Tak­ing the road less trav­elled

Winnipeg Free Press - Section F - - TRAVEL - By Nevin Martell

JES­SICA Po­ci­ask al­ways packs three things when she trav­els: a cam­era, a pil­low and a black-and-tan Be­douin scarf from Jor­dan, which can be used as a blan­ket, hat, shirt, skirt or to tie some­thing up. She jokes that it’s all she truly needs as she criss­crosses the globe. Po­ci­ask (pro­nounced POEzee-ack) has been to more than 80 coun­tries and ev­ery con­ti­nent. Her lat­est pass­port was is­sued in 2011 and is 50 pages long — there are only three blank pages re­main­ing in it.

As a tour op­er­a­tor for her bou­tique travel com­pany, WANT Ex­pe­di­tions, Po­ci­ask, 34, takes her guests to some of the most re­mote cor­ners of the world to see ex­otic wildlife. There are trips to see jaguars in Brazil’s Pan­tanal re­gion, gi­ant pan­das in China and moun­tain chim­panzees in Congo.

The com­pany’s trips are priced as all-in­clu­sive (with the ex­cep­tion of in­ter­na­tional air fare and visas), usu­ally last about two weeks and ac­com­mo­date up to 16 guests, although most groups are in the eight-to-10 range. Trips cost any­where from $3,500 up to a $45,000 Antarc­tic ex­pe­di­tion that in­cludes stops at rarely vis­ited ports of call such as the Crozet Is­lands, Ker­gue­len Is­lands, Saint-Paul Is­land and Am­s­ter­dam Is­lands.

Po­ci­ask’s fas­ci­na­tion with wildlife be­gan at an early age. Grow­ing up in Tra­verse City, Mich., she brought home crea­tures she found, bought or was given, in­clud­ing a fox, a snake, trop­i­cal fish, dogs, a her­mit crab and more than 20 finches. “My par­ents had a lot of pa­tience,” Po­ci­ask says. “And they re­ally en­cour­aged me to in­ter­act with the nat­u­ral world.”

Although her par­ents didn’t travel much, her fa­ther had arm­chair wan­der­lust. “He al­ways talked about buy­ing a sail­boat, tak­ing us kids out of school and home-school­ing us as we sailed around the world,” says her younger sis­ter, Catherine, who does mar­ket­ing and public re­la­tions for WANT. The sib­lings also share a Wash­ing­ton, D.C., apart­ment when Jes­sica isn’t trav­el­ling or re­sid­ing at her other home in Tra­verse City.

When she was grow­ing up, Jes­sica Po­ci­ask’s in­ter­est in travel was stoked through read­ing. “My grand­fa­ther had ev­ery Na­tional Geo­graphic known to man,” she says. “When­ever we went over to his house for Christ­mas, I would go down­stairs in his base­ment and thumb through them all.”

Two of her fa­vorite books were Birds, Beasts, and Rel­a­tives, Gerald Dur­rell’s mem­oir of living on the Greek is­land of Corfu, and Richard Hal­libur­ton’s Com­plete Book of Mar­vels. “He went to a lot of places that peo­ple still don’t go to­day,” she says of Hal­libur­ton, an early 20th-cen­tury ex­plorer and adventure jour­nal­ist. “They’re the kinds of places I go on my tours.”

As she be­gan read­ing about early ex­pe­di­tion­ists, she dis­cov­ered Freya Stark. The pi­o­neer­ing fe­male ex­plorer and writer was one of the first Western­ers to travel through Iran and Ara­bia in the 1930s. “His­tor­i­cally, when you look at travel and ex­pe­di­tions, it was pri­mar­ily a man’s realm,” says Po­ci­ask, who was in­spired by Stark and found fuel for a dream that per­haps she might be able to pur­sue a sim­i­lar ca­reer.

It wasn’t un­til 1996 that Po­ci­ask got her first real taste of travel. She had the op­por­tu­nity to tour Europe with the Michi­gan Am­bas­sadors of Mu­sic, which takes high school orches­tras over­seas to per­form. “I sat last chair for vi­o­lin,” Po­ci­ask says. “I was not ex­actly a model orches­tra stu­dent.”

Af­ter a year at a lib­eral arts col­lege in Michi­gan, she de­cided it wasn’t a good fit. For the next sev­eral years, she did sea­sonal work as a bar­tender and wait­ress on Mack­inac Is­land in Lake Huron and in Key Largo, Fla., while vol­un­teer­ing on en­vi­ron­men­tal projects on the side. Ev­ery few months, she trav­elled through­out the United States and took trips abroad to Eng­land, Ire­land, Ice­land and Cen­tral Amer­ica. Ul­ti­mately, she en­rolled at Michi­gan State Uni­ver­sity in 2003, where she earned a de­gree in nat­u­ral re­sources man­age­ment.

Her se­nior year, she was ac­cepted into a pro­gram for study­ing cli­mate change in Antarc­tica. That was the turn­ing point. She met or­nithol­o­gist and pho­tog­ra­pher Akos Hivekovics on her stay, and the two be­gan dat­ing. Af­ter Po­ci­ask’s pro­gram fin­ished, the two trav­elled to­gether and were mar­ried in 2009.

The pair de­vel­oped Wildlife and Na­ture Travel, a firm that pro­moted other com­pa­nies’ travel packages and of­fered its own. “I pushed hard to de­velop tours, be­cause most peo­ple didn’t want to go to th­ese ex­otic places by them­selves,” Po­ci­ask says. “Though they were in­trepid trav­ellers, some­times it was cost­pro­hibitive, and there wasn’t a lot of in­for­ma­tion about th­ese places.”

The com­pany was launched in 2007 and quickly found suc­cess. The first year, they led five trips. There were 17 the fol­low­ing year, 32 the year af­ter that, and ap­prox­i­mately 40 in 2014. In 2009, they hired their first guide; now there are 10. (Po­ci­ask and Hivekovics di­vorced in 2012, and she bought him out; the com­pany be­came WANT Ex­pe­di­tions, which fo­cuses solely on its own packages.)

Most trips go off with­out a hitch, but some­times Po­ci­ask has to deal with life-or-death sit­u­a­tions. Ger­man na­ture pho­tog­ra­pher Gun­ther Riehle trav­elled with her in the win­ter of 2012 to see harp seals give birth in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in south­east­ern Canada. He was ly­ing on the ice snap­ping a shot of a new­born seal pup when chaos erupted. “Sud­denly, from the edge of my eye, I saw a huge, fu­ri­ous mummy seal com­ing out of the wa­ter like a tor­pedo,” he says.

He man­aged to mo­men­tar­ily con­fuse the an­gry an­i­mal by throw­ing his cam­era bag at her, but then the seal lunged at him again. Luck­ily, her teeth only went through his out­er­wear — she just missed flesh. Be­fore she could try again, Po­ci­ask used a ski pole to dis­tract and manouevre the en­raged mother away, al­low­ing Riehle to es­cape. “Three min­utes later I was tak­ing pic­tures again,” he says, “but that evening at the bar, Jes­sica was still shak­ing.”

An en­tire group found them­selves in a tough sit­u­a­tion on a March 2012 tour that ended in Ba­mako, the cap­i­tal of Mali. They were stay­ing at the Mande Ho­tel on the Niger River out­side the city cen­tre. On the morn­ing of their de­par­ture, Po­ci­ask woke up to gun­fire echo­ing through the city, the smell of burning tires and the news of a coup d’état. Af­ter gath­er­ing her guests to as­sure them she was work­ing on an exit strat­egy and alert­ing the lo­cal U.S. Em­bassy of their pres­ence, Po­ci­ask de­flated a tire on her van and hid the keys in case she was searched. It was quick think­ing. Later that day, mil­i­tants raided the ho­tel’s park­ing lot and stole sev­eral ve­hi­cles.

While fight­ing raged around them, Po­ci­ask and her tourists shel­tered in place. Ev­ery­one tried book­ing flights out of the con­flict-rav­aged coun­try, but they kept be­ing can­celled, and even­tu­ally the fight­ing closed the air­port. A few days into the sit­u­a­tion, she de­cided to throw a “coup party” to help ev­ery­one re­lax. “The men­tal­ity you main­tain is im­por­tant,” she says. “If you sit there wring­ing your hands the whole time, it’s ter­ri­fy­ing and stress­ful.”

Af­ter six tense days, the air­port an­nounced it would re­open. Po­ci­ask got ev­ery­one to the ter­mi­nal, only to dis­cover there were no seats avail­able. Feel­ing that a longer stay in Mali would be un­safe, she hired trans­porta­tion to drive them six hours to the Burk­ina Faso bor­der. Her clients credit Po­ci­ask’s quick think­ing with get­ting them all home safely.

Last year, Po­ci­ask had a chance to take her first per­sonal va­ca­tion in years, raft­ing the Colorado River with some for­mer clients. It was a com­plete turn­around from her usual trav­el­ling style. “I was in charge of run­ning the bar,” she says. “If some­one needed a beer, I reached into the cooler and handed it to them. It wasn’t too dif­fi­cult.”

AMANDA VOISARD / WASH­ING­TON POST

Jes­sica Po­ci­ask heads an adventure travel com­pany that has spanned the globe.

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