A retired veterinarian sets a globetrotting record. 

Spanning the Globe

Can you imagine spending your entire life studying nautical archaeology? Some scientists do. And during last summer's five-week trip to Bermuda, Richmonder Eugene Rowe found himself fascinated by the effect that steam power had on ships in the mid-1800s — and how the technology changed our oceans. Still, he couldn't imagine spending his whole life researching this. Especially at 70. So Rowe, a retired veterinarian from Highland Springs, has been doing the next best thing.

Rowe is a volunteer field member of Earthwatch, an international nonprofit group that conducts conservation research through partnerships between scientists, educators and the general public. Since beginning in 1971, Earthwatch has grown its membership to 25,000 worldwide. And each year, 4,000 of those members, like Rowe, join field teams to work on some of the 115 projects spanning 48 countries that the group organizes each year.

But Rowe holds a title no other Earthwatch member can boast. With 56 expeditions under his belt, he holds the record for the most expeditions made. "That's definitely a record," says Tara Cary with the group's home office in Watertown, Mass.

In the early '80s, Rowe, who is divorced and has no children, was looking for something that would capture his interest and keep him active. "I'm footloose and fancy free, and that helps," he says with a laugh.

A friend who traveled frequently suggested Earthwatch, touting its benefits: the opportunity to travel, learn and do research. Plus, it's tax-deductible.

Because the cost of a typical ecotour — $1,200-$1,500 — was less than many travel packages, Rowe thought he'd give the working vacation a try. And the added tax benefit sold Rowe on the idea. But it's not the savings that keeps him coming back. "I've been on tour groups and cruises, and they're nice," says Rowe "but they don't give me the return on my travel dollar. I get a value here, not only from the travel, but from the friendships and bonding opportunities. People have even met and married."

Rowe says he can close his eyes and remember his first ecotour in 1982 as if it were yesterday. After making his own travel arrangements, which he does for each trip, Rowe met other field members — a group whose number Rowe says ranges anywhere from two to 18 per trip — in an area just south of the Bahamas. On each Earthwatch tour, the field members are led by a principal investigator, a trained scientist who conducts the research and shows others how to collect data. "We showed the natives how they could utilize a particular crab, the Caribbean King crab, and raise them in captivity and use them as a protein source." During the two-week trip, Rowe says he learned so much and had such fun that he was hooked.

Nearly 18 years later, Rowe still gleans the same travel rush from each trip as he did scuba diving and farming crabs off the Bahamas. His expeditions, which average two to three a year and last anywhere from eight days to a month, have taken him from densely populated Third World countries like Ethiopia to the expansive grasslands of the Australian outback. And Rowe says accommodations are always interesting. Housing and food are covered in the cost of the trip, and Rowe says each person usually has an individual room, like one in a dormitory. But he cautions that the trips require flexibility and a willingness to work. "You don't have all the amenities. It's not usually a cosmopolitan area."

Rowe was in Eastern Russia just north of Mongolia when the political system of the former Soviet Union disintegrated — at the same time the Berlin Wall fell. But here, science was impervious to politics. The forces of nature — ice, wind and remote terrain — kept Rowe and his group shielded from the news. And, at times, the unknown territories have caused Rowe to feel afraid, though he says it's just his age that makes him tentative. "I have felt sometimes that my safety was compromised and my health in jeopardy," concedes Rowe. "I don't go into the Third World much because of medical availability. I don't want to be stuck in there and have chest pains."

Amid Rowe's travels, some of his most memorable have been in the United States. He bought a Ford Explorer, which he packs with all his paraphernalia — camera, scuba equipment, camping gear — and has trekked to Maine, Colorado and Montana. "It's always nice to have your own wheels," he laughs. "When I worked in Montana, I helped dig up dinosaur bones and had to clean them up and piece them together. That was really tricky." But it's a challenge Rowe tackles gladly. "I suck the juice of all these different disciplines for a period of time and then do something else. I'm a jack of all different disciplines."

Rowe assures that his favorite tour is "the one I'm on right now." But there are a few trips that are as vivid in his mind as the purple and orange wildflowers of the Colorado valley. "That trip to the Eastern Shore where we worked on a shore bird census. And then right here in the valley of Virginia in Front Royal where we studied the overpopulation of deer, and how it impacts the ground nesting of birds. Those two stand out. To me they were the gravy train."

The good physical shape the trips demand is an added incentive for Rowe. "I do know what it does for my body. It keeps me young and active." But Rowe says that the real reward is seen elsewhere. "My money helps fund the project and helps the researchers stay near what they love — their work. And I get a kick out of reading in some magazine about some new finding and know I was part of it."

And Rowe's intent on keeping his record. "It's my only claim to fame," he laughs. Just what corner of the earth will call him next? "I'm looking at a project in Australia on the duckbill platypus in his natural habitat. I think that would be pretty

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