Interview: EXP Adventures Founder Milo Pierwola on Expedition Planning, the Little Nahanni River, and Leaving Normal Life Behind

When I met Milo Pierwola in 2008, he was in the middle of law school at Rutgers University.
We were both organizing events for the now defunct TerraMar Adventures in Philadelphia, in an effort to meet like minded people. Milo quickly became one of my closest friends; his energy and enthusiasm were infectious, and it was obvious he wasn't meant to lead a normal life.

Some years later, I remember sitting in a hot, barren apartment in Washington, DC watching Milo turn his dream of owning his own adventure company into a reality. In mid-June, he'll  head deep into Canada's Northwest Territories on a 19 day, 280 mile whitewater canoe expedition through one of the most remote and least traveled rivers in the world. Planning an expedition like that is no small thing, nor is deciding to pursue your dreams and leave normal life behind.

Adventure-Inspired: How did you end up as what essentially amounts to a professional adventurer? 

Milo: When I was a child, I loved stories related to Indiana Jones, Alan Quartermain, and Gulliver's Travels, and in my head I wanted to be the explorer in those stories. But I went through life with everyone I knew telling me they were just stories, and that in life, there are certain responsibilities. I followed the advice of others and became an attorney.

But I realized I was headed where I didn't want to go. I realized that this is my life, and I only get one. Whether I earn money as an attorney or get lost somewhere on a different continent ultimately doesn't matter; but to me, my life experiences are the only thing that I have some control over. I decided at that moment that I would pursue my dreams and that nothing would stop me. There are so many prescribed paths that people do not venture beyond because they want to avoid trouble, but this philosophy limits them and makes it impossible for them to excel. My philosophy has matured in that I have accepted that the things that go wrong in my life are treasures. For every 100 things that don’t work out, at least one thing does, and I’m able to reach that much further in my journey.

Milo adventuring in Brazil. (Photo courtesy of Milo Pierwola.)

AI: Why did you choose the Little Nahanni River for your next big trip? 

MP: I was invited in October 2014 by a wilderness guide from the Yukon. He takes people out for 30 day trips into remote regions. I met him when I was working for a kennel there. He told me he was exhausted with being the caretaker during expeditions, and that responsibility can overshadow his ability to enjoy his time in the wilderness.

He told me of an expedition he‘d planned just with knowledgeable and experienced guides. He expressed that though I lacked the technical skills for paddling the Nahanni, he was confident in my wilderness skills, attitude, and ambition. He basically delivered the opportunity of my lifetime to me, and I will be the first Polish person to paddle that river. But the most important thing is that I'm going and I will experience it for the first time.

AI: I’m fascinated by the logistics of planning expeditions. How did you get necessary permits?

MP: Permits are always tricky because national parks are often surrounded by private land. I had an experience in the city of Howth, Ireland where I started off on a forest trail that opened up into a meadow and I came face to face with someone's bull... unchained. But that experience taught me that to be very careful and deliberate with respect to trail choices, especially for long distances.

For Nahanni, I wrote an entire article about permits. The best way to find out what you need is to contact the government body that most closely resembles the parks department. There are still plenty of places around the world that don't operate at that level of organization. Because of this, I recommend being friendly and talking to every person you come across on the way to your destination. I've managed to hike to some incredible locations not just because I asked permission, but also because when people see that you have a healthy curiosity and act responsible, they'll tell you about their secret favorite spots!

Taking in the views in Poland. (Photo courtesy of Milo Pierwola.)

AI: How did you choose members for the Little Nahanni Expedition? 

MP: To select a team for this trip takes into account a lot more than just skills. We are entering an area where the probability of things going wrong is so high that we can count on things going wrong. Essentially, we’re getting dropped off in one of the most remote wildernesses in the world completely unsupported. The river we are paddling is home to stretches of Class V whitewater that span over four miles.

The members of the trip were selected with a great emphasis on how they can handle high stress situations and maintain organized direction. The biggest characteristic that we looked for was trust; whether or not you can do something doesn't matter as much as your ability to be honest in your effort and in expressing the extent of your abilities. We will be putting our lives at risk and so the last thing we need is a member of the team with a toxic attitude.

AI: How do you plan transportation to such remote places? 

MP: Organizing transportation was one of the biggest challenges of the expedition. There are no buses where we're going and taking a private plane is too expensive. It will take over 15 hours to drive just to the edge of the park. We had to organize transportation at both the start and the end of the tip. We selected the start and end points by basically finding the closest possible road-like thoroughfare. We are lucky to have found and convinced some incredible folks to help us out.

There is an old Tungsten mine where large vehicles necessitated decent road. This mine sits at the edge of a marsh that enters the Little Nahanni River. Finding this location took significant time on multiple map websites, printed maps, as well as scouring stories and asking experienced paddlers who considered the same journey. Because this is an area no one ever goes to, we are not sure what we will find, but it is a location that has been described as the best access.

Hanging out in a cave in Mexico. (Photo courtesy of Milo Pierwola.)

AI: What do you expect your biggest challenges will be when you arrive? 

MP: There is always a unique group dynamic on trips like this, even if group members know each other well. We all have a different pace, a different amount of sleep required not to be grumpy, different senses of humor, and different expectations. The first few days will set the tone.

With regard to the most challenging objective, that will be reaching the Cirque of the Unclimbables. It’s a remote and generally inaccessible mountain range that escaped the last Wisconsin Ice Age, which froze most of the rest of the continent. The result is some of the most challenging climbing in the world. Unfortunately, the direction we are coming from has no trails to reach it. When we spoke to climbers with experience researching this range, they all expressed an almost uniform reaction much like discovering an unpleasant odor right in front of your face and wincing. The terrain that we will have to cover to reach the base of this range is some of the most impassable; and we'll have to do it twice.

AI: What are some of the craziest logistical challenges you've had during the planning process?

MP: Expeditions would be so much easier if you could meet in an office with a whiteboard and reliable internet. For the most part, we are in different time zones and countries. We have different schedules and approaches to communication; some of us like to speak on the phone, some of us like to speak in person, and some like me like to keep everything organized and documented online. It’s a challenge to keep information organized, messages clear, and the intent behind messages clear as well.

Additionally, it’s important to know you must get confirmation in significantly diverse ways depending on who you’re dealing with. I have booked, paid for, and received receipts for hotels in foreign countries only to show up and have it be booked up. I have confirmed to meet with guides and flew to other countries only to find out that it was not convenient for them to come when I arrived. There is a patience and tactfulness you acquire when organizing with different cultures. Always have a back-up plan.

Hanging around in Scotland. (Photo courtesy of Milo Pierwola.)
If this doesn't make you want to be a professional adventurer or expedition planner, we don't know what will! Huge thanks to Milo for sitting down with us for this interview, and we can't wait to hear how the expedition goes! 

Read about how they came up with their gear list and more. 

What questions do you have about expedition planning, or the Little Nahanni? We'd love to hear from you!