For certain Minnesotans, 10,000 lakes isn’t enough.
Charles Lindbergh left his boyhood home of Little Falls believing the sky’s the limit. Ann Bancroft went from braving St. Paul winters to leading groundbreaking expeditions to the North and South Poles. Jimmy Chin’s dreams propelled him from Mankato to treacherous mountaintops, as well as the Academy Awards, where he won an Oscar last year for directing “Free Solo.”
And then there’s J.J. Kelley, a National Geographic all-star whose acclaimed documentaries have tracked his numerous heart-pounding adventures, from navigating the Ganges River to biking across Alaska.
“I think Minnesota instills in everyone a ferocious appreciation for the outdoors,” said Kelley, who co-hosts “Lost in the Wild,” a new docuseries that retraces the steps of fellow explorers whose adventures ended under questionable circumstances. “We also have an extreme curiosity about other people. Minnesotans generally have a gentle temperament. The way we observe the world is by not trying to get in your face. Starting a conversation with a smile and a hello makes someone relax and gets people to open up.”
That approach comes in handy in the Travel Channel show, especially when Kelley and his on-screen partner Kinga Philipps are dropped into remote locations in hopes that strangers will provide clues to their investigations.
But Kelley didn’t wait until he had a big budget or started amassing over a million frequent-flier miles to tap into his wanderlust.
As a child in Taylors Falls, Minn., he enjoyed long hikes with his mom, a local park ranger. In high school, he’d get dropped off in nearby towns after school, challenging himself to find his way home in time for dinner.
“Those three to four hours of having to navigate gave me a sense of my place in the world and prepared me for bigger trips,” said Kelley, who lives in Brooklyn.
He spent the summer before college traveling to the Philippines to help a friend search for his birth parents, worked as a deckhand in Alaska and backpacked across Europe. But between excursions, he majored in environmental and outdoor education at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
“I was obsessed with that program,” said Kelley, who visits the campus frequently to inspire students. “It taught me how to be comfortable while conveying to people how the outdoor world worked.”
Kelley also believes his Minnesota upbringing helped instill in him self-assurance that is put to good use in upcoming episodes of “Wild,” including one that takes him to India’s “Valley of Death.”
“Taylors Falls is one of the safest places in the world. We never locked our doors,” he said. “Maybe that gave me an inflated sense of confidence, because I never felt threatened. ... The more I traveled and came across big bears and people with malevolent intent, I’ve become more cautious, but Minnesota was the perfect place to test my boundaries. I was lucky enough to grow up in that utopia.”
“Wild” has its share of horror stories, a tone that coincides with Travel Channel’s fascination with ghosts, but Kelley hopes it doesn’t dissuade viewers from embarking on their own adventures.
“I don’t want to freak people out,” he said. “I generally believe we should all be going out into the world, but not recklessly. We’re not on the back trails of Taylors Falls.”
Njustin@startribune.com Twitter: @nealjustin