What do you get when you pair adventurers with scientists? A better understanding of everything from grizzlies to ice worms.
Eight years ago, Gregg Treinish (Soc’02) was struggling up a rocky path in Pennsylvania along the Appalachian Trail when he had an epiphany that would shape his future.
“The rocks on that part of the trail are extremely sharp, and I must have fallen at least 10 times,” he says. “I’d cut up my ankles and it was raining and I was pretty miserable. I picked up a rock and chucked it at a tree, taking out a big chunk and probably killing it.
“Afterward, I felt so selfish, and I was thinking about how much I love the outdoors. So I decided right then that I would spend my life doing something to preserve and help nature.”
Today Treinish is fulfilling that pledge as the founder of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation [ASC], a Bozeman, Montana-based nonprofit that pairs researchers with extreme athletes.
His organization, barely more than a year old, has sent more than 350 outdoor athletes — a figure he hopes to triple this year — into the field to collect data on flora and fauna for researchers too time- or cash-strapped to make the trip themselves.
“I started talking to other adventurers and realized the feeling of selfishness that I had on the Appalachian Trail was a pretty mutual feeling,” he says. “Knowing hikers and bikers and skiers and climbers would do more if given the proper resources made [starting ASC] a no-brainer.”
Since its debut in January 2011, Treinish has recruited such celebrated adventurers as alpinists Willie Benegas and Damian Benegas and kayaker Trip Jennings as well as college students, retirees and military veterans. These citizen scientists have aided in the understanding of everything from grizzly bears to ice worms and salmon.
“Part of the great appeal of Gregg’s organization is that we have limited funding for science — that’s just the way it is,” says Rusty Rodriguez, a microbiologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, who received plant samples from the summit of Mount Everest through ASC for his climate change research.
“Yet, there are people traveling all over the world to very unique, extreme places who can collect samples for us. It provides a real service.”
This year ASC athletes will row across the Arctic Ocean to collect plankton samples for University of Alaska researchers and perform the first solo kayak of the Amazon to collect water samples for the Pacific Biodiversity Institute in Winthrop, Wash.
Scientists link up with adventurers on the organization’s website. ASC arranges some basic training about how to collect samples.
“There are just endless expeditions that people are taking now since they have learned about ASC,” Treinish says. “It’s really been amazing.”
While the 30-year-old made his pledge to help the Earth back on the Appalachian Trail, the idea for ASC didn’t hatch until after he’d been named a National Geographic Traveler of the Year in 2008. That honor came about after he and then-girlfriend, Deia Scholsberg, backpacked the entire length of the Andes, a 7,800 mile journey that took two years.
“We decided to hike along the longest mountain chain in the world because it was such an amazing opportunity to see so many things, climb up to 20,000 feet, go to the Amazon and visit new cultures in remote places that rarely get visited by outsiders,” Treinish says. “The whole thing really spoke to us.”
Treinish grew up in Cleveland and developed his love for the mountains after moving to Boulder where he did countless hikes and backpacking trips and worked as a ski instructor at Eldora. But he says he could not have survived the trip without Scholsberg.
The two experienced untold challenges. They suffered horrible bouts of giardia and parasitic invasions of flatworms and pinworms. They also encountered potentially life-threatening situations, such as unexpectedly discovering an unmapped 200-foot-high wall of rubble blocking their way at the bottom of a deep canyon. The duo had no choice but to scale it because they did not have enough food to backtrack six days up the canyon and knew there was a village somewhere on the other side.
In exchange for those trials, Treinish says, they were able to see firsthand an incredible range of flora and fauna — from pumas to penguins — and experience the hospitality of countless South Americans living in tiny mountain communities that dated back thousands of years.
“In the end, we gained an understanding of how small the world is and how big the world is at the same time,” he says.
A few months after their return, Treinish and Scholsberg learned of the award from National Geographic.
“We were shocked,” he recalls. “I think I jumped around the house for an hour.”
The honor helped open dozens of doors for Treinish who quickly gained a network of adventure athletes who he would eventually call upon to work with ASC.
First, though, he and Scholsberg relocated from Leadville, Colo., to Bozeman where Treinish pursued a second bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology, a feat he completed in just 18 months. Then he and Scholsberg, who are no longer together but remain close friends, went on one last trek — a 520-mile hike through parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.
The hike, dubbed “Connecting the Gems,” was an attempt to understand barriers to migration — fences, highways, subdivisions — that grizzly bears, wolverines and other carnivores face when moving between the Greater Yellowstone River Ecosystem in Montana and Wyoming and the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness in Central Idaho. The two protected areas support an abundance of wildlife, Treinish says, but because there is no protected corridor between the two, it is difficult for animals to travel back and forth, giving them fewer breeding choices, which could result in a loss of genetic variability — key to a population’s long-term health — in each species.
Along the way, the two observed footprints and claw marks and collected DNA from fur and scat.
It was during that trip that Treinish conceived of the idea for ASC.
“I thought to myself, ‘You don’t have to be a rocket scientist or even have a lot of training to collect data that’s usable and important.’ ”
A few months later, ASC was born and Treinish hasn’t looked back. His organization has been featured in the national press from the New York Times to Outside and Audubon magazines. And some household names sit on his advisory board like world-renowned mountaineer Conrad Anker and granddaughter of ocean explorer Jacques Yves Cousteau, Celine Cousteau.
Although he spends much more of his time behind a desk than he used to, Treinish hasn’t forgotten his first love. Next March he will join a 350-mile skiing expedition in Mongolia to research wolverines.
“My expeditions are not going to last for two years anymore,” he says. “But I’m very excited to continue being an adventurer and to use my science skills. I want to be a living model for ASC.”
Learn more about ASC at www.adventureandscience.org.