President of the Explorers Club Discusses Beauty of Exploration

January 6, 2011 Updated: October 1, 2015

President of the Explorer's Club Lorie Karnath in Patriot Hills, Antarctica, 2002. (Max Gallimore)
President of the Explorer's Club Lorie Karnath in Patriot Hills, Antarctica, 2002. (Max Gallimore)
NEW YORK—Throughout her life, Lorie Karnath, the 37th president of the prestigious Explorers Club has been fascinated and inspired by the beauty of exploration.

Growing up in Concord, Massachusetts, hometown to author and naturalist Henry David Thoreau and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, Karnath, who holds an honorary doctorate, was immersed in their writings, which would become her inspirations. From an early age, she became well acquainted with nature, exploring the ponds, forests, and fields near her small town. Her frequent-traveler parents also opened her eyes to different destinations by taking her to Europe when she was very young.

The Explorers Club, which began in 1904, is comprised of a group of firsts who have traveled to the ends of the earth, breaking barriers and walking uncharted paths. Its members included the first to the moon, first to the summit of Mount Everest, to the greatest depths of the ocean, and to the South and North Poles to name a few. Karnath has led numerous Explorer Club flag expeditions and is the club’s second woman president. The club began admitting women in 1981.

Throughout her life, Karnath says she has always been touched by the beauty of nature and has felt a special connection with it, a beautiful sunset, the brilliance of the moon, or catching a salamander. “I was always so impressed about what I could find in nature and then when I started going to all of these exotic places, I couldn’t even imagine that the world could be so beautiful,” she says.

On her first trip to Antarctica, Karnath describes the overwhelming feeling she experienced, which helped her understand how precious exploration really is.

“I came out of the airplane,” she describes, “and there was some sun filtering through all the snow that had been churned when the plane landed. It just looked like diamonds floating everywhere; the sky was white, the air was white, … and the ground was sparkling with all the ice, and I thought, 'This is why people explore.'”

Karnath became a member of the Explorers Club 21 years ago during graduate school. She says it wasn’t something she wanted to do as a career initially because she loved the freedom of being able to choose her own trips instead of being confined to various employers.
With 30 chapters around the world, Karnath coordinates approximately 3,100 members in 70 countries. “We try to leverage on the talents and diversity of our members,” she says. The club works with various governments and nonprofit groups, keeps track of the member’s explorations, holds public lectures, and holds an educational outreach program, to name a few. When she became president, she developed five words for the club to work around: explore, discover, share, preserve, and sustain.

“We’re the explorers, and we go out and discover things and to me the most important thing is to bring that back and share it with people,” says Karnath who notes that the explorers can be, by extension, an adventure for the people who get to hear about the trips.

In a city like New York, Karnath says it’s easy to get divorced from nature while living between buildings and cars. The idea of animals, insects, and trees might never even cross one's mind, “but if you’re able to see the wonders of this planet, it gives you a completely different perspective, and I think it also makes you, in a way, very serene,” she says.

Karnath says the purpose of the club has shifted in more recent years. In the early days, she says the club’s mission was to fill the map, whereas now the club is helping to keep the planet healthy and alive. “It’s a transition from [the] old type of exploration to the new type. “I feel our role is to help protect the beauty that we have around us,” says Karnath.

In addition to her trips, Karnath is an author and lecturer. She has written several books, some for children, a dream come true for Karnath. A few years back, after coming back from a trip to the jungle, Karnath caught a severe tropical illness, which doctors thought she would not survive. She said that if she ever got healthy, she would fulfill her dream of writing her very own children’s book, a goal that she had set for herself. In her very first book, she helped to explain simple scientific principles to children, to appease curious young minds that always ask their parents questions about the world around them.

Karnath has also recently written a new book titled "Sam Shaw," named after the well known late photographer and movie producer; a personal friend to Karnath. “I traveled the world with him, and he would teach me how to look at things through a photographer’s eyes so it was a different kind if exploration,” she says. Shaw is well known for shooting the famous shot of Marylyn Monroe over the subway grate for the movie "The Seven Year Itch."

Karnath will be signing copies of her new book "Sam Shaw," on Friday, Jan. 7, at the Rizzoli book store in Manhattan at 5:30 p.m.