Explorer of the Week: Andy Maser

When Washington’s Condit Dam became the largest dam ever removed, Andy Maser was there to witness the demolition. While out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Maser was pinned down by AK47-wielding rebel fighters. And while spending time in an Alaskan stream, the Young Explorer‘s fingers became too numb to zip his dry suit. What brought Maser into such seemingly unrelated situations? A profession that poses new challenges every day: filmmaking.

What project are you working on now?

For the last year and a half, I’ve been focused on documenting the removal of Condit Dam on the White Salmon River in Washington. Condit became the largest dam ever removed in October of this year, previously standing 125 feet tall. The dam removal is a huge victory for endangered species—it completely blocked the migration of the river’s namesake fish for 100 years. With the removal complete this October, salmon have already begun migrating up into the previously inaccessible habitat and spawning naturally.

I’m currently producing a TV special for PBS that tells the story of the dam removal and river recovery. Project updates, photos, and video can be seen on my blog.

What’s the biggest surprise you’ve discovered in your work or in the field?

The most surprising thing to witness was just how quickly a river ecosystem recovers after dam removal. Throughout the dam removal process, I constantly asked fish biologists, “how long do you think it will take for salmon to return?” They almost always gave a conservative estimate of three to four years. Yet less than a month after the last piece of concrete was removed, salmon were successfully spawning above the dam site.

Watch: Spectacular Dam “Removal:” More Revealed

Have you ever been lost? How’d you get found?

I’m not sure that I’ve ever been totally lost, but I have had many misadventures! Just a few days ago, I was attempting to descend the White Salmon River through the Condit Dam site with a team of whitewater rafters and kayakers. We made it through the site of the former dam, only to find the river, down in a step canyon, completely blocked by a large log. With daylight waning, our only choice was to tie the rafts off to the shore and climb out of the canyon. Not sure how we’ll get those rafts out of there!

What do you think National Geographic explorers will be exploring in 100 years?

The great thing about our world is that we’ll never run out of places to explore. Though we might set foot on every inch of land and see every part of the oceans, cultures will constantly evolve and landscapes will change.

Have you had any scary experiences in the field?

My scariest experiences have come from two expeditions I’ve done to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa. During the first trip, during a shoot for the Nat Geo show Explorer, our team was pinned down by AK47-wielding rebel fighters for a couple of hours. Laying spread-eagle in the sand, facedown, with an AK pointed at you is pretty scary. During my second trip to Congo our military escort killed a poacher that was planning an ambush on our security detail. Fortunately we were not around when that happened, but scary nonetheless.

Where is your favorite place that you’ve traveled?

I love shooting underwater. Probably the most fun experience I’ve had recently was shooting a scene in the Bristol Bay watershed of Alaska for the National Geographic TV show Monster Fish. I got to spend a day with the show’s host and my friend, Zeb Hogan, hanging out in a crystal clear, icy cold stream with thousands of spawning sockeye salmon. My hands were so numb that I couldn’t work the zipper of my dry suit, but I didn’t even notice.

Photograph by Andy Maser
Photograph by Andy Maser

If you had an unlimited amount of funds, what dream film would you make?

Freshwater is a big part of my work and my life, and I’d love to make a film that shows how universally important healthy freshwater ecosystems are to people around the world.  I’m not sure what the story would be, but I’d shoot it in spectacularly beautiful places around the world, in 3D, at high frame rates, with stereo RED Epic cameras.  It would be ridiculously gorgeous, immersive, engaging, and universally understood despite language differences.

How do you choose the subject of your films?

As much as possible, I only work on projects that I really care about. Film work is so time intensive that I’d go crazy if I didn’t enjoy and relate to the subject. With that in mind, most ideas come from experiences I have or people I meet. Occasionally people will come to me with ideas that they want help developing or capturing, but for the most part I choose topics that I think are relevant, interesting, engaging or fun.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to try kayaking for the first time?

Learn how to Eskimo roll! If you’re afraid of flipping over, you’ll never have the confidence to really progress. Take the time to learn how to roll a kayak properly so you don’t have to worry about flipping.

If you were to meet your eight-year-old self, what would you say?

Follow your dreams! Seriously, I attribute everything I have to the simple fact that I follow my passion. I’ve had a lot of help and luck along the way, but I’d never be here if I hadn’t gone for it…