Photo: Jon Waterman at the end of the Colorado River

Jon Waterman at the end of the Colorado River, 1.5 miles south of the Mexican border

Photograph by Peter McBride

Name: Jonathan Waterman
Place of birth: New England
Current city: Carbondale, Colorado
Occupation: Writer and Conservationist

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

I wanted to be a writer and conservationist.   Abbey's Desert Solitaire, Carson's Silent Spring, and Leopold's Sand County Almanac lit me on fire, while I simultaneously nursed a desire for adventure.   Since I had a relatively cloistered coming-of-age in a Boston suburb, I spent much of high school skipping classes while reading books in the public library, hitchhiking to the calm of New Hampshire, or substituting other outdoor activities: mountaineering, backpacking, bird watching, and scheming up expeditions to far-flung places.   For a long time, I indulged myself in extended climbing trips, but these forays were always underlain by an interest in mountains as part of a greater ecosystem of surrounding glaciers, rivers, and tundra.   

How did you get started in your field of work?

By indulging my curiosity in the world, plunging in with both feet and taking large risks, and always reading widely.   At first, I wanted to write fiction, but after a couple of years of effort, I turned to writing non fiction, specifically about those peculiar pursuits and experiences I developed an expertise in.   While I was a ranger on Alaska's Denali (Mt. McKinley), I wrote my first three books about: rescue work (Surviving Denali), the mountains I'd come to know (High Alaska), and the life I lived there (In the Shadow of Denali).  All were underlain by the premise that we can affect change in human behavior, to protect and preserve wild places, or human life.  And all my work--past and present--is thematically linked by the thread of history.  Every book that I've written traces a back-story that shows us where we came from in order to more carefully shape our futures.

What's been your favorite experience in the field? Most challenging?

After I satisfied my urges in mountain exploration, I turned increasingly toward water-based trips, usually in a kayak.  For instance, in 1993, I spent two months paddling the length of the Sea of Cortez in Mexico in order to tell the story (see Kayaking the Vermilion Sea) of diminishing ocean habitat in Mexico.   But the "final exam" of expeditioneering came to me in 1997-1999 when I solo kayaked 2,200 miles across the Northwest Passage (see Arctic Crossing) and learned how to spend long periods alone, with bears, in horrendous mosquito conditions and in challenging weather.  Being alone for as long as 30 days at a time brought me to a new instinctual understanding and appreciation of the natural world, and in this instance, also allowed an insight into the remarkable Inuit culture.   While I thought that nothing would be more trying than my time in the Far North in extremis,  it wasn't until I began raising a family and building a home and a sustainable lifestyle that I found--at least so far--my greatest challenge in life. When my wife, June, and I became general contactors to build our own home, we were suddenly up against the wall.  The ensuing physical labor and 24-7 occupation of the job site were fun in comparison to answering the questions about living sustainably on this planet:  What materials should we build with to lessen our carbon footprint?  How do we minimize water use?  Can we ever get off the electrical grid? It took us more than a year to build the house--easily the most challenging and important learning experience I've ever had in the field.  My work as a writer might inspire readers to make a better world, but living my own life sustainably on a regular basis is the foundation for affecting real change. This level of thinking drove me to look for a more locally based challenge, directly related to our well water and life at home.  So I began the Colorado River Project in 2008.   To date on this account, I have completed two books, a National Geographic Wall map, and I'm now building a Colorado River photo exhibit to tour the west, with the photographer Pete McBride.

What’s a normal day like for you?

We're installing drip irrigation and tending to or our vegetable garden and native plants surrounding our home.  Feeding and looking after our dogs, cat, chickens and bees.  A long bike ride. And the inevitable time on the computer promoting the Colorado River Project, arranging lecture tours, and reading news about the Colorado River Basin.  The day finishes out on the deck overlooking an awe inspiring view across the Roaring Fork River Valley.  And always, reading a book after the kids go to bed. What do you do in your free time? Hang out with my family. Do you have a hero? My wife, June, who lets me go when the curiosity to go out and see the world overwhelms me.  But mostly for her care and knowledge about raising our children... one of the most important jobs that we can ever undertake.
If you could have people do one thing to help save freshwater, what would it be?

Look closely at your own daily life to discover where your clothes and food come from; then, affect change.

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