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Members Only As it turns 100, the storied Explorers Club gathers an intrepid Who's Who for a very adventurous party

March 22, 2004
March 22, 2004

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March 22, 2004

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Members Only As it turns 100, the storied Explorers Club gathers an intrepid Who's Who for a very adventurous party

Hooray for Captain Spaulding,
The African explorer.
He brought his name undying fame,
And that is why we say:
Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!
--Partygoers feting Groucho Marx
in Animal Crackers

This is an article from the March 22, 2004 issue

Captain Spaulding may be the only fabled adventurer of the last
100 years not to be celebrated this Saturday night at the
centennial banquet of the Explorers Club in New York City. Many
of the organization's 2,900 members--some of them jungle
explorers, some oceanic explorers, some lunar explorers, some
armchair explorers--will gather in the grand ballroom of the
Waldorf-Astoria to pay homage to the world's intrepid.

You won't recognize them by the clothes they wear. Instead of
pith helmets and wet suits and Mylar space togs, these
trailblazing figures will be outfitted in tuxedos and ball gowns.
To an outsider, the only thing adventurous about them will be
their palates. The hors d'oeuvres they'll sample include
marinated tarantulas, sauteed mealworms, honey-roasted crickets,
roasted termites on cherry tomatoes, bovine eyeball fritters,
pickled duck tongues and lightly seasoned scorpions on toast
points.

When not gnawing on ostrich tartar, members will try to drum up
support for new expeditions and assure civilization that there
are still frontiers awaiting discovery. "We feel exploration is
as vital and relevant in 2004 as it was in 1904," says club
president Richard Wiese. "The poles have been conquered, but
there's no shortage of worlds left to study, underground,
underwater, out in space."

The club was founded in 1904 as a kind of gentlemen's club for
adventurers and globe-trotting scientists. In 1912 the Explorers
Club incorporated members from the older Arctic Club of America,
which had backed Robert E. Peary on his North Pole expeditions.
From the beginning members have given lectures, swapped tales and
debated the Who Did What Firsts of exploration. One authority may
champion Frederick Cook's claim to have been the first to reach
the North Pole, in 1908. Another might accord that honor to
Peary, who supposedly got there in '09. Someone else may argue
for Ralph Plaisted, the Minnesotan whose satellite-guided
snowmobile expedition arrived at the exact top of the world in
'68.

Membership has its privileges, among them the chance, in years
past, to rub elbows with Peary, aviator Charles Lindbergh,
astronaut John Glenn, Everest conqueror Edmund Hillary,
balloonist Bertrand Piccard, Indiana Jones model Roy Chapman
Andrews, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard and Star Trek creator
Gene Roddenberry, whose correspondence in the club's archives
bears the heading From the Log of the Starship Enterprise.

Since the time of Peary and Lindbergh, exploration has evolved
considerably. Nowadays it's likely to mean a botanical survey of
the Thai rain forest or the search for water on Mars. Though the
club sponsors no expeditions, it awards more than 100 grants a
year to students for field research on everything from antelopes
to zebras. As one might imagine, the science-heavy adventures of
the 21st century are a little thin on adventure. Indeed, the very
word is frowned upon by members, many of whom regard an adventure
as an expedition gone awry.

Modern-day explorers mull such matters at the Lowell Thomas
Building, headquarters of the club in Manhattan. (The outfit has
29 chapters worldwide). To reach this stately neo-Tudor mansion,
you must brave the wilds of the Upper East Side. Explorers have
decked the halls with enough totems and talismans from their
expeditions to make even Claude Levi-Strauss envious. There's a
stuffed polar bear, the foreskin of a whale, African lion skins,
the globe on which, legend has it, Thor Heyerdahl charted his
Kon-Tiki ocean voyage, a pristine copy of Description de l'Egypte
commissioned by Napoleon, and cans of Horlick's Malted Milk put
up expressly for the use of Roald Amundsen's 1918 assault on the
North Pole.

On the second-floor landing is the ship's bell used by Adolphus
Greely on his doomed voyage to Lady Franklin Bay in Greenland.
That expedition began with 26 men in 1881 and ended with six in
'84. Greely survived and became the club's first president, and
now tradition dictates that the bell must be rung at all club
functions. A bigger conversation piece is the sledge that Peary
used on his successful trek to the North Pole. Exploration has
always relied on the generosity of sponsors, and Peary had them
by the iglooful. Reposing amid the estimated 5,000 sheet maps and
15,000 books in the club library are full-page magazine ads
featuring the admiral shilling for everything from underwear
("not only coldproof, but Poleproof") to Triscuits ("He took
onboard the Roosevelt 450 boxes to sustain life in frozen
regions").

An archivist maintains files on every deceased member. The folder
on Heyerdahl contains the membership application he filled out at
age 27 in 1942, five years before the launch of the Kon-Tiki.
Asked to list the business positions he had held, Heyerdahl
wrote: "Never held any positions. Independent means."

Women weren't discovered by the club until 1981. Their admittance
hinged on the results of a secret mail ballot, which went in
their favor by a vote of 753 to 613. The irony wasn't lost on
outgoing president Charles Brush, who noted dryly, "It was
bizarre to call ourselves the Explorers Club when we excluded
half the world."

Even now Explorers Club males tend toward the alpha variety. "You
get up to go to the bathroom," Weise has said, "and when you come
back, some 80-year-old coot who used to be King Kong is hitting
on your girlfriend."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES PATRICK COOPER KNICKKNACKS Club souvenirs run from Greely's 123-year-old ship's bell to an ageless polar bear.COLOR PHOTOCOLOR PHOTO: JAMES PATRICK COOPER (TOP) BECAUSE IT'S RARE Stuffed animals add atmosphere, while fare like Peking-style alligator (bottom) spices up the annual banquet.COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF EXPLORERS CLUB [See caption above]

Exploration has evolved since the club's early years. Nowadays,
it's likely to mean a BOTANICAL SURVEY OF THE THAI RAIN FOREST.