As a whitewater kayaker, Trip Jennings has spent a lot of his life on water.
He’s traveled to other countries, riding rapids around the world and producing kayaking videos similar to skateboarding, snowboarding and other extreme sports videos. But when he turned 24, Jennings said he wanted to combine his passion for rivers with the need to “protect these places.”
On Thursday, the 28-year-old spoke to students at Redmond High School (RHS) about some of the adventures that followed as he worked to spread awareness about river conservation and how young people can have their own adventures.
“You’ve got a lot of opportunities (when you’re young),” Jennings said, explaining that he wants to show students just what types of opportunities they have.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR YOUNG PEOPLE
One opportunity in particular is the National Geographic Young Explorers Grant. Jennings received the grant when he was 24 and was the second person to do so. Young Explorers took him on his first kayaking/conservation expedition, which was in Papua New Guinea. The grant is open to individuals ages 18 to 25 and offers up to $5,000.
Jennings, who lives in Oregon but is originally from Virginia, said it’s a good way to get young people exploring in the field.
Redmond City Council member John Stilin, who has supported the National Geographic Society (NGS) for many years, worked with NGS to bring Jennings to Redmond for a presentation to see if they could begin a lecture series tied to Young Explorers, geared toward high school students. Stilin said the lectures would be similar to NGS’s National Geographic Live! lectures at Benaroya Hall in Seattle.
He said in addition to informing young people about the opportunities available to them, having someone who is close to their age presenting can show high school students what is possible.
“I think people are going to see (the presenters’ stories) and think, ‘I’ve always wanted to do that,'” Stilin said.
His son Nick Stilin agreed.
The 17-year-old RHS junior has attended Live! events with his parents and was very involved in bringing Jennings to RHS. Nick was in charge of contacting sponsors — the RHS PTSA, Hotel Sierra in Redmond and Waste Management — and securing funding for the event.
He said having a Young Explorer speak to his peers makes the topic more relatable because they often explain how they got started in their field and share how individuals Nick’s age can do the same.
“They remember how they did it and they remember what it’s like to be in high school,” Nick said.
Jennings said because Young Explorers is aimed toward younger people, an extensive amount of degrees is not required, but applicants’ proposed explorations should be unique and push the limits of adventure, science and conservation.
“You don’t need to have a Ph.D,” he said.
He added that Young Explorers can also introduce people to other NGS grants. This is exactly what happened to him as he has received a few more grants from the organization since Young Explorers, which was his first.
“(Young Explorers) is a program that changed my life,” Jennings said.
DANGERS ON THE CONGO
On his expeditions, Jennings usually works with a kayaking team of four to six as well as a team of scientists usually comprised of field experts and a few graduate students.
During his RHS presentation, Jennings discussed his two expeditions to the Democratic Republic of Congo and his experiences in leading a team of whitewater kayakers on the first successful descent of the Lower Congo Rapids.
“We knew going into it that it was the highest volume rapids in the world,” Jennings said. “We felt comfortable that if we got in over our heads we would walk out.”
While the rapids were risky, the real danger for the team came during Jennings’ first trip to Congo. They were camping on shore when a group who Jennings said, were probably rebels, held them up at gunpoint. Jennings’ group was forced to lay face down on the ground for 30 to 45 minutes. One of the men walked behind the team with “eery confidence,” which really worried Jennings, who was 25 at the time.
“That’s when I thought it was over,” he said. “…They actually tried to take us hostage.”
Fortunately, with a letter from the Congolese government, Jennings’ team walked away unharmed.
Despite this danger, Jennings traveled back to Congo in March to collect elephant dung samples for the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington, to help complete a DNA map for the endangered animals. He returned about three weeks ago.
John Stilin said hearing stories of such adventures is another reason he enjoys the Live! lectures.
“There’s a part where people like to hear about that,” he said, adding this was another reason why he wanted to bring such a program to high school students.
Dan Beaupre, director of Educational Partnerships for NGS, said the mission of the Live! lecture series and other NGS educational programs is to get people to care about the planet.
“(Conservation is) vital from our point of view,” he said.
Although NGS has brought explorers into schools, Beaupre said Jennings was their first Young Explorer. Beaupre said reaching young people is especially important because they are still in the process of figuring out how they relate to the natural world. With adults, he said they have already established their relationship with nature.
“Their behaviors are a lot more difficult to influence,” he said.
Nick Stilin agreed that informing young people about the importance of conservation is vital because they are the next generation to take care of the planet. He said presentations like Jennings’ and the Live! lectures are a great way to show people it takes more than a few solar panels.
Nick said to really make a difference, people have to take the time to understand other people and cultures and work together.
Jennings hopes his stories will help students see this — to get them to think outside the traditional box and hopefully give them that lightbulb moment about how they can do their part in helping the planet.
Jennings has given presentations at the high school level, but said he has mostly spoken to college-level students.
He said it’s exciting to speak to high schoolers because people at this age have so much potential to be amazing conservationists, they just don’t realize it or haven’t found the right opportunities. Jennings added that there are so many individuals who could be amazing conservationists, which is just what the world needs right now.
“We’re at a tipping point with respect to our relationship with the natural world,” he said.