Two Adventurers on the Trip of a Lifetime: Collecting Lichen on the Great Himalaya Trail
Steve and Katrijn Behaeghel are determined to experience the world on their own terms – on the path less traveled with minimal gear. Their idea of a couple’s getaway is to spend multiple months hiking in places like Patagonia, the Arctic, Scandinavia, the Canadian Rockies, Pakistan, and Greenland, just to name a few. In the process of exploring the remote corners of our planet, Steve and Katrijn document its beauty and urge for its protection. They are advocates of conservation, and their writing and photography reflect a deeply emotional connection to some of the world’s last wild and pristine places.
Their current excursion, estimated at thirteen months total, began in July of 2012 and will span three continents. From July through September, Steve and Katrijn packrafted and hiked their way through Lapland in Northern Scandinavia. This was merely the first leg of their journey, and they now find themselves on the Great Himalaya Trail in Nepal. This trail, as Steve describes in one of his blog posts, is an unmarked route designed to “attract visitors to under-developed and impoverished areas where only few alternative development opportunities exist.” By traveling from tiny village to tiny village (often more than a day’s journey apart) Steve and Katrijn are cultivating their understanding of isolated Nepalese cultures. Their hope is that their trek, publicized on their blog with stunning photography, will spur more tourism and revenue to this impoverished region. In January, after completing their Nepalese tour of the Himalayas, the couple will head for Patagonia to continue their packrafting and hiking adventure. It will be their fourth trek in the region, and they hope to bring awareness of the area’s need for conservation as they explore, document, and blog. The final three months of the adventure will be spent in the wildernesses of Chile, Bolivia, and Columbia.
The original objectives of Steve and Katrijn’s trek were exploring by lightweight travel, documenting beautiful places, and raising awareness for conservation. However, they sought out Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation to find a way that their travels could directly benefit the scientific community. ASC paired the Belgian couple with a scientist studying lichen in Sweden. Iona Onut Brännström is in need of samples of a particular species of lichen known as Thamnolia vermicularis, or “whiteworm lichen.” This type of lichen is known to live in arctic and alpine areas. Samples from various locations and information on their distribution as a species can help Iona in her research that seeks to unravel the mysteries surrounding this organism.
In Lapland, Steve and Katrijn sought T. vermicularis and believed they had found what Iona wanted –a sample of high alpine lichen resembling her description. Unfortunately, the pictures they sent back to ASC and Iona were of a different species that was similar in appearance. Iona sent them more information and some additional pictures to clarify their mission. Undeterred and armed with new knowledge, Steve and Katrijn continued their search in Lapland. Regrettably, they left Northern Scandinavia unable to locate any of the correct lichen. They remained in touch with ASC and Iona, and continued the hunt in Nepal.
In early November, the project had a breakthrough moment. Steve and Katrijn, above the timberline in the Himalayas and weary from several months of difficult rafting and hiking, stumbled upon white, stringy lichen on the mountainside ahead of them. “To our amazement and sheer joy we found huge stands of Thamnolia vermicularis at around 5,000 meters. Untouched. Little did the species know, we came from far away to take her home where the warm hands of a nice scientist would reveal its secrets to the world."
Steve and Katrijn will be in the Himalayas for another month before heading to South America and the next leg of their adventure. They will continue their work for conservation and science by documenting their experiences and persisting in their quest for lichen. The athletes update their blog regularly at www.patagoniandreams.com. You can check their progress there or visit us here at adventureandscience.org for more major updates on their work with Iona.
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