Social entrepreneur, environmental advocate and outdoor enthusiast Gerry Seavo James wants everyone to appreciate Kentucky’s natural beauty as much as he does, and to know about opportunities for outdoor recreation.
In 2016 he incorporated the Explore Kentucky Initiative (explorekentucky.us), which he had started three years earlier in college. What began as a passion project to showcase his photography skills and love for the outdoors has since grown into a viable business with a three-fold model that includes organized outdoor events, consulting work and merchandise sales.
Explore Kentucky’s events, like Bluegrass River Run and Expedition Frankfort, not only help promote public health and encourage people to be active outdoors, they contribute revenue to a local economy’s financial health through ecotourism.
A self-described military brat, James is a member of the Air Force Reserve. He lived in several states, including Georgia, Oklahoma and Texas, before moving to Kentucky in 2010 to finish his mass communications degree at Campbellsville University, where he studied photojournalism and multimedia.
He graduated in December 2013, a couple of months after he had started an Instagram account called Explore Kentucky. Using the hashtag #explorekentucky, as he still does, he documented his adventures around the state, discovering and sharing trails to hike, rocks to climb, and rivers and lakes to paddle.
He documented his adventures around the state, discovering and sharing trails to hike, rocks to climb, and rivers and lakes to paddle.
Instagram was still fairly new at the time, but as the social media platform has grown, it’s also proven vital to helping to grow an audience for James’ work. “I was like, this is not just a social network, but a way to use pictures to showcase a visual narrative,” James said. “The Explore Kentucky concept forged a community.”
After college he worked for a nature conservancy and was a freelance writer focusing on Kentucky’s outdoor spaces. The first large-scale outdoor event he put on was in June 2016. “In my Backyard: Red River Gorge” was an outdoor festival James created with the Powell County Public Library. “It was amazing,” he said. “That invigorated my appetite for this model.”
He then helped with the Drakes Creek Watershed Festival in Bowling Green. And he put on the Big South Fork River Dash in McCreary County, which is, according to James, “one of the poorest counties in the country, but one of the prettiest.”
In 2017 he teamed up with Kentucky Natural Lands Trust to create Explore Kentucky’s Ancient Forest, a series of hikes through Pine Mountain in Harlan County, “one of the most biologically diverse corridors in the world,” he said.
James also launched the Kentucky Waterman Series that year, for competitive paddle sports on lakes and rivers across the state.
“If it’s a paddle sport race in Kentucky, I’ve touched it,” he said. James, who is black, not only enjoys promoting the natural wonders of Kentucky, but also appreciates the opportunity to promote minority involvement with the outdoor world. “I’m proud because these are things that people think black people can’t do or don’t think of black people doing.”
The Kentucky Waterman Series became so popular, James was soon hosting events in West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania, and eventually rebranded it as simply The Waterman Series (thewatermanseries.com).
In 2018, James worked with the city of Glasgow, the National Park Service and other entities to establish a creek cleanup in Barren County. The project created the Beaver Creek Blueway Trail in a stream that had previously not been paddled. As the new decade began, James co-founded an advocacy group called Red River Gorge United.
“We don’t think a large-scale resort is the way,” he said of recent development initiatives in the area. “It’s not opposing a resort, but invigorating the local community and providing for a sustainable development approach to the gorge.”
In February, a whitewater race went off at Elkhorn Creek in Frankfort, the first event of what was to be a banner year for The Waterman Series. And then the coronavirus hit. There was pivoting and postponing until James decided to cancel the event.
He spent the downtime making a database of natural areas, and updating notifications of closings and availability parameters.
On May 24 James, a Frankfort resident, took his Canon 5D Mark IV camera to the state capitol to document the anti-lockdown rallies.
“I was frustrated,” he said. “Beshear is crushing it. We’re doing so good and people are complaining. I said, ‘Let me go see what these folks are talking about.’”
He posted videos and images on Facebook Live about the Three Percenters militia group hanging an effigy of Gov. Andy Beshear. The next day he was on CNN talking about it. He’s currently working on a documentary about these times.
“COVID, in a nutshell, got me back to my roots in journalism,” he said. On June 20, after a week and a half to prepare and promote the event, the Explore Kentucky Initiative put on the BLM (Black Lives Matter) Paddle Out at Fort Boonesborough. Attendees in canoes, kayaks and paddleboards gathered in a large circle on the Kentucky River for eight minutes and 46 seconds, symbolic of the length of time a former Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on George Floyd’s neck. “It was a pivotal moment for me, one of the best events I’ve hosted,” James said. “It was powerful.”
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