Helen Schreider has spent a lifetime exploring the far reaches of the globe and now the Santa Fe resident is finally being recognized for it.
Schreider, 89, was recently inducted into the prestigious Explorers Club as a National Fellow.
Founded in New York in 1904, the club’s members have included legends like North Pole explorer Robert Peary, Everest climber Sir Edmund Hillary and President Theodore Roosevelt.
Her husband, Frank, was inducted in 1956, but she wasn’t even allowed to attend the ceremony, instead being allocated to a lonely table outside the dining hall – the club didn’t allow women in until 1981.
“This was the case with many women back then,” said Lesley Ewing, a past Northern California chapter chair for the Explorers Club. “They were a team with their husbands, but they were never acknowledged as explorers themselves.”
Schreider was surprised to find out about her induction when the president of the club, Faanya Rose, flew into Santa Fe from New York on Aug. 10 to hand her the certificate. Friends and supporters had submitted an application without her knowledge.
“Goodness, I couldn’t believe it,” Schreider said.
Schreider’s career as an explorer started more than half a century ago. After graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles, Frank and Helen set out from California to Costa Rica by way of Jeep in 1950, along the route of the still unfinished Pan American Highway.
“We were young,” Schreider said. “We wanted to see everything and do everything. Frank said, ‘When we’re finished getting our degrees here, I want to do something that’s never been done before.’ ”
But the couple, who had married in 1947, hit a snag when they reached Costa Rica and couldn’t traverse the mountains in their land vehicle.
After returning home, Frank fixed up an old amphibious Jeep from World War II that he found in a junk yard. If they were going to use the ocean to get around the mountains, then they also needed something to overcome the waves. “He was so intent and so determined,” Helen said. “He was so genius at building things.”
With the second vehicle, named Tortuga, Frank and Helen started an 18-month expedition from Circle City, Alaska, to Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of South America by land and sea in 1954. They had taken jobs at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to raise money for the trip.
The journey had its trials, but nothing compared to the storms that pummeled their small boat/vehicle at sea.
“We couldn’t see anything,” Schreider said. “It was pitch black in the middle of the day. “(Frank) put his hand on my knee and said, ‘Honey, I’m sorry. I really didn’t think it would be like this.’ ” She said the U.S. Navy would check on them from time to time and they were reported dead several times because the Navy couldn’t find them.
They also ran into some interesting people on the trip, like a group of native Indian people in South America. She said they were trying to be careful around them, because they probably wouldn’t take too kindly to their German Shepherd, Dinah. She definitely thought they would be angry when she accidentally honked Tortuga’s horn one night when they were trying to keep quiet.
“We were told they weren’t particularly friendly, because they still had the memory of the Spanish with dogs,” Schreider said. “It turns out they have a legend that says someday a giant monster will come from the sea and it will have people in its mouth and make a horrible noise. They thought that’s what this was. After that, they were so welcoming, and we stayed there as their guests for three days.”
The trek hit another bump when they were hit by a truck in Chile, and Frank had to fix the boat with tin cans. “He could fix anything,” Schreider said. On the plus side, she said, the lakes in Chile were the calmest waters they saw on the trip.
Travels lead to books
The journey was published in a five-part series in the Saturday Evening Post and documented in their first book “20,000 Miles South,” published in 1957. Schreider said Frank did most of the writing while she took the photos. They also did a lecture series for National Geographic with film footage they’d captured. There was no sound, so they had to speak over it.
The couple began freelancing for National Geographic in 1957 and eventually became full-time staff members in 1965 as a writing and photographic team.
In 1960, the Schreiders took a different amphibious vehicle, Tortuga II, along the Ganges River in India. She said they were considered the lowest of the low in the Indian caste system. because they were outsiders, and everything they touched was burned or destroyed by the locals, but she says this was their safest trip. Their next book “Drums of the Tonkin,” from 1963, was about travels in Indonesia.
Assignments for National Geographic had them tracing the route of Alexander the Great and documenting the life of the people living along the Great Rift Valley in Africa, where she said the dense jungles of the Congo proved difficult to traverse and weren’t without surprises.
They investigated the sound of drums coming from the jungle as it was getting dark one night and stumbled upon an inexplicable ceremony.
“We walked all the way through the jungle, and the drums suddenly stopped, and we were in this clearing,” Schreider said. “These people were dancing wildly. They had headdresses with these big horns, and they were obviously on some kind of drug.” Schreider, an enthusiastic artist, sketched the ceremony and later turned it into a painting.
They published their final book, “Exploring the Amazon,” in 1970 after making a 3,845-mile trip along the length of the river. As was by now customary, they faced life-threatening danger, like getting stuck in quicksand in the Andes mountains. “Each one of these journeys had its high point and scary stuff,” Schreider said.
Move to Santa Fe
Helen said Frank never wanted to stay in one place too long. The couple had a home in Washington, D.C., while they were working for National Geographic, but they were never there. But there was something about Santa Fe that had Frank’s heart.
As snow was falling when they stayed at La Fonda one time on a lecture tour, Frank said something Helen didn’t expect.
“He said, ‘If we ever do settle down, I would like to live in this town,’ ” she said.
After decades of exploring the globe, the Schreiders finally landed in the City Different in 1990. For all their wonderful adventures, Frank and Helen never had any children. When asked about it in her apartment that is basically a museum dedicated to all of her journeys, she seemed a little distraught that she and Frank never started a family.
“I think you have to make choices,” Schreider said. “And I don’t think we always made the right choice.”
Even though Frank passed away on his boat off the coast of Crete from a heart attack in 1994 – his death merited a news obituary in the New York Times – Helen still isn’t done exploring the world. She visited the Great Wall of China for the first time four years ago, and she still plans on making a trip to Tahiti. She can’t say for sure what the most memorable place she has visited was, but there was definitely no place that wasn’t worth the trip.
“Our world has gone crazy with all the hate,” she said. “It’s such a beautiful world. Everything we saw is still worth going back to.”