DREAM IT. DO IT.
By Jared Criscuolo, cofounder of Below the Surface
When I was in college, I worked on a construction crew building and finishing houses. (When I wasn't surfing, that is.) With each measurement, cut, and pop of the nail gun, I watched something evolve out of nothing, and I quickly embraced the value of creation. The guys who taught me this trade—all wild men with outrageous stories—were influential, too. They worked hard, and inspired me to work harder and longer every day, and chase what I was passionate about.
It was that desire that led me to start Below the Surface, the nonprofit that I founded with my friend and now business partner, Kristian Gustavson. Our goal is pretty simple: to protect our nation's waterways by photo-documenting the rivers through crowdsourcing. The idea grew out of our time surfing together: every time we'd go out in San Diego after a big storm, we'd get sick as a result of all the filth and runoff pollution. We couldn't stand that every incoming wave was making us ill. We had to do something.
While the impulse was straightforward, getting Below the Surface off the ground has been a huge undertaking. In many ways it has mimicked the course of a river—a twisting, turning, and ever-evolving search for the path of least resistance. In the beginning, we started with little more than a sense of purpose and principle. For our first trip, we borrowed a 17-foot aluminum canoe from a guy we met on Craigslist and some secondhand equipment from friends in the Navy SEAL training program . Then we drove a biodiesel-fueled 1989 Ford F250 from San Diego to Mount Shasta in Northern California, so we could paddle 300 miles down the Sacramento River.
Needless to say, we were in over our heads. We had some grand notion that newspaper and TV stations would turn out to profile our trip. It didn't happen. It was just Kristian and me documenting the trip with a video camera. But we convinced a local CBS affiliate to air our footage on the news. We were able to show people video of sewage spilling into the river, and it started a conversation that validated what we were doing. But that's not to say the rest came easy.
Since then we've driven more than 60,000 miles and paddled more than 1,500 miles of river, all in an effort to promote our cause. It's been a struggle, and we've suffered a few vehicular (and emotional) breakdowns along the way. We had no idea how to get sponsorships when we began, let alone how to start a website.
But we never gave up because we knew we had a smart idea. More importantly, we had the passion to see it through. If our project has worked—and believe me, some days it's still a struggle—it's because we've been dogged about pursuing our own dream. We've never opted for the safer, more traditional route, and we have never been afraid to test ourselves and try new things.
Thousands of e-mails and phone calls later, through sheer persistence, we eventually built relationships with the U.S. Geological Survey, Outside Magazine, Surfrider Foundation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Immersive Media, and many other phenomenally generous and well-established
Kristian and I felt like we'd finally reached the tipping point when, recently, Clif Bar called to tell us that they wanted to sponsor us as Professional Activist/Athletes during 2012. The Clif Bar sponsorship was no accident—we worked hard for that. But there have also been some fortuitous encounters along the way: on a plane trip back from presenting our concept to the U.S.G.S.'s Senior Staff and Information Technology Advisory Committee in January, I met a young writer from the New York Times who wrote a great article about our ambitions on the newspaper's Green Blog. For some unknown reason, it went viral. Within a week I received a call from a director at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency wanting to learn more about our ideas. Now we have a cooperative research and development agreement in place with the EPA to help us develop a mobile app that will help rapidly grow our project.
That's not all. We're expanding our mission into advocating for algae-based biofuels through our Driving Innovation program. Next year, we have plans to compete in Mexico's Baja 1000 car race with an algae- biofueled vehicle. I'd say we're on fire and we have done it our way, making sure we only answer to ourselves.
Yes, it's been a scary ride. And it's been incredibly hard at times. We've run out of money and food, with no hope for more, on many occasions. Plans always change, and there is never a "right" time.
But I've learned, the hard way, that the river will provide. It always has and, with a little help from a lot of friends and organizations around the country who believe in our cause, it always will. The only logical thing to do is never give up and chart your own course. We'll see you around the bend.
Go Your Own Way
By Outside magazine's 2011 Chief Inspiration Officer Ryan Levinson
Last December, I was chosen as Outside Magazine's Reader of the Year. The editors told me that I was selected because I managed to continue leading an active life after getting diagnosed with a form muscular dystrophy. Sure, but what that title doesn't hint at is that I still often struggle with my own motivation to lead a better life. Of course, that doesn't mean I don't strive to be better—particularly as it relates to this world we all live in.
Recently, some friends and I sailed to the Coronado Islands, a small chain of deserted islands off the coast of Baja, Mexico, for a few days of exploration and fun. We paddled iSUPs , inflatable standup paddleboards, in the turbulent water surging between the near-shore rocks; dived with sea lions and abundant marine life; marveled at the flocks of birds precariously perched on the sheer cliffs; watched the sun set; the moon rise; and generally fell into the rhythm of the place. But rather than follow the standard path of most sailing expeditions, which are often damaging to the environment, we decided to do things our own way in hopes of making the trip as "friendly" to the environment as possible. We called it the "Greener Challenge."
I rigged the boat's electrical system to run 100 percent on solar power. We sailed whenever possible to minimize engine noise and the use of gasoline. We anchored in sandy bottom areas partly to avoid damaging the rocky reefs. We followed minimum impact practices similar to the "Leave No Trace" principles listed by the National Outdoor Leadership School. We even used a composting toilet from Natures Head. Individually, none of these practices are exactly new. But together, they represent a new way of thinking for my friends and I. We'd always approached these trips in the same way as everyone else—heavy use of gasoline, pump toilets that were often discharged into the ocean, and other environmentally detrimental practices that we just assumed to be the regular way of doing things.
After experimenting with our Greener Challenge, though, we're now looking forward to future trips when we can be even more eco-friendly. We'll never be truly "green." But the constant struggle to be better is perhaps the best you can do. All it takes is the willingness to learn new things and the will to go in your own direction.
Life is Not a Dress Rehearsal
By Outside magazine's 2011 Chief Inspiration Officer Ryan Levinson
Do you define yourself largely by what you do? Are you a climber, a hiker, a diver, a surfer, a cyclist, or some other kind of active outside athlete? Me too, but about ten years ago when I was in my mid 20s, I was diagnosed with FSH muscular dystrophy, a disease that causes my musculature to steadily wither away. The doctors told me it was unrealistic to continue my active life. I was told to quit it all and "learn something useful like keypunch." Instead, I choose to risk catastrophic muscle loss and continuing living the active life we all love.
Then this year I was chosen to be Outside Magazine's "Reader of the Year." I was encouraged to share stories about what inspired me, how I accomplish what I do, stuff like that, but what I wanted to write was, "It's all a lie." It felt like everyone was focusing on what I do, not who I am. They were setting a trap, because one day I won't be able to do any of that stuff. Then what? Will I still be a surfer, an EMT, a diver, standup paddleboarder, a triathlete? Will I end up like Al Bundy, struggling to prop up my ego with stories of past adventures? Or do all those labels and stories just exist as ego-opium for our fragile minds?
There's a deeper, more fulfilling, more inclusive dimension to all of this stuff. Too many of us forget that we are all equally a part of each other and of this amazing world. Any illusion of separation is just that, an illusion, a story our minds like to tell to protect our fragile egos. We need to get over all that. We need to realize the freedom, power, and pure joy waiting for us when we embrace that accepting ourselves as integral components of this amazing universe is far more fulfilling than thinking of ourselves as separate individuals—even ones who do cool things. In my first blog post for Outsideonline.com, I wrote that "surfing is not about your ability to maneuver a board, but rather it is about how completely you experience the moment." We can stand there dreaming big but living in fear, or we can look up, explore, love, and live free of ego and doubt. I'm losing physical ability, but guess what, so are you. This is not a dress rehearsal. This is your life. Don't be afraid to live it.