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IU alumnus Bryan Brown completes third historic kayak expedition

Jan. 25, 2017

Over the last four summers, IU alumnus Bryan Brown has kayaked more than 7,000 total miles as a way to celebrate the wonders of places he considers the most magnificent and embattled waterways on planet Earth. Hoosier goodwill and determination helped drive the Columbus, Ind., native’s explorations.

Bryan Brown in his kayak on the MacKenzie river

Brown's MacKenzie Basin expedition was his third solo descent of a major watershed and crucial to his research, as it's still 80 percent unaltered. | PHOTO COURTESY OF BRYAN BROWN.

The miles he has 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.

Brown, a 1978 graduate of IU, 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.

He 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). He then tackled the Yukon River, which, in contrast to the Colorado, remains some 98 percent unaltered. Most recently, he completed the first descent of the MacKenzie Basin watershed, which is suffering from the early-stage construction of a large dam in a particularly bioactive area.  The MacKenzie watershed remains roughly 80 percent unaltered.

“I specifically want to see how wildlife and plants are responding to human intervention,” Brown said. “The Colorado River watershed has been abused over the past century or so. American planners and developers meant well but simply did not have the experience to understand how sensitive watersheds are to serial impoundment of big running water. I saw firsthand the massive changes in the Colorado River, which can, and should be, used as a benchmark to measure future watershed development worldwide.”

To complete his research in the least intrusive way possible, Brown travels most seasons of the year, with a paddle and with the current. His mode of transportation is a kayak, the quietest boat on earth, and logistics require that he travel totally unsupported. On the river, Brown passes the time by taking notes in his journal, capturing photos of his observations and paying diligent attention to his surroundings. Because he opts to travel solo and without any sort of safety net, “everything is a potential threat to life and limb” when he’s in the water.

And when he takes to land for the evening, there’s an additional threat.

“It’s just me and the bears,” he said.

Brown has to select his campsites very carefully, which can then take hours to set up and has to wake up periodically throughout the night to scout for bears. However, bear encounters are inevitable and can be tied back to a key reason for his study, he said.

“Above the Arctic Circle, ice gets grounded in the shallow areas and becomes shore-bound. Polar bears will typically come out of hibernation and feed on the seals that camp out there, but because the amount of ice is declining the polar bears have to work harder,” he said. “The ice went out so early last summer that the polar bears came inland and displaced the grizzlies and black bears in the low Arctic. They all wound up hungry and mad and threatened the rare villages in extreme northern Canada. So, climate change is definitely impacting migration patterns (and thus human interaction) with apex predators like bears.”

Born and bred Hoosier

He graduated with a dual major in chemistry and English and went on to be an institutional market strategist for decades on Wall Street.  He and his wife -- fellow Hoosier and IU alum, Sandy -- have lived in Beverly Hills for over two decades but return regularly to their roots in Indiana.

Bryan Brown holding an IU flag while posing with President McRobbie and others

Brown returns to campus often. Here in 2014, Brown and President McRobbie held the flag that he carried with him during his expedition of the Colorado River, which was his first solo descent. Standing from left to right are: JT. Forbes, executive director of the Indiana University Alumni Association; Brown's wife Sandra; Bryan Brown; President McRobbie, and John M. Burnett, President/CEO of the Columbus (Indiana) Education Coalition. | PHOTO COURTESY OF IU COMMUNICATIONS 

Brown looks back on his time at IU as being formative of his love for research and preserving the environment. When he wasn’t studying, Brown spent a lot of his free time camping and canoeing on and around Lake Monroe and spelunking in the 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 one of the true gems of IU's history.  He believes that Ostrom's groundbreaking research will define at least the next several decades of environmental policy worldwide.

His experience at IU was eye opening in 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. 

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