Adventurer and UMD grad J.J. Kelley now works for National Geographic Television helping make complex issues understandable.
J.J. Kelley and environmental storytelling
By Cheryl Reitan
From M, winter 2008
J.J. Kelley is an environmental educator, an extreme adventurer, and as of September 2007, a production coordinator at National Geographic Television.
Kelley has had some extraordinary journeys, including hiking the Appalachian Trail from end to end and kayaking around the glaciers in Kenai Fjords National Park. In 2006, Kelley and his friend, Josh Thomas, documented their 1,200-mile bike trip across Alaska to the Arctic Ocean. They shot 35 hours of footage on a digital camcorder and endured five mountain ranges, 460 miles on dirt roads, and 28 days in the remote Alaskan expanse. In between adventures, Kelley wedged in college classes and graduated from University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) with a degree in Recreation and Outdoor Education.
Kelley and Thomas's film of their bike trip, Pedal to the Midnight Sun, landed Kelley a 2007 summer internship--which helped fulfill his final credits for graduation--and more recently, a full-time job at National Geographic Television as a production coordinator.
"The production coordinator does whatever it takes to make things go smoothly," he says. He's now working on a special production called Six Degrees, which depicts the consequences of global warming. "The show explains what could happen as the earth warms one degree, then two degrees, and up," he says. "Scientists try to predict when droughts will appear, and what the planet will look like. My task on this project is to help them express those ideas visually. How can we show how much water will appear when Greenland icecaps melt? Will the image of five billion soda glasses do it, or can we use another way?"
"I use J.J.'s film in class to teach about how we look at the wilderness," says Beery. "His enthusiasm about the natural world, his athletic ability, and his willingness to try anything, even film making, make him an inspiration for others."During the summer of 2004, he was working in Seward, Alaska on a boat launching crew, when he met a group of kayak instructors and naturalist guides. He got to see them connect tourists with Alaska's land and water. Eventually he helped lead kayak tours. "That's when I realized I wanted to be an environmental storyteller," he says.
Kelley transferred to Duluth from a college in St. Paul, choosing UMD for it's outdoor education program. "I was instantly accepted [at UMD]," he says. "I didn't have to prove myself. There were great people like [faculty members] Ken Gilbertson and Tom Beery, who gave me advice, not just about which classes to take, but on a deeper level about my personal life."
Gilbertson and Beery are proud of Kelley. "I use J.J.'s film in class to teach about how we look at the wilderness," says Beery. "His enthusiasm about the natural world, his athletic ability, and his willingness to try anything, even film making, make him an inspiration for others."
Gilbertson recommended Kelley for the Carol and Richard Flint Scholarship, which he received in his junior year. "The Flint's were delighted with Pedal to the Midnight Sun. When J.J. got the internship with National Geographic and realized how much it was going to cost to live in D.C., the Flints extended his scholarship [beyond the original two years]," says Gilbertson. Educating students about the environment is important to Richard Flint, who is an attorney, a UMD graduate ('57), and one of the players behind the passage of the Boundary Waters Wilderness Act of 1978.
Using film to conduct environmental education is Kelley's current focus and he's committed to taking two months off from his new job to make his own expedition film next summer, again with his friend, Josh Thomas. "We're calling it Paddle to Seattle," he says. They'll start in Skagway, Alaska and kayak south, shooting footage the whole way.
"The work I'm doing at National Geographic is teaching me a lot about the logistics of making movies. It's an incredible experience," he says. Field productions are tricky. "The light, the weather, and the people are unpredictable. We need to work on the fly, so I try to be flexible and dynamic."
It's clear he has the "dynamic" part down.
To watch the highly entertaining trailer for Pedal to the Midnight Sun, type its title into the search bar on youtube.com.