Long before he met with presidents and prime ministers, back when he was just a boy and far from one of the most influential people in the adventure travel world today, Shannon Stowell was just a wilding running through the woods. Even he’ll tell you it’s sort of a miracle that he survived.
The wildness within was always there, but the transformation truly began when his family traded their comfortable home in Denver for the remote expanses of Salida, Colorado, a former railroad connector town that housed the basic amenities of rural life: a barbershop, a hardware store, and a restaurant called the Country Bounty. It was a fitting name really, given the cornucopia of forests, streams and mountain peaks that surrounded the town. Stowell washed dishes there for $3.35 an hour and then picked through dumpsters for aluminum cans to recycle, using the proceeds from both to buy fishing gear and anything else he’d need to spend as much time as he could in that wilderness.
Stowell and his younger brother, Ryan, tore out into the mountains. They played with gunpowder. They rappelled down cliffs, face-first, despite having little experience with ropes and harnesses. They found caves and ghost towns and poked around the creaky abandoned mines they’d been told to stay away from. (There were a few rules.) “I couldn’t understand why people who lived there all their lives complained about nothing to do,” he says. “We were kids in a mountain candy shop.”
Mountains weren’t Stowell’s only playground. For college he headed west to the sea, to Seattle Pacific University, where he earned a marine biology degree. He studied reefs in Mexico and tooled around the San Juan Islands in a 14-foot aluminum boat. Once a pod of orcas rose beneath his hull, their smooth backs slicing through the thin skin of the straits before retreating into the murky fathoms of a memory. That encounter would climb onto the top-ten list of outdoor moments of his life.
By 1997, Stowell had grown restless working at an environmental lab when a friend, Mike Morford, called to talk to him about the Internet and how you could use it to sell something they both used all the time: outdoor gear. They started Altrec, which would grow into one of the most resilient online companies of its time. Four years in, having survived the tech bubble burst of 2000, Stowell, ever the traveler, bought a fledgling group from a fellow Seattleite called the Adventure Travel Trade Association. To help fund the rocky start, he sold a first-edition copy of Moby-Dick that he’d bought for $2 at a yard sale.
Members of the group today say the association back then was “dying on the vine,” but Stowell saw a need and worked to revamp it on the hope that this eclectic band of businesspeople, politicians, and adventurers could change the global travel industry as a whole from a largely exploitative master into a positive mentor dedicated to preserving environments and cultures all over the world. Under Stowell, the group has grown from 100 members when he took it over in 2004 to more than 1,000 members today. He and his associates have helped countries develop their adventure tourism assets—beaches, islands, mountains, rivers—so that they may generate income for generations to come. He has held court with Mexican president Felipe Calderón, whom he calls an “amazing man,” and Haakon, the crown prince of Norway (“fabulous, adventurous spirit”).
Yet Stowell knows some of the most profound lessons come from people far from power. He learned years ago from a Chinese family raising an orphan found in a field how well-meaning tourists can destroy a culture with money. To help communities offer quality, authentic experiences to travelers he helped create programs to standardize guide training all across the globe.
“What he did with the group wasn’t to just give adventure travel a bigger slice of the mass travel pie,” says Berne Broudy, a writer and photographer. “He grew the pie.”
A few years ago in a remote canyon of Namibia, hundreds of the world’s most dedicated adventure travel specialists mingled over beers and oysters for the start of the tenth annual Adventure Travel World Summit. The annual gathering, held each year in a new spot around the globe, is the biggest, most productive event of its kind for international outfitters and regional guides to get together and hash out deals that will eventually send hundreds of thousands of travelers into some of the world’s most spectacular places. It is also a ridiculously fun place to be.
On this particular day, fine African sand dusted the shoes of diplomats, authors, and conservationists while leaders from some of the biggest—and smallest—companies in the adventure business craned their necks skyward watching a plane drift into view.
“And there they go!” boomed a voice through a microphone, reverberating off the rock walls.
At first there was nothing more than a speck, but that speck eventually turned into a parachute, and from that parachute dangled two men. One of them was Stowell.
That desire to dive into the unknown, to tease out wonder from the places we often overlook gives Stowell an almost boyish glee. His hair is neatly trimmed. He has no grizzly beard or shark-attack scars. The rush he gets from being on the road often comes from the mundane. A few months ago he held a heavy skeleton key to an ancient Irish estate and felt the centuries of caretakers pulse in his palm.
Stowell landed in that Namibian desert unscathed, and almost a year later his image was projected onto the side of an Irish castle for the 11th annual summit. Some 700 people from more than 60 countries had poured into Killarney, and for the first time, Stowell wasn’t among them. Last-minute open-heart surgery to correct a lifelong defect had kept him home in Washington. Dozens of cell-phone cameras shot up into the sky and snapped a picture of him on that wall, which made him look rough and distorted. In a way, it was a fitting portrait—a man so inextricably close to his surroundings that the two were finally one.
Shannon Stowell is a tireless leader who often ventures wildly into the deep, dark unknown in search of adventure. Shannon was ingrained with the tradition of old-school adventure seeking, and he’s carried that torch into the present. TUDOR Watches is proudly celebrating the legacy and heritage of adventure travel that is thriving within millions of adventurers today. The spirit of adventure travel lives on through the TUDOR Heritage Black Bay, which honors the decades of passion and individual determination to journey into mysterious new worlds yet comes to life with brave excitement and stylish courage.