A man and his giant gourd: Justin Fornal treks across the Hudson in a pumpkin. | Photo by Raymond Pagnucco | Courtesy of Justin Fornal
When Yonkers’ Justin Fornal isn’t traversing the Hudson via a giant pumpkin, the famed athlete, explorer, and writer gets his kicks hosting the Science/Discovery Channel show Unexplained and Unexplored.
While Justin Fornal recently drew attention by paddling across the Hudson River in a carved-out 1,500-pound pumpkin, he’s been turning heads for quite a while. Named the third-most-adventurous person in the world by Men’s Journal, Fornal first appeared in spots like this publication, The Cooking Channel, and the New York Times as popular foodie personality Baron Ambrosia. Fornal returned to his roots (and his real name) in the years since, striking out as an extreme athlete known for braving icy international waters, as well as an explorer and cultural detective who, in 2016, helped locate the lost skull of Nat Turner. Oh, and he is also host of the Discovery and Science Channel show Unexplained and Unexplored. We recently caught up with Fornal, who is currently preparing for what is to be the longest-ever unassisted Arctic swim, scheduled for May.
So, what’s the deal with the giant pumpkin?
I’m an open-water swimmer, training on the Hudson River year-round, and I have a big swim from Canada to Greenland that I’ll be doing in May. So, I am always trying to find access to the water. A friend invited me down to check out a few of the old boat clubs along the [Hudson], and he showed me The Palisades Boat Club, in Yonkers. It was gorgeous and became my base of operations for swimming. … So, one of the reasons I held this event was to do something at the club, and it was a great way to bring friends there. Also, there have been so many serious things in the world, I just wanted to do something to make people smile and laugh. To dare people to dream and have fun again, and to let kids know that anything is possible and that life can always be enjoyable.
How did you go from foodie to adventurer?
After the Baron Ambrosia stuff, I went back to my production background and started writing for National Geographic Productions and then started writing for their magazine and website. This is what got me into exploring…, and then suddenly I did a 100-mile Whiskey Swim around [the Scottish island] Islay, and that, as well as a few other things, got me into Men’s Journal. I wrote an article about the swim, and they called me up and said, “Hey, can we put you on our list of Most Adventurous People?” I said, “Sure.” And that moment completely changed my arc. No longer was I Baron Ambrosia, colorful food character, but Justin Fornal, explorer. Suddenly, the phone started ringing off the hook with people asking me to do shows or pitching shows, and that eventually led to getting Unexplained and Unexplored.
I would love to hear a bit more about the show.
The same company that did my Baron Ambrosia stuff, Karga Seven Pictures, said they would love to do a show about me and my love of maps and exploration. They wanted to do a kind of a map-driven show and asked if there was anyone I worked in the field with. I showed them a few friends I work with, and they chose Emiliano Ruprah. He and I have been exploring for years, and we have a natural onscreen connection. So, [Unexplained and Unexplored] is an exploration-based program where Emiliano and I take ancient maps, and then we combine the information and secrets contained within them and try to make discoveries using these old maps and new technology. Emiliano and I are working on a new, exciting show that is currently under wraps.
What else are you working on now?
The History, Arts, and Science Action Network [HASAN] is a nonprofit I created with archeologist Kelley Fanto Deetz, and we are doing a lot of work giving voices to cultures around the world that aren’t getting a chance to tell their own narratives. I will be in Somalia this year, working on a project with an underrepresented minority group to help them make a documentary. In terms of the athletic stuff, I am always training for longest swims, and in May, as of right now, I will be attempting the first unassisted open-water swim from Canada to Greenland. So, I will be training all winter in the Hudson River for that. Cold water calls to you in a really specific way. Once you know how to handle it and work with it, it’s such an interesting substance. It’s almost like being in another dimension.