Trip Jennings couldn't believe it. He was staring at a rare spirit bear, one of fewer than 400 in the world. When he got his first glimpse, it was only 100 yards away. "I was so excited I was shaking," he recalls.
When Jennings spotted the animal, the 28-year-old was in the Great Bear Rain Forest on the coast of British Columbia, shooting footage with famed wildlife photographer Paul Nicklen as part of a project for the International League of Conservation Photographers. Sporting white fur because of a recessive gene, these black bears are a legend to the native Gitg'at and Kitasoo peoples. "Locals feel like they are forest spirits," Jennings explains. "They have a different temperament. They are much less threatening and ominous to people."
The sighting came on day five of the expedition. Jennings and Nicklen headed out in the rain before sunrise to stake out a spot on a 40-foot-wide creek bed, where they could sit and wait. About five hours later, Jennings saw the bear plodding toward them.
"We walked around where the bear was fishing for sal- mon," Jennings says. "It would walk toward us and then go back to fishing." They followed the bear up the creek for about 45 minutes. At some points, it was less than five feet away. "It was close enough that I could smell its breath, which smelled like salmon," Jennings says. "It was an experience like none I had ever had."
The footage Jennings and Nicklen shot will be featured in a documentary set to premiere at the Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festival in Nevada City, Calif., in January. (At press time, the film was still unnamed.)
These sorts of encounters with nature are a major part of Jennings' life. An explorer, filmmaker and conservationist, the Richmond native was named a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2007 and one of the "Best Explorers Now" in Canoe & Kayak's annual "Best in Paddling" issue last March. Jennings travels to remote parts of the world, using video to document areas endangered by man and collect scientific data. As he puts it, he's spent the past three years "being chased by crocodiles, evading the Chinese military and being pinned down by rebels with AK-47s." And that's just the beginning of his adventures.
Cristina Mittermeier, president and founder of the International League of Conservation Photographers, which aims to further "environmental and cultural conservation through photography," has nothing but praise for Jennings' work. "Trip really gets the purpose of these expeditions," says Mittermeier, who's worked with Jennings on several projects, including Flathead Wild, a documentary about the Flathead River. "His work is youthful, fun and edgy, and we are able to draw in new audiences for conservation issues."
Athletically built, with tousled red hair and a stubbly beard, Jennings thrives on these types of projects, even though they occasionally jeopardize his life. In January, for example, he and a team from Epicocity Project (he's a partner in the Portland, Ore.-based media company, which focuses on the environment) will travel deep into the jungle of the Democratic Republic of Congo to help complete a map of African elephant DNA for conservation biologist Sam Wasser — the biologist will use the DNA information to map out where ivory is being seized by poachers. The expedition will also be filmed as a documentary to help bring awareness to the issue.
"There is an explosion in elephant poaching," explains Jennings. "In 2009, 104 elephants were killed every day for their ivory. There is quite an industry around killing elephants and extracting ivory."
Jennings and his team will trek through one of the largest wilderness areas in the world for more than three months, collecting DNA samples from elephant dung. The danger he and his team will face is very real. Most researchers consider the remote location too dangerous because a ripple effect from the Rwandan genocide continues to destabilize the area. "The Congo is home to one of the deadliest conflicts since World War II," Jennings explains. "It's a very unstable region."
That fact hasn't escaped his mother, Molly Moncure, who worries each time her son starts a new adventure. "When you get into the field of risk-takers, your sense of danger is diminished," she says. "You see it from a different perspective. I think Trip has upped the ante of risk. He's still cautious, but I think it's getting riskier. I don't like that, and I don't know what I can do about it. It's the nature of the beast, and it frightens me."
Finding His Niche
Jennings and his family, including his younger brother, Conway, lived in Church Hill before moving to an area near the University of Richmond and then to Matoaka Road, near Libbie and Grove. He attended St. Christopher's School through the sixth grade, often struggling in the classroom because of two learning disabilities, dyslexia and dysgraphia. Children with dyslexia have trouble reading and spelling, while children with dysgraphia have difficulty with their handwriting. His parents decided to move him to The New Community School, which focuses on children with dyslexia. "It was hard for him," Moncure says. "He shut down. He didn't want to talk to anybody."
She found that her son was happiest when he was outdoors. "From about the age of 5 on, he would climb up the side of the house using ropes. He would climb trees and play in the creek. He was very creative. He had a huge imagination."
After his fifth-grade year, Jennings attended the first Passages Adventure Camp — think rock-climbing and kayaking — ever held at Belle Isle, and he later went on to serve as a camp counselor until 2008. His mother, who knew Casey Cockerham and John Woolard, the young men starting the camp, helped recruit 11 other campers. "Mom worried that I would do something to hurt myself without proper instruction," Jennings says.
Cockerham introduced Jennings to kayaking, a sport that came naturally to the teen, who later shared a world record for kayaking over a 101-foot waterfall in Oregon in 2006. The record has since been broken, but at the time, it was the tallest waterfall in the world that had been paddled. "Casey is one of the better kayakers on the East Coast," Jennings says. "He was an inspiration. He took me under his wing."
Kevin Tobin, director of Passages, recalls one of his first paddling trips with a teenage Jennings and others to West Virginia's Upper Gauley River. "One person told me not to follow Trip because he can paddle through anything," Tobin recalls, laughing. "It's not easy for any mortal to follow him."
While he was unstoppable in a kayak, Jennings wasn't a natural at traditional sports. "He did kayaking as an alternative sport to football and basketball," says his father, Howard Jennings Jr. He would save money to purchase gear by raking leaves and doing other chores.
Jennings started competing in freestyle kayaking at 15. It requires the kayaker to perform tricks such as hopping the kayak out of the water or doing intricate aerial moves. "I would do cartwheels in the kayak and go end over end," Jennings recalls.
The kayak rodeos took great skill. "Trip would go into the big rapid and do formations and freestyle," says his dad. "They timed the kayakers by how long they could stay in there."
By his 11th-grade year at Trinity Episcopal School, Jennings was spending all of his spare time kayaking on the James River. Weather was never an issue. "I remember being out near Pony Pasture multiple days along with ice floating on the dam," Jennings says. "It was cold water, but I wanted to train. One night I walked up to Belle Isle with my kayak on my shoulder and it was snowing. I got in the water and the full moon came up by the James Center twin towers. I thought to myself, ‘This is so cool.' "
On the Move
Jennings headed to the University of Oregon in 2001, hoping to study multimedia design with the thought of making kayaking videos. When he didn't get into the program, he decided to major in Spanish literature instead. Still, he took a year off from college on two separate occasions to produce videos and documentaries, making his first kayaking video in 2004. He fondly remembers those days of living in his Subaru, traveling, filming and kayaking, noting that he wouldn't mind going back to that simple, carefree life. He covered his expenses by maxing out his credit cards. He was able to pay them off when he sold copies of his video after it was named video of the year by Paddler magazine.
During his second break from school — Jennings graduated in 2006 — he produced another kayaking video in addition to Fire Scars: A Biscuit Fire Documentary, which looked at a controversial timber sale in Oregon. "It was the largest sale on public land in modern history," Jennings says. "I got involved as a filmmaker and activist."
Kyle Dickman, one of Jennings' partners in Epicocity, worked with Jennings on the timber film and has been going on expeditions with him ever since. "Trip is impressive because he is self-taught," Dickman says. "He has a lot of experience doing the films. He's gotten good at what he does."
After the documentary, Jennings stopped competing as a kayaker and devoted his time to producing films about conservation-related stories. "It was a huge shift in my focus," he says. "I was interested and inspired by the natural world, and I wanted to try and protect it."
He landed his first grant, in the amount of $5,000, from National Geographic in 2007 for a trip that combined high adventure with a scientifically based expedition to Papua New Guinea, where a river basin was slated for clear-cutting. The watershed area was made up of thousands of acres of jungle. "I wanted to do a video project on the juxtaposition of one amazing pristine area and a tract of development," he explains. "I wanted to look at the environmental challenges."
He found the jungle in Papua New Guinea to be seemingly impenetrable. There were no roads, no trails. "The indigenous cultures have every reason to hate white people based on the centuries of domination and theft they have gone through, and so entering a village where no one speaks English and saying you are going kayaking here is daunting," Jennings says.
He and his team had a guide and translators lined up, but they wouldn't leave at the scheduled time because it was a holiday. Jennings and his team decided to go without them. On the trail, they came across a group of kids pulling down saplings and stripping off their leaves. Jennings watched as they used the trees to swat thousands of bats swarming near a cave. After killing the bats, the boys built a fire, singed off the bat's hair and then ate them raw. "They offered us bats and couldn't understand why we didn't want to eat them," Jennings says. "Nothing could have prepared me for 8-year-olds eating raw bats. It was culture shock."
Rapids and Rebels
Jennings' father finds both gratification and worry in the trips his son undertakes. "I have pride that he has the guts to do this but concern that he is in this business," he says. "Every time he goes out, he might not come back."
Dickman admits he doesn't always share Jennings' view about the safety of a project. "Most of the things Trip does I tend to think are a bad idea," he says. "He's always going as hard as he can. It takes me a long time to talk myself into [going along]."
Jennings is keenly aware of the fear factor that's involved in his work. "On some of these expeditions that is what keeps you alive," he says. "It keeps you from doing dumber things than you should."
One of Jennings' most dangerous trips was in 2008, when he went to the Congo to kayak the first successful descent of the Lower Congo Rapids on the Congo River, as well as explore the species of fish that inhabit the waterway.
The Congo trip was organized with New York City's Museum of Natural History, National Geographic, and scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The Congo River flows through a section of hard rock that creates dangerous rapids at the mouth of the river. Jennings explains that the James River flows at 7,000 or 8,000 cubic feet per second. "When it floods, it may be 20,000 cubic feet per second. The Congo River was 1.25 million cubic feet per second."
According to Jennings, just two teams — one in the late 1800s and one in the late 1980s — had attempted the descent. The first team aborted the expedition, and the second one disappeared. "It's important to have a healthy respect for fear and risks and use the best judgment you have to get you in and out of a situation safely," Jennings says. "After doing research, I felt like I could get in and out safely."
But the Congo was unlike anything that Jennings had ever seen. "We had no idea what that volume would look like in a rapid," he says. "It looked like a giant field of exploding land mines and whirlpools. It was just terrifying."
His reaction time had to be split-second quick. "At one point or another, everyone got sucked into a whirlpool," he says. He was fine when he could see the sky through the hole of the whirlpool. But when he saw nothing but green water around him, he had to hold his breath and wait until it let him go. "I didn't think about the fact that I was running out of air," he says. "After 30 seconds, I popped up upside down and then had to right myself."
It's that skill that prompts Tobin to refer to Jennings' kayaking abilities as "off the charts. The best kayakers in the world know who he is."
On the same trip, Jennings and his team were held at gunpoint by rebels toting AK-47s. "I thought they were going to take all of our stuff or do that and then kill us," Jennings says.
At one point he and his team were lying facedown in the sand when the men pointed their guns at Jennings and his friend and then pointed to the jungle. "We said no. Then they slowly packed their things up and paddled away at gunpoint," Jennings says. "They took my watch, which I really liked, and a knife and water bottles. They took an iPod and wool socks but left our HD camera equipment alone."
The trip resulted in the documentary Monster Fish of the Congo, which aired on the National Geographic channel.
Some of Jennings' more recent expeditions have taken him to Bolivia and the Mekong basin. Dickman, who went on those trips, is still trying to decide if he will accompany Jennings on the upcoming Elephant Ivory project.
"He wants to go to the most dangerous part of the world to pick up elephant dung for a science project," Dickman says. "I have to decide if I am going to do it. I look at it as a job. Trip looks at it as a lifestyle."