A River ‘Lorax’

Trip Jennings works to promote global conservation by running wild, unexplored waterways in his kayak.

Photography by Matt Fields-Johnson

From the bank of the James River  in downtown Richmond, Trip Jennings points to the sizeable whitewater hydraulic at the bottom of Pipeline Rapids and says, “Growing up, I spent a lot of time right out there.” Hunkered down on a granite boulder exposed by low water along the James’ fall line, Jennings enjoys a few minutes of down time, reminiscing about his duties last summer as head counselor for the advanced session of Passages Adventure Camp in Richmond.

     Jennings, 25, is a Richmond native and consummate adventurer. While he learned River Adventure 101 on the James as an early teen, he’s since moved to bigger, more challenging rivers. And his 6’2″ frame, topped by a curly mop of red hair, shows signs of his recent encounters with Mother Nature. His face is tanned and peeling, from climbing Oregon’s Mount Hood a few days ago. He is perhaps a little thin, from a recent recurrence of malaria contracted on his last expedition. Outfitted in modest, earth-friendly action attire made by a new sponsor, a clothing collective named Nau, Jennings has come home for a command appearance at the Chesterfield County Parks and Recreation Department’s 2008 winter lecture series. It’s a rare opportunity to visit his family as well as shake hands with the hundreds of friends and admirers who will pack the auditorium to listen to his illustrated talk: “Conservation and Exploration at the Edge of the Earth, Papua New Guinea.”

     Just as the James River’s meek demeanor, in its current low-water state, gives no hint of its tricky Class III-IV rapids, so too does Jennings’ soft-spoken manner belie his passion for adrenaline-pumping, extreme whitewater action. The guy is a paddling wunderkind, filmmaker and fervent conservationist whose résumé is full of first descents on wild, unexplored rivers all over the globe—the Terrazu in Costa Rica and Upper Palgien in Chile among them—including more than a couple of 100-plus-foot waterfalls. “You can only drop blind once,” he says, adding, “I love running unexplored whitewater. So much freedom; no norms.”

     National Geographic Adventure magazine recently named Jennings a 2008 Adventurer of the Year, calling him a “whitewater visionary.” The honor was bestowed for his successful expedition to New Britain Island, Papua New Guinea, last year, which turned out to be much bigger than a first descent down the Pandi River.

     Supported in part by a National Geographic Young Explorer’s Grant, Jennings led a team of five other expert kayakers accompanied by geologists, a herpetologist and entomologists from California State University, Chico. Their goal: to probe the volcanic island’s deep jungle river and cave systems, as well as survey the animals and organisms unique to the habitat. The mission—billed as conservation through exploration—focused on ways the indigenous population of New Britain Island might economically protect their rich environment from the ravages of unregulated logging or impending oil palm plantations, which will rob the land of its biodiversity.

     Armed with World War II-era maps and an aerial photograph, the group set out to locate the Pandi River and its headwaters, and then run it. “It took us two weeks to find it,” recounts Jennings, during which time team members suffered from torn-up legs and jungle ulcers (skin sores). Three men dropped out of the expedition with sprains and stomach problems. The group finally found someone who claimed to know the location of a cave where the Pandi was thought to originate. “[He] told us just another half-hour.” Seven hours later, standing in the back of a cave at 4:00 in the morning, the group found the source. During the last stretch, the group had been on foot for 20 hours with only a supply of Clif bars and peanut butter. “It was surreal payoff,” says Jennings.

     Explaining the topography, Jennings says that there is no surface water on the Nakanai Plateau located on New Britain Island, despite the fact that it gets more rain annually than just about any other place in the world. “It’s this huge Swiss cheese, limestone karst landscape,” says Jennings. Realizing the source stream “sumped out”—flowed back into the limestone—the group had to hike around a mountainside to find the adjacent cave system where the river resurged from the rock. There, says Jennings, the river changed “from a 5 [cubic feet per second] stream to a 500 cfs, full, mature river—crystal clear and aquamarine blue.”

     The expedition team called the helicopter to bring in their kayaks, and that’s when things got interesting. As the kayakers waved goodbye to the helicopter and started outfitting their boats, a group of villagers holding machetes and axes (for protection, Jennings thinks) approached the team and asked for money. Early on, Jennings and his group had agreed to give the villagers some money for the schooling of their children. The villagers were now ready to collect that amount—and more. In a dicey test of his diplomatic skills, Jennings explained he couldn’t meet that demand and said that he would call the helicopter back and abort the mission. After lengthy but calm negotiations, he gave the villagers the original amount. Crisis resolved, the excited team members hopped in their boats, kayaking the first six miles inside the cave. “It was pretty awesome, getting to actually paddle rapids in a cave,” says Jennings.

     From the mouth of the cave, the Pandi plummets roughly 2,000 feet, most of the descent in the first eight miles. The total 40-mile trip to the Bismark Sea took four days. Among the Papua New Guinea highlights: running a 55-foot waterfall and a close encounter with the three-foot-long jaws of a crocodile. Villagers took them paddling in canoes in the shadow of an actively erupting volcano. They harvested the eggs of megapodes—large-footed birds that incubate their eggs from two meters down in the warm lava, then paddled the eggs over to hot, bubbling springs. They boiled the eggs in the hotsprings, to cook them, and then started to eat. Except Jennings’ egg had a chick in it—a surprise for a strict vegan (who always tries to accept food shared by local peoples, but …). The villagers just picked out the chick and threw it in the water, then gave him the egg back. The team also watched protein-starved kids eating raw bats (their wings stripped off) from a cave.

     The Papua New Guinea trip was the first of three missions titled Rivers in Demand and organized by Jennings’ expedition and film production company and other conservation and research. The goal: to travel to biodiversity hotspots around the world and tell their story in order to raise awareness of threats to the wild areas. “We think kayaking is a good way to weave our story,” says Jennings. The journeys unite his three consuming passions—running unexplored rivers, effecting environmental change and making videos. With 60 hours of Papua New Guinea footage, he hopes to have a mini-film ready to submit to the Telluride Film Festival. Shorter versions will air on National Geographic’s Wild Chronicles this spring and summer, “with a full film in production by fall.”

     Jennings grew up in Richmond’s West End. In 1993, when he was 11, his mom, Molly Moncure, was shopping around for a summer experience that would teach him outdoor skills—climbing, boating and, above all, safety. In walked pro kayaker Casey Cockerham with Moncure’s friend John Woolard. They were starting up an adventure camp called Passages, located on Belle Isle in the middle of the James River in Richmond. Jennings was the first-ever camper to sign up that inaugural year, and he quickly developed a passion for rock climbing and kayaking.

     Cockerham, now president of Peak Experiences, Passages’ parent company, became Jennings’ mentor, teaching him kayaking safety as well as life skills. “Trip was always pushing the envelope,” remembers Cockerham. Jennings and his teenage friends soon learned to excel at “playboating” (surfing and spinning), running big water, creeking and “boofing” (steep drops). They entered freestyle competitions on the Potomac in Virginia and on the New River in West Virginia, having learned to rodeo, as they call it, on the James.

     Off water, Jennings had his share of challenges at school. Diagnosed as dyslexic at the beginning of middle school, he entered The New Community School, where both his academics and confidence turned around. He went on to Trinity Episcopal School. Also dyslexic, Cockerham credits this learning difference for Jennings’ achievements. He says kayaking was his so-called excel route—a means to triumph among his peers who were having more traditional successes. “If he weren’t dyslexic,” says Cockerham, “he wouldn’t be where he is now.”

     Jennings concurs. “It gave me the perspective early on that the best way for me to do things may not be the conventional way. Got to be able to think way out of the box to do any of this stuff.”

     “For Trip, adversity is opportunity,” says Molly Moncure.

     After graduating from Trinity in 2001, Jennings left Virginia and headed west to the University of Oregon in Eugene—creeking heaven, a mecca for conservationists and home to an extraordinarily supportive independent film community. In 2002, Jennings and his friend Ned Trice formed an expedition and film production business called Epicocity—epicocity meaning the most epic that something can be. Here was an opportunity to make videos and paddle virgin whitewater with kayaking friends—instead of competing with them—while still attending college. Today, instead of just making what they label “kayak porn,” Epicocity’s mission is to be “an outdoor media company focused on whitewater kayaking and protecting the natural world around us.”

     The team’s first major film, titled Bigger than Rodeo, came out in 2004. It’s a compilation of kayak tricks and acrobatics on crazy, raging whitewater. It was well received in the adventure community, selected for the Banff Mountain Film Festival and named “video of the year” by Kayak magazine. Mission Epicocity followed in 2006. It was a huge leap in vision and cinematic quality, with footage from North America, South America and Africa, and the winner of National Geographic’s Best Online Adventure Flick Competition. That year, Jennings graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in Spanish.

     Most recently, Jennings produced and directed two other, non-kayaking documentaries. Decades—Born in Fire, made with Kyle Dickman and Becky Kennedy, focuses on the long-term consequences of logging in Oregon’s Siskiyou National Forest following the state’s massive Biscuit Fire of 2002. The other, Boom, Bust and the BLM, was made with Tim Lewis and conceived to educate Oregonians about the Western Oregon Plan Revision, a government proposal to remove hundreds of acres of public old-growth forest from current protection status. (Crag.org/involved.php)

     In March, Jennings and his team embarked on phase two of the Rivers in Demand project: a two-month exploration of China’s Salween River, which flows east off the Tibetan Plateau. Epicocity has teamed with Travis Winn and the Chinese river preservation company, Last Descents, to run an unexplored 150-mile segment of the Salween. The idea: Raise awareness of the value of free-flowing water on China’s longest undammed river.

     But when the team got into Tibet, they were denied access to the Salween at the last checkpoint, just 30 miles from the put-in, because of mounting unrest in Lhasa. They realized that to get out of Tibet, they would have to cross the Mekong River to the east, at a place where an Australian kayaker had reportedly run the section—a first descent, but with lost documentation—four years before. So, they put in the kayaks and paddled more than 200 miles down through the Mekong’s incredible canyons, navigating Class IV/V whitewater and escaping unseen under a Tibetan checkpoint and into Yunnan Province. They were then able to rendezvous with a team of 28 multinational scientists and river enthusiasts for what might very well have been the last raft trip on the Great Bend of the Yangtze River. The third phase of Rivers in Demand is scheduled for the Republic of Georgia in mid-summer.

     And Virginia? “I take Virginia everywhere,” says the adventurer. “I learned to paddle in Virginia … the whole James River-Passages-kayaking scene got me here.” He’s been with Passages for 14 years—first as a camper, then counselor, then last summer as head counselor for the Advanced Camp Program.

     Though not much for carrying home-tokens on his trips, Jennings likes to stash a copy of Dr. Seuss’ environmental parable, The Lorax, in his gear when possible. The Lorax spoke for the trees. Jennings, with his daring river running, his videos and his ideals, speaks for the rivers. He’s living his dream.

Follow Jennings and the team’s progress in China and Georgia by satellite positioning, video and audio on RiversInDemand.com.

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