ON A PERFECT spring day in Alaska, Jeff Corwin is casting a fly at a deep, clear pool fed by a short and powerful waterfall thundering so close that the mist envelops him. Overhead is a 200-foot granite cliff topped by Sitka spruce. Birds chatter, the wind blows, and every few minutes the sky shifts from slate gray to sunny, then back again.
We hiked 45 minutes upriver to this spot, on the infrequently visited interior of Baranof Island, after a boat dropped Corwin and a small group of fishermen on the shore of one of the island's many fjords, just before dawn. For the second-straight year, the famous naturalist-slash-animal-show-host has come to his friend Duane Lambeth's Dove Island Lodge in pursuit of spring steelhead. Which pretty much answers the age-old question, Where do nature-show hosts go on vacation?
"Maybe 15 people have fished this water," Corwin says, practically beaming. This weeklong May trip is a rare break in a frenetic 2009 for Corwin. Between castsand wine-soaked dinners at the lodgehe's juggling calls and messages from producers at NBC and the Food Network, as well as Rodale Press. He's been traveling almost nonstop for six months and will be off again shortly, at work on a pair of projects that he hopes will elevate him from Jeff Corwin the Animal Planet guy to Jeff Corwin the TV star, achieving a more well-rounded notoriety than his late competitor, Steve "Crocodile Hunter" Irwin. It's a trajectory he set for himself after getting a taste of serious mainstream attention with 2007's Planet in Peril, the CNN documentary that he co-hosted with Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Guptaand that continued on without him after CNN went with all in-house talent for the sequel.
So, at age 41, Corwin has suspended filming of Corwin's Quest (née the Jeff Corwin Experience), one of Animal Planet's signature shows since it premiered in 2000, to pursue his own personal brand-expanding agenda. In September, the Food Network launched Extreme Cuisine with Jeff Corwin, a series that applies his animal-show modeloffbeat adventures in remote placesto food. Imagine a more rural version of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, with a heavy dose of anthropology and a lot less cigarette smoke. In the first episodes, he harvested stinging ant larvae, a local delicacy in Oaxaca, and ate wasps alongside Thai villagers.
"It's a chance to connect to a broader audience," says Corwin, who has long made exotic cuisine a part of his Animal Planet show. "That they believe I'm more than just the animal guy is a personal coup for me."
Still, a cable food show is not a dramatic career swerve. His real breakthroughand riskis with 100 Heartbeats, a two-hour prime-time documentary that premieres November 22 on MSNBC and coincides with Rodale's Corwin-authored book of the same name. The program has him traveling to seven countries and battling bugs and bandits to create what he says will be "the definitive look at species extinction around the world." The show's title refers to "the ultimate club you don't want to belong to," says Corwin, "meaning there are less than 100 of you left." He filmed what is suspected to be the last wild Panamanian golden frog and endangered white rhinos and orangutans, as well as some more inspiring stories, like the American red wolf (in North Carolina), which has made a comeback to about 100 individuals thanks to captive breeding after the species nearly disappeared in the 1960s.
Corwin fans have always thought him capable of more than critter TV. He's a natural ham in front of the camera, with a ribald sense of humor that's led him to push boundaries on what was supposed to be a kid-friendly network. Of course, sly cracks about monkey sex hardly qualify him for a leading role in an investigative documentary. But he does hold a master's in wildlife conservation from Amherst and is committed to moving into what he calls TV's "news space."
He's also not burning any bridges with his longtime benefactor. You can still see him almost every day on Animal Planet reruns, and the network's general manager, Marjorie Kaplan, insists that Corwin will "always be a part of us, whatever he does." As she sees it, his success is their success: "When he's talking about animals, he'll always be an Animal Planet personality."
That's how the guides and clients around Dove Island know him, even if he can't catch a steelhead. (Our guide blames the late snowmelt, which makes the fish sluggish.) In just a few days, Corwin will head to Cambodia to shoot a segment of 100 Heartbeats in which he tags along with wildlife cops who raid restaurants serving endangered species. It's literally a world away.
"There's certainly a lot riding on this," he says. "I've been given a rare chance to grab the brass ring at a time when news media is cutting back. Let's hope I don't drop it."