Former Royal Marine Commando and explorer Ian Finch recalls his latest journey along the historic Cherokee Trail of Tears, and muses on America as the ultimate adventurer’s destination
Expedition photographer, outdoor guide and adventure journalist Ian Finch has been travelling to remote environments for more than 10 years. Here the former Royal Marine Commando discusses his latest expedition with fellow adventurer Jamie Barnes along the evocative Cherokee Trail of Tears.
Ultimate adventurer: former Royal Marine Commando Ian Finch
Can you tell us a bit about your most recent expedition?
From March to June 2019, I walked and canoed over 1,200 miles of a Cherokee removal route that began in their ancestral lands in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and ended in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Part of the route was hiked, part canoed. Along the way we shared the story of the trail through such means as carefully thought-out photography and sensitive, authentic storytelling.
One of our main aims was to walk certain sections with members of the Cherokee Nation (CN) to help share with us stories of the past, also about the beauty and depth of native people in the USA, specifically the CN. We truly believe this was a moment in history that needs to be remembered and shared, yet in a way that is sensitive, honest and factually correct. In our search for this authenticity we made connections within the CN and communicated with them throughout the 85-day journey.
What defines America’s natural beauty in your eyes?
The USA is so geographically diverse. It has every type of terrain and landscape imaginable. From the Rocky Mountains to the High Sierras, from the deserts of Nevada to the wild untamed tundras of Alaska, it is a place of unrivalled beauty. What makes America’s natural beauty so special is its diversity, but also the ease and freedom with which visitors are able to explore it.
What are your favourite parts of the USA in terms of exploring, and why?
Alaska has a special place in my heart. I spent three months paddling the length of the Yukon River and saw first-hand wild landscapes that define what I originally thought that beauty was. Recently I’ve spent a lot of time in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas, four states that aren’t necessarily thought of first when it comes to America’s natural wonders. Yet these states offer accessible wilderness where sometimes the only thing you can hear is the wind in the trees and there’s not even a human in sight.
Wild landscapes: canoeing on the Yukon River
What’s been the most poignant natural experience you’ve had there?
Recently I paddled the length of the Tennessee River up and over the Ohio River and down the Mississippi River, a journey of more than 900 miles. Each river system had its diversity, wonders, challenges and distinct features. Where the Tennessee River is picturesque, serene and full of immense lake systems, the Mississippi River is a glorious mix of changing flow and wild beauty, meaning would-be explorers need to keep a diligent eye on water levels and the river’s hydrology while admiring the scenery.
Breathtaking scenery: the Mississippi River
What challenges have you faced in different landscapes and terrains?
The combination of weather and terrain are the key factors to prepare for when possible before undertaking an excursion. Different countries have different storm seasons, so it always pays to check these cycles carefully before embarking on any sort of excursion. Terrain and landscape can be managed by prior preparation and the correct skill sets, but weather systems are unpredictable. If your heart is set on an Oklahoma adventure for example, consider visiting around October, when the weather has cooled and calmed and the forests along the eastern mountains are alive with amazing colour.
What is the best way to get up close and personal to the natural beauty of America?
The USA has an incredible approach to helping you enjoy the outdoors. Its national hiking trail systems are unbelievably well maintained, signposted and managed. The National Parks are immense and incredible and relatively easy to access whether by vehicle and on foot. If I were to give any advice, it would be to drive to a national park and spend a day hiking up to a viewpoint or mountain top.
Spectacular views: hiking in Yosemite National Park
What are the differences in preparation between mountain and lake excursions, and desert adventures?
Mountains, deserts and lakes are three vastly different excursions. What really counts is the preparation before you even step into the terrain. Will you be in a vehicle, on a bike or on foot? How long will you be out? Will you need to take water, food or safety equipment? Do you have the correct skill set to support the type of journey you want to undertake? Each different journey into each individual terrain will have its own unique challenges dictating what you’ll need to do to prepare. It’s vital never to take risks where you feel out of your depth. Coming home safely is the most important thing of all.
Can you tell us about your Alaska excursion and would you recommend it to others?
In 2016 I and a team of three descended the Yukon River by canoe from its source, more than 2,000 miles to the Bering Sea in Alaska. The main aspect of the journey was to connect with the First Nation communities in Alaska and learn about their heritage and connection to the land and to the river itself.
We also wanted to learn about how the modern world is affecting this connection and how it is changing or has changed life for an indigenous person along this vast water source. Other than the journey and landscape themselves being incredible experiences, what we learnt will stay with me for ever.
Are there any American adventurers and explorers you particularly admire?
Photographer Cory Richards springs to mind immediately. His imagery, approach and ideas are second to none. I also love the work of the photographers Krystle Wright and Becca Skinner.
For more features, go to visittheusa.co.uk