Are there any funny or interesting behind-the-scenes stories that happened while you were filming or writing for either Ocean Adventures or Wilderness Discoveries?

It was such a wild ride shooting all that stuff. We spent two and a half weeks and had two different trips to Hawaii to film [Ocean Adventures]. We went on a really great two-week trip all over the state of Michigan filming the Wilderness Discoveries, and it was just a blast. One of the things that happened when filming the whales was we had baby whale come right up next to the boat and stick its head out of the water—which you don’t see that every day and even if you go whale watching you don’t see that every day. And he stuck his head out and looked at me, and I was just like ‘holy cow.’ And it was just one of the most amazing things to be able to see that baby calf that’s just like 20 feet long and 4,000 pounds. I was just like, ‘This baby is huge!’

And the highlight for the Hawaiian episodes other than the whales, I mean there were a lot of highlights so I don’t want to downplay any particular experience, but holding that octopus was amazing. That was just unreal. I mean those guys are like nothing else. We had this nineteen-year-old kid who was on the boat with us who was part of the crew, and he’s grown up in Maui. And he was free diving which means no scuba gear; you’re deep down just holding your breath under the water. And he was looking around and I explain it in the introduction to the Hawaiian book, but he was swimming around down there and he grabs this Tako—what they call it, but it’s an octopus. And he comes up to the surface and says to get in the water, and he hands me this octopus. If he hadn’t been handing it to me, I wouldn’t have done it. I don’t trust this octopus. I don’t know what he’s going to do to me. I don’t know if he’s got a razor-sharp beak underneath. And so I get in the water and he like hands it to me, and it took us a while to get all of the legs off of him and onto me, and it just looked like this saggy, soggy thing that you’re trying to pull out of the water. But when he tried to move him, he was just hard. He was all muscle, and it was just really, really interesting to hold such a bizarre creature from the wild and be able to release it back. So that was like a highlight for me.

From the Michigan book [Wilderness Discoveries], I highlight sort of the two main highlights for me in the introduction to the book. And the one from Michigan was the Bald Eagle release and being able to see that Bald Eagle that was very, very sick and would have died if it had not been rescued and rehabilitated. To see that bird be thrown into the air over Lake Michigan, flying along the North Woods coastline, was a pretty spectacular sight. There were a lot of people there for the release of the Bald Eagle ‘cause it only happens a couple of times a year, in terms of how often they’re able to rescue a Bald Eagle, rehab it and release it. So it was neat to witness that.

In terms of funny, I don’t know . . . when we went to film the snakes, there are two snakes in [Wilderness Discoveries]. The one is the Hognose Snake which you saw in the ‘Dunes’ episode and the other one is a Garter Snake which we do in the ‘Transition Forest’ episode of the Wilderness Discoveries. And the fact is that Garter Snakes usually calm down very quickly after you pick them up. Individual [snakes] can be aggressive, but by and large Garter Snakes are snakes you can handle. And Hognose Snakes are notorious for pretending to be cobras and being aggressive. They will actually hood up a little bit and will fake strike at you, pretending to be a rattlesnake. They’ll even do that to the extent that if you continue to harass them or that you’re a threat, they’ll actually like throw up and flip upside down with their mouth open and pretending to be dead lying in their vomit so that they stink and you don’t want to eat them. They really do that! I did come across one in the dunes where we were filming, and it was pretending to be a rattlesnake and was pretending to strike at me and shake its tail and act all aggressive at me.

But anyway, so I’m writing the script for the show and writing into the script how aggressive this Hognose Snake is and how I was going to sort of watch it from a distance and talk about it because it was going to be nasty. And then the other script says about Garter Snakes how you can handle this thing, and it’s not that aggressive and it’s not that bad. Well . . .  it was just the opposite. And so we have this Hognose Snake which is the most calm thing in the world, and I’m handling it and talking about it on camera and we had to ditch the whole thing about how aggressive it is because it wasn’t being aggressive at all. And I’m holding this thing, and it was really cool. It was a great snake to have on camera and handle.

On the flip side, the Garter Snake was totally out to get me. It was like striking at my face while we’re trying film, and I’m trying to deliver these lines because you know the shots they’re trying to get is that I’m trying to have my face and the animal together. So I’m trying to hold this thing, and it’s going at my face and it’s striking at me and it just totally freaked me out. So all the rest of the crew was glad I was the host that day because I was holding the snake that was trying to bite. So if you watch that episode, our editor played with that in the edit. We didn’t just edit that away; it’s in there. And so that was kind of fun and a challenge for me because my snake behavior was flopped from what it normally is.

But you see that’s what happens when you’re shooting with nature. I mean, anything with nature is unpredictable and you have to roll with it. And we had to roll with things and a number of times when things weren’t exactly what they were [supposed] to be. We couldn’t find Tiger Beetles the first several days when we were there [in Michigan]. And we were poking around at some other places I knew in the area that should have them, and we weren’t seeing them and the wind was just so high that they weren’t out on the dune. But finally the day that we shot it I said, ‘Okay I just need ten minutes here; give me a net.’ And I went out there, and I looked and I caught three. So then we filmed, and we were okay.

While you’re on camera, I noticed that you’re always wearing a backpack. What’s in that? Are there special snacks inside or something fun like that?

I carried a backpack on the show when I did Critter Quest!. It started there. But I always need a backpack with me when I’m out in the wild, so that’s not anything that I’m doing on the show that’s just for the show. The reason I wear a backpack is if I’m going on any kind of nature hike, ‘cause there are so many things you might want to have when you’re out there. And that backpack was loaded, I’ll tell you. It was not an empty backpack. It was not just a prop. The script was in there, a towel or a change of clothes if I had to change my outfit—which I did. So that was stuffed in there. Water bottles were stuffed in there, and there was an extra boom mic and anything that the rest of the crew couldn’t handle; they’d jam it in my backpack. I had sunscreen in the backpack. There was all kinds of stuff in that backpack.

It’s funny ‘cause I was teaching a class recently, and I had one of the boys come up to me afterwards and say, ‘Can you write down a list in my notebook here of all the stuff you carry normally in your backpack?’ And you know I put down a list for him, and normally I’ll make sure I have binoculars and I’ll have a notepad and a pen and a pencil to be able to take notes and write stuff down depending on what my purpose in going out is. I’ll certainly bring a field guide or some description if it’s bird watching or if I’m going to identify trees or if I just want to have an insect guide as a reference. I have some kind of identification guide, always sunscreen, always carry water, and for kids you know I always carry a knife or some kind of multi-tool to be able to do things—whatever I need to. I actually have a really compact rain poncho that I keep in there just in case, and it’s come in handy actually. And I bring a flashlight, bring a headlamp, bring some gloves in case you need to protect your hands from rough surfaces. So just a whole myriad of things.

And of course I keep a little bug jar. One of the things that I love to show the kids when I do presentations—and we haven’t had an opportunity to do it yet in the show—is to pull out my bug vac. And it’s a very bizarre looking tool. Looks like you’d be using it for cooking or chemistry or something. It has a long clear tube and a little vial and then a copper tube that sticks out of the other end. And you stick the copper tube near the little tiny bugs that are too small to pick up, and you inhale in the clear tube and it sucks it into the vial.

And so how do you not inhale the bugs and have an unplanned snack for yourself?

Well, that’s what everyone wonders. There’s a little mesh screen that separates the copper tube that goes into the vial from keeping bugs from going back up through into the other tube. So it keeps it from doing that. So I always pull that out when I’m doing demonstrations. ‘Here are like the tools of the trade, guys. Here are the nets.’ I talk about the different type of nets you can take depending on what habitat you’re going into. I pull out my snake stick and talk about handling snakes. And then I say, ‘Okay if you want to be really fancy, here’s a bug vac.’ And I pull it out and show it to the kids.