Polar Bear Blog

Volcano conqueror Kourounis looking forward to walking with polar bears

George Kourounis (yellow jacket) and crew at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge.  Photo by Zorianna Kit.
George Kourounis (yellow jacket) and crew at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge. Photo by Zorianna Kit.

by George Williams

How many people do you know who can chase down a tornado, stare into the eye of a hurricane and rappel into an erupting volcano, while filming it all?

We only know one person who can do that, but he’s agreed to turn the heat down for eight days this summer to walk with polar bears.

Renowned global adventurer, explorer and television presenter George Kourounis will be the Royal Canadian Geographical Society‘s (RCGS) Ambassador on our Arctic Discovery departure at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge from August 12-20, and we’re thrilled to have him.

An award-winning Fellow of the Explorers Club and the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, Kourounis is also a member of the Canadian Council for Geographic Education, The Society of Environmental Journalists and the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, but that’s probably not where you know him from.

You’ve more likely seen him on Discovery Channel, National Geographic Explorer, BBC-TV, CNN or on his adventure TV program Angry Planet, which has been broadcast in over 100 countries on networks that include OLN, City TV, The Travel Channel, The Weather Channel, Pivot TV and more.

He might have been jumping into volcanoes; chasing tornadoes and hurricanes; diving with Great White sharks; swimming with piranhas; meeting secretly with gorillas; fighting sandstorms in the Sahara; paddling a rubber raft on a lake of acid; or maybe even getting married on the edge of an erupting volcano. There’s much more, but what we really want to know is what drives a person to do these things.

The 45-year-old Kourounis had a seemingly normal childhood growing up in Hull, Quebec, but there were hints of what was to come later in life.

“When I was a kid I was always interested in science and nature and that kind of thing,” said Kourounis. “Jacques Cousteau was my big hero. And I knew the names of every kind of dinosaur you could possibly imagine. I was always into the natural world, very much so.”

Kourounis took a bit of detour before rediscovering his passion for nature and adventure. He moved to Toronto to start his working life and became interested in music, studying audio engineering and building and maintaining large recording studios that were used for film and television, learning how that industry worked.

“Then I got back into the natural world,” said Kourounis. “I got a camera and just started photographing the world. In 1998 I took my first trip to Oklahoma, teamed up with some experienced storm chasers and saw my first tornado, my first big storm. After that I was hooked, big time.”

One adventure led to another and the extremes became, well, more extreme, but Kourounis still doesn’t consider himself to be an adrenaline junkie. He doesn’t even drive a fast car.

“I’ve owned one car in my entire life,” said Kourounis. “It’s a 1999 Honda CRV that I’ve outfitted for storm chasing. It’s got close to 450,000 km on it and it’s been in 12 hurricanes including Katrina. The hood is so dented from big hail it looks like a jealous ex-girlfriend took a ball-peen hammer to it. I’ve tried to kill the thing. It just keeps coming back for more.

“If you’re an adrenaline junkie it’s a whole lot easier to just jump out of a plane. Storm chasing is 95 percent waiting and then five percent action. I consider myself a nature junkie. I love the extremes of nature. The extremes of weather, extremes of geology, extremes of wildlife… and because I love the extremes so much there’s a certain amount of adrenaline that does go along with that by default.”

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Kourounis was at Nanuk Polar Bear Lodge in 2015 filming a new episode for Angry Planet.

“I never even knew it existed,” said Kourounis. “I knew about Churchill being the Polar Bear Capital of the World, but in doing the research for the show we discovered the lodge and it was a no brainer for us. We went there and had just amazing polar bear encounters.

“And we had some crazy weather. It was warm. It was cold. We actually had a storm come through while we were there. We got some great photos of a storm over the barren coastline on Hudson Bay. And on one beautifully clear night and I was able to catch a solar storm. We got some really good northern lights photos too. We had a little bit of everything on that trip.”

Kourounis ventured to Nanuk with his good friend and photographer Matthias Breiter, who also happens to be a polar bear behavior specialist. Breiter gave Kourounis a few tips on reading a bears’ body language and on what to do when a bear is behaving a certain way.

“We had this one large male who was curious about us and he started to walk towards us,” said Kourounis. “We were maybe 20-30 metres away, but we were able to use our body language to tell the bear that maybe he shouldn’t be interested in us. We didn’t have to fire a shot. We didn’t have to use a bear banger or any flares. We were able to control the behavior of the bear by using our body language. It was just wonderful, this dance between the bear and us.

“Nobody was stressed. The bear was curious but then decided to change his mind. He didn’t get upset, he just ended up deciding that maybe we weren’t so interesting and wandered away. It was a fantastic experience. ”

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Years ago Kourounis decided that his purpose in life was to travel the world, document the most extreme places and things, and share what he’d seen with as many people as possible. Every decision he makes now is focused on that purpose, and it has taken him to over 60 countries and all seven continents.

He’s also able to share more than most through his television program Angry Planet and other aforementioned programming, along with social media, the George Kourounis YouTube Channel, his Web site at StormChaser.ca and various speaking engagements.

“I love sharing the experiences almost as much as I like doing them,” said Kourounis. “What I really love is doing these adventures in person, with people right there with me. I’ve been guiding tornado chasing trips every spring for 12 years now. We take people from all over the world.

“Even though I travel all over the world, a large percentage of the things I do are right here in Canada, because we have such diverse geography, such diverse weather, such diverse ecology and geology. We have some pretty wild places in Canada. And here I get to take people to see these massive predators, so for me, it’s wonderful, because it’s completely in line with my philosophy, my mission statement.

“I have a tremendous relationship with the RCGS. I’ve done a lot of things with them and it’s a wonderful organization. I really love their mission, which is to make Canada better known to Canadians and to the world. So being able to represent the RCGS as an Ambassador on this trip is both an honor and a pleasure for me.”

A month and half a go Kourounis was in the Congo near the town of Goma, where 800,000 people live on the edge of an 11,000 foot high 1.2 km wide volcano named Mount Nyiragongo.

“There have been a few expeditions into that volcano but not many,” said Kourounis. “It was a multi-faceted expedition. Number one, I wanted to do it. One of my goals is to visit every single lake of lava in the world and I’m very close to reaching them all. Also, we were filming for The Weather Network. We were making a TV program out of it. And at the same time we were providing some assistance to the local volcano observatory.

“We spent several weeks in the Congo and set up a base at the summit and I was able to rappel all the way down to the bottom, 500 metres, one step away from dropping into the largest lake of lava in the world, 200 metres across.”

That would seem to be a bit terrifying.

“Oh no,” said Kourounis. “Of course it’s a little scary, but that’s what I do. It was exhilarating. I’ve done this numerous times in different volcanoes around the world. I yearn to do these things. What I particularly like to do is Worlds’s Firsts, things that no one else has ever done before. I adore doing that kind of thing.”

Kourounis led an expedition a few years ago for National Geographic that took him to the deserts of Turkmenistan, just north of Iran and into a giant flaming gas crater named Darvaza that has been burning for 45 years, ever since a drilling rig collapsed into a sink hole. One hundred feet deep and 230 feet across, it was leaking methane gas, so they lit it on fire thinking it would burn off in a couple of days. That was in 1971.

Kourounis’ job was to descend into the flaming gas crater, gather soil samples and have DNA analysis done on them, just to see if there were any extremophile bacteria living in the hot methane rich environment.

“There are planets outside our solar system that have hot methane rich environments,” said Kourounis. “So if we could find something similar here on earth, than that could give us clues as to where we might search for life outside of our own solar system, maybe 10-20 years in the future. In essence I was searching for alien life here on earth, from a certain perspective. And we were successful.

“We found several samples of bacteria living down there that were not found in the surrounding desert. Not much, but things can live in that environment. It was amazing expedition. Twelve people have been on the surface of the moon, but only one has been on the bottom of Darvaza.”

Next up on the agenda for Kourounis this year is his annual storm chasing trip, something he has been doing for 18 years. The trip starts in Oklahoma and could take him to Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Colorado, New Mexico and Missouri, wherever ever the storms are.

Kourounis does his own weather forecasting and has had as many as 20 people with him on the chase. Sometimes the trip is done in conjunction with the Weather Network, for their show Storm Hunters, which is hosted by RCGS Fellow Mark Robinson, who has helped Kourounis on many episodes of Angry Planet.

In June, Robinson and Kourounis will travel to Sable Island off the coast of Nova Scotia to film wild horses for Adventure Canada, another company with close ties to the RCGS. While seemingly not as extreme as some of his adventures, the Sable Island trip will nip at Kourounis’ Achilles heel.

“I get very, very sea sick,” said Kourounis. “And we’re going there by boat. I would rather face down a menacing tornado than go out on the open ocean.”

If a new season of Angry Planet gets the green light, Kourounis will end up traveling 150-200 days of the year, which is a long time to be away from his wife of 10 years, Michelle, not to mention the inherent dangers in his travels.

Michelle likely had a good idea what her future would be like with George after getting married on the edge of Yasur, one of the most active volcanoes in the world on Tanna Island in Vanuatu in the South Pacific.

“She had her wedding dress and I had my tuxedo,” said Kourounis. “The locals performed the ceremony with face paint, feathers in their hair, grass skirts. We exchanged our vows on the craters edge as the volcano was exploding, throwing these chunks of lava hundreds of metres into the air. It was amazing, and we filmed the whole thing.”

“Michelle has a dog walking business in Toronto,” said Kourounis. “She stays home most of the time. She’s extremely supportive. Not once has she ever said no, you can’t do that. We’ve been married for almost 10 years but we’ve been together for almost 18 years, pretty much the entire time that I have been doing these adventures and explorations. She knows I do dangerous things, but in as safe a manner as possible.”

Like walking with polar bears — which would certainly seem to be a lot tamer than jumping into volcanoes, chasing tornadoes or wandering into hurricanes — but it’s more than just that.

“A lot of the things I do are far more extreme than this,” said Kourounis. But the really extreme things that I do, other people are usually unable to participate in. That’s what I love about this (Arctic Discovery) trip. I get to show people this amazing place with these huge predators, but in a safe environment with top notch guides who know exactly what they are doing.

“This is an opportunity for people to actually come along on one of my trips. I can’t bring people inside a volcano, so this is a really nice middle ground for me.”

Kourounis described the feeling of being at Nanuk, its history and its landscape, as that of being on another world. Where the tree line comes to an abrupt end and a long low tide line extends far into the horizon over a rocky, muddy landscape with driftwood logs. And a buttery smudge far off in the distance that turns into a gigantic 10-foot bear.

“You really feel like that when you land on that airstrip,” said Kourounis. “Yet at the same time you get these wonderful gourmet meals at a fantastic lodge with a fireplace. Then you step outside and you’re no longer the highest thing up on the food chain. It’s very thrilling and exhilarating to see these animals in their natural environment. Especially during the summer, because we associate these bears with snow and ice and at that time of year there is no ice there.

“And the fact that you’re not constricted to a vehicle. I don’t think there’s anywhere else that does that. That’s why I love what they (Churchill Wild) do. And they’re very much into conservation, education.

“If you do exactly what the guides tell you to do, there will be no problem, you’ll have a thrilling experience and you’ll get to go home and brag to your friends that you got to walk with polar bears.”

Kourounis says that being a professional explorer can be extremely difficult, the kind of job that you dream up when you’re seven years old and then forget about when you enter the real world. And there are also social issues to consider.

“It’s funny,” said Kourounis. “That becomes a bit of a problem for me. If I go to a dinner party it’s very easy for people to get extremely interested and then I sort of dominate the conversation. I don’t want to do that all the time. So I try to get other people’s opinions about what they are passionate about. I have so many stories, I could go on forever. I don’t want to be that guy. So what I do is ask a lot of questions. I ask people, if you could travel anywhere the world, where would you go?”

We know a place, on the remote Hudson Bay coast, where you can…

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