a sacred pole. The shaman then sacrificed a chicken and held its bones against the tree to divine whether the village would have good weather for its crops.
Your typical traveler might have preferred a decent night’s sleep.
“In adventure, there aren’t many five-star hotels,” Wyse Jackson notes drily. “People who stay in those probably get a slightly sanitized view of the world.”
Traveling with native-born trackers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lotsie cheerfully waded through muddy water up to her knees, felt her wet boots squish into piles of elephant dung, ignored the stinging bites of tsetse flies. “You couldn’t get sick,” she explains earnestly, “because the gorillas would catch a cold.” She learned to decipher the trackers’ clicking language—as had the gorillas—and sat for hours watching a silverback teach his children to pound their chests.
Her worst moment was the night before she summited Kilimanjaro: “Our porter had fallen, and all of our gear had gone down the mountain, so we had no food. You put your muddy, gross, wet boots in your sleeping bag with you, because if you leave them out, they will freeze.” The next morning, none of that mattered. “We were so lucky,” she says. “The glacier—which is melting—was still there. The snows of Kilimanjaro.”
Lotsie’s ancestor William Clark explored the Louisiana Purchase with Meriwether Lewis. Is her inclination to wade in, her openness to even scary or uncomfortable new experiences, genetic?
She shrugs off the question, less interested in why than in where she’ll go next. “We’re here too short of a time,” she says, “and I’ve just never been happy sitting on the porch.”
Garrick had both DNA and nurture: She remembers fossil-hunting with the children of explorer Sir Edmund Hillary on the slag heaps of Illinois coal country, “the most exciting Easter egg hunt ever.”
But Alexander grew up in Pleasant Plains, a small farming town in Illinois; the closest he got to underwater adventure was watching Jonny Quest.
Silber grew up on the South Side of Chicago; he’d never swung a leg over a horse when he wangled a job at a dude ranch out West. Later, he did public health service in Alaska and learned to fly. In “a $2,000 plane made out of tape and paper—you had to wind up the propeller, then get your hand out of the way,” he traveled from one remote village to the next. “I fell in love with the universe,” he says simply.
So did Lotsie, and she’s still fuming over a group of young people on a gondola in Venice, all of them staring down at what’s in their hands: “They live on their damned iPhones, and they’re not seeing the stars.”
Alexander shrugs: “I’d rather sit outside and watch the sky than sit inside and watch a movie. None of us are very into TV or tech—unless it’s tech for use in exploration.”
Fiona has a hunch that our ability to get a 360-degree view of any hotel in the world before we book a room is ruining the fun of arriving there. “It takes away the sense of adventure,” she says, “and almost inevitably leads to disappointment. Those pictures are taken when everything is styled to perfection. It develops a false sense of reality.”
A virtual explorer can sit in a tiny airless bedroom and see an open-air market in Tunisia, full of color and intrigue. That cracks open the world. “But what you don’t get are the smells, the sense of noise and heat,” says Jackson. “The club wants to explore knowledge, but it also wants people to be there.”
Underwater, maybe, or in midair; at the top of a mountain; gliding on frozen tundra; surrounded by the wet dark of a cave.
“I like pushing the limits,” says Alexander. He’s tanned, just back from a shark dive in Florida. “Make a limit, then push above it and make another limit. That’s how life should be.”