Lansing man ditches job for global travels — and animal activism 

Documentary filmmaker raises cash to protect endangered gorillas 

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SUNDAY, May 2 — Between the snow-capped Taurus Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, Woody Ellis, 39, rested alone last week in a rented room in Ölüdeniz, Turkey. Far from hometown Lansing, he sported his sole t-shirt and a scruffy precursor to a beard as he prepared for another journey. 

This week, Ellis begins his trek of the Lycian Way — a 310-mile trail along Turkey's Mediterranean-anchored Teke Peninsula. It won't be his first adventure off the grid into rugged terrain, but Ellis has added a new element to this trip. This time, he'll be traveling for a cause. 

"I thought about junior high and how we would walk to raise money," Ellis said, referencing a walkathon-type fundraising he participated in during his time at St. Therese School in Lansing. 

For this and for future hikes to come, Ellis will be using a similar concept to raise awareness (and some cash) for animal rescue and conservation organizations. Over the next two months, as Ellis walks and camps alone along the Lycian Trail,  he will serve as his own documentary filmmaker with hopes of raising some funds through his website — whereswoody.org — along the way. 

Most of the money will cover his travel expenses, which in and of itself are designed to raise awareness for nature and wildlife protection through a series of documentary films. Upcoming donations will also help to reserve Ellis a spot traveling and volunteering with the Great Gorilla Project, a charity that sends volunteers across the globe to have them work alongside a diverse variety of wildlife. Up to $450 of the $4,200 he hopes to raise for that trip will be donated back to the project itself. He also plans to direct any excess proceeds to the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, a charity that helps protect endangered mountain gorillas in Rwanda and Congo. 

Ellis’ newfound sense of animal activism was spurred by a deep rooted desire for world travel. 

About a decade ago, Ellis lived in Chicago and worked in the event, marketing and music industries — mostly managing artists and putting together festivals and shows at nightclubs. He admits he always had a sense of wanderlust, but back then he was more worried about trendy clothing brands rather than figuring out how to stuff months’ worth of food into a backpack. 

"I'm the guy that used to iron his boxers," Ellis told City Pulse. "I used to take two showers a day religiously. I did my hair perfectly. My nickname to my friends was ‘Princess.’" 

Twelve years in the industry, however, can lead to burnout. No longer able to deny the part of him that wanted to explore the world, Ellis said he set out on fulfilling a fantasy held by many. In 2017, he quit his job, sold most possessions, left everything behind and departed the country. 

Nowadays he doesn’t carry much more than clothing and a family heirloom acoustic guitar. 

"That was where the whole adventure began," Ellis explained. "I went from British Columbia to Hawaii, to Japan, to China, to Taiwan, to Thailand, to England, and then to Portugal." 

Choosing his next destination was a simple decision. 

“I just pulled up flights and looked for the next cheap place to go,” Ellis added. 

Ellis’ backpack is bare essentials: Just one t-shirt, jacket and hoodie; two beanies; one pair of sweatpants, shorts and hiking boots; two pairs of socks; a bucket and a bottle of shampoo. The rest of the possessions from his past life have either been sold or are tucked away in storage. 

“I just wash my clothes in a bucket with shampoo,” he said. 

In addition to raising cash for a good cause, Ellis also records and produces videos during his excursions. That started on his last excursion, a 25-mile hike up the summit of Mount Toubkal in Morocco. That video is posted on his YouTube channel and shows Ellis trudging through knee-deep snow, befriending locals and reveling in the stunning views that surround him. 

Ellis mainly uses the footage to grow a brand — and a hashtag #WHERESWOODY — to help raise awareness and drive support for his animal activism and help conservation efforts worldwide. 

Ellis said his love for animals has roots in Lansing, where he grew up surrounded by family dogs with early childhood dreams of someday becoming a marine biologist or zoologist. 

While traveling through Morocco, Ellis said he crossed paths with a man who could no longer take care of his young Aidi puppy. An animal lover at heart, he named her Morticia (or “Morty” for short) and they were off for a 110-mile hike from the Moroccan fishing village of Tamraght. 

With the crashes of waves serving as their road trip soundtrack, the two made their way up the coast through small villages, sandy beaches and along the limestone bluffs of the Atlantic coast over six days. Ellis remembers that hike with Morty as one of his best hiking adventures so far. 

Unfortunately, with the extensive travel ahead of him that would require flights, Ellis knew he couldn't keep Morty forever. To continue with his animal advocacy project, he found her a new home through the owner of a bungalow in Essaouira that the two had stayed in for weeks. 

Ellis said his inspiration to help animals also comes from his knowledge of the atrocities that humans often put them through. In his travels, he has learned of people poaching elephants for their ivory trade, killing sharks to harvest their fins and skinning live raccoon dogs for their fur.  

The footage of the latter impacted him most. 

"I lost it," he said. "I was weeping. I fell to the floor. It destroyed me." 

While Ellis plans to eventually aid a wide array of conservation groups, his immediate focus is on protecting gorillas. A long-felt appreciation of silverbacks inspired him to take a stand. 

"Silverbacks have been my favorite animal for as far back as I can remember," he added. 

After he finishes his journey in Turkey, Ellis has another ambitious adventure planned on the other side of the globe. Once pandemic travel restrictions ease, he plans to return to Lansing to be vaccinated and then set course for the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. 

There, Ellis will complete a 3,000-mile hike around the island of Newfoundland. He estimates the journey will take him 10-15 months. And of course, he will document the long-distance walk with hopes to create ways to involve his supporters closely while growing his activism efforts. 

"I want to have people fly there and hike segments with me," Ellis said. “Best friends or people I don't know at all – whoever is interested. We could talk about life, the project and have a featured conversation by the campfire each night." 

Before that adventure begins, Ellis is focused on the trek ahead of him along the Lycian Way. Eventually, he plans on advocating for the conservation of as many different species as possible. 

“But it has to start somewhere," Ellis added. 

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