Taking the road less travelled
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.”
Jessica Pociask heads an adventure travel company that has spanned the globe.