When Jessica Pociask talks about adventure travel, she’s not talking about riding a roller coaster.
She is talking about hiking in Borneo or escaping a coup d’êtat in Mali. Which we will get to in a minute.
But first, a bit about adventure travel. You would think it was a hobby of muscled young men. Actually, at least 50% of adventure travelers are women. Why?
Meet WANT Expeditions owner Jessica Pociask
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“That’s the $64,000 question. I don’t know why that is,” Pociask (Posy-ak) says. “But more than half of my travelers are women. I know that in terms of the people who travel with me, they come from all over the world. They are very well- educated. They generally are extremely talented in some field. And by adventure, they are not looking for a zip-line tour. They are looking to follow in the footsteps of previous explorers.”
Pociask owns WANT (Wildlife and Nature Travel) Expeditions, a Traverse City adventure travel company. At age 33, she is the boss, tour leader, conservationist and increasingly known as the woman you want nearby in a sticky travel situation.
“The closest comparison I could say would be she is a ‘Lady MacGyver.’ You could give her the most challenging task or situation, and armed with a pen, stick of gum and a lightbulb she will have created a miracle that has everyone laughing and moving through the task like it was their purpose in life,” says Erin Britton, who has known Pociask since they were in seventh grade. Like the resourceful TV secret agent McGyver who could solve nearly any problem with whatever he had on hand, “she can handle any situation.”
Pociask has been traveling nonstop since she was 17 and has been to nearly 80 countries on all seven continents. Among the tours she leads are to places most of us have never been to or possibly even heard of, such as Borneo, Kamchatka, Russia and the Midway Atoll. She leads about 17 trips a year.
One of the hottest adventure destinations now, she says, is the Pantanal region of Brazil. “That is the most exciting wildlife destination outside of Africa,” she says. “I also can’t encourage people enough to go to India to see tigers in the wild, because they are not going to be there much longer.” (Indian tigers are nearly extinct.)
As she moves through the world’s most remote spots and busy cities with a confidence developed by hard experience, Pociask fully intends to keep a pledge she made when she was a teenager — to see every country in the world. But now, at 33, she is realizing that just seeing the world may not be enough.
Firing the imagination
Camping in Michigan was Pociask’s farthest horizon when she was a child in Detroit. Even when her family moved to Traverse City when she was 7, they did not stray far from home. Only her imagination did.
“My grandfather had pretty much every National Geographic known to man in his basement,” she recalls. “I would go down there and just start poring over volume after volume. I would look at these expeditions to Papua New Guinea to see people who live in the trees, or explorers who visited the tribes in Ethiopia. … I loved just the idea of being an explorer.”
One time, the little girl and her father visited the Boardman River in Traverse City. It was supposed to be 18 inches deep in that section, but the 7-year-old saw a deeper hole and jumped in.
“She jumped, and I panicked,” remembers her dad Jerry Pociask of Westland. “She went under. I went under.” For her, it was exhilarating. For him, it was hair-raising. “Jessie has always been a very — let me think of the term — determined and direct person,” he says. “She’s always been very passionate. She loves the outdoors. When she sets her mind to do something she just does it.”
Does he ever get nervous when his daughter travels now and faces far more daunting challenges than the Boardman River?
“All the time, ” he says. “But I have a picture from when she was in Mozambique swimming with whale sharks, and she is holding up a sign that says ‘Hi, Dad.’ It’s a picture I wouldn’t sell for 2 billion dollars.”
The dreamy and daredevil child got her first big travel chance at 16, playing her violin in a three-week orchestra trip to Europe. She graduated from high school at 17 and visited friends in Iceland and London. She left Olivet College after her first year and traveled and worked instead for five years. And by 21, she had gone beyond the safe confines of Paris or London to more remote and uncertain adventures.
Once while backpacking through Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica, Pociask and a friend were pulled off a public bus by armed men and searched. Over the years, the scary incident has softened into an amusing tale — that she was saved by a pile of dirty clothes wadded on top of all her money in her backpack — the men stopped looking, and her cash was secure. But beneath the tale was a lesson for her: Be prepared for anything, even things that make no sense.
“To this day I could not tell what they were looking for. They tore our luggage apart searching it,” she says. “Now, I’m pretty much a master at navigating these types of situations.”
Making a career of it
Eventually, Pociask got a natural resources degree at Michigan State University, where she also did spring-break service trips to Mexico and a longer study abroad program in Antarctica. That led her to jobs leading all kinds of nature and adventure tours. In October 2010 she started WANT Expeditions in Traverse City.
The company’s 16 rotating expeditions include Madagascar, Borneo and Brunei, Uganda mountain gorillas, Iceland, the Voodoo Nations of Africa and more.
Her scariest moment was in 2012, when she took a small group to Mali and unwittingly into danger.
They had spent two weeks traveling and were back in Mali’s capital Bamako, about to fly to Ghana the next day.
Then another hotel guest told her there had been a coup d’êtat.
“At first I thought she was joking,” she says. “Then we looked at the television, and there was a giant general in his military fatigues reading off their list of demands. I thought, this is not good. … I went outside and was talking with my local guide, and then gunfire erupted all over the city.”
She and her four tour participants were stuck in the hotel for a week, trying to buy airline tickets every day to anywhere away from Mali, with prices fluctuating between $700 and $7,000 and no flight ever leaving. The day the curfew was lifted and borders opened, they were driven quickly through checkpoints to the airport. No flights. She told the group they needed to get out of the country one way or another. So she hired their driver to drive them seven hours to the border of Burkina Faso, even though some of her guests had no visas.
She is familiar with border agents asking for bribes, but this time when the exhausted group finally got to the Mali exit border and the agent started looking at her as if expecting one, something snapped.
“I looked at him and said, ‘you know, with everything we’ve been through, don’t you dare start this right now.’ We had a couple seconds of stare-down, then he broke into the biggest laugh. He handed me my passport.”
The next step
As the years pass and Pociask has experienced icy shores from Greenland to Antarctica and amazing animals from Madagascar to Uganda, Pociask has started thinking that she may want more. .
She is single, but “it would be awesome to find somebody to (travel) around the world with me. It makes it challenging while I myself am traveling quite a bit,” she says.
She also would like to start leading fewer trips and empower other talented women to lead them.
And she has started working on a new project with a group called Mothering Across Continents, which works to improve the lives of children in the world’s most needy spots. The idea is to plan somewhat complex trips to bring groups of women to places like Liberia and Rwanda to work on programs there.
“I am interested in trips that add value for the places and people you are going to visit,” Pociask says. “Even though they live there, they may not appreciate us.”
Mothering Across Continents director Patricia Shafer is trusting the planning to Pociask precisely because she has been on previous trips with her and knows the expedition leader’s formidable logistics skills and experience.
“There is hardly a place on this planet that she has not been. She is a naturalist, so she is passionate. She seems to have a near photographic memory for details. She is a fun-spirited person,” says Shafer, who met Pociask in Antarctica in 2011 and has taken a whale watching tour to Baja California with her as well.
“She will take a risk,” adds her father, who saw his little girl once jump into a hole in the river and pop back up, thrilled, while his heart just about stopped.
“But it is a calculated risk.”
Article source: http://www.freep.com/article/20140330/FEATURES07/303300008/adventure-travel-women-WANT-Posiask