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Copyright Justin Lewis Photography Michelle Stauffer and Justin Lewis of 70 Degrees West
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70 Degrees West: On a Mission to Clean Up

By Kimbriel Dean

The creators of nonprofit 70 Degrees West share the ideas that motivate them to pursue their incredible yet challenging dream to document the impact of humans on some of the planet's most unique ecosystems....

Imagine spending years of your life following 70 degrees West longitude all the way from the Arctic Circle to Antarctica. Without a doubt, this adventure would push you well outside your comfort zone, giving you access to new insights about yourself and the world-at-large.

You'd meet creatures, great and small, that you'd never heard of before, and you'd get to know people who would show you entirely different ways to live. You'd learn the raw power of freezing temperatures and the searing heat of the Equator sun. This journey would fundamentally change the way you see the world.

Even though most of us will never embark on this trip, we are blessed with the opportunity to learn from an amazing couple who are in the process of making their way from pole to pole.

Photographer/filmmaker Justin Lewis and writer/producer Michelle Stauffer aren't just in it for the adventure. Their travels center around a deep purpose and life mission.

The creators of nonprofit 70 Degrees West, Justin and Michelle are working on a photo-documentary project that follows this line of longitude "to illustrate the impact our modern world is having on eight unique regions and the people who depend on the stability of these fragile environments."

Essentially, Justin and Michelle are applying Burning Man's no-MOOP (Matter Out of Place) concept to the the rest of the world. Through their work, many will learn why "leave no trace" is an approach that cultures around the world must adopt.

It’s amazing that your complementary skill sets, passions and life paths led you to take this journey together. What’s the story of how you two met?

Justin and I met working on a non-profit project called Floating Doctors. I took a semester off university to help build a boat that would eventually be a mobile clinic that sailed to remote regions of the world to provide free health care. Justin was asked to be the projects photographer and document the cultures and rural environments in each of the clinics.

We soon found ourselves living together in a house with twelve other individuals, working tirelessly on everything from rigging to running the electric system throughout the boat to cabin construction. It was a busy and educational four months before we returned to our Bay Area home and went back to work. That was four years ago, and we’ve been together ever since. As individuals, we’re passionate about different aspects of the world and skilled in unique ways, so together as a team, our reach broadens.

What was that specific moment when you came up with the idea to travel and work along 70 West?

Justin had taken me on a surprise camping trip to West Point Inn on Mt. Tamalpais in Marin, California. West Point Inn is a collection of rustic wood cabins nestled on the edge of the mountain with soaring views of the bay and San Francisco. It was a particularly stormy evening, and we spent the night with a bottle of wine, the doors wide open and heavily stacked layers of blankets to keep us warm.

We let the stars guide our conversation and we began to dream, as we did often, about a project that had the potential to create real change. That is when 70 Degrees West was born. Initially discussing the idea of circumnavigating the globe by boat, we kept searching for an idea that would raise awareness about global issues but also hadn't been done before.

We came up with idea of following a single line of longitude around the entire globe, focusing on various places where the environments or cultures were at risk due to the modernization of our changing world. Once home, we opened up an atlas and set to finding our fate.

Where are you right now? What were the criteria which guided your decisions about the eight locations, and how long do you stay in each place?

70 Degrees West is a particularly interesting longitude because it runs through every major ecosystem on the planet. We begin in Qaanaaq, Greenland, which is one of the northern most municipalities in the world, and finish in Antarctica, the furthest point south on the map.

Along the way, we cover everything from the arctic, to deciduous rainforest, freshwater ecosystems, the ocean, the Amazon, the Atacama desert, and wild and pristine Patagonia. This project gives us both the ability to cover an array of important topics in entirely different environments that each deserve a substantial amount of attention and ultimately, a call to action heard around the globe.

Currently, we just returned home from the third phase of our project, Plastic Pollution and the Sargasso Sea. The Sargasso Sea is a diverse and rich ecosystem with the planet’s only free floating algae, nicknamed the golden rainforest of the oceans. Also present is the North Atlantic Trash Gyre, which is a circulating collection of micro-plastics suspended eternally at sea.

Plastic Pollution and the Sargasso Sea was made possible by the overwhelming success of our Kickstarter campaign. In thirty days we raised almost $29,000 - enabling us to access the outskirts of the trash gyre and document the project first hand. We are incredibly grateful to all those who supported us through Kickstarter. It’s quite a wild experience.

We try to stay at least two months in each location in order to get enough material to tell the story. Although, two months pass all too quickly as the story inevitably builds and deepens as our understanding of the situation grows. That is one of the best but most challenging parts of the project. Our project allows us to tell many different and equally important stories, but we often feel frustrated or sad to leave when there is still so much more work to be done.

As kids, did you ever dream you’d be doing anything like this?

To this question, Justin’s grin widens with an undeniable yes. Growing up on the Northern California coastline, his youthful years were spent entirely outdoors. Justin’s love for nature grew from climbing trees, fishing, diving, building tree houses and hunting.

Once he became a professional photographer and later an underwater photographer, his ultimate goal was to create a long term project that artistically captured unexplored people and places across the globe that would raise awareness and generate change. From the time he first started taking pictures, he wanted to find a project that would successfully combine his photography, love for nature and desire to create awareness.

For myself, I must admit that as a child, I had not exactly seen this project in my future. I studied Molecular Biology and Holistic Health at university and explored my creative side through dancing, becoming a Doula, and creative writing. Now, my current path and involvement with 70 Degrees West is exactly where I want and need to be. I have always worked towards bringing people together for a united cause to generate social change and raise awareness. I was born with an adventurous spirit and knew my love and curiosity for humanity would take me across the globe in search of understanding and preserving human connection and kindness.

Did your experiences at Burning Man influence your current mission in any way?

Burning Man is a source of boundless inspiration for Justin and myself. The positive energy that encompasses the essence of Burning Man is something we often draw from. It gives us hope that people care about our planet. It provides a solid ground for us to walk upon and the encouragement to keep pressing on with the project when we sometimes feels like no one is listening.

Burning Man means so many different things to just one person, and that freedom of experience is what makes Burning Man so unique. It is a living, pliable, powerful, electric orb of energy that many people have never experienced before. We try to take that light and bring it out into the world through our project.

Our most recent focus, plastic pollution in the oceans, is hugely applicable to the realities at Burning Man. Whether it’s plastic in the oceans or plastic in the deserts, it isn’t going away unless we as individuals do something about it. If you think about the definition of MOOP - matter out of place, it’s essentially the same concept with plastic pollution in our oceans. The smallest piece of trash out of place can have devastating effects to the environment and human health.

The experience at BRC allows us to take personal responsibility for our actions by creating a space to reflect on who we are and what we want to leave as a personal legacy. Burning Man reminds us that not only is it possible to unite under one cause and create change, but that it can be done through art, compassion, and a little bit of healthy compromise.

What’s it been like to do this intense, long-term work-travel trip together? Favorite stories or most challenging moments you want to share?

There have been quite a few peak experiences over the last two years. Spending two months in the Arctic Circle certainly had its awe-inspiring moments which were usually laced with various degrees of challenge. Most nights began around 9:30 PM when we started packing up our camera gear, two tripods and a time-lapse rail, inserting hand and feet warmers, dressing in just enough layers to keep warm but not sweat, having adequate food and water and at least two pairs of socks on.

During our stay in Northern Greenland, we spent many nights under the midnight sun which brought about those perfect magic hour color hues from eleven until four or five in the morning. The nights usually ended with me freezing, pacing anxiously for the time lapse to finish, and wishing I had kept that fourth layer on. We then had an hour or more walk back home across the sea ice, avoiding large cracks and always keeping one eye open for a polar bear.

Justin rarely worried about the cold, but I like to think that’s because he’s more warm blooded than I am. :) In all honesty though, Qaanaaq, Greenland was the most isolated, vast, lonely and beautiful place I’ve ever been. It truly is other worldly. In the stillness of the sea ice comes a cacophony of sounds as the icebergs shift and shake with the impending summer months. The sound of the sled cutting through the fresh snow as the sled dogs pant heavily to carry our weight is a humbling reminder of how simple life can be. Simple, but incredibly demanding. Surviving is what matters most in the polar regions of the world.

Camping at the base of Mt. Katahdin, Maine’s highest peak was an experience that rejuvenated our faith in humans' ability to connect and appreciate the natural world. We spent three weeks camping in the forests of Maine, jumping in the icy cold rivers for a shower and warming up on the summer boulders that lined the rushing rivers. Maine is the second most forested state in the country and it hold a diverse collection of wildlife, rivers, mountains and incredible individuals.

The air was crisp and clean, the crystal clear river water allowed Justin to photograph wild salmon feeding, and our evening canoe trips always took place in a different but stunningly beautiful lake. I did however reach a personal threshold which tested my sanity when at the end of three weeks, I had over 147 bug bites from mosquitoes, black flies, and super sized super sonic flesh eating bugs.

Our most recent project in the Sargasso Sea had some incredible underwater highlights. We had spent weeks trying to get open water shots of the various pelagic fish species that live in the Sargasso Sea but still needed that one anchoring shot. So we decided to go offshore several miles into the deep waters of the Atlantic, throw Justin in the ocean in 500 ft of open water hanging from a rope, and chum from the boat.

To Justin’s disappointment, no Tiger Sharks happened to be in the area, but it was still a spooky experience for Justin as he hung in mid water, filming, and trying to keep track of the rope as the boat drifted with the current. I anxiously followed his bubbles from aboard the boat, but couldn’t fight the unnerving feeling I had while chumming onto his head! We’re happy to report that no one was injured, and Justin got two worthy shots.

What’s it like to experience the garbage patch in real life? Has anything surprised you about that experience?

To know about a situation is one thing, it’s entirely another to be standing feet deep in plastic covered in ocean algae that was recently washed ashore from the trash gyre. Picking up a piece of plastic and discovering the edges are torn off by fish bites quickly makes situation very clear, plastic pollution in our oceans is a grave and tragic reality for the health of our planet.

While you steadily sail through the open ocean, the large plastic objects catch your eye first - buckets, bleach bottles or plastic crates. The real problem is the smaller fragments of plastic which result from sun degradation and wave action. Slowly, the large plastic garbage turns into bite sized micro-plastic fragments which are eventually mistaken for food by marine life.

When you look at a piece of plastic that’s half missing and covered in fish teeth bites, this heavy feeling of sadness and responsibility builds inside you. It’s impossible to ignore the micro-plastics floating just underneath the water's surface or the coastlines littered with plastic. When you stand on a boat with your own two feet and scoop out more plastic than actual plankton biomass, it’s a terrible and infuriating experience.

More than anything else, what insight do you hope we’ll grasp as a result of the truth you’re revealing?

There are alternatives to plastic that are not only better for the planet, but also for their bodies. The number one thing people can do about plastic pollution is reducing their waste. Reusing or repurposing are also good steps to take. Recycling is an option, but should be a last resort because most plastic isn’t actually recyclable.

Over the last seven months, Justin and I have witnessed a powerful shift in mindfulness from the people who have come across our project. They simply didn’t notice it before, and now everywhere they look they see the plastic addiction in full effect. For us, that is the definition of success. It’s a matter of education, awareness, providing alternatives, and empowering people to take control of their daily actions.

We shape the world we live in by the choices we make every morning we arise. No task is too small, and no challenge is too big. We hope to demonstrate the gravity of plastic pollution in the oceans, and that it will continue to get worse until the global community decides otherwise.

Once you’re finished with this adventure and you’ve wrapped up all production work, what will you do next?

More films! Justin and I already have a list of multi-media films we want to create. We are the type of people who start brainstorming the next project before we have even departed for the current one. We have fallen deeply in love with the art of filmmaking and the ability it holds to tell a complicated story while still moving the viewer. And of course, continuing with a strong focus on photography and written narrative. The multi-media formula allows us to reach a diverse audience with our own personal and creative style.

Kimbriel Dean is a writer for the culture, consciousness and sustainability site and is a passionate environmentalist. She and her family are currently finishing a solar-powered Earthship home in a small Guatemalan village. 

This article was first publihed on IgniteMe 


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