Seeking Success and Wonderment in Failure

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Zand and the trusty canoe. Photo by Bria Schurke.

In science, like in all worthwhile pursuits, there is no guarantee of success. In fact, I would suggest that without the looming chance of failure, very few things are truly worth doing. Failure can take many forms, some more extreme than others but all provide opportunities to learn and grow.

Recently my organization, Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation (ASC), teamed up with an incredible adventurer, Alexander “Zand” Martin. Zand’s resume is impressive to say the least. He is a senior instructor and program supervisor with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and successfully paddled across North America solo at age 22, and Europe at age 25. His latest adventure took him east to Central Asia with Bria Schurke, an accomplished outdoorswoman herself, who joined Zand after spending time volunteering in Somalia and climbing in Nepal.

Zand and Bria began their trip in central Mongolia, on the edge of the vast basin of central Asia. They travelled by canoe through the canyons of the Chuluut and rushing waters of the Ider River.  They visited lake Baikal in Russia, the largest freshwater body (by volume) in the world, and moved east from there through the Amur watershed toward the Sea of Okhotsk in the far east of Russia, a place that records the coldest temperatures on earth in winter.

Zand and Bria relied exclusively on human power and their canoe for the entirety of their journey, about 2,900 km in all as they crossed a wide array of ecosystems from steppe to tiaga, lakes, rivers and temperate rainforests.

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Photo by Bria Schurke.

Their journey wasn’t without its excitement. They braved the desolate north shore of Lake Baikal, avoided tragedy on the Amur narrowly escaping the largest flood ever recorded there and paddled through terrain crawling with tigers, Tibetan bears and howling wolves. For Zand, this leg marked the completion of a 408-day, 20,000 km expedition that roughly followed the 45th parallel around the world by human power.

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Lake Baikal. Photo by Alexander Martin.

From all appearances the expedition was a huge success. Zand and Bria survived, they made it across central Asia to the ocean and Zand completed his overall goal of tracing the 45th parallel around the world.

This story however, is not without its failures, and repeated ones at that. Like so many of the athletes working with ASC, Zand and Bria wanted to incorporate a larger purpose into their adventure, so they contacted us to find a scientific conservation project in which they could participate while exploring.

We connected them with our project studying the distribution and genetic relationship ofThamnoliavermincularis, a widely distributed species of lichen that may be one of the oldest on Earth. Every day for 2,900 km, Zand and Bria would search for Thamnolia:

“In the largest forest on earth, we concentrated on its smallest visible denizens.  Alien structures sprouted from rock and tree, lichens building on each other and clamoring for air and sun with resultant spongy masses that sparkle with dew in the morning and glitter gilded in the low angle light of late afternoon.  Compressed mats of life trace a vertical story of decomposition, with the surface birth degrading down.  In this chaotic panorama of subarctic life, we seek the white worm lichen. ButThamnolia vermincularis eludes us again. Even in Russia’s Far East, a land of plants tropical and arctic, of tigers taking down moose and Tibetan bears taking to trees at the clarion of a wolf howl, we find nothing. ” – Zand Martin

The found failure day after day, searching for hours without a single sighting of the elusive white worm lichen.  However, out of this failure came an unexpected success.

By making the effort to search for Thamnolia, Zand and Bria were able to connect to and appreciate the beauty and intricacy of their surroundings. Zand said, “Getting down on hands and knees on the thick mat of taiga to search was astounding, and there was a benefit of wonder in the search if not in the discovery.”

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Photo by Alexander Martin.

Despite their lack of a successful collection, Zand and Bria’s scientific efforts were by no means a failure. A lack of observations is still valuable information to our partner researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden . It means that Thamnolia likely doesn’t grow along their route and we have now surveyed an incredibly long transect.

Undoubtedly, the most valuable result was the connection that Zand and Bria were able to cultivate to their environment. It fundamentally changed their adventure and made them spend more time observing their surroundings. This is something we can all accomplish.

By slowing down just a bit, taking the time to contribute to a larger purpose — in this case important conservation research — Zand and Bria enhanced their own experience. Take the time to make a difference with your next adventure, both for yourself and for the planet by signing up for a project on ASC’s website:

Read more of Zand’s account on the ASC blog or on Zand’s website. Learn more about ASC on our websiteFacebookTwitter (@AdventurScience) and Instagram (@AdventureScience). Make a difference while you play and know that even in failure we can find success.

National Geographic Emerging Explorer Gregg Treinish founded Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, a nonprofit organization connecting outdoor adventurers with scientists in need of data from the field. He also organizes his own expeditions, contributing to research on wildlife-human interaction, fragmented habitats, and threatened species.