A look at some of the greatest explorers ever

Personal exploration is something we should all do. But did you ever wonder who the greatest explorers were?

Personal exploration is something we should all do. But did you ever wonder who the greatest explorers were?

Every now and then, I dive into the ole Twitterverse to take part in a select few chats, most of which deal with the outdoors.

One of them is the Adventure Travel Q&A, or simply known as #ATQA. Some very cool folks take part in this on a weekly basis, and the topics are interesting. The latest one really got me thinking.

The subject was “exploration.” I think there are two ways to look at this concept.

The first is personal exploration. By that, I’m talking about going to places new to you. This is the type of travel where you see something you’ve never seen before, revel in new experiences, and quite often, learn and grow. When people talk about “exploring” something, this is usually the type of exploration they’re referencing. For the record, I’m all for doing as much of this as you can.

The second type of exploration is more of the classic definition: An adventure where you are going somewhere no one has ever been, or doing something that’s never been done.

By this, I’m talking about those folks who were the first to summit the world’s highest peaks, to dive to the deepest part of the ocean, to see new lands never documented by man, or to peer into the darkest corners of space. We’re talking macro-exploration here.

The question was asked who the greatest explorers were. This is exactly the type of question that I can geek out on like nobody’s business. After some thinking, this is what I came up with:

A replica of an oceangoing Polynesian boat. Imagine crossing the Pacific Ocean in one of these.

A replica of an oceangoing Polynesian boat. Imagine crossing the Pacific Ocean in one of these.

The Polynesians. You want to know how there came to be people who live in places like Tahiti, Fiji or Hawaii? They didn’t jump on a steam ship or an airplane. Not originally. No, those brave folks used canoes and rafts powered by the wind (via small sails) and their own oars. The traversed the world’s largest ocean in vessels most of us would be scared to board on a big lake. But they did it, and covered THOUSANDS of miles, braving high heat, huge waves, big storms and hungry sharks. You may not know this, but the Hawaiian Islands make up the most remote island archipelago on the planet. European sailors didn’t land there before these bits of earth had long been discovered, explored and settled by Polynesians centuries before. I’d be hard-pressed to find another group of explorers more hardy than these determined mariners.

The Vikings sailed from Scandinavia to places like Iceland, Greenland and even North America in vessels like this one, centuries before Christopher Columbus.

The Vikings sailed from Scandinavia to places like Iceland, Greenland and even North America in vessels like this one, centuries before Christopher Columbus.

The Vikings. Coming a close second are the Scandinavian butt-kickers known more for their savagery toward the poor inhabitants of Britain, Ireland and Continental Europe. These guys were expert warriors, and adept at the art of psychological warfare. That’s what made their raids and acts of extortion so lucrative. But these folks were also capable sailors, be it along the coast, up rivers or in the open sea. On that last count, they one-upped Christopher Columbus by a few centuries, crossing the North Atlantic toward Iceland, Greenland and even North America. The Vikings briefly settled the southeastern coast of modern-day Canada before giving up — way back in the 10th Century. While they quit North America, the remains of their amazing feats of exploration can be seen in the ruins of Greenland and in the continuing civilization that flourishes on Iceland. Want to know how amazing this is? A typical Viking ship was powered only by sail and oar, and the ships themselves were a little over 50 feet long. Like the Polynesians, they did it without the benefit of modern navigation we take for granted today, and if you don’t already know, the North Atlantic can have some of the nastiest, stormiest weather on earth.

The moon landing may possibly be the greatest example of exploration in history, and certainly one of the greatest achievements in the history of the United States. Exploration!

The moon landing may possibly be the greatest example of exploration in history, and certainly one of the greatest achievements in the history of the United States. Exploration!

The astronauts. Be they American or Soviet space explorers (and many other nationalities now), astronauts (the USSR called them cosmonauts) take part in a type of travel that is completely novel, and overly hostile to the presence of humans. The science, technology and pure guts it takes to strap yourself into a metal can and rocket into the void cannot be understated. Think about it: You have to take everything with you — food, water and air — and protect yourself from blinding light, searing heat/deadly cold and unfiltered radiation. If everything goes right, you live, provided you can get home without frying in the earth’s atmosphere on the journey back. Everything about space is pretty much trying to kill you.

Among the grandest accomplishments therein has to be the moon landings. Seeing this happened nearly five decades ago, and how numb we are to such feats, it requires you to step back to really appreciate what the astronauts of the Saturn project did. They traveled tens of thousands of miles, LEAVING THE PLANET to land on a completely new world. Humans have walked on earth for all of our existence. Before Neil Armstrong, no living thing had ever sniffed the surface of the moon. A lot will be said about what the United States has accomplished in its brief history, but this monumental feat of exploration will go down as one of the country’s greatest-ever achievements. So you were the first to climb X mountain? Fuggetaboutit. These guys are the only living beings on earth to have set foot on another world.

You might be bumming because your own explorations don’t measure up to these badasses. But don’t be sad, little camper. Take heart. Our efforts pale in comparison, but the spirit is the same. The effort involved, the planning, and at times, the courage to carry it out, can be extreme. But think about how much you grow. The deeds of our greatest explorers illustrate how the process of adventure is a pretty awesome thing. Use that for motivation the next time the itch to explore arises.

Bob Doucette

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