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Lorie Karnath in New York City. (Photo: Stefan Falke)

Former Explorers Club President Talks Travel

The winds that bear down on Patriot Hills from Antarctica’s Ellsworth mountains can reach hurricane speed. Many expeditions begin at this base camp because its naturally occurring ice patch makes an ideal landing pad for planes shuttling in explorers from Punta Arenas, Chile. But conditions can deteriorate quickly, making evacuation nearly impossible.

Former Explorers Club President Lorie Karnath knows this all too well. She once waited several days in a tent before a Russian military aircraft swooped in at the last minute to retrieve her expedition crew from an impending winter that would shroud Antarctica in six months of darkness.

A natural-born adventurer, Karnath became president of the Explorers Club in 2009, serving out a three-year term that culminated just weeks ago. The professional society has been dedicated to scientific exploration and discovery since it was founded in New York City more than a century ago, and its member roster is filled with names that made the history books (Neil Armstrong, Teddy Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh, to name just a few). Now, Karnath gives us a peek behind the curtain as she shares some of the highlights from her  journeys.

What’s the most remote destination on earth you’ve ever visited?

The Poles, parts of China (including the mountainous areas of Yunnan Province), and deep into the Borneo rain forests. Our whole concept of what is remote is changing. Each new technological shift or scientific breakthrough offers the potential to readjust and redefine the paradigm of what previously may have been considered inaccessible, far-off, or far-flung.

What was your most recent expedition and where do you plan to go next?

Most recently, I traveled along the Rakhine Coast of Myanmar. One of my primary goals was to visit schools and deliver supplies to students in this area. Although I am always inspired to explore, I try to also incorporate in each journey ways to give back. Next, my husband and I [are returning] to the Yunnan Province, China where we have been helping with a program to build schools in very rural regions.

Where do you think your passion for travel and exploration originates?

It originates from my parents who early on showed my siblings and me many of the amazing things that the planet has to offer. They encouraged us to seek out, and learn through, experience. Also, I mostly grew up in Concord, MA, which was the town where many of the early naturalists lived: Walden, Thoreau, etc. Their writings were part of our educational curriculum and by living in the place they wrote about, I could directly experience their observations.

How do you feel adventure and exploration have impacted who you are and your perspective on the world?

Every new experience adds to who you are and changes your perspective. When you travel and learn about different environments and cultures first hand, the impact is significantly greater and more powerful. It allows one to understand better and become more tolerant without prejudice of others around the world.

Who within the Explorers Club are you most inspired by and why?

The Explorers Club boasts many of the greats of exploration. I am in awe of many of these people such as fellow board member Norm Baker who was the celestial navigator for Thor Heyerdahl — a Norwegian adventurer who sailed 5,000 miles on a self-built raft from South America to the French Polynesian Tuamotu Islands.

What drives you to continue exploring?

The hope of answering some of the world’s most elusive questions. At the same time, through my work fostering educational programs in some of the world’s more remote locations, I hope that I am giving back some of what I have learned.

Looking back on your three-year term as president for the Explorers Club, what positive contributions do you think you have made to the organization?

When I first arrived at the club, it was clear there was a lot to do. So, I immediately conceived and implemented a capital campaign, reinstated our Legacy Endowment, began fundraising, and at the same time, identified the most critical areas of the building to refurbish. Phase I of the building [renovations] was completed this past summer and the scaffolding, which had covered the building facade for almost five years, was finally removed. I gave the chapters more autonomy and a greater voice and worked hard to make sure that we began to really represent the worldwide center for exploration.

What is your advice for the future president of the club, Alan Nichols?

Hopefully the Explorers Club will be able to continue on its current path of regaining and growing its relevance as an organization. This has involved quite a bit of change, which for some has been difficult. The members are working on amazing projects around the world and the organization needs to find better ways to embrace and recognize these achievements.

Photo by Stefan Falke