Connie Van Valkenburg is an 82-year-old adventurer who can lay claim to all seven continents. She has kayaked in two oceans, the Sea of Cortez and too many lakes and rivers to count. Her passion for birding, botany and photography has led her to explore local bogs and faraway islands, and she is currently writing a memoir of her travels.
It all started when she was 4 years old. Van Valkenburg lived on the north shore of Long Island, N.Y., in an area covered by trees, hills and beaches. When her older sister went exploring, Van Valkenburg went too, following a trail of cookies her sister left behind. Her little legs carried her over fences, to the tops of trees and among the ice floes that dotted the ocean in the winter.
“I have always been an adventurer,” Van Valkenburg stated. “I’ve done things that many men wouldn’t do.”
Those things include a 24-mile solo trip across Lake Superior to Isle Royale in her homemade, 15-foot kayak. Recalling how she almost got caught in a storm, Van Valkenburg wonders if she would have been so gutsy today. She was in her mid-40s at the time, taking a needed break from her husband and children. “I do have fears on occasion,” Van Valkenburg admitted, “but I pay attention to [them].”
Kayaking aside, Van Valkenburg’s life path has led her on miles of uncharted territory. She got married to her first husband while in college in Ohio, and had three boys. From there she transferred to a school in North Carolina, where she was divorced and remarried. Van Valkenburg continued her studies in Texas and then graduated from Western Michigan University with a B.A. and secondary education degree, and a double major in biology and psychology. After moving to St. Paul, Van Valkenburg and her second husband divorced and she eventually married a third time. The relationship lasted until he died of cancer 20 years later. “He supported me in everything I wanted to do,” Van Valkenburg said. “That’s rare.”
Admitting that since then she has not been able to find a man who can keep up with her, Van Valkenburg has settled for primarily solo adventures and now lives in St. Paul, where her exercise regimen consists of shoveling snow and walking nearly every day. The heavy snow this winter has been a godsend for her upper body strength, which is required for kayaking. Last summer she joined the local branch of Inland Sea Kayakers and is learning how to do the Eskimo Roll, which involves righting a capsized kayak. She is also learning Spanish so she can better navigate future travels to Spanish-speaking countries.
And she will likely go abroad again. The only challenge she sees in her path is a European policy in some countries that bans people over 75 from renting a car. “I’m not restricted by age,” Van Valkenburg declared. “If I get a chance, I’d like to go in a hot air balloon … there is no sense in staying home.” She is also planning a 2011 trip to Alaska to take pictures of polar bears, and another trip to Kamchatka, Russia, in 2012 to photograph brown bears.
Van Valkenburg’s drive for adventure comes from her positive attitude and curiosity, she said. “You have to have an interest. I feel like a sparkler going off in all directions, and will do just about everything.”
One of Van Valkenburg’s interests is photography. She has her own business, Onion Blossoms Photography, selling prints and cards. One of her favorite subjects is wild orchids. Minnesota is home to 42 varieties, and Van Valkenburg regularly treks across forest trails and swampy bogs to find them. Her love of birds has also fueled much of her travel, and she has been to Oregon, Texas, Madagascar, Tanzania, Australia, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Patagonia, the Amazon and Antarctica to photograph them.
Van Valkenburg surmised it is her passion to see new things that sets her apart from other people her age. They don’t take charge of their lives and are content to sit back and watch life go by, rather than actively engage in it, she said. “Physically, none of the women I know who are my age are capable of doing what I can do,” Van Valkenburg said, explaining why so many of her adventures are solo ones. “Maybe there is a lack of things that drive them, and a lot of them have fear,” she continued. “They are missing life. I am living life. I am going out and doing everything I can do until I can’t do it anymore.”