How to Become an Environmental Megastar at 86

This eager volunteer traded business suits for hiking boots to help scientists study the Earth.

Ecology volunteer Warren Stortroen

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Warren Stortroen made a vow when he retired: No more working inside. After 38 years in the insurance biz, he was determined to focus his post-career life on learning, volunteering, and helping the planet. And when Stortroen makes a vow, well, he doesn’t fool around.

Since trading business suits for hiking boots in 1996, the one-time claims adjuster, now 86, has become the Cal Ripken of volunteers — an ironman superstar who rarely takes a break. Stortroen works regularly with organizations such as Friends of the Mississippi and the National Park Service to plant seeds, cut brush, and remove invasive plants along the Mississippi River near his home in St. Paul, Minnesota. In September 2017, he volunteered on a record 100th expedition with Earthwatch, an environmental organization. Stortroen has assisted scientists in nearly 30 countries in myriad ways, from monitoring orcas off the coast of Norway to studying an active volcano in Nicaragua. He served on his 106th expedition in mid-2018, observing whooping cranes in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast.

His achievements are legendary in Earthwatch circles. On an archeology project in Jamaica, he uncovered a rare fertility amulet. At a site in Thailand, he discovered the bones and teeth of a child dating back to 700 A.D. In Mexico, working in an ancient lake bed near San Miguel de Allende, he found the bones of a glyptodont, an armor-plated animal that lived roughly 35 million years ago. “It’s a relative of the armadillo but about as big as a Volkswagen,” says Stortroen. At an ancient Pueblo site in the Mesa Verde region of Colorado, he discovered the largest piece of turquoise that researcher Susan Ryan, Ph.D., and her team had ever seen.

On an archeology project in Thailand, he discovered the bones and teeth of a child dating back to 700 A.D.

“He grinned and said, ‘I think I found something that you might be interested in,’” says Ryan, director of archaeology at the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center. “He opened up his palm to reveal this beautiful sky-blue stone. Afterward, he went around to each volunteer — grin still intact — providing a show-and-tell.”

That mix of modesty and enthusiasm has made Stortroen an Earthwatch megastar. At a party for his 100th expedition — which was held, naturally, while he was volunteering, this time in Colorado — staff and volunteers shared their favorite stories about his prolific travels and unflappable personality (once, after a violent hailstorm, he was seen scooping up chunks of ice for his glass of Scotch). He’s so popular that fellow volunteers have created their own unofficial fan club: The Warrenites.

“What I love about Warren is his desire to keep learning,” says Ryan. “He seeks out new experiences not only to enhance his understanding of our world, but because he appreciates the camaraderie. He makes sure that his teammates are enjoying the expedition as much as he is. I adore how he lights up when talking about his trips and experiences.”

His passion for travel and nature started early. As a young man, he spent his free time hunting and fishing near the family farm in tiny Saum, Minnesota, reading authors such as James Fenimore Cooper and Zane Grey. He graduated from high school a year early and joined the Navy. “I wanted to get out and see the world,” he says. He served nearly four years as a yeoman in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean, working for the admiral of a cruiser division.

His insurance career put his travel dreams on hold, but he embarked on his first Earthwatch trip shortly after he retired, traveling to Costa Rica to study the mating rituals of the long-tailed manakin — the males dance and sing to impress the females — and he was hooked on the experience.

“One of the great things with Earthwatch is that you don’t have to worry about being a single person,” says Stortroen, who never married. “You make instant friends.”

He insists he’s never been in danger, though John Murray, a volcanologist at Great Britain’s Open ­University, remembers a scary incident at the Masaya volcano in Nicaragua. “He cut himself on a rock, and he was on a blood-thinning medication, so he was bleeding profusely,” Murray says. “But the most alarming thing was that the vultures, which are common around the active craters, seemed to sense what was happening and began circling overhead.”

Stortroen avoided a vulture attack — and his fellow volunteers stopped the bleeding — but the volcano presented dangers as well. The crater’s active magma lake emits gases composed largely of sulfur dioxide. “It’s mostly an irritant, but it can be toxic if you inhale large amounts,” says Stortroen. “We always carried gas masks, but we only wore them if we were in the path of the plume or working right at the rim, where the wind tended to swirl.”

Warren Stortroen
Rubble rouser: In Nicaragua, Stortroen joined the research team exploring how active volcanoes shape the environment around them. (Courtesy Earthwatch)

Stortroen also loves working with animals, whether tracking echidnas — an Australian spiny anteater and one of the world’s few egg-laying mammals — or gray whale migrations near Baja, California. On a recent trip to Iceland, he helped scientists monitor the food supply of killer whales. The whales feed mostly on herring, which can be depleted by commercial fishing.

Although he continues to volunteer, he’s gradually lightening his workload. He used to perform trail surveys and monitor wildlife at the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge; now he mainly works weekly half-days at the reception desk and bookstore. The work keeps him young, he says, challenging him mentally and physically, feeding his curiosity, and introducing him to fascinating people.

His advice for other retirees? Keep learning. Don’t be afraid to travel. Be a doer, not a watcher. “Sometimes ecotourists come up to where we’re working, and we explain it all to them, but they aren’t doing anything — they’re just standing there,” he says. “It’s so much more satisfying to actually do the work.”

Ken Budd is the author of The Voluntourist and the host of 650,000 Hours, an upcoming web series on travel and real-life American heroes.

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