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Arlene Burns, expert whitewater kayaker, climber and mountain biker, has gone where no American woman has gone before


11/1/2002

An expert whitewater kayaker, climber and mountain biker, Burns, 42, has been trotting the globe for more than two decades. Often traveling solo, her wilderness adventures have taken her to the most remote corners of the Himalaya, South Pacific, Southeast Asia, eastern Africa, South America, Mongolia and Russia. She was the first person to descend the perilous Tsangpo river in Tibet; the first woman river guide in New Zealand, and she pedaled her Stumpjumper 4,000 miles across Asia.

"Change is the one constant for me," says Burns. "It's always worked out best to just go with the flow."

Not long after getting a geology degree from the University of South Carolina, Burns forsook the traditional expectations of her mother "to settle down and marry mister right" and followed her inner compass. For 13 years she had no permanent address and lived out of a backpack, guiding wilderness expeditions all over the world for prestigious outfitters like Nantahala Outdoor Center and National Geographic Expeditions. She supplemented her income with writing and photography.

Burns laughs when recalling what it was like to be the only woman guide on rigorous mountaineering and whitewater trips. "You had to be twice as good as the men to be thought of as half as good -- which, in the long run, worked out just fine."

However, Burns found that being a woman traveler in most countries around the world was an advantage. "It was easier and more doors were opened to me because I wasn't viewed as a threat like a man would be." To illustrate her point, Burns recalls a time when she was in a remote Russian location that was under military occupation. "I was held at gunpoint," she says. "But when the soldiers realized I was a woman they just laughed and let me go."

Her high level of expertise in the outdoors and notoriety as one of the best whitewater kayakers in the U.S. (male or female) drew the attention of Hollywood. Upon returning to the U.S. after her 13-year hiatus, Burns found actress Meryl Streep walking in her footsteps -- literally. She was the role model and trainer for Streep in the movie "The River Wild."

Lately, Burns has been parlaying her outdoor experience and expertise into television. She's been a co-host for the shows "Anyplace Wild," "Trailside," "Survival of the Fittest," and NBC's Gorge Games, to name a few. She is currently the producer, director and host of "Sport Northwest" for Paul Allen's new High Definition cable network, ASCN Sports.

At the moment, Burns is grounded in Mosier, Oregon where she owns a home that serves as a crash pad for an endless stream of international visitors. She is writing an autobiographical book and reluctantly admits to enjoying the benefits of a permanent address.

But Burns, who is decidedly single, is always ready to embrace change and go with the flow. "There is part of me that wants to get lost in the world again," she says.

Unlike many people, it's not fear of change that motivates Burns. "My biggest fear is not being free."



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