Photograph courtesy Lindsey Holm
Mike Fay, conservationist and NG Explorer-in-Residence, has survived an elephant attack, contracted malaria, walked over 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) across central Africa in the Megatransect, and completed an 11-month journey through the redwoods trekking another 1,800 miles (2,897 kilometers). Find out what he was like as like as a kid and what he does for fun.
NG Kids: What were you like as a kid?
Fay: I grew up in Pasadena, California in this neighborhood with lots of kids called Hastings Ranch, which was in the foothills, adjacent to the San Gabriel Mountains wilderness area. …That was our playground that vast wilderness behind the house, which was literally all the way to the Colorado River.
So I think that’s where I started wandering and I also had the good fortune of having an older brother, he was ten and I was like six, and he probably had friends that were 12 or 13. So we were just the rowdy kids out there doing our “Little Rascals” kind of thing.
We spent a lot of time back in those woods exploring and wandering around out there building forts and growing up. Pretty much my whole childhood that’s all I did.
I remember taking guitar lessons, when I was eight or something…and I went to the first lesson, which happened to be on a Saturday morning. And I am sitting there in this school building thinking to myself, ‘what am I doing sitting inside on Saturday.’ That was my first and last guitar lesson. And I was back in the woods.
When I was about 13, we moved back east to New Jersey of all places, so you think that it’s all done, but I already had this wanderlust. I started fly fishing a lot and started riding my bike west of where we lived and there was plenty of woods and wild spaces there. So I continued my wandering. But I also started to get into technical fly fishing, where you learn all the aquatic insects, I became much more of a naturalist rather than just a punk wandering around the woods.
I was always interested in all the species….We knew all the snakes, all the lizards, all the newts, the fish, but when I moved to New Jersey it became much more formalized. I started guiding fly fishing at a camp up in Maine, so I got to spend summers in Maine when I was 14 and 15, and that was kind of my first formal wilderness experience and making it a profession as a fishing guide.
NG Kids: Do you have a hero or did you when you were young?
Fay: When I was young, it was [Henry David] Thoreau. He wrote two books that I read--one called The Maine Woods and another was called Cape Cod. And both of those places I had spent summers in junior high and they were very well-written naturalist type of books rather than philosophical like Walden. I remember being in Cape Cod and my friend’s mother asked me what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and I said I wanted to just camp out and be outside. And she was laughing at me and saying, ‘You’ll grow up someday!’ Here I am 53 and it hasn’t happened yet.
Later on and certainly today, in terms of leadership and knowing what’s important on the planet, [it’s] Teddy Roosevelt. If every U.S. president since Roosevelt was as conservation-minded as he was, this world would be a very different place. He hasn’t been followed by a single president who recognizes the importance of managing resources like he did.…He could see the wholesale destruction of the redwoods and wildlife on the western plains and all these things that shocked him. So he woke up to the fact that if we didn’t do something, the money changers of the world would pretty much liquidate every single natural resource we had very quickly.
NG Kids: What do you daydream about?
Fay: All I think about 24/7—well, I think about girls once in a while—I spend most of my time thinking about conservation and natural resource management. And I am kind of a nerd that way, because I don’t have any real hobbies beyond that. I am not into anything else except making the human race recognize and help to manage the natural resource base more efficiently than we do.
I am still working a lot in Africa, and concentrating on Chad and few other places in central Africa, like Mozambique and Sudan, and a few off the beaten track places, and really still focused on this North American rain forest. I started with the redwoods, but I fully intend to walk the entire North American rain forest in the next five years.
I might do it in two pieces, maybe three pieces, but I am going to continue from the end of the redwood transect north and get a complete view of ….what’s going on out there from an ecosystem wide perspective… knowing all the species and learning about the ecological processes so that you can talk with authority about what’s going on.
NG Kids: What’s a normal day like for you?
Fay: Normal day? I would say on the average, I am usually outside walking, somewhere. Here in Alaska, I have my place out in the woods, and I will be exploring far and wide locally, over the next few months. But if you look at the past year as an example—we are in July now—so in July of last year, I was finishing up the redwood transect. I had been walking for a whole year, 11 months, 1,800 miles (2,897 kilometers), and camping out. So over the last ten years, I probably slept in a bed maybe 50 times. So I do sleep in a bed once in awhile, but not very often.
And after that walk, I went to Chad for about a month-and-a-half to survey elephants there. Another thing I do a lot besides walking is flying. So I spent about month and a half with our project in Chad shoring up Zakouma National Park. We just got an airplane there.
Then I went back to the redwoods and worked for a month or two and then went on a long haul back to Chad and did an aerial survey there and counted all the elephants—we went from 3,020 elephants in 2006 to 617 elephants in 2009. It was a major drop, it was shocking, but the good news is that since the airplane showed up, we have only reported 25-30 deaths.
And then I went to Mozambique and did a foot survey there for about a month in the Maputu Elephant Reserve, which is a place that needs better management and I am getting involved there.
Then I went to the Southern Line Islands with Enric [Sala] and did the terrestrial survey on those islands. That was two months.
So this past year, I have walked about five months—in an off year when I am not doing a long walk—and then I have spent about two months in an airplane.
NG Kids: How many pairs of shoes did you go through in a year?
Fay: Actually you’d be surprised. I wear these Chaco sandals whenever possible… If I buy a pair of Chacos and wear them constantly I can put about 2,000 km on a pair of Chacos, that means about 6 months so—about two pair a year is just fine. I figure 140 bucks a year is worth my investment in my primary vehicle.
NG Kids: What do you do for fun or to be silly?
Fay: Well to have fun, I walk. That is my greatest enjoyment that I could ever have, even more so than flying. Being able to go places where I haven’t been before is the most fun, because of the way I walk. I record information the whole way—I am piecing things together. It’s like a big puzzle for me….So I just walk and walk and walk and walk, and I have my notebook. I am recording information about trees, how big they are and the stumps, and the roads and the wildlife …but you piece together this whole puzzle as you are walking along. It’s really fun. So that is what I do for fun.
To be silly, I have to think about that one. I joke around a lot with people and I wouldn’t say play with people, but I like to see people’s reaction to this and that. I guess I am too serious. But I enjoy every day of life.
NG Kids: What is the best advice anyone has given you that you can share with us?
Fay: My mother wouldn’t agree, but it was my sixth grade teacher. His name was Mr. Royce. He was one of these completely unconventional teachers in a very conventional school system that spent a lot of his time bringing kids outside.
So we would go out at night and do astronomy, go kick around the local quarry to look for fossils, or go down to the rivers and look for amphibians, and it was about all the natural sciences, not just about wildlife.
He basically said don’t listen to anybody when they try to tell you that you should do something different from what you want to do. And you will find yourself doing something because you want to rather than because you have to. If you keep on that path, you find that you will never have to do what you don’t want to do, I believe….I just made the choice between having something that I might want, or being who I want to be, and I take the latter. If you do without, then you get what you want.
So Mr. Royce’s advice was don’t even listen to those guys, do what you think is right and you’ll end up much better off, and much happier.
NG Kids: What can't you travel without?
Fay: Normally it’s a pocket knife and a lighter and a pair of shoes. For instance the last trip I took I was away for almost four months. So I leave California and I have a little day pack, and I have my computer in there, and a few other things. And in my back pack I had a tent, ‘cause I was going to Africa and tents have mosquito netting. I have a sleeping mat for rain and not for comfort, because if it rains, you are off the ground. So normally if it doesn’t rain, I don’t inflate it. I like sleeping on the ground. And I have a sleeping bag, and a pair of shorts, a t-shirt, my [sandals], and a raincoat, and a hat—and my lighter, my pocketknife, and a GPS, and a notebook.
NG Kids: How many notebooks have you filled in all your journeys?
Fay: Hundreds. On the redwood transect I filled 24 notebooks. But they are big notebooks…so it’s like writing a little book in each one. I keep a yellow notebook with me [from] this company called Rite in the Rain that are made out of plastic and the paper is plasticized so you can write on them in the rain. And they are indestructible. And a .7 millimeter mechanical pencil. Can’t do without that and extra lead.
But I literally traveled with just that kind of kit. I wash my shorts once a week and my shorts weigh about an ounce and my shirt dries almost immediately and if I am in cold I wear a pair of longer Patagonia pants with wool long johns and if it’s really cold then I have to put on boots and I will wear a thicker coat.
NG Kids: What is the best place you have ever traveled to?
Fay: I love exploring any place. If you put me in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., I am happy as a clam in there. I wouldn’t say that I have a favorite place, but I love the vast wilderness areas. The Congo basin is certainly a place where I have spent decades so I must love it. And this North American rain forest for me is an unbelievable place. Everyday when I am out here and I look at these hills and when you fly out of here it is a vast wilderness. It’s really spectacular.
So those two place stick out in my mind. When people ask me where I live I say planet Earth. My favorite place would also be planet Earth.
NG Kids: What can kids do to help with conservation?
Fay: Kids have a giant challenge that they need to think about—that is this notion that the natural resource base of this planet could collapse in the next century and they could face great hardship. They don’t want to live in hardship. They want to live nice prosperous lives. They are tasked to make that happen.
They should get outside and start thinking about natural resource management and if you look at the redwoods, it’s a perfect place to start thinking about it because 95% was taken out and yet we see humanity shifting there to repairing the damage that was done, and rebuilding the forest and making it more productive for humanity at the same time. That is the key. We need to replenish the natural resource capital that we have lost rather than to continue to liquidate it. If we do that, then there is hope.
Interview by Anne A McCormack