Preston Sowell. Courtesy photo

Meet Boulder’s Explorers and Adventurers


What is it about Boulder that would attract a woman to explore the oceans to protect sharks, or another to mount a climbing wall on a school bus and tour local schools? Then there are Boulder-area explorers searching Pluto and the outer solar system, diving deep below a high altitude Peruvian lake and one determined to find the northernmost form of terrestrial life.

There’s something about the mountains flanking this Front Range city that make its residents uniquely adventurous and dedicated to exploring what lies on the other side of the hill. Consider the concentration of hiking trails surrounding this college town, the number of high-level government research institutions, 300 days of sunshine a year, the foodie and start-up cultures and the spirit of people who live here by choice, not happenstance.

Pick any list of outdoor cities and Boulder consistently ranks high for residents who live a life of adventure and exploration that, in some cases, is literally out of this world. The city and surrounding foothills inspire them and in return, they’re making a difference.

Here are some of their stories:

The Shark Has Pretty Teeth

Or so the song goes. When sharks show their pearly whites to marine conservationist Mikki McComb-Kobza, Ph.D., it’s likely she’s down there face-to-snout studying their sensory biology and ecological physiology. The educator and executive director of Ocean First Institute based in Boulder, McComb-Kobza credits her fascination with sharks to being traumatized as a young child watching the movie “Jaws.” She soon got over it and dedicated her career to shark conservation.

Mikki McComb-Kobza. Courtesy photo

“I came to Boulder because of its healthy, progressive, nature-loving community that embraces the outdoor lifestyle, including scuba diving,” she says. “As a marine biologist and ocean explorer it’s the perfect home for our new Ocean First Discovery Center where, in a few short months, hundreds of students participate in-person or virtually in marine science and microbiology programs.”

Learn more:

Time to Rock

German native Isabel von Rittberg is uniting the beauty and fluidity of rock climbing with dance and music. Her AscenDance Project is a well-known dance troupe that performs on a 12-foot climbing wall for the public and schools. In 2010, the group received international exposure competing on “America’s Got Talent” in Las Vegas, progressing as far as the semifinals.

She moved to Boulder in 2011 and over the next 10 years and dozens of performances, grew frustrated by the seven-hour set-up and take-down time the wall required. The problem was solved with a used school bus she converted into a mobile performance stage. Now it can be ready to go in an hour.

Isabel von Rittberg. Courtesy photo

“Boulder had this palpable creative energy that felt like home to me,” she says. “In 2019, I decided that it was time to put our wall on wheels in order to bring our performances more easily to new locations, including schools, underprivileged neighborhoods, inner cities, small towns and places where people simply don’t have the same exposure to art. Access to art should not be a privilege, but rather a right.”

Learn more:

Thanking His Lucky Stars

On July 14, 2015, more than three billion miles from Earth, a small NASA spacecraft called New Horizons screamed past Pluto at more than 32,000 miles per hour, focusing its instruments on the long-mysterious icy worlds of the Pluto system, and then, just as quickly, continued on its journey out into the beyond. The New Horizons mission, whose principal investigator is Boulder County resident and planetary scientist Alan Stern, set the record for the most distant exploration of worlds in history, a feat witnessed by more than two billion people worldwide.

Stern, a New Orleans native who grew up in Dallas, first moved to Boulder in 1984, drawn to the area for its outdoor recreation, particularly skiing, hiking and camping.

After receiving a Ph.D. from the University of Colorado Boulder, and following a stint working in San Antonio, he made the area his permanent home, thanks to what he calls the Front Range’s “ecosystem of aerospace and science.”

Stern is preparing to become the first scientist to fly for NASA on a commercial space flight. During a mission aboard a planned 2022-2023 flight of Virgin Galactic’s two-pilot, six-passenger SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane, he will oversee two experiments.

“It’s rare that I’m outside and don’t thank my lucky stars that I moved here. I’ve traveled all over the world. I would count Boulder as one of the small handful of places that has this much going for it,” he says.

Learn more:

Cool Cat

Using an array of camera traps, Boulder’s Preston Sowell and his team successfully documented the presence of the Andean mountain cat high in the Peruvian Andes. Barely larger than a house cat, it’s one of the five most endangered felines in the world.

Then a few years later, the environmental consultant, scientist and explorer was featured in the National Geographic documentary “Lost Temple of the Inca,” a behind-the-scenes look inside a cutting-edge expedition at the 16,000-foot headwaters of the Amazon River, a race against time as mining companies seek to exploit the Peruvian Andes Lake Sibinacocha region. The documentary currently streams on Disney+.

Preston Sowell. Courtesy photo

In all, the explorer has led, supported and photographed expeditions to 21 countries around the world, including 17 scientific expeditions to remote areas of South America.

Sowell, a Southern California native who moved to the mountains in 1994, credits living in Boulder as a source of his motivation and inspiration.

“For the size of the town it is, Boulder is like a big pond — there are people operating here at the top levels of science and adventure. The natural beauty and access to the outdoors are what originally attracted me here,” Sowell says. “I can break for lunch and easily go fly fishing or hiking, or in winter snowshoeing 30 minutes away at 10,000 feet to photograph snowshoe hares. This is where I recharge and stay centered.”

Learn more on Instagram: @kosokun

Searching for the Edges of All Life

Dressed in orange and black rain gear, biologist and explorer Brian Buma, Ph.D., is on a singular mission to find Earth’s southernmost tree. His field research typically mixes sleuthing with adrenaline in hard-to-reach forests in miserable conditions.

During an arduous 29-day expedition, he finds it – a Magellan’s beech, more like a bush really, that grows two feet high and almost a dozen feet long in the strong winds of Tierra del Fuego on the tip of South America.

“Now we have a tangible record of where tree life ends on Earth — and as the climate warms, we can track against that signpoint,” he says.

Today, this Bellingham, Washington, native who first moved to Boulder in 2008, is determined to find the northernmost limit of terrestrial life. Probably somewhere in the high latitude region of Northern Greenland. Somewhere far from human habitation and somewhere that will require the kind of resourcefulness that recently qualified him to be a member of the 116-year-old Explorers Club based in New York.

“Boulder has such a community of world travelers, explorers, scientists and adventurers that I could never lack motivation,” says Buma, an assistant professor in the integrative biology program at the University of Colorado Denver. “I could be working out of a local café and hear conversations about Himalayan expeditions, adventure racing and extreme treks all around me.”

To stay fit for his demanding field expeditions, Buma hones his skills taking full advantage of Boulder-area recreation: backcountry and in-bounds snowboarding and skiing in winter, biking, climbing, running and hiking during warmer months.

“I’ve lived in a lot of cool places but few have so many recreational opportunities year-round,” he says.

Learn more:

Boulder’s Ocean Tribe

Imagine holding your breath for more than four-and-a-half minutes and diving 155 feet below the water’s surface — no scuba gear, just a mask and fins. That was the life of Mehgan Heaney-Grier in 1996 at the age of 18 when she made history by establishing the first U.S. freedive record for both men and women in the constant weight category.

Although a native of Duluth, Minnesota, Mehgan grew up in the Florida Keys and over the past 20 years her busy schedule has been, well, breathless. She is a professional speaker, fashion model, marine educator, expedition leader, long-time conservationist and television personality.

Mehgan Heaney-Grier. Courtesy photo

Throughout her eclectic water-based career, Heaney-Grier, among the first inducted into the Women Divers Hall of Fame, has performed underwater stunts for Hollywood films such as “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Into the Blue” and has been featured in numerous publications such as “Life,” “People” and “Outside Magazine.”

She moved to Boulder in 2007 to study ecology, evolutionary biology and anthropology at the University of Colorado Boulder, attracted by the surrounding mountains, access to nature and a progressive environmentally-conscious community.

Upon graduation, she never left.

Today, she’s the host of an original web series called “The Imperfect Conservationist,” offering bite-sized, easy and impactful ways to bake conservation action into busy everyday life. Want ideas for kicking your plastic bag habit? Tune in.

“There is a thriving ocean community embedded in the conservation culture in Boulder where all of the sectors work together,” she says. “With the university and NOAA headquarters being right here, this city is a hotbed for scientists and cutting-edge conservation science.”

She adds, “While I’m far from the ocean, I get my nature fix jogging by the creeks and lakes, hiking, camping and backpacking in the mountains with my son, and tapping into my local ocean tribe who thrive on 300-plus days of sunshine for their land-locked survival.”

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