Checking in with adventure author Jim Campbell
Books, a TV show and a search for a downed WWII plane
Henry Longhurst, a British golf writer and broadcaster, once noted that he enjoyed reading biographies because it allowed him to experience another person’s life without the trouble of having to live it.
So it is for me with the globetrotting Lodi author Jim Campbell, whose books have taken him to icy Alaska, the steamy jungles of New Guinea, and many remote outposts in between. Where he lands, you can’t call room service. Campbell likes adventure.
He also likes good beer, which prompted our getting together earlier this month.
Jim’s wide circle of friends includes Bob Pease, CEO of the Brewers Association, a Boulder, Colorado-based trade group dedicated to brewing of craft beer.
“He often turns me on to good beer and good beer places,” Campbell said.
In this instance, Pease was touting Garth’s Brew Bar, opened only recently on Monroe Street in Madison but already honored as Wisconsin’s best beer bar by the readers of CraftBeer.com [https://www.craftbeer.com/breweries/great-american-beer-bars].
Beyond the beer at Garth’s, it was also a chance for me to hear about Jim’s latest projects, which include a June return trip to New Guinea to donate medical supplies and search for an American aircraft lost in the mountains during World War II; a hoped-for fifth season for the Discovery Channel series “The Last Alaskans” (he is one of the producers); and a possible new nonfiction book on Alan Rabinowitz — the Indiana Jones of wildlife ecology — and the Jaguar Corridor Initiative from Mexico to Argentina, “the largest conservation project ever attempted.”
And, oh yes, he has also finished and is revising his first novel.
Henry Longhurst could get tired just reading about Campbell’s life.
For all that, Jim is as unassuming and engaging as anyone I’ve ever met. We’ve been friends for 15 years, since I interviewed him for a newspaper column about his first book.
That book, “The Final Frontiersman,” almost never happened. Campbell grew up in Beaver Dam, attended Yale, sold outdoors-themed pieces to national magazines and very much wanted to write a book. But about what?
Campbell had an older cousin, with the unlikely name of Heimo Korth, who in the mid-1970s left Wisconsin — and civilization — for the polar isolation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Alaska. The government has since banned new human occupation there. Korth and his wife, Edna — he met her while walrus-hunting in the Bering Straits — are among a handful of people on nearly 20 million acres.
Campbell wrote Korth a letter. “I’m your cousin. I admire what you’re doing. I want to write a book about you.”
Six months passed, then, finally, a postcard: “Not interested.”
Korth’s sister intervened and prevailed on Korth to give Campbell a chance.
Campbell’s 2004 book, “The Final Frontiersman,” drew raves. Bestselling author Bill Bryson said this: “A terrific first book — by turns inspiring and unnerving and never less than wholly absorbing.”
A decade later, it became the inspiration for the documentary series “The Last Alaskans,” which has had four successful seasons but thus far has not been renewed for a fifth. Campbell remains hopeful.
Campbell’s other books include “The Ghost Mountain Boys,” about an ill-fated march by U.S. troops fighting the Japanese in New Guinea in 1942, and, most recently, “Braving It,” about a father-daughter backpack trip across Alaska’s Brooks Range.
Jim and his wife, Elizabeth, have three daughters. Jim made the backpack trip with their oldest daughter, Aidan.
In 2018, he took their middle daughter, Rachel, to New Guinea, and they hiked the Ghost Mountain Trail, a route so arduous that a New Guinea newspaper took note of an American teenager making the journey.
On the trail they found schools and clinics in desperate need of books and medicine. In June, Jim (and perhaps Rachel) will be returning with a group of other adventurous souls to deliver antibiotics and books paid for in part by Rachel’s online fundraising. On the trip they will also search for the downed U.S. plane from World War II which was spotted high in the mountains by a team more than 50 years ago but hasn’t been visited since.
I hope Jim finds his way to doing the book on the Jaguar Corridor Initiative. Just after he and Rachel returned from New Guinea in 2018, Jim learned that his friend Alan Rabinowitz, the world’s leading expert on jaguars, had died. Preserving the jaguar has a Wisconsin connection dating to Aldo Leopold, who was among the first to recognize the importance of apex predators to a functioning ecosystem.
At one point at Garth’s — it wasn’t our first beer — I asked Jim about Heimo Korth, the cousin who prompted his first book.
“Is he still up there?”
Jim laughed. “Heimo is still living the life he has always lived. He says he wants to die out there and when he dies, have his corpse fed to the wolves.” Jim chuckled again. “He’s trapped a lot of wolves over 40 years and now he’s going to give back.”
Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.