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Meet the endurance athlete and the conservation scientist cycling 30,000km for nature

April 04 2024

Every year, billions of birds migrate across countries and continents, following ancient flyways that soar above cities, deserts, mountains, and oceans.

Meet the endurance athlete and the conservation scientist cycling 30,000km for nature

Next summer, endurance athlete Leanna Carriere and ecologist and explorer Dr. Timm Döbert will cycle the route of the westernmost of these flyways, covering 30,000km from Alaska to Patagonia.

Visiting fifteen countries during their nine-month journey, the pair will bring endurance sport, science, and sustainability together as they attempt to highlight one of nature’s most incredible stories – and show why we all need to act to protect it.

Image: Justin Brunelle

Image: Justin Brunelle

Science, sport and storytelling

Leanna Carriere has loved sport from a young age. She was a pole vaulter for Canada for over ten years, became Canada’s first female decathlete in 2015, and then turned to endurance sports after the birth of her daughter in 2016.

“I love cycling, running, being in the trails and swimming,” Carriere tells Global Sustainable Sport. “I really fell in love with being outside.”

But during her time outdoors, Carriere had noticed the landscapes changing.

“I knew that the environments around me were changing,” she says. “Cycling in the ice fields, I noticed that they’re very small now, and as a kid they were huge.”

Carriere had been looking for an endurance challenge, and during the early Covid pandemic, she discovered the Pan-American highway, which stretches from Alaska to Patagonia.

It was at this point that Carriere met conservation scientist Timm Döbert, and the together the duo decided to develop an expedition that went beyond a simple endurance event.

“For Timm, doing something purposeful is really important, so he really challenged me to do something larger,” Carriere explains. “He showed me the flyways on the Pan American Highway, and we came up with the idea to cycle the highway and bring communities, sport and science together.”

Dr. Timm Döbert is a conservation scientist and explorer who has worked in Asia, Australasia, Canada and Europe. His work focuses on tracking the human footprint on the natural world.

While Carriere was looking for a new athletic challenge, Döbert had been looking for ways to bring his knowledge and expertise to a wider audience.

“I’ve been a scientist in academia for so long, but the question is how do we reach different audiences – how do we bring people on board so that we’re not just stuck in our siloes?” Döbert tells Global Sustainable Sport.

Together, Döbert and Carriere planned an expedition that will trace the migratory journey of a flock of birds following flyways that intersect with the Pan American Highway. The 30,000km journey – dubbed Wings of Survival – will take around nine months to complete.

“The idea is to follow the migration of the birds, and tell the story of the birds,” says Döbert. “It’s a way of showing how these tiny little warblers compare to the best human athletes.”

If they’re lucky, the two hope to be able to track the same single bird along the way.

“The idea is that we’ll reconnect with the same bird – we’ll meet a flock of birds in Alaska that’ll be the same flock we meet again in Patagonia,” says Carriere.

Along the way, the pair will engage with local communities and work with scientists to gather data. Working with organisations like Bird Life International, Döbert and Carriere will highlight sites along the flyway corridor that need protection.

“One of the goals is to look for sites that are not being protected right now,” says Döbert.

The expedition comes at a time when wildlife is under increasing threat.

Greenpeace has called biodiversity loss ‘a silent environmental crisis’: wildlife numbers have seen a decline of 69% over the past 50 years, and around two million species are now threatened with extinction, including every eighth bird species.

Critically, biodiversity loss is exacerbated by human-driven issues like climate change, deforestation, and pollution. Raising awareness of the threats to the natural environment is more critical than ever.

Image: Justin Brunelle

Image: Justin Brunelle

Preparing for the expedition

The expedition is planned for June 2025, and the team are now turning their attention to the preparations.

Physically, the journey will be a test of endurance.

“Over the last year we’ve been building durability, working multidirectional training,” says Carriere. “We’ve been getting really strong in the gym so we don’t get any overuse injuries, and working our aerobic base.”

The pair have recently taken part in a four-day trial expedition in Colombia, gathering physical data to inform their planning.

“Monitoring and figuring out our bodies and what they need is super important,” explains Carriere.

The team hope to create a platform to share their physical data throughout the expedition and are also collaborating with the sport psychology department at the University of Alberta on a study on resilience.

Beyond the physical preparations, the team are also working to connect with communities and organisations who can help to tell the story along the way.

“We’re really trying to improve our Spanish – community engagement is going to be a really important part of this journey, both on the ground and virtually,” says Döbert.

Plans for events along the way include engaging with schoolchildren and local community groups to explain the expedition and raise awareness of bird migration, nature, and biodiversity. The pair also hope to build virtual platforms where people can follow the journey and even ride alongside them in real time.

“We’d really love to engage the sports community around the world,” says Döbert. “There are so many cool citizen science opportunities these days, and we want to utilise what’s out there.”

Another major part of the expedition is a documentary that will follow the pair’s journey from their initial planning stages right through to the end of the expedition.

By working with two production teams and producer and director Justin Brunelle, Döbert and Carriere hope that the documentary will bring their story – and the birds’ – to an even wider audience.

Working with a team who are also committed to communicating on the effects of climate change and making purposeful work is important to the pair. “All of our individual passions came together in one project,” says Carriere.

Pre-filming has already taken place in Patagonia, Alaska, Colombia and Edmonton, and the documentary will launch after the expedition’s conclusion.

Image: Justin Brunelle

Image: Justin Brunelle

Using sport to tell the story

Endurance challenges and world record attempts can be powerful ways of drawing attention to human stories. The Wings of Survival expedition team are trying to draw on this same power to open up the conversation on nature, conservation, and climate change.

At the same time, the expedition is an opportunity to communicate conservation science beyond the usual academic channels.

“This is really an opportunity to bring in our passions,” says Döbert. “As a scientist I’ve always felt it’s great to write a scientific paper, but it’s not communicated.”

The challenge of communicating science and climate topics is not new, but with global heating accelerating, the problem of how to reach audiences and encourage people to act is becoming more and more urgent.

“Ultimately, we have to bring the majority of people on board, and we need to do it rapidly – we’re running against time,” says Döbert. “According to science we have just five to 10 years – so we have to be rapid. Being able to amplify is so important, and sport is an ideal way to do that.”

For Carriere, working with Timm and learning more about the science has helped the endurance athlete understand her own role in tackling the climate crisis.

“For me it’s been quite a learning journey,” she says. “It’s been opening my eyes and realising what’s out there and what can be done. I think athletes provide a great platform to speak on.”

As well as the immense physical challenge, the ultimate goal of the Wings of Survival expedition is to tell nature’s story.

“We’re trying to communicate important messages through human adventure,” says Döbert.

The expedition will be an epic journey, a test of endurance, a chance to connect with communities, and an opportunity for anyone across the world to stop and consider their own relationship with the natural environment.

“We want to encourage people, motivate people, and inspire people to look after the planet,” Döbert says. “We’re providing a different perspective on how to look at nature.”

You can follow the preparations and progress of the Wings of Survival team now on their website and Instagram.

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