Peter Jenson 1936–2010
Peter Stonewall Jenson, founder of Amazon Explorama Lodges, died of cancer on June 20, 2010, at the age of 73. He spent his final days in the Peruvian rainforest he deeply cherished, at his home in Explorama’s Ceiba Tops.1
Peter Jenson was born September 25, 1936, in Ladysmith, Wisconsin1—a state he would later describe as “a very good place to be from” (L. J. Smith, e-mail, August 4, 2010).
Long before Jenson became synonymous with ecotourism in the Peruvian Amazon, he was an educator and adventurer in the American Midwest. During high school and college, Jenson was a guide at Crystal Cave in Spring Valley, Wisconsin. After earning bachelor’s degrees in both geology and archaeology from Hamline University, and then his master’s from the University of Minnesota, Jenson continued to imbue knowledge and champion learning as curator of geology and archaeology at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul.1
In the early 1960s, Jenson dedicated himself to 2 years of service with the Peace Corps in Peru, a decision that would dramatically impact the direction of his life and legacy. At the end of his commitment, Jenson took what he thought would be a short trip to Iquitos, the old center of the rubber-tapping industry in the Peruvian region of Loreto—but his vacation destination became home, and it was there that his real life’s work began.1
Jenson’s mission to share the majesty and biodiversity of the Peruvian Amazon rainforest began humbly. “He started by becoming friends with the Yagua Indians and renting a boat to take tourists to their village.”1 In 1964, Jenson and Marjorie Smith started the river-excursion venture that would blossom into Explorama, and a tiny, rustic hut was constructed soon after to accommodate overnight guests. Forty-six years later, Explorama comprises myriad tours and 5 lodges—including the American Conservatory of Tropical Studies (ACTS) Station2—and in 2009 the company received an Educational Travel Conference “Responsible Tourism Award.”1
Almost from its inception, Explorama was a home-away-fromhome for scientists, educators, and students. Hardy Eshbaugh, PhD, professor emeritus of botany at Miami University, first met Jenson at the Iquitos airport in 1971, during a 4-month chilipepper-collecting expedition (oral communication, August 4, 2010). Jenson was quick to invite the Eshbaughs—virtual strangers with 3 young children in tow—back to Explorama, or “his place,” where he aided Dr. Eshbaugh’s continued research.
Nearly 20 years later, Dr. Eshbaugh found himself back at Explorama, teaching with the International Rainforest Workshop, and in the years since he has sent a number of students there for research. “They run one of the very best operations in the Upper Amazon,” Dr. Eshbaugh said. “But perhaps the most remarkable thing [Jenson] did that changed everything for the people down there was when he welcomed Linnea Smith.”
Fellow Wisconsin native Linnea Smith, MD, fell in love with Peru when she visited with a tour group in 1990 (e-mail, August 4, 2010). Shortly after, she received permission from Explorama to utilize its Yanamono Lodge, for a discounted rate, to treat local patients. “However, after the first month,” Dr. Smith said, “Peter stopped charging anything at all and has continued to provide my food, transportation, and social support for the last 20 years.”
“Knowing that the improbable was possible” was Jenson’s greatest quality, according to Pam Bucur, Explorama’s reservations manager (e-mail, August 4, 2010). “Peter hoped that Explorama would always be a place that inspired people to go home and make a difference. He even inspired some of us to stay here and make a difference.”
In addition to the Yanamono Medical Clinic, Jenson facilitated a number of passion projects at Explorama, including the ReNu-PeRu Ethnobotanical Garden. In the mid-’90s, “with Jenson’s permission and encouragement,” economic botanist, author, and ABC founding Trustee, James A. Duke, PhD, helped to develop the teaching garden (e-mail, August 4, 2010). It now preserves 240 species of flora and enables guests of Explorama to learn about their uses.3
Beyond fostering the well-being of Iquitos’ indigenous people and nurturing the global scientific community, Jenson went to great lengths to preserve the rainforest in which Explorama is nestled. “Explorama has purchased and maintains thousands upon thousands of acres that cannot be logged, hunted, or built upon.”2 His good work was not lost on the nation of Peru. In 2008, Jenson was honored with an award from the Peruvian Ministry of the Environment for “Preservation of the Environment.” The award was presented to Jenson by none other than the president of Peru himself, Alan Garcia.1
“The American Botanical Council owes a huge debt of gratitude to Peter,” said ABC Founder and Executive Director Mark Blumenthal. “For the first 10 years that ABC sponsored ‘Pharmacy from the Rainforest’ ecotours to the Peruvian Amazon, we always stayed at Peter’s Explorama Lodge on the Amazon or the Explor-Napo Lodge near the Napo River, one of the Amazon’s major tributaries, downriver from Iquitos.”
“It was Peter’s larger than life vision that created such unparalleled settings from which to launch our journey of learning and discovery,” said Charlotte “Chuck” de Frances, former director of International Healthcare Expeditions. “It was also the beginning of a journey that gave us the opportunity to listen beyond [his] booming powerful voice and hear the nuances of Peter’s honed supportive nature.”
“Peter’s truly pioneering work in the Amazon created the opportunity for thousands of biologists, botanists, and conservationists, as well as pharmacists, physicians, and others to have a reasonably comfortable venue from which to conduct their studies or to simply become exposed to the wonders of the rainforest environment,” said Blumenthal.
Jenson contended with esophageal cancer for 9 months. Upon discovering that the disease had spread, Jenson asked to return to Peru, where he died enveloped by the beauty of the Amazon, in the company of his Explorama family. Per his request, on July 4, 2010, his ashes were released from the topmost point of the Canopy Walkway into the rainforest below.1
- Luehmann P. Obituaries—Peter Stonewall Jenson. Post-Bulletin. Available at: www.postbulletin.com/newsmanager/templates/localnews_ story.asp?z=5&a=461093. Accessed August 12, 2010.
- About us. Amazon Explorama Lodges website. Available at: www. explorama.us/aboutus.shtml. Accessed August 9, 2010.
- Ethnobotanical Medicinal Plant Garden. Amazon Explorama Lodges website. Available at: www.explorama.us/medicinal_garden.shtml. Accessed August 9, 2010.