Every outdoor adventurer intrinsically cares for the outdoor. Most donate money or volunteer for trail days. James Q Martin devotes his talents, resources and the majority of his time to conservation. His award-winning films leave us inspired to adventure and motivated to answer our own calls to conservation
In this edition of Therm-a-Rest Explore, Q puts the camera down and tells us his story and about his upcoming conservation film Paving Tundra.
I observe Kris Tompkins as she takes a moment to reflect, then she says, “Luck favors the audacious.” Her steel eyes are fixed on mine and finally, I see a small and knowing smile break free from her hard and thoughtful stare. As luck would have it, we ended up in San Francisco at the same time. Tompkins had flown north from her home in Patagonia for board meetings, where her US conservation headquarters are based. I was able to catch an hour of her time before I flew east to Korea to show two documentary films; Mile for Mile and Douglas Tompkins: A Wild Legacy. Kris is a key character in both films and we share a love for the special and wild landscapes of Patagonia. We also share a long history of working in the outdoor industry; she is the former CEO of Patagonia, Inc., and I have worked as a photographer in this space for over 15 years. Kris and her late husband, Douglas Tompkins, along with their partners, have protected and donated more land than any individuals in human history.
Being able to call Kris Tompkins a friend and mentor is a long story, but it suffices to say, my life and hers have each followed a less-than-traditional course. We never followed the paved road, the road that checks the boxes and lands you squarely with a solid retirement, in your later years. Kris was a surfer and at the age of 15, met another surfer and reluctant businessman, Yvon Chouinard. I got my start meeting a crazy, French photographer – he showed me that my boyhood dream of being a photographer could be a reality.
I found a less defined, more colored path to follow. It was filled with a lot of construction labor in the early years, bumps of friends and coaches, twists of potholed roads, and sometimes regretful choices which once left me penniless in the airport and calling a friend collect, although my passport had a couple of new stamps. All of them, I do not regret, as those experiences good, bad, wild, and beautiful, define who I am and help me tell poignant stories, across many mediums as a freelance storyteller.
In 1997, I set out with a backpack and a camera. Yes, as cliché as it sounds, that’s what I did. I really had no intention of making photography my career; I just wanted to find a little more of who I was. Since that audacious move, I have been on 6 of the 7 continents, and for a number of years, I made my living solely as a rock climbing photographer. Those adventures included more than climbing walls and hitchhiking between remote international locations. For example, there was the time I slept on a wall, for a week straight in Venezuela, as my team and I painfully inched the rope higher into unclimbed territory; and there’s the time we drove the length of Chile – where I truly found my place – as we fixed more flats than a tire shop on a slow day; and then there was the time we hired hell bent teenagers to take us, and all our climbing gear, on the back of dirt bikes into the remote reaches of Mozambique. I lived full time in a van before hashtags were even a thing, let alone the moniker “vanlife,” we just called it being a dirtbag. (Which I still fondly still wear as a badge of honor in certain company.) These experiences have taught me a couple of things – that the earth is a finite resource, we have to be brave, and do all we can to protect the important places before they are wrapped up in consumption and greed vs being intact for our kids – grandkids.
From those rocky starts, I went from being a college dropout to landing my first printed image in a two-page spread in a Patagonia, Inc. catalog, in 2002. By 2009, I called myself an adventure photographer and that same year I added a couple of lines to my job title, conservationist and filmmaker. I realized that photography, as a medium to deliver, lacked the power to work fast enough in bringing timely awareness to areas that needed immediate protection.
However, using all forms of storytelling, across many channels, has allowed me to be a small part of the bigger stories, and through hard work, have won hard-fought victories for the land. Some of the projects I have been involved with had large successes, like keeping five dams off two pristine Chilean rivers; bringing awareness about legislation needed for a 20-year moratorium on new uranium mining in the Grand Canyon; raising $90K from a film project to build a new trail in Patagonia. Currently, I am working to help raise funds for a visitor’s center to be constructed and operated privately in what President Trump claims to no longer be Bears Ears National Monument.
One thing is clear, Kris Tompkins and I share a desire to protect these important places, and that motivation comes from time spent learning from the land, enjoying outdoor adventures, and working with stand-up companies and people in the Outdoor Industry. I began this little story with a quote while I had a brief moment with one of my heroes, Kris Tompkins. The backstory is important because the reason she passed along her wise words and knowing smile was in response to a statement I had made to her – something I heard once before, “Luck favors the prepared.”
After 15+ years of working my ass off on my assignments and projects, I am still madly in love with what I call “work”. One of my current media projects is in the arctic. This last summer, while celebrating my birthday in the arctic, I had my little bit of sleep cut even shorter as my partner and I were greeted by a hungry and curious grizzly mamma and her cub. They wanted to know what smelled so good in our food cache.
The project is called Paving Tundra, and it is dedicated to bringing awareness to a proposed 225-mile road in Alaska which would be used for an open copper pit mine – it would fracture one of the wildest ecosystems in North America. Paving Tundra was started by Jayme Dittmar, an Alaskan dog musher, filmmaker and photographer. During the summer of 2016, she and I, along with three other filmmakers and explorers, packrafted 350 miles on two pristine rivers, while visiting six communities that are off the road system. This past summer, we spent an additional seven days packrafting 140 miles, gathering other key media to help us complete our film and to bolster our campaign.
Therm-a-Rest is one of the outdoor brands which has supported us. With their help, as well as that of NGOs WILD and the Brooks Range Council, we are working together, using the above formula, to raise awareness against this poorly thought out plan. Please learn more and join the fight to protect the Brooks Range at: http://www.brooksrange.org