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January 25, 2020

12/6/2019 12:09:00 PM
Television host, doc-filmmaker credits growing up in Chisago County as motivating, inspiring

JJ Kelley is a storyteller;   on film, videotape, television, speaking at cinema  festivals and in print. He has been nominated for an Emmy, and documentaries are worthy classics in the environmental field.   His curiosity about the natural world has guided his projects ever since he was rambling around wild places in Chisago County.

Kelley, who hosts a new series arriving in a few weeks on The Travel Channel,  commented, “I know this is a funny thing to say but much of my job is uncomfortable,  and I can find joy in just about any situation. I owe all this to where I’m from.”

Minnesotans know all too well, this state builds character  in making you immune to discomfort should you want to do anything outside of your home during about eight months of the year.  The jewel months make-up our reward for perseverance.

Kelley’s mom was a Taylors Falls Interstate Park Ranger which meant he viewed the park as his playground. He taught himself how to get from his house, through an area of forest, to the park at a young age.  Those early adventures left him with skills he relies on now as a cinematographer,  as host of The Travel Channel and correspondent for National Geographic.

“I am also a sucker for ice fishing,” Kelley admitted.

Granted, his current residence in Brooklyn, New York isn’t very conducive to ice fishing, but he enjoys telling about one of his first big catches as a kid;  it was a Northern Pike that got set aside and froze into a chunk. The fish was put into service for Frozen Pike Football.  

He appreciated his familiarity with lake ice and associated frozen water hazards when he was doing the series “The Ice.” The show involved spending weeks in Antarctica.  It was one of the hardest projects in his film production life, he stated. On doing this Nat Geo series in minus-40 degrees on the Ross Ice Shelf,  he swears, “I’m 100 percent confident my success ...came from those long winters on the lakes of Center City.”
He has since learned spear fishing in Hawaii and got his sea legs aboard a Bering Sea crabbing boat while filming “Deadliest Catch,” but Frozen Pike Football remains his favorite fish tale.

Kelley’s earliest documentary effort recorded a paddle expedition in a kayak from Alaska to Seattle,  and later riding a bike across Alaska.  
He says he has always had a fascination with images since he was very young. He’d use the family camcorder to do short films and when allowed to,  he’d do something like a book report for school on videotape.  

Chisago Lakes Middle School science teacher Pat Collins especially was supportive of his innovating through ‘video homework,’ he recalls.
Kelley did not attend school for film-making.  

He learned by doing and because there was no omnipresent Internet where he could just ‘Google’ videography, he experimented with the family’s basic camera and what was then VCR equipment.  He’d link one VCR in a bedroom to another in the living room for crude deck-to deck edit capability,  30 years ago.

Kelley gets hired now because he can do production, and host and run the equipment. He adds, “I have a pretty unique skillset. Today most of my colleagues specialize...however I’m the only person I know that gets hired to do all three things. This keeps me busy.”‘

He stressed,  “I absolutely attribute to those teachers, like Mr. Collins” for thinking outside the box.  They made it possible for students to contribute in the way that was most inspiring to them, he said.

Kelley brings his new series to the Travel Channel first airing  9 p.m. January 6, 2020.   

Called Lost in the Wild he investigates great-sounding adventures that went wrong.  The subjects headed into forests, jungles, mountains and did not return. Kelley looks at what happened in each installment through interviews with family, law enforcement and other involved parties.  
Kelley says he’s never been lost in the totally helpless sense,  but he has felt disoriented; kayaking in dense ocean fog in circles comes to mind.

With all his forays in the wilderness any of the upcoming “lost” pieces could have been about him.  

“Whenever I interviewed the mother of a child who’d been lost in the wild I thought ‘this could be my mom,’” he observed.

He has tips:  if you find yourself on a path that doesn’t seem like an actual trail, it probably isn’t one.  

In the wilderness if you feel as if you are moving in a circle, slow down. Panic is not helpful.

Kelley has done the Appalachian Trail’s 2,200 miles,  Georgia to Maine.  He says he always tells two friends when he heads out somewhere.  
Carry basics like a compass, some survival items and a GPS.

“You’d be amazed to learn that every country has stories of people lost in the wild,” he promises.

The are dozens of stories left on Kelley’s to-do list.

The issue is not the supply of stories, it’s not having enough time.  He spends half a year creating a piece and the other half editing, writing, and prepping for the next.  

The more he roams the more “...it just shows me new pockets of the world I’ve yet to see.”

This includes Minnesota. It  holds some of the most ultimate natural wonders he has known, and Chisago County  is a treasure. Enjoy it, he recommends.

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