Writer, Filmmaker, Adventurer: The Intrepid Endeavors of Jon Bowermaster
By Steve Fowler
Behind the glass at WKNY in Kingston, Tech Production Associate Manuel eyes the clock, his hand frozen above his head. Half a second later, he brings down his arm and points emphatically at a man with wavy white hair in the studio. The “On Air” light glows red, and Jon Bowermaster leans on his elbows, welcoming listeners to The Green Radio Hour in a thin, metered voice. Beside his microphone sits an iPhone, eyeglasses, and a copy of Saving the Earth: A Citizen’s Guide to Environmental Action, a book he co-authored in 1990.
A self-described “writer, filmmaker, adventurer,” Bowermaster has traversed more than 80 countries throughout his career, often to far corners of the Earth. Yet there is little in the Germantown resident’s stoic demeanor that reveals his adventurous past, from nearly capsizing in the 38-degree water of the Bering Sea to swimming in shark-infested waters in French Polynesia. His latest project, The Ghost Fleet, garnered acclaim after five screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival, and premiering at the Telluride Film Festival. The documentary, which Bowermaster produced, follows a Thai woman who has made it her mission to find and return home the men who have been enslaved on fishing boats throughout Southeast Asia.
Published in the New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, Condé Nast Traveler, and Outside, Bowermaster worked as a freelance writer through the late ’90s, when he transitioned to documentary filmmaking. In 1998, he received his first of six grants from the National Geographic Expeditions Council to fund his Oceans 8 project. Reporting on the relationship between man and ocean, with a focus on environmental issues, he and a small crew traveled by sea kayak to record the economic, cultural, and environmental significance of waterways in nine international locations over the course of a decade. As part of National Geographic, Bowermaster followed up each expedition with books, magazine articles, television documentaries, and lectures.
His guest this week at WKNY is former Congressman John Hall, who jumps into a story about playing “The Times They Are A-Changin’” with fellow lawmakers after they passed the Affordable Care Act. For the most part, Bowermaster listens — occasionally connecting the conversation to local policy decisions or national headlines. He added radio to his resume in March 2018 with The Green Radio Hour, during which he discusses environmental topics with local, national, and international leaders, activists, and residents.
Since 2010, he has become more of an activist on behalf of environmental issues in his work. His films, like Dear Governor Cuomo or Dear President Obama, adopted a decidedly more assertive tone. While these documentaries are less observational, Bowermaster insists the content remains factual.
“These environmental issues shouldn’t be partisan,” he says. “If you’ve got dirty water — doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican — you don’t want dirty drinking water.”
Unfortunately, the Hudson River holds a trove of subject matter in this respect. Never one to sit on the sidelines, Bowermaster partnered with environmental groups from up and down the river to launch Hudson River Stories; the multi-media project highlights numerous assaults on our waterway, from PCB pollution to “bomb trains” transporting volatile oil through neighborhoods. These films are meant to be accessible. Nearly all clock in under 15 minutes and are free to watch at www.hudsonriverstories.com.
“It’s easy to preach to the choir,” he says. “The goal of all this is to somehow expand the audience.”
Regardless of whether his work appears in print, video, or radio, Bowermaster is first and foremost a storyteller. Each medium lends itself to a different method and style of capturing his subject, but the story remains the same.
We’ve compiled some of the most arresting images from his portfolio with notes from the director himself.
Our new feature documentary, Ghost Fleet, tells the plight of enslaved fishermen working on commercial boats around the world.
(Left) The heroine of Ghost Fleet, Patima Tungpuchayakul, points the way during our expedition to Indonesia; (right) Seeds of Hope is our short film about efforts in the Hudson Valley to save Native American seeds.
Here we are in 2012, filming a scene for Antarctica, On the Edge, 3D — the first 3D movie in Antarctica — on the beach at Bailey’s Head, Deception Island. Once home to sizable whaling stations, the island is now home to several hundred thousand penguins.
The most worrying aspect of our 10-year-long Oceans 8 project was cold water. In the Aleutian Islands in 1999 we paddled through 36-degree water from volcano to volcano scattered across the Bering Sea; (bottom right) our 2008 sea kayaking adventure in Antarctica was a first.
(Left) The beauty of our 1999 “Birthplace of the Winds” adventure was kayaking among the volcanic islands and then climbing them; this was Mt. Cleveland, rising 6,000 feet straight out of the Bering Sea. (Right) The goal of our “Into the Altiplano” expedition in 2003 was to search out parts of South America that had once been covered by ocean and are now among the driest places on earth, like the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia.
In 2002, we visited the Tuamotus, an archipelago in French Polynesia that is increasingly endangered by the effects of global warming. Here, videographer Alex Nicks takes a gaggle of French Polynesian kids for a ride; (below) traversing a national park in Gabon, 2004. National Geographic explorer Mike Fay and I eke out a smile even though all of the tires for our portage carts are flat, meaning we’ll have to drag kayaks through the jungle.