By Carol Patterson
Naturalist, speaker and adventure guide Brian Keating is Canada’s real-life Indiana Jones. Travelling the world for wildlife encounters, Keating knows which seat leaves you most rested after a long flight, how to use a pillowcase to capture a snake, the best glacier ice for gin and tonics, and ways to turn an in-flight plastic spoon into a two-meter long duck feeder.
Keating was named Reader’s Digest’s 2006 Canadian Hero of the Year, he’s an honorary chief in Ghana, and last year the Canadian Nature Federation named him Canadian Outdoorsperson of the Year. He’s the host of “Going Wild with Brian Keating” on National Geographic TV Canada. He crisscrosses the country speaking to people about wildlife, counts Jane Goodall as a good friend, and works as a guest guide in the Arctic, Churchill, Antarctica and Africa.
The first thing you notice when meeting Brian Keating is his enthusiasm. His internal mood-meter seems stuck on happy. He’s likely to interrupt a conversation to exclaim over a bird calling nearby or recount an encounter with an eight-legged creature he saw earlier. Fans of his weekly CBC Radio interview follow his dispatches from the field and updates on “Dolly” the wild mallard nesting in Keating’s yard with equal delight.
On how he maintains his optimism under a barrage of bad environmental news, he gives much of the credit to frequent travel. “Every time I go out (on the road) something new happens. It’s kind of like Christmas morning when you travel. Your mind is open to new experiences. And you’re not thinking of the day-to-day things that bog us down. When you get away from all that stuff all you can think about it the here and now. Travel puts us in the moment.”
Keating grew up on Long Island 20 minutes from the Bronx. At twelve he strapped a pair of binoculars on his hip and seldom takes them off. “They give you the option to check out that bird that landed on a tree or a sound you heard. It’s the best adventure out there!”
After studying environmental science at Brandon University, Keating worked as a nature interpreter for the Canadian Wildlife Service before joining the Calgary Zoo as manager of education programs. In the early days he shared his office with a saw-whet owl. When the owl died, he used his taxidermy skills to mount it on the wall permanently.
Intrigued by the idea of taking people into the threatened ecosystems the zoo advocated for, Keating started an ecotourism program. Sharing his love of wildlife with others eager to explore distant lands, he led his first African safari in 1984. He has returned to Africa five dozen times since and after raising more than $1 million for the zoo’s conservation programs he ‘retired’ to lead more expeditions and speak to groups across the country.
Keating’s partner in life and on some of his most adventurous trips is his wife Dee. They met working as summer interpreters in Creston, British Columbia and have visited many mountain peaks, deserts and rivers since. There has been the occasional challenge – a hippo once tipped them into the crocodile-rich Zambezi River and on a trip to Guyana Brian stepped on a fresh-water stingray. Fortunately in addition to being a great naturalist Dee is quick to transfer her skills as a family physician to wilderness first aid. To treat the stingray sting she took a bottle of rum pouring some of it over the wound and telling Brian to drink the rest for pain relief!
Not everyone will travel 150 days a year like Keating or take an African safari but he thinks it’s always possible to explore. “When I went back to visit my buddy in New York City we got a map of Long Island and identified all these green spaces. Every day we went out and hit one or two of these little green places. What a neat way to make an adventure!”
Keating says many people make the mistake of trying to cram too much into a holiday. “I tell people not to be moving every second night. You need to stay long enough to feel the rhythm of a landscape. I worked for four months up in the arctic when I was 21 and I realized the value of spending a long time in one location and getting to know it.”
Canada’s wildlife explorer extraordinaire has no plans to stop his quest for adventure and thinks other people still active as the years roll by stay interesting by being interested. “Is there really such a thing as happiness? I’m not sure but there is a sense of satisfaction that comes from a sense of purpose. And if that sense of purpose is driven by something within I would define that as passion. I think that’s what gives us a sense of wellbeing.”
Keating’s passion for nature keeps him moving but he’s quick to recognize some of the best things are found near home. “I’m best known for my international travel but I’m so happy and proud when that plane touches down and I’m back in Canada.”