I personally grew up playing Tomb Raider, which if you haven't played it, is about a busty woman with guns who seeks out lost artifacts and escapes death an incredible amount of times. I myself liked exploring as a kid, and still do, but nothing like what Erik Cooper does. He may not go after artifacts or have dual pistols, but he faces all sorts of dangerous scenarios on his explorations. It's not walk-through-south-bushwick-at-night dangerous, but as he goes to find the last Reindeer tribe or learn to carry an eagle on his arm, it's nature that becomes both the threat and thrill. Since I'm fascinated with this sort of lifestyle, I had him come by for a couple portraits and an interview this weekend. (I suggested that he explore a generic dangerous tomb next, but I don't think that will happen) Also, be sure to look through the gallery of images from his adventures after the interview.
Conversation with Erik Cooper
What was your first adventure and what was the process of deciding it?
When I was living in LA a few years ago, I was trying to do the actor-thing, and grew tired of what seemed like "cattle call" after "cattle call". So, I had reached out to my buddy Dustin trying to brainstorm something challenging to do, Tough Mudder? He responded with a link to a Moto-Taxi race across the length of Peru. "Yup, that'll work I thought"- as we started to develop plans for that, late one night I was browsing around The Adventurists website and discovered they also run a horse race across Mongolia. This isn't just any horse race, just so happens it's over 600 miles (1,000km)- Guinness book's 'Longest Horse Race on the Planet'- basically the real life Hidalgo. Having been born and raised on a horse farm in Missouri, that passion for adventure and riding fast horses was instantly ignited. There was no question I had to do it. I'm pretty much a 0- 1,000 kinda guy, there's no baby steps. I talked to my buddies and they agreed, if given a spot I should go for it. So I gave the application & interview process every single ounce of energy I had. Safe to say I'd become completely and passionately obsessed with something that at the time, seem impossible, especially with a $14,000 entry fee.
Here, I had left the farm and the horses at 18 to move to NYC, then onto LA, 9 years later I never thought I would be "going back". I'd say the biggest driver wasn't adventure but the thought that I think each of us has at least 1 thing we do instinctually well, but maybe never want to push ourselves to the ultimate limit for fear of failing.
I got accepted and despite being BROKE, used the last bit of peanuts I had to put a deposit down and secure a spot in the race. Then freaked out at what I just signed up to do ha! I spent the next year crashing on a friend's couch and working like a mad man doing a variety of jobs. I turned my entire focus to getting prepared for this race on the other side of the planet, did I mention the horses were semi-wild Mongolian horses??
In the end the Mongol Derby proved to me what is possible when your passion leads you. It opened the door to a new way of living.
What do you find you’ve learned most about exploring the world?
I think through exploring these remote places where these people and animals depend on each other for survival, I’ve rediscovered what it's like to just LIVE. I've pushed myself to grow in areas where I know I'm weak and also realized the importance of staying curious and holding onto that since of excitement
When you went to visit the last Reindeer riders, what did you expect to see, and how different was the result from your expectation?
I was too busy thinking how we could get to them, that I guess a part of me never expected we’d actually see them let alone live like them for a short period of time. It almost seemed like a fantasy. The Tsataan tribe are the only people on the planet who ride reindeer for survival. They live in the high mountains along the Mongolian/Russian boarder, extremely remote and pretty damn difficult to get to. When we finally reached the high mountain pass, there was this holy shrine built from stacked rocks with a big stick poking out the center and a blue cloth beating frantically in the arctic wind. In the distance, the mountains opened up to a vast and almost barren valley, it was then that we saw the teepees of the Reindeer Tribes. I felt a mix of curiosity and excitement. It was surreal, almost like we had discovered a lost civilization, I guess essentially we did. I will never forget the moment we road into their camp and one of the moms came riding across the tundra on her reindeer. I just remember getting goosebumps and thinking "This can't be real"
What advice would you give to other people who want to go on adventures?
Don’t over think it. At the end of the day, you just have to get extremely focused, commit and DO IT! Even if it's something outside what you think your present skill set is, that should make it even more attractive cause you'll be forced to grow and adapt.
What are the new places you want to visit in the near future? Why?
I want to visit this nomadic tribe in Siberia, they complete the largest land migration on the planet, and I want to go live it with them. For me it's never about the solo expedition, it’s about seeing and actually experiencing the relationships between animals and humans, and the bond they have. There are people who depend on animals for survival in extreme climates, and it’s those bonds I find the most intriguing. I'm lucky enough to have friends who share this same passion for this type of exploring, I call them my tribe.
What other projects are you working on?
To answer them all would be too long, but one I’ll mention is a project I’m starting where I’m bringing special minded people that share my passion for adventure to the people and places I’ve explored and have been inspired by.
Reindeer pictures by Ryan Paschke