Robert Krapfel – On Living A Purpose-Driven Life

Robert Krapfel at work

Robert Krapfel is a US Forest Service smokejumper—a member of the elite team of wildland firefighters who parachute into remote, burning landscapes to control some of our country’s most intense forest fires. Prior to joining the smokejumpers, Robert was a fish biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, where he worked on restoring several species of fish in the lower Colorado River system. You may also know Robert as the husband of my previous guest Jillian Lukiwski, and if so, you’ve likely admired stunning photographs of them fishing, hunting, and exploring far-flung corners of the American West.

Growing up in Northern California, Robert was always focused on pushing himself hard in the outdoors, learning new skills, and establishing a sense of self-sufficiency in wild places. As a teenager, he taught himself to fish and hunt, and early in his career, he learned how to operate heavy machinery while rebuilding a remote government satellite station in the Arizona desert. Robert’s intense curiosity and action-oriented mindset have allowed him to build a life centered around adventure and rugged landscapes, while simultaneously being of service to our country and stewarding the forests of the West.

Because Robert has almost no social media presence, not many people outside his immediate circle of friends and family truly grasp what a unique life he leads, nor do they understand the vital role he played in the creation of Jillian’s blog and jewelry business, The Noisy Plume. Robert and Jillian are true partners in every sense of the word, and their approach to business, adventure, and living an authentic, purpose-driven life can be instructive for couples and individuals alike. They pursue their goals as a team and have sacrificed much along the way to turn their dreams into realities.

Robert is a perfect guest for this podcast, because his career and interests touch on almost everything that fascinates me—the West, adventure, service, creativity, hunting, fishing, travel, conservation, ecology, and plenty more. We obviously cover a lot in this episode, including the ins and outs of his becoming a smokejumper and his scariest experience while fighting fires. We discuss his work as a fish biologist, and how he and Jillian spent a year living in the Arizona desert in a rat-infested trailer. Robert also has a unique educational background, which we discuss in detail. And of course we talk about the creation of the Noisy Plume, and how Jillian’s and his vision for the project has evolved over time. And for a podcast that is always heavy on book recommendations, this episode is particularly full of good titles.

This is a great episode, so I know you’ll enjoy it. As I mentioned, Robert isn’t on social media, but you can catch glimpses of him every now and then on Jillian’s Instagram account, so be sure to follow her at @thenoisyplume. Enjoy!

Robert in the backcountry during hunting season

All photos courtesy of Jillian Lukiwski


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Episode Notes

Topics Discussed:

5:00 – How Robert describes his work
5:50 – How he got involved in smokejumping
8:00 – How smokejumpers are selected
10:00 – Importance of integrity in smokejumping
11:20 – Robert’s desire to challenge himself physically and mentally
13:10 – Growing up in northern California
13:55 – Teaching himself to fish and hunt
16:10 – Importance of learning by doing
17:20 – Robert’s educational path
18:40 – College in Alaska
19:20 – Decision to attend Bible college in Montana
20:50 – Train jumping in Montana (and the ensuing accident!)
25:00 – Recovering from a broken back
27:00 – Finishing school at Wheaton College
28:00 – College versus all of Robert’s varied interests
28:40 – Eloping with Jillian
30:40 – Working as a fish biologist
32:20 – Moving to a satellite station in the desert
33:00 – Endangered fish in the lower Colorado
35:00 – Arriving at the abandoned, rat-crap covered trailer
37:20 – Lessons learned from the time in Arizona
39:25 – Marriage benefits of living in stressful conditions
40:30 – Robert’s role in the creation of The Noisy Plume
43:20 – Original versus current vision for The Noisy Plume
46:25 – The importance of authenticity
47:00 – Why Robert avoids social media
48:25 – Robert’s choice to leave biology and focus completely on fire
50:30 – Rookie smokejumper training
54:30 – Tree climbing as a scary aspect of smokejumping
56:30 – Scariest experience fighting fires
1:02:30 – Readjusting to life after fire season
1:04:50 – Good books about fire
1:06:00 – Best biology books
1:08:30 – Favorite books about the West
1:10:50 – Favorite documentaries and films
1:12:50 – Unexpected hobbies
1:13:45 – Most powerful experience in the outdoors
1:15:40 – Favorite location in the West
1:17:45 – Best advice ever received
1:18:45 – Request of the listeners
Information Referenced

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