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Forget the Explorers Club if You Need to Ask 'How Risky?' or 'How Much?'

June 09, 2002|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's not easy to get into the Explorers Club. Robert E. Peary and Matthew Henson had to make it to the North Pole, doing so on April 6, 1909. Oceanographer Robert Ballard found the wreck of the Titanic in 1985, Sir Edmund Hillary climbed Mt. Everest in 1953 and Thor Heyerdahl sailed from Peru to Polynesia on a raft in 1947.

For a less daring traveler like me, getting accepted into the Explorers Club is the stuff of fantasy. The august group was incorporated in 1905 in New York as something of a gentlemen's club where big-game hunters and adventurers gathered to swap stories, says John Reilly, a mountaineer, historian and 21-year member. Now it has about 3,000 members, most of them field researchers seeking information about the world.

Currently members are searching for U.S. military aircraft lost during World War II in the Pacific islands of Palau, crossing the frozen Bering Strait in a specially designed off-road vehicle, testing deep-water submersibles in the Bahamas and descending the 18,000-foot inner gorge of the Zangbo River in southern Tibet.

"People want to get in because they've climbed Everest or been to the North Pole," says club President Richard Wiese, a naturalist and documentary filmmaker. "But in this day and age, that doesn't mean anything. We're more interested in someone digging in the La Brea Tar Pits or studying butterflies in Griffith Park."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday June 16, 2002 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Features Desk 3 inches; 133 words Type of Material: Correction
Her World--In "Forget the Explorers Club if You Need to Ask 'How Risky?' or 'How Much?' " (Travel section, June 9) the site of the Explorers Club was incorrect. It is on Manhattan's Upper East Side, not Upper West Side.

Members, it seems, must also have adventurous palates. Wiese says the instinct to explore can be correlated with one's willingness to eat exotic dishes--that is, saying "Yes, I'll try it" when offered a plate of mealy worms.

Eating exotic food has become a cocktail hour ritual at the club's annual dinner in March at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Last year tempura-fried Chilean rose tarantula in ponzu sauce was on the menu. Some guests ended up in the emergency room after developing allergic reactions to the South American treat, which should have had the hair removed before cooking, it was later discovered.

Membership has other privileges, including the chance to meet famous people at club functions: oceanographer Sylvia Earle, astronaut Buzz Aldrin and Brian Jones and Bertrand Piccard, who made the first nonstop balloon flight around the world in 1999.

"But there are thousands of other members doing amazing work ... who aren't so well known," says Lesley Ewing, head of the Northern California chapter. "It's always energizing to meet them and talk about your plans. They never say 'Impossible' or 'That's already been done.'"

Members also are given access to club headquarters, which are in a landmark Tudor Revival townhouse on New York's Upper West Side. Some years ago I was lucky enough to get a tour. I saw the first-floor lounge, where members gather for drinks. At the rear of the lobby is the globe Heyerdahl used to chart the course of the Kon-Tiki across the Pacific.

The bell from the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Bear, used by Adm. Richard E. Byrd on his second expedition to Antarctica from 1933 to 1935, rings in all club events, including the vaguely cabalistic tribute ceremonies in which members line the building's staircases, holding candles and whispering the name of the honoree. Then they gather by the fireplace in the library, drink a toast and dash their cognac snifters into the flames.

Peary's sledge is on the third floor. A photograph of the ill-fated expedition to the Arctic led by Adolphus W. Greely, which started with 25 men in 1881 and ended with seven in 1884, is on the fourth, and the bulk of the library on the fifth. It has about 5,000 maps and 22,000 volumes, including a pristine copy of "La Description de l'Egypte," commissioned by Napoleon and published between 1809 and 1825. Also in the library are reports by members who have carried the Explorers Club flag all over the globe and beyond, including a 2002 trip on the space shuttle Columbia.

Club flags are given to members embarking on nonprofit expeditions; a flag can be reused when another club-approved trip comes up. Flag 14, for instance, went from Chiapas to the Yucatan in Mexico in 1927, into deep water with oceanographer Ballard and to the top of Mt. Everest in 1992.

For nonmembers the club sponsors lectures and a documentary film series on conservation, exploration and science at the New York headquarters.

Both give members and other featured speakers the chance to exercise their storytelling skills--the "I went over the mountain and you'll never guess what I saw" part of their job as explorers, says club President Wiese.

If you have plenty of cash, you can consider going on an adventure with the Explorers Club Travelers, which offers about 10 trips a year to amazing places. The tour company was the first to take clients on a circumnavigation of Antarctica and to see the wreck of the Titanic.

Upcoming trips include a visit to the German battleship Bismarck, sunk in 1941 and lying at a depth of 15,000 feet between England and France (July 25 to Aug. 8, $28,000, excluding air fare), and another Antarctic circumnavigation on the polar icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov (Nov. 26 to Feb. 1, for $34,950). For more information, contact Explorers Club Travelers, P.O. Box 938, 47 Main St., Suite 1, Walpole, NH 03608; (800) 856-8951, www.explorers.org.

Clearly, it costs dearly to travel in the footsteps of Explorers Club members. I would rather read about their exploits and get someone to let me into the lounge for a drink in front of the fireplace.

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