On the Wild Side: Introducing Jan Balala
Jan Balala is rather legendary. Like Susan Lucci’s 19 Emmy nominations and Liz Taylor’s eight walks down the aisle, Jan has been on 14 Wild Women Expedition trips. Fourteen! You’ve probably seen her playful grin on our community page. Maybe you recognize her name because it’s synonymous with incredible wildlife and dramatic landscape photos. Behind the zoom lens there’s a tall tale that involves a lot of bananas, a paramedic, a teardrop trailer, the Jolly Green Giant Museum, Spam and 44 states (and counting).
Introducing Jan Balala, a genuine top banana!
My name is Jan Balala, and I am a Wild Woman. Before that, I was a Top Banana. Still am really. If you take the ‘L’ out of my last name and substitute “N”, you get Banana. And that’s what many kids did when I was growing up. I was teased often in elementary and middle school. So I turned the tables on them and just adopted the banana as my personal symbol. My parents took my siblings and I camping when we were young, and when my father bought us a used canoe, my brother and I painted it yellow and named it the “Top Banana”. When I got my first car, I had a banana hanging from my rear view mirror. I called all of my intramural sports teams in middle, high school, and college the “Top Bananas.”
Competitive sports were my salvation. It was really only on the field or court or track that I was popular. I loved it when others were depending on me to save the day. I thrived under the pressure of those situations. And it was that mindset that would eventually serve me well in what would become my chosen career which I had always thought would be teaching. I served 30 years with the City of Cleveland Emergency Medical Service. As a paramedic, field tracing officer, chief dispatcher, dispatch training officer and Captain of Field Operations. Take charge. Save the day. And help prepare others to do the same. That was me.
I also loved being outdoors. I grew up right across the street from one of our (award winning) Cleveland Metroparks. I played in that park almost everyday. And now, in retirement, I volunteer for our park system, so I’m still in the park nearly everyday when I’m home. And when I’m not home, I’m usually either on a Wild Women Expedition adventure, or towing my teardrop trailer around the country and visiting other parks in other places.
Tell us, where have you travelled with Wild Women?
My first WWE trip was back in 2004 on a kayaking trip on Lake Superior. I had recently made the switch from canoeing to kayaking, and though I didn’t need to, I took my own kayak. I bought it from a friend (and kayak guide) and didn’t want to invest a lot of money until I was sure I was going to like it. I loved it! On my way home, I saw a sign and am pretty sure it was Swift Canoe and Kayak. For some reason, I just had to stop, and while the salesman was talking to me, I spotted it. Across the lot. Sitting there calling my name. It was a 17-foot long fiberglass Necky Looksha sea kayak. The fit was perfect. The color yellow! I bought another pair of saddles for my rack and continued down the highway with my new “Top Banana.”
I have been part of several kayaking trips in Georgian Bay and French River and on retreats on the Spanish River and Zum Waldhaus (all in northern Ontario) and Bowen Island, BC. I’ve paddled in Haida Gwaii, went dog sledding in Algonquin Park (Ontario), and was on the very first WWE trip in New Zealand AND the first WWE Antarctica small ship expedition. I’ve also been to the Galapagos Islands and Alaska with Wild Women.
Why did you choose us?
I have spent most of my life planning trips (mostly tent camping). When I took up kayaking, land navigation was one thing, but navigating big water was way out of my wheelhouse. I wanted to join commercial trips and while finding trips wasn’t hard, being a solo traveler on these organized trips wasn’t a great experience. I was often a single female among a bunch of straight couples who all too often assumed that since I was single I was looking for a mate. It was worse than traveling alone.
So, I started searching for women-only adventure travel opportunities and found Wild Women Expeditions. At that time the company was based on the Spanish River in Ontario, and offered primarily canoe and kayaking trips. Just the kind of thing I was looking for.
I have found that while I still enjoy the research and planning process, it is really nice to occasionally let someone else do all the work, and just go along for the ride. Meeting and connecting with a diverse group of like-minded and adventurous women is also great.
What’s the one story you keep telling everyone about your trips?
I just keep telling women that I meet that if they would prefer adventure travel to the usual touristy tours offered by so many travel companies, to look up WWE!
What have you accomplished on a Wild Women trip that you never thought possible?
Going on Wild Women trips has given me the opportunity to go places I would never attempt by myself–like kayaking in Haida Gwaii with its 24-foot tides and strong currents, Alaska and the big water of Lake Superior. And, more far-flung international travel outside of North America.
Do you still keep in touch with anyone from your Wild Women trip?
Yes! While not every trip has resulted in lifelong friends, most of them have. From the very first to the most recent. Some are Facebook friends, others I have taken more WW trips with and there are a whole bunch up in Ontario that I have really connected with, and now that the pandemic is winding down, I really want to get back to visiting.
Name three things you MUST travel with—and we’re not talking about necessities per se, but what’s necessary to you?
- My electric toothbrush–I can’t ever go back to manual now.
- My SLR camera. Cell phone cameras have become amazingly better (for landscapes), but I still want the big glass for wildlife.
- When I’m on camping trips, the Roadside America app. I love finding weird and interesting places to stop. My last trip I stopped at the Spam Museum (yes–the tinned meat company), the Jolly Green Giant Museum (vegetables) and the Jiffy Mix Factory (carbs). Almost a complete meal.
What socks or trail runners or gear do you swear by?
I love Oboz boots. Finally someone makes boots that fit my feet! And trekking poles!
What destination did you dream of as a child? Have you been there yet?
I dreamed of visiting all fifty states. If (when) things go as planned, after this year, I will only have three left to go. But my camper will only have been to twenty nine, so…
What or where do you dream of now?
The Northern Lights. I have now been to 5 continents, so it just makes sense (to me) to hit all seven. I need Asia and Africa!
What travel memoir do you insist that EVERYONE reads? Why?
Kabloona in the Yellow Kayak: One Woman’s Journey Through the Northwest Passage (it’s not about me, but I’m sure by now you can imagine why I had to buy and read it)
At the age of 46, Victoria Jason, a native of Manitoba, was already a grandmother of two, had been kayaking for only a year and was still recovering from the second of two strokes. But she had a dream. To paddle to the north. She set out in 1991 with an American adventurer named Don Starkell and his friend Fred Reffler to kayak from Churchill, Manitoba to Tuktoyaktuk on the Beaufort Sea. It was Don’s goal to do it in just one Arctic summer. They didn’t even come close. Fred dropped out, but Victoria and Don returned the following year to pick up where they left off. They would make it to Gjoa Haven where health issues forced her to stop. Ignoring the warnings and advice of the locals, Don continued on and nearly died of severe frostbite before being rescued just short of his goal. After recovering, Victoria would continue on her own, and in 1994 she became the first woman to kayak the Northwest Passage. Don Starkell also wrote a book called Paddle to the Arctic. Read them both. The contrasts are very entertaining.
Do you collect anything commemorative on your trips as souvenirs?
I used to collect bones and stones, but moving from a three bedroom house to a one bedroom apartment (and maybe full-time RVing in the future) has left me searching for only useful things instead of tchotchkes. That, and nowadays it’s mostly illegal to remove anything from the parks. And of course there are all the photographs I take that allow me to continually relive the trips years later.
If you could travel with another woman, who would it be? Where would you go?
My maternal grandmother. She died of cancer long before I was born. It wouldn’t matter where we went, I would just like the opportunity to meet her.
Is there a destination or activity that you’d like to see offered by Wild Women?
For years I have been looking at the Wild Women site and thinking “I really want to go there.” Then the next year WWE adds another destination and I really want to go there, too. Being retired, I have plenty of time. If only I had the funds to match. One of the states I need to visit is Hawaii. A few years ago Wild Women did offer a Hawaii-based trip. I’m not sure why it was dropped, but Jennifer Haddow, WWE needs to go back! Just for me!
What’s the best part about traveling with Wild Women Expeditions?
WWE does all the work, and does it really well!