Jon is a National Geographic Society Fellow. He is also executive director of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council (YRITWC). The council was formed in 1997 by tribal chieftains along the Yukon River in northwestern North America in a grass roots effort to conserve and revitalize the river.
In 10th grade, Jon dropped out of school. Not long after, he found himself facing either prison or the military. He chose the latter. “I needed to get as far away from the negative influences in my life as possible,” he says.
For the next 20 years, Jon traveled all over the world with the U.S. Navy. In his free time, he journeyed even farther. He backpacked through Scottish moors, Asian jungles, the meadows of the Azores, and the Alaskan wilderness. With each journey, Jon learned from local cultures and traditions.
His time in Alaska reaffirmed a childhood fascination with the region. In his final days in the Navy, Jon opted to skip his formal retirement ceremony in favor of being dropped off in Alaska to explore. With a backpack and $2,000 in cash, he set off.
Jon worked some odd jobs during this time, and was eventually contacted by his brother, Joseph. Joseph was coordinating a cleanup of an area in Galena, Alaska, nicknamed “Million Barrel Hill.” The area was named for the countless 55-gallon drums, most of which contained unidentifiable substances, left behind by the military after their operations in the area ceased.
Jon took the helm as liaison between the military and environmental organizations. Jon says he essentially translated “military speak” into language that the local people could not only grasp, but also believe. Both groups trusted Jon.
Not long after the cleanup, Jon was contacted by the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council, a group of 70 tribes and First Nations from the U.S. and Canada. Concern for the health of their watershed prompted the tribes to work together and form the council.
“It’s a subsistence lifestyle out there still,” Jon explains, “and if the health of the river is sacrificed, so too will be the lifestyles and cultures of the people living and relying on it.”
Impressed with Jon’s success in Galena, the council asked him to continue his cleanup efforts around the Yukon River banks. The elders of the watershed council sat down with Jon and asked that he “go out and take the pulse of the river.”
Though uncertain of what exactly that request meant, Jon accepted the challenge and decided to travel the river by canoe. He listened to the elders from the region’s tribes and nations to hear their concerns about the health of the river and the people on it. However, he recognized that in order to garner widespread attention and truly “take the pulse of the river,” he would have to give the journey a scientific scope, which he did through connections to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), among other scientific entities.
In 2007, the first Healing Journey was born. Starting in Moosehide, a tribal land near Dawson City, Yukon Territory, Canada, the inaugural group of participants set off toward the mouth of the river, 3,222 kilometers (2,000 miles) west.
For the next two-and-a-half months, the group paddled down the Yukon with cumbersome sensors in tow. They gathered temperature, nitrate input, and algal bloom data as they quietly made their way down the river. They synchronized the collected data to a map of the area, as well as a searchable database. Contacts at the USGS lab in Denver, Colorado, were thrilled as they received the data in real-time, a first for the department.
Jon established the now-annual Healing Journey as a way to monitor the scientific health of the river and to promote environmental stewardship. Jon, the watershed council, and volunteers are responsible for removing more than 5.4 million kilograms (12 million pounds) of trash and pollutants from the Yukon.
MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK
Jon enjoys helping communities establish a relationship with their watershed. His work allows him to interact with diverse members of a community.
During a cleanup of old junk vehicles in Anvik, Alaska, for instance, Jon’s group met a Yupik woman he describes as “nearly a century old and not much more than 4 feet tall.” She was thrilled to see that plants would be able to grow again where the decades-old abandoned cars had rested.
Tribes from South Sudan, South America, Siberia, the Amazon, New Zealand, and throughout North America are looking to begin their own Healing Journeys project. Much of this interest comes from the youth in those communities. Jon is excited to see a new generation care about the planet and be aware of their environments.
“There’s just a different feeling in the world,” he says.
MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK
Jon chuckles at his own answer, but explains that creating a shift in people’s thinking can be the hardest thing to accomplish. It requires people to open up and listen to learn the purpose of the journeys and how they matter.
HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?
“The world and all that’s in it.”
“Place is vital to human growth and development on this planet,” Jon says. “Understanding geography helps us understand other people and cultures, and how their views of the world around them may differ from our own.”
Traveling along rivers is a perfect way to experience diverse geographic areas and interact with a wide variety of cultures. Jon constantly engages communities along the rivers he travels. Just interacting with others who share the same resource helps both communities understand their differences and similarities.
Recently, Jon traveled to a village on the lower portion of the Yukon River, a place where moose were historically abundant. In recent years, the moose population dwindled and beaver became more prevalent. The villagers were unfamiliar with how to use beaver to sustain their lifestyle. Through the Yukon watershed council, villagers connected with a community many kilometers upriver where beaver was traditionally a prime resource. The groups were able to communicate, share traditional knowledge, and flourish.
SO, YOU WANT TO BE AN . . . ENVIRONMENTAL STEWARD
“Education is important—those letters after your last name help to get people to listen . . . but formal education is certainly not a requirement,” Jon says.
At the very least, Jon advocates that everyone “just [get] out there, get involved in the community and the outdoors,” and listen to elders to learn from the past when moving toward the future.
“Don’t accept the accepted path; have the courage to go out there. Get a passport, save a little money, get a subscription to National Geographic, buy a globe, and go to some place that grips you.”