Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

A Q&A with Expert Patty Hostiuck

Q: Having started your naturalist career as a National Forest Ranger in Alaska, where does your expertise in the tropics come from?


A: Even before I became a ranger, I led small natural history groups to the gray whale breeding lagoons of subtropical Baja California. Over the years I gradually worked my way further and further south into the tropics proper. In 1993, an opportunity presented itself to work in Costa Rica and Panama on a small cruise ship. Every day we hiked with travelers into the jungle exploring tropical nature-monkeys, butterflies, birds, trees. During this time I also led 1-2 trips per year into the Orinoco River Delta of Venezuela and to the tepuis of the Gran Sabana and Angel Falls, where I became absolutely hooked on the tropics and jungle. By 1999, I was leading groups several times each year to the Amazon River in Brazil and Peru. Since then I've traveled to the tropical region of every continent that has one—Australia, Africa, Asia, and Central and South America.

Having said all that, I’ve spent at least part of each summer in Alaska for the last 20 years, and I deeply enjoy temperate and polar latitudes as well. Latitudinally speaking, I’ve been from over 80° N to south of the Antarctic Circle, and traveled on all 7 continents and every ocean. I’m endlessly and incurably fascinated with our varied planet.

Q: You lead several Smithsonian trips to the same areas year after year, which give our passengers the benefit of your in-depth knowledge. How do you keep interested in that destination? 

A: There's no end to what you can learn about a destination, so repeating one gives me the opportunity to continue developing my knowledge of an area. For example, I have the freedom to spend more time learning about both the history and culture of a destination, which is of deep interest to me and of benefit to my guests. In addition, every destination changes with the times and seasons, which is fascinating to witness over many years. Finally, each new Smithsonian Journeys group brings new questions, viewpoints, and interests; so no two trips are ever alike.

Q: Since the excitement of many natural history tours stems from seeing animals in the wild, how do you handle situations in which the animals are more elusive than travelers might like? 

A: The first thing I try to do is set reasonable expectations, laying out the likelihood of seeing different kinds of wildlife. Then I engage people by teaching them how to search for different species—in which habitat, at what time of day, etc. It's not just my job to show them animals, but to teach them how I find them. Guests derive a lot of satisfaction by learning how to sight animals by themselves.

In the tropics, where large mammals are the most elusive of all, it's useful to remind people that wildlife also includes birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects, and other invertebrates, many of which are easily observed and have intricate life histories. Some birds and butterflies are so colorful or elaborate that they defy easy description. The main objective is to truly experience a representative cross-section of the habitat you're exploring.

Q: Do you have an all-time favorite animal or bird?

A: No way! That's why I constantly travel the globe—to go back and see all my favorites! But here's a representative few—puffins, bald eagles, albatrosses, penguins, bears, bats, reindeer, sloths, monkeys, whales, butterflies, octopi—well, you see what I mean!

Q: Having led more than 50 Smithsonian Journeys, could you please share three of your most memorable moments on tour?

A: I couldn’t possibly narrow them down to just three! Over the last 20 years, I have experienced more than my share of cherished and memorable moments and consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to share my love of travel and learning with so many wonderful people.

Q: In general, do you find Smithsonian groups to be different from other groups that you lead throughout the year?

A: Yes, I find Smithsonian groups to be the most inquisitive—they are deeply curious about each destination and eager to learn everything about it. They are generally very well-read and often widely-traveled and, due to their varied backgrounds, I always learn something new. I find they are excellent travel companions who take the inevitable minor inconveniences in stride, often with a healthy dose of humor. It has been my pleasure to travel again and again with a number of Smithsonian guests, building on our previous relationships.