Studying the Environment—in a Kayak!

Bryan Brown navigates the Colorado River
Bryan Brown kayaked the Colorado River in 2014. Courtesy photo.

Between 2013 and 2016, Columbus, Ind., native Bryan Brown, BA’78, kayaked more than 7,000 total miles as a way to celebrate some of the most magnificent and embattled waterways on the planet.

The miles he traveled—more than twice the distance from San Francisco to New York City—put him squarely at the top of the list of the most experienced living solo-expedition kayakers in North America and easily among the top half-dozen in the world. As a testament to his recent endeavors, Brown was inducted into the prestigious Explorers Club in 2015. Founded in New York City in 1904, the Explorers Club promotes the scientific exploration of land, sea, air, and space, and its members include Sir Edmund Hillary, Neil Armstrong, and Charles Lindbergh.

Brown is the first expedition kayaker in history to complete solo source-to-mouth descents of three major North American watersheds—the primary Colorado River watershed, the Yukon River, and Canada’s MacKenzie basin, which took him, in total, 317 days to complete.

And it was all for the purpose of research. Brown spent his summers on the water collecting data to examine the effects humans have on complex, embattled watersheds.

Brown navigates rapids
Brown’s MacKenzie Basin expedition was his third solo descent of a major watershed and crucial to his research. Courtesy photo.

Brown began his journey in 2013 with the Colorado River watershed, one of the most heavily altered biosystems in the world. It is 90 percent altered from its original state and now boasts more than 45 dams on its 2,450-mile primary channel (which includes the Green River, the Upper Colorado, and the Lower Colorado).

The trip was as much personal as it was scientific. When Brown was 15 years old, his family stopped at the Grand Canyon during a road trip. He and his younger brother, Bruce, decided that in the future, they were going to kayak on the Colorado River together. They had read about scientific explorer John Wesley Powell’s journey down the Colorado, and they wanted to mirror that trip.

Their kayaking trip was discussed off and on throughout the years, but Bruce was diagnosed with adult-onset muscular dystrophy. As the condition progressed, it was obvious he would not be able to take the trip. Then, in October 2012, Bruce passed away. Brown dedicated the grueling 90-day journey to Bruce’s memory, completing the kayaking trip accompanied by his brother’s ashes.

The following summer, Brown tackled the Yukon River, which, in contrast to the Colorado, remains some 98 percent unaltered. The effort took 57 days and covered some 2,300 miles, beginning at the foot of the Llewellyn Glacier near Atlin, British Columbia, and ending about 72 miles from Russia in the Bering Sea.

In 2015, he completed the first ever source-to-mouth descent of Canada’s MacKenzie River watershed, roughly 2,300 miles in total. The watershed is the third largest on earth after the Nile and the Amazon, and is the last of the 10 largest watersheds on the planet to be successfully navigated from source to mouth.

During the challenging trek, which took place above the Arctic Circle, Brown faced blizzards, bears, and lightning strikes. An avid journal keeper, Brown kept a catalog of some of the trip’s highlights—and dangers—in tongue-in-cheek style: “Number of point-to-point paddlers I met between the Canadian Rockies and the Beaufort Sea? Zero. Bear incidents? Three (one predatory). Number of times I was mistaken for Bigfoot? One. Number of times I saw Bigfoot? Zero. Number of roasted beaver feet I was offered to eat? Too many. Number I ate? None.”

Hoosier Born and Bred

Brown graduated from IU with a dual major in chemistry and English and embarked on a 30-year career as a securities analyst on Wall Street. He and his wife Sandy (Chappell), AS’78, have lived in Beverly Hills for over two decades but return regularly to their roots in Indiana.

Brown returns to IUB often
Brown returns to the IU Bloomington campus often. In this 2014 photo, Brown (left center) and IU President Michael A. McRobbie (right center) hold the flag that Brown carried with him during his expedition of the Colorado River, which was his first solo descent. Courtesy photo.

Brown looks back on his time at IU as formative in developing his love for research and preserving the environment. When he wasn’t studying, he spent a lot of his free time camping and canoeing on and around Lake Monroe and spelunking in nearby caves. He notes that even then he was deeply disturbed by the ecological abuse such as the graffiti, littering, and bat disruption that was rampant at that time.

In addition, he credits much of his ecological interest to the late IU professor Elinor Ostrom, whose research resulted in a Nobel Prize that Brown considers to be a gemstone in IU’s storied history. He believes that Ostrom’s groundbreaking research will define the next several decades of environmental policy worldwide.

His experience at IU was eye-opening other ways, as well.

“Bloomington is more than just a college town; it’s an island in a stream,” Brown said. “It’s a magnetic spot for culture and music and all the things you expect to be in a college town but that don’t generally make it into small-town Indiana. In Bloomington, all you have to do is walk out your door and choose a direction.

“IU made it totally clear to me that no matter what environment you came from, you could expose yourself to remarkable educational and cultural opportunities and make whatever you wanted out of them. I urge all who value the remaining wilderness on Planet Earth to see it for themselves—and to protect it for future generations with a strict leave-no-trace ethos.”

Brown is currently working on three books about his expeditions. The first—Delivering Brother Bruce—is expected to be complete by the end of 2017.

This story has been adapted from an article that first appeared in Inside IU Bloomington in January 2017. Additional material by Indiana University Alumni Magazine staff, Amanda Zuicens-Williams, BA’01, and Bill Elliott, MA’84, PhD’99.

Written By
Bailey Briscoe
Bailey Briscoe is a news content specialist for IU Communications.