YOP105: The Wild Life of Michael Modzelewski

By March 31, 2018 Podcast Episode

Bio: Michael Modzelewski grew up in Cleveland, Ohio where his father played professional football with the Browns. He graduated from Indiana University with a B.A. in Journalism. On assignment with national publications and as a field-correspondent for Outdoor Life TV, Michael has visited over 30 countries, specializing in the subjects of wildlife and adventure travel. Michael is the author of ANGELES CREST, about ultramarathon running and metaphysics; NORTH THROUGH PARADISE, describing varied adventures in Alaska; and INSIDE PASSAGE: LIVING WITH KILLER WHALES, BALD EAGLES AND KWAKIUTL INDIANS, about his experiences on a northern wilderness island, was filmed for PBS-TV.

After living “date-less” on the wild island, upon returning to civilization, Michael was startled to find he was chosen Cosmopolitan Magazine’s “Bachelor of The Month” and AlaskaMen Magazine’s centerfold story (keeping his parka on but getting a staple in his navel : ) After receiving 5,000 letters from women around the world, he married one of the correspondents. Michael’s latest book, WILD LIFE: THE MISS–ADVENTURES OF A COSMO BACHELOR is attracting rave reviews from everyone except this mother.

Michael’s inspiring presentations about Alaska, Wildlife Conservation, and Human Potential have received standing ovations from audiences world-wide. He was chosen “Speaker of The Year” by Sharing Ideas Magazine. Michael is a guest speaker on Princess and Crystal Cruise ships, and has been featured on many national TV shows, including two appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show. His action-packed life was dramatized in the New York City award-winning, long-running off-Broadway Play, LIFEGAME.

When not traveling on Assignment, Michael enjoys running marathons, kayaking, mountain climbing, and exploring his two favorite places in the world: the Fjords of Alaska and the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania, Africa.


Zephan: Michael Modzelewski is a correspondent and cohost for Earthwise, the anchor TV show on The Outdoor Life Channel, featuring all the powers and nuances of the natural world. Michael is a roving correspondent for the national radio show, The Good Life, reporting from the field on his adventures all over the world. He grew up in Cleveland Ohio where his father played professional football with The Browns. For the past 12 years he has traveled to 40 countries around the world on assignment for national publications. After living dateless on the wild Island, upon returning to civilization, Michael was startled to find he was chosen Cosmopolitan Magazine’s bachelor of the month and Alaska Men Magazine’s centerfold story, keeping his pants and parka on by getting a staple through his naval.

After receiving 5000 letters from women around the world, he married one of the correspondents. Michael’s, latest book Wildlife, the misadventures of Cosmo Bachelor is attracting rave reviews from everyone except his mother. When not traveling on assignment, Michael enjoys the mountain climbing, marathon running, sea kayaking, surfing and exploring his 2 favorite places in the world and Michael in a second here I’ll get you to pronounce them because I know they are in Alaska and Africa but I probably can’t pronounce these names for anything. Michael, thanks for being here and how about we’ll start with your 2 favorite places, because I can’t pronounce them.

Michael: Zephan thank you so much for having me on, it’s an absolute honor. I’m really thrilled.

Zephan: Yeah, so what are these places that you love the most?

Michael: The 2 most beautiful places in the world, Tracy Arm Fjord up in Alaska and then in East Africa, in the country of Tanzania, my second favorite place is The Ngorongoro Crater.

Zephan: Very cool. I’m sure that there’s—you’ve been to 40 countries so you’ve really seen quite a bit here. Let me ask, how does one get started in this crazy life adventure? I read your bio when we first started talking and I couldn’t believe that this is how someone lived their life. How does one grow up to be like you when they’re older?

Michael: Well, I once heard an expression that the happiest adults are doing for a living what they did playfully as a child. In that vein, another quote that has been a lodestar on my life in Warren Beatty who great actor, film director, he said that “I knew I was getting successful when I couldn’t separate work from play.” Being a story teller, a traveler, it really started with my mom and being raised in Cleveland Ohio and I was a little boy, I don’t know 6, 7 years old and she read me to sleep every single night with Grimm’s Fairy Tales, King Arthur, all these world adventures, mythological stories that are timeless that live forever.

She said that when my eyes were closed and my chest was moving up and down, in other words when I was physically asleep, she kept reading. I think our subconscious is like a pilot light in an oven, it never really goes out and they tell people if you want to lean a foreign language let the tape recorder run all night because even though we’re asleep, a part of us isn’t and still absorbs and takes in. It was my mom who put in my ear and in my heart and soul, the sense of story, the love of language, the sense of adventure. One night she picked up a book called The Call of the Wild by Jack London.

Zephan: Oh man.

Michael: Why in Cleveland Ohio, this industrial city, why that story resonated so much, but that book just really, really affected me and then I spent the rest of my teenage years seeking out wilderness, trying to listen to the call of the wild.

Zephan: Where is the first venture where this young boy, Michael, for the first time really ventures off into the great unknown? What was the big first adventure for you?

Michael: Well, interesting thing was is my father was a professional football player with the Cleveland Browns where I grew up in the NFL back in the day and he never wanted us to be him, we didn’t have to grow up to be football players. He said whatever you chose to do in life, just be the best at it. He was such a positive influence. He would come home and he’d say “The only 4 letter word I don’t want to hear from you kids is can’t. You can do absolutely anything in life.”

He was just this fountain of positive energy and encouraging us to go out there. Then, he was go and my mother was wow, because being from Italy, Catholic, Superstitions, Visions, she was very much don’t live you might die. The constant worrying mother. I had that 2 dynamic thing going on, but I went to college for one year, to the very same school where my father was an all American football player at, I went on a football scholarship, trying to be my dad, trying to please my dad and I found out that the sensitive writer poetic side was more dominant than the athletic side at that time.

I quite the university, I gave up my free ride athletic adulation and I loaded trucks on a midnight shift with alcoholics and drug addicts to make enough money to buy a Eurail Pass to go to Europe for 2 months, on the advice of a friend. That’s what really changed my life, was to travel in Europe, see where streets are named after writers and artists, the respect for the writer and artist in Europe is as high as the actor or athlete would be in The United States. On that trip, that’s where I found my calling.

Zephan: You mentioned there though that one of the big things you were trying to do and I feel like a lot of us do this is that you went to school thinking you had to be like your father and do what he did, how many people do you think are out there right now that are doing this because they’re stuck in this programming thinking that they have to do what their parents did or they have to do whatever their parents are pushing them to do. I know in the Asian culture it’s definitely a very popular thing for parents to push their kids to become doctors and that’s the only thing they can do and there’s all this pressure in their schooling that they have to be this perfect person. How many people do you think are out there stuck living this way and then what do we do to break that down, because clearly it’s not working?

Michael: That’s such a shrewd observation because I would say 75 to 80% of people don’t live the life they should be living but they live the life trying to please others. Parents, spouse, children, whatever. It’s sad and I think when I’m in New York City sometimes on a Monday morning, you see all those dead souls packing those subways going to work and they’re just lifeless because yes, they’re supporting their families, they’re doing the right thing, but they’re not doing what they really want to do, what they really love to do. To me life is school. We’re here to grow a soul and nothing should really get in the way of maximizing our potential as much as we can.

Zephan: Yeah, absolutely, I agree, and you also mentioned about how your dad was go and your mom was wow, I have one of those too, I call her a Jewish mother.

Michael: Jewish mothers and Italian mothers are the worst I think.

Zephan: Yeah, how did that change for you over time? You went on this trip in Europe and obviously a lot of things have happened since. Was your mom around to see you change into this person, change from the person you thought you had to be to the person that you are becoming and how did her perspective of you or other people’s perspectives change of you as they saw you move out of what you thought you were supposed to be and move more towards what you were naturally born to be?

Michael: I think no matter what stage of life we’re in, what age we are, we want our parent’s approval and my father did not speak to me for a year. A wall of silence and we lived in the same house because—and rightly so. I gave up thousands of dollars of education. I gave up this football scholarship and also to get a degree for free to do it the hard way, to do it my own way and my dad couldn’t understand that. There was a wall of silence from him. My mother was a little more understanding because she saw the writer side, the sensitive side in me and she knew that that was the side that I probably should go for in life but to go to Europe by yourself and not have an itinerary or a plan, again, I’m going to get robbed and beat up and blah, blah, blah, but she actually took me to the train station, dropped me off there to get a train out to the airport but laying the guilt on me and, it was a rough one.

I’ve learned that the people in our town want us to stay there, they want us to be like them. Our parents can be overly protective and I’ve learned to follow a voice, and it doesn’t come from my head, it doesn’t come from my brain so much, it comes from my body. I call it the voice of wisdom. This voice, it emanates from my solar plexus. I learn a lot from life through my physical self, as much as my mental self. It has literally saved my life about 7 times. If we have 9 lives like a cat I’m down to about 1 and a half. This voice was saying “You have to do it different. You’ve got to go see the world before you get the mortgage and the kids and life comes at you fast.”

I just broke away and not knowing what was in Europe but the turning point was I was in Paris, France and I kept a journal every day and I’m sleeping in hostels, I’m living on a loaf of bread a day so I had enough money to afford the museums and I’m scribbling in a journal in Paris France in the left bank, and there’s this French couple sitting across from me and they in broken English, they invited me to join them for a drink. I said “Oh, I would love to but just let me finish this one paragraph.” I was a punk kid. I didn’t have a writing style; I was just scribbling. They looked at me, when I said I was a writer, with such awe and such reverence that is snapped my head back.

Then seeing the museums and seeing the streets name after writers, artists, the whole thing, I just got that whole different perspective, that there are other important things in life as well as making money, being successful on a monetary point of view.

Zephan: Yeah, I definitely found that, and it’s weird how this comes to you when you’re on the road, when you’re away from home. When I first took my big trip and I took 2 months off from everything, I still had my email with me, I was still checking it and responding to people and I was prebooking work so while I was gone, I’d have some work when I came back. My whole thinking going into it, even as I got on that first plane was I’m going to come back to nothing. I’m screwing this up. I’m going to have no money, no nothing. When I got back, not only did I realize that I had prebooked enough work that I made the same amount of money on the road as I did when I was home, but I now saw the value in being able to let go of that sort of monetary compensation. At the end of the day, let’s be honest, there’s still bills to pay, there’s still—money gets you and affords you many opportunities and experiences, but if you’re only in it for the money, you’re definitely going to live pretty unfulfilled.

Michael: That is so true. One of my favorite authors, Joseph Campbell, a mythologist, in sort of his most important book was called A Hero with a Thousand Faces. He just could assimilate all the mythology from different countries around the world. The universal themes. There’s only really about 7 story themes and we tweak them, whether it’s a movie or a novel or whatever, they’re based on emperor with no clothes, beauty and the beast, those timeless kinds of myths. Joseph Campbell had 3 words that I just try to tell everybody along the life’s path. That is, follow your bliss. I really believe that when you’re on fire, with passion and purpose, you just emanate energy. That’s what charisma is, that’s what life is.

It all comes down to the energy that we produce electrically. I Sing the Body Electric, Walt Whitman. When you’re on fire with passion and purpose for what you’re doing, people have no choice but to get the closed doors out of your way. I think you have to find whether it’s a hobby you’re doing or something that makes time disappear when you sit down at the work bench or computer or building boats or whatever and it was 9:00 when you stated and 3 minutes later you look up and it’s 4 in the afternoon. Anything that can destroy the time space continuum, the way we normally think, is telling you, that’s what you should be doing.

Zephan: Absolutely. I wanted to—I think it’s important to bring up at this point too that many people when they’re on this search or on this journey, sometimes make a mistake though. They think that, oh, if I just go somewhere else, run away from whatever problems are occurring here, it will fix things. I think that that’s the wrong way to do it because everything is happening inside of us. I want to make it clear though, I think that adventuring and learning more about yourself through travel is huge because it might open you up to figure out what’s going on inside.

I think there’s a big difference between thinking you can get away from your current geographic location and it will fix stuff. I think that we have to look at these adventures as more of we’re opening ourselves up to experiencing the world and though that experience, we learn more about ourselves and who we really are.

Michael: That’s it. One of the things I’ve built my life on and I’m a real student of metaphysics and William James a great psychologist, gobbled up all of his books and writings, and I’m convinced that nothing happens to us by accident, that we direct the movie from the inside out. I know for certain that our brains are magnets and we attract what we are. I don’t think we attract what we want, we attract what we are. What levels we are internally, spiritually, is what we manifest in the physical world in front of us. I think it even comes down to manifesting a life partner, a girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse, that’s what we get back. It’s a mirroring effect. I think it all happens from the inside out rather than the outside in.

Zephan: You mentioned attracting a spouse there and I know that you have quite an interesting story with that. I’m sure that if we heard all of your adventures we could be talking into next week, but I’d love to hear a nutshell of, at some point you wound up on an island that you were living on for a little while. I know it’s tough but catch us up from when you went on that first adventure to a couple of things that happened in your life leading up to winding up dateless on this island.

Zephan: I’ll give you the quick version, I came back from Europe, I quite the university that my father went to, to be a football player. I now knew what I wanted to be and I think 90% is knowing what you want and then it will come your way. That’s the tough part is figuring out that first step. You’ve got to be precise and exact in what you’re projecting into the universe. Now I knew I wanted to be a writer. Indiana University has the best journalism school or one of the best in The United States and it was founded by a World War II correspondent named Ernie Pyle. I figured, I better learn the rules of writing and communicating and then later I’ll try to break them as an artist.

I transferred to IU but the interesting thing was is I got thrown out of the only creative writing course that I tried to take because the professor was almost like a prophet and he said “Michael,” he goes “get out of here, I can’t teach you anything.” He says “You’re a natural writer.” He said “What you have to do,” He said “go, go live on an island. Go travel the world. You’ve got to live life man and you’ve got to write about it. You can’t sit here on a classroom. I’m only going to stilt your style.” I was shocked by that, tried to live hard and study hard, I did get my degree.

I go to Colorado, a woman came out of nowhere like an angel on earth. I really believe that there are people, emissaries that cross our path, they might not stay in our life very long but they introduce us to our future. They connect us to a job or a spouse and there were a thousand people milling around in a meadow watching hang lighters come of the top of a mountain. Everybody had their head back and I bumped into a back. Why wasn’t I standing 18 inches to the left or 2 feet to the right? I bumped into the back of a woman from Vancouver British Columbia, she was an architect and at that time, we fell in love, I got a letter a day. “Oh come and see me.” But I had never been west of Colorado, stuck out my thumb, hitch hiked all the way over to Los Angeles, all the way up the west coast, spent 2 weeks on her sail boat, exploring the inside passage to Alaska, one of the most beautiful places on earth that I didn’t even know existed.

Through Jeanvieve, I met a man who owned an island up there and I was going to stay 2 weeks at his invitation and I ended up staying 2 years, wrote my first book published by HarperCollins and Cosmopolitan Magazine in New York City got wind of the book and my crazy adventures and every month they stick a single guy in there called a bachelor of a month and I got 5000 letters from women around the world and that’s how I met my wife Paula, my true life partner. It’s just craziness, but I think it all started with knowing what I wanted, is I wanted to be a writer but I didn’t know how that was going to happen. I just kept beaming that into the universe and I wanted Jack London and when I met the man that owned the Island, he had all that Call of the Wild stuff. It just was keeping that current and broadcasting it into the universe, the law of attraction kind of thing.

Zephan: Yeah, definitely, let me ask you this because I think that we have a wide variety of listeners to the podcast. Something interesting that actually happened to me just this morning was someone reached out to me who had read my book but they said they were 50 years old. I’m finding more and more people who—I’m only 26 right now at the time we’re recording this but I’m finding more and more people get into their 40s, 50s, sometimes 60s and they look back and it’s almost like they feel like they wasted their life because they didn’t do this. What would you say to someone who has gotten to a later stage in life and is truly just now realizing I need to start living differently than how I have been for so long?

Michael: I would say to them, it’s never too late. I really believe that time doesn’t exist. It’s one of the follies of mankind. There was as distant Roman Cesar, a long time ago, declared our calendar that every 365 days there be another strike against us called a year but why didn’t he pick 700 days, why not 7000? I know 90-year-olds that are 19 and I know 19 year olds, you might as well bury them in the ground. It’s just, we’ve got to throw that stupid number way because it’s so limiting. I would say to the 50-year-old or whatever thinking it’s too late, it’s like, are you kidding? It’s like every day you could totally transform your life and make it happen and if you just get out of that mindless time frame of thinking that each year is a drop down rather than a step up.

By the way, I must tell you this, I’m a little bit psychic and I must tell you that you are a wise soul, you are far beyond 26-years-old and I really believe Zephan that you are an avatar. You are put here on this earth to help and to teach people. You are doing exactly what you’re meant to be. I really get that sense and that’s not coming from me, it’s coming out my right shoulder. It’s like the universe wants that to be said to you.

Zephan: Thank you for sharing that with me first off. I think it’s one of those things where it’s always interesting to hear coming from others. You make all this stuff and you put it out into the world and you don’t know when it’s going to come back or even if it’s going to come back or if it will make the difference. It’s cool to be in the middle of the adventure right now and to be able to look at it and say, it has been a wild adventure and it’s still a wild adventure and it’s not going to be anything different but a wild adventure for quite some time. I think it’s a really great place to be.

Michael: I call that the ripples in the pond, we all throw the pebbles out there and sometimes we don’t even know how far those ripples extent outward. A 50-year-old man contacting you, those kids that are so lucky to be able to have you as their leader to go through Europe. You are literally going to change their lives and I predict that there’s going to be a few of those kids that will be in touch with you the rest of their life and your life, because of what you are able to help show them during that trip coming up.

Zephan: Yeah, I really looking forward to that because it’s going to put me into a different environment myself and still being able to—I think one of the best skills someone can have is still being able to retain your person and who you really are when you’re thrown even outside of your own comfort zone. I’m sure you’ve done that quite a lot in a lot of your journeys because you’ve been all over.

Michael: That’s the way to live, because when I went to the island and this is a wild island with grizzly bears and killer whales in the front yard, before that I had only been camping twice before in my life. I had nothing on my resume but when you throw yourself into the unknown, that’s when we accelerate our growth and we have all this innate instinctual knowledge that we don’t tap into in the civilized world because it’s not as challenging when you’re not facing life and death situations here, yeah?

Zephan: Yeah, absolutely and I’m picturing that at some point in time they’re probably going to make a movie about your life. Hove you ever seen—I know you like Call of the Wild, have you ever seen Into the Wild the movie or the book by Jon Krakauer?

Michael: Yeah, that was a really good book. I’ve related a lot with that. That was something that resonates a lot with me and just seeing that story and knowing that it was a true story, really makes all the difference there too.

Zephan: As we’re rounding off this episode, I’d love to hear, there was something you asked me at the beginning about your greatest adventure and most interesting adventure. I’d love to round off the episode with what was your greatest adventure and then what was your, perhaps, craziest adventure.

Michael: I think the greatest adventure was meeting my wife Paula and how that happened in a way that was so—being a bachelor of the month in Cosmopolitan magazine, I thought it was a silly magazine and I’m learning that opportunity can present itself in unusual ways. To be able to find a life partner, to be able to find your best friend, to be able to find somebody that you don’t even had to talk together for hours and when it’s as easy as breathing. I’ve learned that really you know you’re in love when the other person’s happiness is essential to your own. To have that with another human being and to only have it get better each day and not to have a ceiling or not to have a limit to it, is wow. That’s a daily adventure that we keep adding to and it’s just phenomenal, the depth and the joy that it brings.

Zephan: Yeah, absolutely. How about the wildest or scariest adventure?

Michael: I think one of the scariest was coming around a boulder, this is in August when the seminar running up in Alaska and there’s bears everywhere. I broke my own rule that I constantly tell people is you’ve got to make noise because bears attack in 2 conditions. These are bears that are 9 feet tall, they can be over 1000 pounds, they’re giant grizzly bears. Of course when a mother has cabs, I don’t know if you’ve seen The Revenant the movie?

Zephan: Well not yet.

Michael: It was that situation where the Leonardo character he sees 2 cabs in a deep forest and sure enough mom is behind him. She tries to kill him because she misinterprets his actions with a rifle trying to harm her children. I my case it wasn’t the maternal instinct that kicked in, it just was wrong place wrong time and me being silent. There was a huge boulder and the salmon stream was so loud, I couldn’t hear the footfalls of everybody else coming down the trail. I round this boulder like a 90 degree turn and there is a huge grizzly bear 3 feet way from me. If I had come around that boulder like a split second earlier, I would have literally run, boom! Right into him.

A grizzly bear will attack maternal instinct, protect kids, and they will also attract when you surprise them. Any animal whether you have a kitty cat at home or a dog when they lay those ears back flat against their head, they’re coming after you. He did everything else, he clacked his jaws and he gave me the cowboy walk where they stiffen and bow their front legs. I go “This is it.” I saw half my life flash in front of me. I have a native teacher, she’s an elder woman in Alaska and she had told me that if you’re ever that close to a threatening grizzly bear, you should sing to them.

I remember talking to Lucy in her kitchen and I go “Sing? What do you mean? Why would you want to sing to a threatening grizzly bear?” She goes, they’re not going to understand your words of course but the melody of your song might calm them down, put them in a diversionary track. Zephan, it was so weird. You have literally half a second to pull a song out of your own internal hard drive. Of all the music in your internal iTunes, what pops out? I couldn’t even sing it because I was so fearful that my mouth went dry. It was just like cotton mouth. Out of my mouth, I sang, if you can call it that, from a drunken karaoke night, a Neal Diamond song “You don’t bring me flowers, you don’t sing me love songs anymore.” The bear crashed away in pain, it worked. It worked better than a gun.

Zephan: Wow.

Michael: I had to change, remove my pants after that.

Zephan: Oh, I bet. Wow man, wow.

Michael: You know what’s weird, is I have dreams ever since that close encounter with death on 4 legs of being attacked by a bear in the woods. He’s just about ready to bite into the arteries in my neck, he’s got 2 red embers for eyes we make eye contact and all I do is beam love. I pour love lite maple syrup over his face and we’re dancing this Polish Polka together through the woods. You know?

Zephan: That’s wild. That’s awesome.

Michael: Maybe if hadn’t had sang and we had hugged each other, who know, we still might be dancing the polka up there.

Zephan: Man, Michael, you’ve got a wild story and I would love to—I think we should have you back at some point in the future too just to share some more. For right now, I’d love to just share with everyone how can people find out more about you? I know you’ve got a book out there. What’s the best pest place for people to go to learn more?

Michael: My long last name is hard to remember or spell but if they jump on Amazon and they just type in 2 separate words, Wild Life, that’s the title of my latest book and then it will take them to my author page and I have all my social media websites and I just love social media because for an author it connects you directly and I’m sure you know as well, that it connects you directly to readers and you can interact and answer question and it’s just so cool now to be connected that way.

Zephan: Yeah, totally, it’s been great to meet people from all across the world. You reached out to me over an email and I had never heard you story before and as soon as I heard it, I was like man, I’ve got to talk to this guy.

Michael: Yeah, I really believe we’re kindred spirits. We’re on the same path, you know?

Zephan: Yeah, totally. Michael, it’s been great having you here. I can’t wait to catch up more with you in the future and hear some more stories and I just want to thank you again for sharing a little bit of your time and a little bit of your life with everyone. Is there any sort of parting words that you want to just give to everyone tuning in?

Michael: This just flashed across my mind. When I was dating the girls with the Cosmo thing and a lot of times women would say to me “Hey, men know how to tune up a car but they don’t know the first thing about how to turn on a woman. Foreplay is what you do all day.” One of the biggest things I learned, differences between men and women and it’s just amazing, when you do this, doors open up, is when you listen not to reply but you listen to someone to understand then it’s just such a big difference. Most of us truly don’t listen. Especially men. I think when men listen, they think they’re being subordinate. When you listen not to reply with your own answer but when you listen to understand, that’s a big key.

Zephan: That’s awesome. Michael, thank you so much for sharing that and it’s really been a pleasure having you here today.

Michael: My pleasure. It’s so great to go deep instead of superficial. Zephan, let’s keep in touch. I want to know, I want to follow your life path as well.

Zephan: Absolutely. Thanks again.

Michael: Thank you brother.