Photograph by Mary Marshall
"Our modern world is so disconnected from the environment, and it’s hard for people to care if they don’t understand it or feel that connection."
Jon Waterhouse’s destiny was foretold the moment he pushed his canoe off the bank of the Yukon River and started to paddle. That incredible 2007 canoe trip, which he christened “the Healing Journey,” began with a simple request by the native elders and tribal leaders living in the Yukon River watershed to "go out, take the pulse of the river."
Waterhouse’s journey raised awareness of the importance of environmental stewardship, combined traditional native knowledge with modern science, and helped rebuild intimate connections between Yukon communities and the natural world. The journey soon stretched far beyond the Yukon and led the Native American down rivers and through cultures in distant parts of South America, Russia, Greenland, Africa, and New Zealand.
As executive director of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council (YRITWC), an international treaty organization comprised of seventy Native Tribes and First Nations, Waterhouse now oversees the Healing Journey as a worldwide river event that brings people who are continents apart much closer together, fueling Waterhouse's belief that our shared experiences and concerns enhance the effort to make wise decisions for the future.
Some 12 million pounds of trash and pollutants have been removed from the 335,000-square-mile Yukon watershed under Waterhouse’s leadership, an accomplishment that has garnered global attention and inspired similar hands-on accomplishments wherever Healing Journeys are held. Each Healing Journey also gathers scientific data on river health and includes a strong cultural component as well, communicating information about changes in the lives of residents along the river and tackling social ills by helping community members forge connections with the natural world and with one another.
“The policymaking and decision-making you can’t get close to,” Waterhouse explained. “This is something that anyone can do, and it doesn’t matter if you go for a day a few months or just spend some time in camp. Everyone is part of the journey, and it inspires people to just get in there and do something.”
The YRITWC’s accomplishments have been well noted and have earned honors that include the Innovations Award from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the Honoring Nations Award from Harvard University and the Partners in Conservation Award from the United States Department of the Interior.
In 2010 Waterhouse was appointed by President Barack Obama to the 15-member Joint Public Advisory Committee, where he is among representatives from Canada, Mexico, and the United States who are chosen to advise the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC). Waterhouse also serves on the Board of the Alaska-Sudan Medical Project as community development director, assisting in the creation of primary medical care facilities in remote areas of South Sudan.
Waterhouse’s many achievements sprang from a rather unlikely background. A high school dropout, he first formed a bond with the natural world as an escape from an abusive home. As a teenager living along the banks of Washington State's Deschutes River during the early 1970s, he gained even more appreciation for nature but grew increasingly at odds with human behavior and at times ran afoul of the law.
In 1975 a far-sighted judge gave Waterhouse a choice: prison or the U.S. military. The chance turned his life around. Twenty years later, in 1995, he retired as a decorated chief petty officer schooled in a variety of subjects, including antisubmarine warfare, air warfare, oceanography, and aviation electronics. Waterhouse moved to Alaska that same year in search of new adventures and opportunities in the natural world. In 1997 he began working with the people of the Yukon watershed and grew increasingly aware that the environment and its people were intimately tied—as evidenced by the river itself.
"Today I understand that the bane of my childhood is what forged my lifelong bond with nature. But a deep care and concern for other people is what will ultimately improve and save our natural environment," he explained.
That’s one reason why, as an environmental steward, Waterhouse is also passionate about providing education—and opportunities—for underprivileged and disadvantaged youth. He guides educational programs in collaboration with the American Museum of Natural History, Center for Biodiversity, Goddard Research Institute, USGS, and NASA. Such programs enable Waterhouse to reach those who, like him, came from what he calls that "forgotten place."
"There are some brilliant minds out there that will be wasted if we don’t connect with them somehow,” Waterhouse said. “Through the years some of the quickest and smartest were the ones who came from that same place. If we can harness that brainpower, that quickness, and assist with more formal education, the outcome will be incredible. Some of us have been lucky enough to have a change in our stars; so many have not. I feel a responsibility to help."
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Jon's work to restore the Yukon River Watershed in ways that work for local communities earned him this honor in 2012.
Jon Waterhouse's latest "Healing Journey" brings him back to the Yukon River, to slowly paddle a canoe while taking high-tech readings on the health and nature of the river itself.
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