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UMD grad hosts new Travel Channel series

J.J. Kelley, a University of Minnesota Duluth graduate, and Kinga Philipps head off into the jungle of Panama, in search of answers behind what happened to hikers Kris Kremers and Lisanne Froon. "Lost in the Wild" airs Dec. 29. (Photo courtesy of the Travel Channel)1 / 2
J.J. Kelley and Kinga Philipps conduct interviews with locals, experts and witnesses in Panama, during their investigation of the Lisanne Froon/Kris Kremers case. The story of the hikers will air on "Lost in the Wild." (Photo courtesy of the Travel Channel)2 / 2

DULUTH — In 2014, two young Dutch women went on what was supposed to be a day hike in a forest near a mountain town in Panama. Their bodies were found months later — after the discovery of a backpack with their supplies packed neatly inside.

Maybe they fell from a cliff or a tricky rope bridge, as it was ruled by the local government, or maybe that just doesn’t make sense.

The circumstances of the deaths of Kris Kremers and Lisanne Froon are among the mysteries J.J. Kelley, a 2007 graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth, and journalist Kinga Philipps investigate on the new Travel Channel series “Lost in the Wild,” which premieres at 10 p.m. Sunday.

It’s meaningful work for Kelley, a Taylors Falls, Minn.-native who has hiked the Appalachian Trail, traveled 1,300 miles by kayak from Alaska to Seattle, and gone undercover in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He’s interviewed the mother of Chris McCandless, who minimized his possessions, burned his money and went to live simply in Alaska — a story made famous by journalist Jon Krakauer, who wrote about it in “Into the Wild.” Kelley found her eager to share her son’s story.

“Over the course of those potentially dangerous trips, I was lucky to come back,” Kelley said.

It wasn’t lost on him, he said, that someone could be interviewing his own mom.

Tom Young and Keith Reinhard didn’t come back. The two disappeared, on separate occasions, while hiking in the mountains above Silver Plume, Colo. Justin Alexander, a social media star, was never seen again after he went into India’s Valley of Death. Also missing: Three adventurers who went looking for a fabled city in the Amazon jungle. In that last case, the show’s hosts will get a look at the crime scene and an exclusive interview.

Kelley has always been an adventurer, he said, which is how he ended up leaving college his freshman year and driving his Ford Ranger from Minneapolis to Alaska and ultimately working as a deckhand on a charter fishing boat. He returned to his home state to study environmental education at the University of Minnesota Duluth — where cross-country skiing was a required course and he was able to go sea kayaking, camp in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and work as a guide. He recalled outfitting his bike for the seasons, and pedaling home from Fitger’s Brewhouse in all weather.

Outside, he said, is where he feels alive.

The award-winning filmmaker, who lives in Brooklyn, has worked on “Deadliest Catch” as a director, and on projects for National Geographic. His film “Warlords of Ivory” won multiple prizes.

At one point, he did a solo TV project in Antarctica that required working in a tent, running the camera and sound while it was well-below zero. His college training came into play.

”If you can make it in Duluth, you can make it anywhere,” he said.