Today's post might provide a little inspiration for your 2013 vacation, much as editor Alexis Rizzuto received for her outdoor adventures.
At this time of year, I start pulling out maps and guidebooks and poring over my lengthy—and always growing—list of outdoor trips I want to take. (My document slugged “Trip Ideas” is now 11,855 words long.) There are two reasons: First, to make those big dream trips happen, you have to think, plan, and dream months in advance. Plus, the planning is almost as much fun as taking the trip.
Here are my 10 favorite family adventures at The Big Outside (another list that will keep growing and evolving), to help give you some ideas and inspiration for 2013. All have a story and photo gallery, and most also have a video. In a couple of weeks, I’ll share my list of 10 all-time favorite adventures at The Big Outside, domestic and international, that are not necessarily for families—although there are definitely trips that could be on either list (and there’s no overlap between the two lists).
Here’s wishing you an adventurous 2013.
Campsite below Zoroaster Temple, along the Tonto Trail in the Grand Canyon.
Today's post is from Tom Hallock, Associate Publisher of Beacon Press.
I was thrilled when I realized that our family’s annual White Mountains High Huts trip would coincide with one by Beacon author Michael Lanza and his family. We made plans to hike together on the Webster Jackson trail and exchanged cell phone numbers. Michael and his family arrived first and, with Nate and Alix eager to start their climb, set off. Michael texted to say that they we were just a few minutes ahead of us, assuming that two adults would be able to catch up with hikers going at a “family pace.” It never happened (see trail photo). My brother-in-law and I had a great hike at our own pace and met other family and friends at Appalachian Mountain Club's Mizpah Hut, hiking to Lake of the Clouds the following day. Our own “Before They’re Gone” moment came when the hut naturalist told us that the entire White Mountains alpine zone, the largest one east of the Rockies, could be gone in 25 years, as a result of acid rain. Hiking in the alpine zones of the Whites is an incredible experience, whether you’re in a cloud (which you are half the time) or making the trip on a clear day. I always return feeling gratitude to the AMC staff and volunteers for all they do to protect this environment and make it possible for us to experience it.
A native of New York, Nick Krieger realized at the age of twenty-one that he’d been born on the wrong coast, a malady he corrected by transitioning to San Francisco. His writing has earned several travel-writing awards and has been published in multiple travel guides. He is the author of Nina Here Nor There: My Journey Beyond Gender.
Enter to win a copy of Nina Here Nor There or one of Beacon's other LGBT titles in our Pride Month Giveaway. For more information, visit beacon.org/queervoices.
About five months ago, I quit my day job as a web writer, put my possessions in storage, and took off for Asia. I’d just finished promoting my memoir, Nina Here Nor There, exploring the land between man and woman. During the four years it took to complete the book, I also changed physically, growing comfortable in my body, now commonly perceived to be male.
My great intention for this trip was to put my memoir down and leave my transition behind me, to clear some space for the next phase of my life.
I eased into Bali in luxury, at a closed yoga retreat with my teacher and a few friends from San Francisco. In heteronormative settings with swimming pools, I’m used to fielding questions about my chest scars. Sometimes I’ll tell people they’re shark bites. At first, at least. Then I’ll disclose the truth. “I’m transgender,” I always say, occasionally adding something explicit despite my discomfort, like “had breasts,” “born female,” just to be clear.
I wrote a memoir, so perhaps it’s not surprising that I find outing myself powerful. The ensuing conversation is my opportunity to educate, dismantle stereotypes, and make my queer, gender-hybrid identity visible. As a speaker on trans issues, I’ve trained myself to handle unintentional insensitivity and ignorance, but even after a record-breaking number of questions, one particularly tactless person in Baliset me off.
Internally fuming, I went to the edge of the jungle and hurled rocks into the black night. All the old words -- disfigured, abnormal, glaring, different – came alive again. I threw wildly, venting my frustration and anger, until I accidentally pegged a nearby tree. The rock bounced back and almost nailed me. I started to laugh. Which made me laugh even harder, joggling something loose deeper inside.
I wondered what it would be like to really leave it all behind, not just the story I’d crafted between two covers, nor the hormones, surgery, name change, family and workplace challenges, but the pain I still held on to and all that I’d built around it -- the drama that defined who and what I was.
After the retreat, I embarked on my own solo journey through Bali and then Nepal. I learned to say, “I had surgery, I’m totally fine, but I’d prefer not to talk about it.” Even with my shirt on, I faced challenging questions about my writing. I told people my memoir was about “alternative genders.” Of course, this was confusing. If pressed, I’d cop to my evasiveness, write down the title, and suggest they look it up later, like when we were in different countries. (I received a couple of kind emails later.)
Without presenting myself as a queer person and writer, the most amazing thing happened. I made friends, lots of them, of all ages and nationalities. Underneath the tags I’d adhered to myself, and beyond the stories that had solidified like foundation, I rediscovered a sense of myself that existed outside of identities and narratives, expressed in my smile, my laughter, and the way I carried myself.
The longer I spent on the road, the fewer and fewer people I told about being trans. I shrugged off comments about my “women’s fit” backpack, and my atypical traits for a man-- my small size, youthful face, and robust hairline – all prior triggers for me to mention my past.
During my last month, I outed myself to only one person, my new best friend, a Dutch woman I’d met during my stay at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. After our course, we trekked for two weeks in the Himalayas, talking about everything in the way that you do when you eat, sleep, and walk side by side.
“Could you ever live here?” she asked as we crossed a suspension bridge over a glacial river.
“No,” I said without hesitation. Throughout my twenties, I’d traveled to dozens of countries, spent many months backpacking alone, always wondering if and when I’d arrive somewhere that could become home. Eventually, I started to believe that I’d never find in Nepal, in Bali, in Laos -- in the places that I loved the most -- something I’d always need, the freedom to be queer.
“The things I care about,” I said, “The subjects I write about, the lifestyle I lead, sex and love, I can’t find that here.” I’m pretty sure my friend had no idea what I was talking about, but I continued, rambling about GLBTQ progress and trans/queer struggles, spurred on by the resurgence of a passion that had lain dormant for the past few months, “I cannot be my full self here.”
Reminded of the split I used to feel between my traveler identity and my queer identity, I thought of a long train ride I once took from Amsterdam to Slovenia. Re-reading Michelle Tea’s “Valencia” cover to cover, I got lost in the sexually-charged dyke world of San Francisco. Toward the very end, I looked up to find myself surrounded by the mountains of Austria, an apple-strudel setting straight out of the “The Sound of Music.”
I felt unmoored, disconnected from both my home culture in the States and the new landscape I was exploring in Europe. Both were flashing before my eyes, in the pages and out the window. Unable to situate myself, the whole notion of identity started to seem relative, something created in connection to my surroundings. On a train, my background in constant motion, for a brief moment, my sense of a solid self crumbled.
I think that’s when I fell in love with traveling. Since that journey, I’ve disappeared from San Francisco for a few months every now and then, changing the backdrop and watching my own self-definitions fade just a little.
By the time I returned from this trip, my queer/trans badge had fallen to the very bottom of my backpack. Culture shock, or reverse culture shock (always more my issue) refers to the disorientation that results from jumping across continents, and even after a month back, I’m experiencing it big time. Some days, I think it’s getting worse.
Pride weekend just ended. It was my 13th Pride here, and over the past few years, it’s become an effort for me to engage in the festivities – the crowds, the boozing, the out-of-towners, the chaotic energy – I find it slightly painful.
Instead of going to the Trans March, I attended my regular yoga class wearing my tacky rainbow wristband. In my heart, I was with my people in Dolores Park, united in pride – for surviving, for being, for fighting for rights and equality.
I knew I was in the right place, there on my mat, even as the waves of guilt, and sadness, and fear passed through me. What if I blended in with the straight guy next to me who had no idea it was Pride weekend? What if I could no longer summon that hurt, angry boy chucking rocks into the night? What if my activism, my writing, and my passions change?
From afar, I couldn’t see that in creating the space that I now have, the first thing to show itself would be uncertainty, and that to dwell here would require patience and faith. As I readjust ever so slowly, I try to keep the traveler in me alive – not in terms of revisiting trip highlights, but in the ways my sphere of caring expanded, my sensitivity to all sorts of people increased, and the world outside my own trans narrative got a little bigger.
We stand on the rim of an unnamed slot canyon in the backcountry of Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park, in a spot that just a handful of people have seen before us. We’ve arrived here after hiking about two hours uphill on the Navajo Knobs Trail, and then heading off-trail, navigating a circuitous route up steep slickrock and below a sheer-walled fin of white Navajo Sandstone hundreds of feet tall, stabbing into the blue sky. Now I peer down at the narrow, deep, and shadowy crack that we have come to rappel into, and feel a little flush of anxiety.
By making the 100-foot drop into this slot canyon, to be followed by three more rappels, we will commit ourselves to going all the way through it—there will be no option to climb back out the way we’re going in. We know the walls will close in to about two feet or less apart. We also know that one long horizontal traverse through that claustrophobic chasm will require employing the rock climbing technique known as “chimneying,” where you press your feet, hands, and back against opposing rock walls, and meticulously reposition feet and hands one at a time to inch slowly sideways as you would climb up or down a chimney.
My wife, Penny, looks at me and asks gravely, “Are you sure about this?”
Neither of us is worried about ourselves. We are thinking about the two little people in our party who have never done anything quite like this before: our 11-year-old son, Nate, and daughter Alex, who turned nine a week ago.
We do have an ace in the hole, though: our other companion today, my buddy Steve Howe. Steve has been Backpacker Magazine’s Rocky Mountain Editor for years—which is how we became friends—and runs Redrock Adventure Guides. Having lived in nearby Torrey for more than two decades, he knows Capitol Reef’s backcountry quite possibly better than anyone. He and a friend of his made what was probably the first descent of this slot canyon only months ago, and Steve went down it most recently two days ago.
Although this slot has no known name, for purposes of organizing this park’s largely anonymous wilderness in his own mind, Steve has dubbed it Stegosaur Canyon, and the unnamed but distinctive white fin soaring above us The Stegosaur. He calls the narrows section that we’re looking down on a “butt-crack slot”—a highly visual descriptor meant to inspire a mental image of a slice in the rock that continues narrowing as it drops deeper, eventually pinching down to just inches wide. Someone losing their grip on the walls in the chimney section could fall and become wedged in.
It is definitely serious stuff. But Steve and I had also discussed the difficulty of the slot canyon in painstaking detail at his house last night, and he showed me his pictures of it. I thought about the challenging situations Nate and Alex have handled well before—particularly rock climbing, which most closely parallels this endeavor, and where they had to follow instructions and remain calm. I became convinced that they could manage this.
When I tell Penny again that I think the kids will be fine—and Alex and Nate both insist they want to do it—she gives in to the implacable momentum of will to move forward. But she tells me, not entirely in a joking tone, “I’m holding you responsible.”
Yes, well then. It’s good to know where you stand.
We’ve come to Capitol Reef in the last week of March, on our kids’ weeklong spring break from school, to spend a couple of days on off-trail dayhikes with Steve and then backpack for three days into Spring Canyon.
Dominated by the Waterpocket Fold, a spine of sandstone ridges, cliffs, canyons, and spires that extends nearly 100 miles from Thousand Lake Mountain to Lake Powell in southern Utah, Capitol Reef is one of the largely overlooked gems of the National Park System. Situated between more-famous Zion and Bryce national parks to the southwest and Arches to the east, with minimal infrastructure and roads to attract the masses of tourists who never stray far from their vehicle, Capitol Reef (like Canyonlands, another easterly neighbor) sees a small fraction of the visitors that flood those other parks. So few people venture into the backcountry that you can show up at the visitor center’s backcountry desk here on the day you want to start a multi-day trip and grab a permit for wherever you want to hike, no reservation needed. Try that at Yosemite or Grand Canyon.
On previous visits, I had discovered that Capitol Reef has scenery comparable to its neighboring parks—but it feels wilder, less overrun. I’ve squeezed through other slot canyons here, hiked trails through a landscape of rock formations that look sculpted by a giant child with an unlimited supply of mud and crayons, and camped below night skies lit up like Times Square with stars.
During conversations at home before the trip, the kids had eagerly suggested we go backpacking and descending a slot canyon during their spring break. So we came here fired up for an adventure.
Nate and the rest of the party scramble up a rising, flared crack on an off-trail hike in Capitol Reef. Click on the photo to see the complete photo gallery.
Yesterday, our first day in the park, we dayhiked with Steve from the end of the park’s Scenic Drive into Capitol Gorge, a wide, sandy-bottomed canyon of sheer walls. Steve pointed out petroglyphs of bighorn sheep, deer, and sun figures that are 900 to 2,000 years old, carved by Fremont Indians who once inhabited these canyons. After walking 30 minutes down Capitol Gorge, we turned onto The Tanks Trail, ascending steeply a quarter-mile to rock basins the size of small swimming pools, filled with water—features found throughout the Waterpocket Fold, explaining its name.
Then we left the trail behind, following Steve up and up onto the almost barren, wildly contorted, otherworldly rock-scape of the reef formation. Domes of rippled white, red, and golden sandstone, petrified sand dunes from the age of dinosaurs, rose above us on all sides. Alex noticed something moving in the distance, and we all turned to watch a bighorn sheep grazing on one of the rare patches of vegetation growing up there. We scrambled, often on all fours, up a steep slope of loose, shifting talus blocks, traversed a sidewalk-like ledge across a cliff, and wriggled our way up a flaring groove in stone.
Explore Capitol Reef off-trail and you quickly understand why it remains so unknown: It would take years of patient, hit-or-miss forays over its convoluted, labyrinthine topography—and countless episodes of getting turned back by impassable cliffs and canyons—to piece together a twisting, seemingly improbable route that actually got you from point A to point B. In other words, it would take the kind of time that Steve has put into getting to know this park.
At a high pass, we sat down in warm sunshine and gusts of cool, early spring wind for a break. Below us unfolded a valley lined by white and golden cliffs and spires, a spot also unlabeled on maps but Steve says is known to a few locals as Sand Blow Canyon. We hiked to its upper end, to the base of a feature that actually is named on maps and visible from many points in the park, a massive dome called the Golden Throne.
Whenever we walked across beach sand yesterday, I looked for other footprints, but saw none. In 22 years of exploring Capitol Reef, Steve told us, “I have never, ever encountered another person while hiking off-trail in the park.”
As if to punctuate that point, near the end of our rugged, six-mile, mostly off-trail dayhike, as we descended a gully of loose rock, Steve noted, “Probably no one has walked through here since I came here 10 years ago.”
That gully narrowed into a slot that abruptly turned vertical. We pulled out two ropes and we adults rappelled about 12 feet over blocks of stone jammed in between the slot’s walls; we lowered Alex and Nate over. Then we descended one at a time, helping the kids as needed, through a vertical chimney that was sort of like a twisting sandstone laundry chute. That dropped us into a short, narrow hallway that terminated at a cliff, where we made a 25-foot rappel—lowering the kids again—to the ground. As the late-afternoon March sunshine started throwing long shadows across the cliffs and domes in the distance, we picked up the Golden Throne Trail and hiked the two miles back to our car.
After seeing how Nate and Alex did on that rugged day, Steve told me, “Your kids can handle Stegosaur Canyon.”
Now we are about to find out.
On the rim of Stegosaur Canyon, we put on climbing harnesses. Steve makes the 100-foot rappel first, followed by Nate, who rappels on his own, though I back him up with a belay on a second rope. I lower Alex, then Penny and I follow—and we are in the hole.
I see none of the usual signs of human traffic, like a beaten path or the branches of the occasional bush broken off. We scramble over rocks deposited by periodic flash floods, push through brush, and use a rope to lower over two vertical drops of about 15 feet. The walls steadily close in and rise maybe a couple hundred feet above us, keeping us in cool shade. Then the canyon makes a 90-degree left turn, and we stop at the mouth of the narrows.
The walls close in to two feet or less apart—too tight to squeeze through wearing our daypacks, which we take off to carry in one hand while edging sideways over sand and rocks. At the chimney section, Steve and I cross first with Nate between us, talking him through placing his feet, hands, and back side against small features in the walls to inch gradually across the traverse. Maybe 20 feet below us, the canyon constricts to a crack less than a foot wide with several inches of standing water.
Leaving Nate at the other end of the 100-foot traverse, Steve and I chimney back and repeat the procedure with Alex. Both kids traverse it slowly and calmly—just the way they should—and beam with pride at the other end. Beyond the chimney section, we hike through more sandy-bottom narrows, the walls still not much more than shoulder-width apart, to emerge from the canyon’s mouth, where it ends in a 100-foot pour-off that we rappel and lower off.
Later, back at Steve’s house, he and I measure Stegosaur Canyon’s length on his mapping program: it’s 0.6 mile long. It took us three hours to descend the slot canyon itself, sandwiched between an approach hike of about three hours and an exit hike of another hour or more—a pretty full day, and one of my kids’ most exciting adventures to date.
Backpacking Spring Canyon
At the park visitor center on our third morning in Capitol Reef, the ranger at the backcountry desk tells me that we’re the only party that has obtained a permit to backpack into Spring Canyon today, our third day in the park. We’ll see a few dayhikers in Chimney Rock Canyon, the tributary of Spring Canyon where we’ll begin and end our three-day hike. Beyond that, we’ll have the entire canyon to ourselves.
It’s at least nine miles from the Chimney Rock Trailhead to the bottom end of Spring Canyon, where it meets the Fremont River. While some hikers knock it off in a day, backpackers often do it as an overnight trip, to spend a night below Spring’s soaring red walls. But at the canyon’s mouth, you have to ford the river to reach UT 24. When we eyeballed the river yesterday, we decided it was moving too fast and deep to ford it with the kids. So we’ll hike in six or seven miles and camp two nights, giving us a day to explore farther down canyon before hiking back out the way we came in.
The temperature sits around 60 degrees and the sun filters through a slight haze; we wear T-shirts and shorts without breaking much of a sweat starting up the Chimney Rock Trail. To our left, burnt red and orange walls rise some 300 feet tall above steep slopes of broken rock and fine sand; to our right stand darker burgundy cliffs of Moenkopi Shale with horizontal striations in hues of red, including the severe pinnacle called Chimney Rock. A 30-minute climb through switchbacks on a good trail brings us to a pass, where we start the gentle descent into broad, sun-baked Chimney Rock Canyon.
Towering red cliffs with patches of white and orange and black water-stain streaks rise up on both sides; enormous boulders pile up below the cliffs. In the canyon bottom, the trail ends and we follow the dry, sandy channel to the junction with Spring Canyon, about three miles from the trailhead. The route continues down the canyon bottom of sand, cobblestones, and slickrock, beneath walls several hundred feet high.
At a pour-off, we walk a wide slickrock ledge above a narrow gorge maybe 12 feet deep, with walls sculpted in dramatic, smooth curves. At another pour-off, we detour up onto a goat path across a steep, crumbling slope. Some six to seven miles in, after more than four hours of hiking, we pitch the tent on a grassy bench beneath cliffs topped by domes and spires—our home for the next two nights.
Accessible and not very difficult, Spring Canyon is one of the more popular backpacking destinations in Capitol Reef. But “popular” has a different meaning in this park. While we’re not exploring virgin terrain, as we were Stegosaur Canyon, not seeing anyone else in here allows my kids to feel like explorers.
On our middle day we hike a couple of miles farther down the canyon and back. We scramble over boulders and I boost Nate and Alex up into cave-like “windows” in the rock that they crawl inside. Even though daytime temperatures have reached around 60 degrees every day since we arrived in the park, in a narrows that rarely sees direct sunlight we find thick plates of ice in the inch-deep trickle of water flowing from a spring—a reminder that winter only made its exit a week ago.
The kids spend at least an hour of our walk telling me about wild dreams they’ve had. Their stories sound to me like a perfect soundtrack to a dreamlike landscape—one that we have to entirely ourselves for a few days of hiking and exploring.
As an editor, I feel very fortunate to have worked with Stefan Bechtel on his book about the early and fierce conservationist William Temple Hornaday. As an eco-activist myself, I was captivated by Hornaday's story, that he went up against circumstances just as dire as we face today—so many species just about to blink out of existence due to the actions of some humans and the apathy of others—and said, “No, I will not allow this to happen.” And then fought by every means he could for the rest of his life.
His crusade for the bison is especially inspiring. Like the flocks of the now-extinct passenger pigeon, which would darken the sky for miles, the bison herds historically thundered by the millions over the Great Plains. But, as Hornaday said, there is “no volume of wild life so great that civilized man could not quickly exterminate it.” The massive bison slaughter was an intentional act of genocide, against the Plains Indians with the bison as proxy: from millions to a few hundred. His description of the carcass-covered plains, where once bison families stood peacefully eating prairie grass, is heart-rending. But thanks in good part to Hornaday, descendants of those last few still survive, and I was lucky enough to be able to visit Yellowstone last fall to see them for myself.
The first bison I saw was a solitary male, out in a field grazing. Not too close but within good binocular distance. To me, this was an almost mythic bison: I looked at him through the spiritual debt my species owed his. He was a magnificent representative of his almost-extinguished race, and I had the urge to bow in respect. At that moment I recalled that the “Indian name” I had as a child (my mother’s best friends were Oneida) was Little Buffalo.
It was also at that moment I banned my husband from eating buffalo burgers.
During our week in Yellowstone my view of bison went from mythical to personal as I got to know them better. In Lamar Valley we sat for hours, observing small herds dotting the plateau near and far. Mothers with frisky calves, trotting and frolicking. A couple of young males butting heads, one alpha leading his herd across the river (which reached only to their knees). Small family groups, sitting or sprawled out in the grass under an afternoon sun. When grazing, they had an undeniably bovine placidity, chewing, kicking up insects for the cowbirds that hopped near their feet and sat on their backs. At other times they were completely undignified, especially when taking their dust baths: it was funny to see these majestic animals belly-up in the dirt with legs flailing like grass-happy dogs.
Their cattle-like appearance lulls people into forgetting that these are wild animals, and the parks department includes warnings in their literature to keep your distance. The males weigh up to 2,000 pounds and can run over 30 mph. Both genders have horns. More people die from bison goring than bear attacks, because people think these quietly ambling animals are harmless. I heard a story of someone putting their child on a bison’s back for a photo.
The only hint at aggression we saw was a male defending his chosen mate. He never left her side, quietly chuffing sweet nothings into her ear, sniffing her, nibbling her side. But if another male came too close, he lowered his head and grumphed at them. I was glad the others gave way. Michael Lanza (in Before They’re Gone) has compared a charging bison to a grand piano sprouting horns and moving at the speed of a race-horse. I did not want to see two grand pianos collide.
We got more up-close and personal when we ran into a bison jam; cars were stopped in the middle of the road not because people were stopping to watch wildlife, but because a herd was crossing the road, with some of the animals simply standing in the midst of traffic. A few got within ten feet of us, close enough that we could see the patchiness of their fall coats and hear their munching as they pulled up grass by the roadside.
Our most intimate experience of bison was tactile. In a couple of visitor centers, we could bury our fingers in the thick, wiry fur of preserved hides, feel the heft of their horns, and examine their vertebrae. We learned that the hump on their shoulders is actually specialized musculature designed to keep bison moving in deep snow: they swing their heads back and forth like a plow, and the vertebrae in this area are elongated to support these massive muscles.
Though the animals’ continued existence is history's best tribute to Hornaday, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had a mountain in Yellowstone named for him. I could not leave without seeing it. Before departing the lodge on the morning of our quest, we asked a ranger for help locating the mountain. We had a map that showed the general spot, but I wondered if they could be any more specific. The ranger had not heard of Mt. Hornaday, but she wanted to be helpful, so she looked it up in a reference book and sure enough there it was with a short bio of the man. I filled her in on the rest of the story and why I wanted to see this mountain so badly. Because I had told her something she didn’t know about the park, she awarded me a “Junior Park Ranger” sticker, which is one of my favorite souvenirs.
My husband used his GPS to locate the mountain but it wasn’t really visible from the road, so we took an unplanned hike up Pebble Creek Trail to reach a high enough elevation to see the 10,000-foot peak named for my new hero. The trail was more than I had bargained for, and we were low on water. I wanted to give up, but Alex urged me on and only a couple of miles later we reached a clearing that gave us the perfect of view of the adjacent summit we were after!
Since then, I have kept up with bison news and goings-on in the West. One of the most exciting recent stories has been the reintroduction of Yellowstone bison to the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. The Yellowstone bison are among the last genetically pure, wild bison (others have been interbred with cattle on ranches). They are the direct descendants of the last few survivors of the genocide, and about 60 of them have now been returned to the prairies of Montana, under the care of their original Plains cohabitants. Since the move, five new calves have been born to the herd, their little hooves aerating the tall-grass prairies that have not felt their tread in over a century.
A longtime backpacker, climber, and skier, Michael Lanza knows our national parks like the back of his hand. As a father, he hopes to share these special places with his two young children. But he has seen firsthand the changes wrought by the warming climate and understands what lies ahead: a vastly changed landscape. So he and his wife take his nine-year-old son, Nate, and seven-year-old daughter, Alex, on an ambitious journey to see as many climate-threatened wild places as they can fit into a year: backpacking in the Grand Canyon, Glacier, the North Cascades, Mount Rainier, Rocky Mountain, and along the wild Olympic coast; sea kayaking in Alaska's Glacier Bay; hiking to Yosemite's waterfalls; rock climbing in Joshua Tree National Park; cross-country skiing in Yellowstone; and canoeing in the Everglades.
A slightly modified version of the Before They're Gone book cover.
What books inspired your trip or came back to you while you were on the trip?
I would not have taken this trip if it weren't for Before They're Gone by Michael Lanza. And our upcoming book, Dirt Work by Christine Byl, because she was out on these very trails breaking them for the rest of us. I met our author Brad Tyer, so Opportunity, Montana is another connection to this trip. We were in a different part of Montana than he writes about, but, still, the reason that we went to Montana is the reason he went to Montana: because we wanted to see pristine wilderness and beautiful wildlife. At that time, I hadn't yet realized about the whole extractive resource colony aspect of Montana, but now I appreciate the beauty of it even more.
And our Steve Hawley book, Recovering a Lost River. We took a rafting trip down the Snake River in his honor. And of course, Mr. Hornaday's War. We not only made a pilgrimage to Mt. Hornaday, but when I saw my first bison in Yellowstone, I almost cried. From then on, we mostly saw bison in herds, but the first bison I saw was alone out on a prairie, and having in mind what I had just read in Stefan Bechtel’s book about the bison slaughter and their recovery, I felt so grateful that this bison was still there, a survivor.
How did Michael Lanza help you plan your trip?
He helped me from day one. He inspired the trip, and then I said, "Okay, I want to go see some of these places that you wrote about. What do you suggest?" I said I would maybe like to start with Yellowstone and he said, "Well, if you want to see Yellowstone, you should add on Glacier National Park and the Tetons as well." He told me what time of year to go, too—September, because the students have to go back to school so there won't be as many families. It wouldn’t be as crowded, and it's still warm then. But the farther north you go, the cooler it gets, so he told us to start north while it's still kind of warm in Glacier and then work our way south to Yellowstone and then the Tetons. And he told me how many hours it would take to drive between these places and where to stay when we got there... I mean, everything. He gave me a whole itinerary.
Yeah, like, "I don't want to exploit you, but..." I was so clueless. I had never been to that part of the country before; I had no idea what to do. I was asking him for basic advice, and he just gave me every detail I could have possibly needed.
How long was your trip?
It was two weeks.
What kind of gear did Michael tell you to bring?
Well, we weren't camping--we were just hiking.
But did you get bear repellent?
(Laughs) Yes, we did get bear repellent.
Did you have to use bear repellent?
Thank God we did not. But I thought about that story in the book, about his kid, Nate. He's stalking around with the bear repellent, and Michael turns around and Nate has it aimed at him. He told me that there was an instance where one of his friends discharged the bear repellent in a garage, and even days later you couldn't go into the garage without your eyes watering--it's really serious stuff.
So we did have it and we did have it at the ready at all times because there were plenty of bears there. We only laid eyes on one, but we would be walking down a trail and somebody would be coming back the other way and they would say, "Oh, we just saw a grizzly up there." And there was another trail we were on where a park ranger came by and said, "We're closing this part of the trail because of bear activity." And then we were on another trail--we were pretty much by ourselves on this one trail--and we came across some large, very fresh piles of bear poop, right in the middle of the trail. And then we heard rustling in the woods. We hightailed it out of there. And just as we were coming out of the trailhead, a park ranger was driving up, and the first thing she asked us was, "Did you see any bears?" We said, "No, but... you know we just saw some pretty fresh scat. And we thought we saw something in the woods." And she said, "Well you probably did--there's a mother grizzly here with her two cubs."
But it's not like there aren't warnings. At every trailhead, there's a billboard, saying, "You are entering grizzly territory. Here's what you do..." And the main thing to do is make noise. Clap, yell, sing. We had bells that we would shake, I had stuff to clank against my metal water bottle. We made sure that we were making noise, because if they hear you coming they'll just go away. They don't want to see you.
We went on plenty of trails that said, "Prime grizzly territory: be bear aware." (Laughs) That was the catch phrase in the Tetons area, I think. They had these big stickers everywhere saying, "Be Bear Aware," put away your food, and don't do anything that would attract them.
Don't carry pic-a-nic baskets?
Right. (Laughs) So Michael gave us advice about some things to bring, but since we weren't camping, it was just basic hiking gear and protection. And he gave us some ideas about where to stay. We stayed in the parks, in cabins mostly. It was really nice to wake up and be in the park. You’d fall asleep to the sound of great horned owls and wake up to the morning light on the mountainsides.
Both he and Christine Byl suggested a particular trail in Glacier. You get to this trail by going up this road called "Going to the Sun Road." And all the guidebooks say, "Oh, you have to do the Going to the Sun Road, it's spectacular. Everybody does it. Millions of people a year do it." We renamed that road the "Going in My Pants Road." Because you're on the side of a mountain. There's like a 5,000 foot sheer drop right next to you. And there's a low rock wall that's all that's between you and pitching off the side of the mountain. Millions of people do it every year, and nobody dies, so obviously it's okay, but I was clinging to my husband, I could not look out the window. I was like, "Oh, my God, we're going to die." He was actually feeling the same way. So we get to the top of the Going to the Sun Road, and the High Line trail is the trail that both Michael and Christine said, "Oh, you have to do this trail." We looked at this trail, and we're like, "There's no frigging way we're going to do this trail."
Was it for more experienced hikers?
No. There were kids on it. But it was basically the same thing as the road, only narrower and with no rocks between you and the fall. And they said, "You'll see great mountain goats up there, and you'll get great views up there, and everyone should do this trail." But the thing was, the other trail that we picked, we saw mountain goats, we saw beautiful views. Yes, it was a trail that children and old people were also on. But, who cares? It was so beautiful. Wildflower meadows and frolicking animals, sparkling lakes. They call the area the American Alps.
Proof that Alexis saw a mountain goat on the wimpy trail.
Children and old people are for me a very good sign that I can handle it.
Yeah! It was one of the most beautiful hikes we had, even though it wasn't the serious hiker trail. I didn't care. We saw everything we came to see. So I told Michael, "Your children will laugh at me for being such a wuss." They could do the High Line trail in their sleep.
Did it give you more of an appreciation for all of the stuff that they did in the book?
Yeah, oh yeah. Definitely. And my husband got so sick of me because everything we did, I said, "Well Michael Lanza did this," and, "Michael Lanza writes about this in his book." "I learned about this from Michael Lanza." He was like, "Michael Lanza! Michael Lanza! Michael Lanza! Why don't you marry HIM?" (Laughs) Actually, they’ve met and get along very well.
But, I was able to tell Alex, for instance, well... it's not a happy story, but not all the stories in the book are happy. It's about climate change. And one of the things we saw firsthand was that the glaciers in Glacier National Park, as Michael admitted, are really not that impressive any more because they're already such a small percentage of what they used to be. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between a glacier and a bunch of snow in a bowl in the mountains. But the other thing I was able to tell Alex about and to see firsthand, which was heartbreaking, is the lodgepole pines are being infested by pine bark beetles because the winters are not cold enough to kill their eggs. It used to be that the winters were cold enough to kill most of the eggs so that when the pine bark beetles hatched in the spring, there weren't enough of them to wipe out entire forests, but now, there are. And these forests--we saw entire, entire mountainsides, brown.
There were two kinds of tree deaths that we saw. One of them was good, one of them was bad. And I learned this from Michael Lanza, too. The good tree deaths-- we would see the remains of the dead trees --those were from forest fires. And, actually, that's good because among the skeletons of the old trees there was lush growth of the younger trees coming up. And the forest fires enrich the soil, and actually allow the pine cone seeds to germinate. They only germinate at the temperatures brought about by forest fires. So we would walk through forests like that and, yes, there was destruction, but there was also life and hope and the proper cycle going on.
But then, when we would see one of these pine bark beetle forests, it was just heartbreaking, because you could imagine what the mountainside looked like when it was green. And now there's not a shred of life on it.
The wildlife was amazing. We saw herds of bison, we saw elk, we saw a black bear, we saw mountain goats, amazing bird life--we saw a pair of sand hill cranes, up pretty close, closely enough that we heard their calls and watched them fly off. I'd never seen sand hill cranes. I don't think they're endangered, they're not that rare, but I had never seen them before. We were on a place called Antelope Flats where we saw a herd of pronghorn antelope. And there was a whole flock of western meadowlarks, which are a beautiful bird. They've got a bright yellow chest, and their song was amazing. [Ed's note: You can listen to meadowlark song at the Cornell All About Birds website.]
We got up close and personal with some mule deer. First we encountered the male on his own. He walked right up to us, we could have fed him, he was so close. And then he went away, and we continued down the trail and there was the female with two fawns. And they also didn't care that we were there. There was a newsletter they hand out in the National Parks where it explains that there are certain distances that you are supposed to maintain between yourself and certain kinds of wildlife. So, obviously, a grizzly bear you're supposed to give a large amount of space. (Laughs) For bighorn sheep, the space is a little shorter. But you're supposed to give deer space as well. But these deer, they were on the trail, and we wanted to give them the kind of space we were supposed to give them, but they just weren't leaving! So we ended up waiting for quite a while, then we just squeezed past them. They didn't care.
The other beautiful thing is the breathtaking landscapes. Being from the East, you're just not used to the space, and the breadth, and the hugeness of the mountains and the canyons and the plains.
It's hard to use superlative words and have them actually mean anything these days, but I just kept turning to Alex and saying, "This blows my mind."
Michael Lanza is a freelance photographer and writer. The creator ofTheBigOutside.com, Lanza dedicates his site to sharing personal hiking adventures and offering guidance to fellow wilderness enthusiasts. He is the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine, blogs for backpacker.com, and a former editor for AMC Outdoors magazine. Author of previously published hiking guides, Lanza's newest book, Before They're Gone (Beacon Press, spring 2012), examines climate change in national parks through the lens of family hiking excursions.
We’re just seconds beyond the sign at the start of the Gunsight Pass Trail that reads “Entering Grizzly Country” when Nate, who’s a month shy of his tenth birthday, begins aggressively making the case for why he should be armed.
“Why can’t I carry a pepper spray?” he asks me—again and again.
It’s an idyllic, late-summer afternoon in the Northern Rockies—the sun shining warmly, a gently cooling breeze rippling the air, not a white speck of moisture in the sky. We are heading out on a three-day family backpacking trip to Gunsight Pass in Montana’s Glacier National Park. One of the logistically easiest and shortest multi-day hikes in the park, the 20-mile traverse from Gunsight Pass Trailhead to Lake McDonald Lodge—both of which are on the Going-to-the-Sun Road and served by the park’s free shuttle bus—takes in some of Glacier’s most spectacular scenery, including views of one of its largest rivers of ice (all of which are steadily shrinking), scores of waterfalls, and a backcountry campsite at Lake Ellen Wilson that is one of the prettiest in the park.
Unfortunately, I was not able to get a permit for the full traverse; it’s popular and backpacker numbers are restricted to avoid overuse and preserve a sense of solitude. So instead, we’ll spend two nights at Gunsight Lake, dayhike to Gunsight Pass, and then backtrack to the Gunsight Pass Trailhead on our last day.
Having hiked the traverse before, I knew Nate and our seven-year-old daughter, Alex, easily have the stamina for the three six-mile days we’ll do. The much bigger concern for my wife, Penny, and me was the preoccupying idea of backpacking in grizzly-bear country with our young kids. In fact, a year ago, I had a close encounter with a sow griz and her two cubs on the Gunsight Pass Trail. Although we know that such encounters are rare, we’ll have to be diligent about making sure the kids don’t inadvertently bring a pocketful of Jolly Ranchers into the tent for the night.
Thinking along similar lines, my hyper-focused son is consumed by the conviction that he should be armed with one of the pepper-spray canisters holstered to the hipbelts of Penny’s and my backpacks. When not distracted by throwing sticks into the raging creek at Deadwood Falls, or watching for moose in the boggy, partly forested flats of the St. Mary River, he persistently returns to his argument that he is just as capable as his mother or me of calmly deploying pepper spray at a charging grizzly. I try, in vain, to convince him that an adult is better able to react to that inconceivably frightful circumstance—although I’m not really sure I believe that.
Glacier National Park covers a million acres straddling the Continental Divide hard against the Canadian border. More than a hundred peaks here in the northernmost U.S. Rockies rise above 8,000 feet, the highest over 10,000 feet. Meat-cleaver wedges of billion-year-old rock line up in rows stretching to far horizons, blades pointed upward.
The Blackfeet Indians called these mountains “the backbone of the world.” The description fits a place where the land vaults up so dramatically from the very edge of the Plains—and where Triple Divide Peak is one of only two North American mountains that funnel waters to three oceans: the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic. George Bird Grinnell, a writer who began lobbying to create a national park here in the 1880s, called these mountains “the Crown of the Continent.” The Great Northern Railway, hoping to bring paying tourists in, dubbed the area “Little Switzerland.”
With just one road crossing the park—the Going-to-the-Sun Road, a 50-mile-long ribbon of pavement clinging to avalanche-prone mountainsides—Glacier is more than anything a backpacker’s park. More than 700 miles of trails crisscross it. While you can see quite a lot of world-class scenery on dayhikes, most of this vast, wild area is accessible only to people willing to carry on their backs everything they need to survive for days in the wilderness.
The Gunsight Pass Trail is a great choice for first-time Glacier backpackers and anyone who wants a short backcountry trip with easy transportation logistics. It’s also not crowded with dayhikers like trails around Many Glacier and Logan Pass—all good reasons for making it my kids’ first multi-day hike in Glacier.
Best of all, though, the views really are among the finest in the park.
On our first afternoon, we walk past an overlook of the Blackfoot Glacier, one of the park’s largest, which sprawls across the cirque at the head of the St. Mary River. A little while later, we stroll into camp at Gunsight Lake, a long, blue-green gem embraced by an arc of rugged mountains, including Mt. Jackson, one of just a half-dozen in the park that rise above 10,000 feet.
After Nate and Alex play by the lakeshore for a while, launching driftwood boats and bombing them with rocks, I accede to giving them a lesson in using the pepper spray—and letting Nate carry one canister, but only in camp, where there are at least 15 other backpackers spread among several sites under the pines, a substantial human presence to deter ursine visits. For the remainder of our time in this camp, tonight, tomorrow, and on our last morning, Nate will assume the role of the world’s smallest bodyguard, escorting Penny, Alex, and me around the campground with the canister hanging from a belt loop on his shorts, looking like a mortar shell against his skinny thigh.
Alex glances over her shoulder at me with a look that says, “Soooo, what now?”
On our second morning, the four of us have stopped high up the Gunsight Pass Trail. Cliffs rise steeply up to a small glacier on our left, and drop off precipitously on our right a thousand feet down to the clear, emerald waters of Gunsight Lake. We’re dayhiking from our campsite on the lake to Gunsight Pass. And the critter obstructing us brings authenticity to the phrase “goat path.”
A young mountain goat, as white as fresh snow, with sharp, straight horns and coal-black eyes, stands in the trail, occasionally lifting its head from nibbling on plants to return Alex’s quizzical glance. I meet Alex’s look, smile, and shrug. We wait.
When the goat finally relinquishes the trail to us, scrambling nimbly down the cliff below us, we peer over the brink to see where it went. Alex mutters in awe, “I can’t believe it went down there.”
Continuing upward, we look out over a deep cirque carved out by ancient ice that has mostly disappeared. Waterfalls too numerous to count pour hundreds of feet down cliffs. Snowfields and a lobe of the Harrison Glacier dapple the mountainsides above us.
Some three hours after leaving our campsite, we reach wind-hammered Gunsight Pass, 6,900 feet above sea level and three miles and 2,000 feet above Gunsight Lake. We sit and eat lunch on big, flat-topped rocks, perched on the rim of a vast stone bathtub—the high basin embracing Lake Ellen Wilson, where more waterfalls plunge over cliffs and stream into the emerald lake.
It was just a couple of miles beyond this lake, at Lincoln Pass, where a friend and I ran into a grizzly sow and her cubs less than a year ago. We won’t walk that far today, but those bears and others are wandering around out there somewhere, perhaps even within the considerable expanse of sub-alpine meadows, boulder fields, and scattered copses of conifer trees that we can see from here. After our lunch break, we turn around to retrace the trail back to our camp on Gunsight Lake. Once there, the kids play more at the edge of the lake, Penny holes up in the tent with her book, and I lay on the sun-warmed stones of the beach.
I wanted to bring Nate and Alex to this iconic park in part to see its glaciers before they all melt away completely, a fate that U.S. Geological Survey researchers here predict may occur by 2020—when my kids are barely young adults. It seems incomprehensible that climate change could so rapidly remove ice that has inhabited this landscape for at least 7,000 years. But scientists tell me with amazement how they have observed and recorded for two decades this park’s glaciers collapsing, retreating, shrinking ever faster.
With average temperatures climbing steadily higher, and the health of glacial ice so inextricably tied to temperature, there is no disagreement among scientists that this park will lose the very natural feature for which it was named. The far-reaching impacts of this transformation on streams, vegetation, and wildlife remain largely unpredictable.
Of course, for our kids, other things will leave a more lasting impression than melting glaciers: playing on the shore of Gunsight Lake, seeing a mountain goat up close—and for Nate, feeling the cold power of a canister of Counter Assault pepper spray in his hands.
But I think they will also take away some subtle but ultimately more valuable gifts from Glacier National Park.
On our last morning, we pack up camp beneath battleship-gray skies. Just as we hit the trail to hike back to our car, the first raindrops start falling. We plod through four hours of steady rain that slowly soaks our boots and pants, giving my kids a valuable lesson in hardship that they endure with patience beyond their years. They even surprise me with how positive and unruffled they remain throughout our long, wet, raw walk—affirming my belief that, even at their age, they draw knowledge and self-confidence from our wilderness adventures that they will carry with them always.
Michael Lanza is a freelance photographer and writer. The creator ofTheBigOutside.com, Lanza dedicates his site to sharing personal hiking adventures and offering guidance to fellow wilderness enthusiasts. He is the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine, blogs for backpacker.com, and a former editor for AMC Outdoors magazine. Author of previously published hiking guides, Lanza's newest book, Before They're Gone (Beacon Press, spring 2012), examines climate change in national parks through the lens of family hiking excursions.
The water of Johns Hopkins Inlet lies flat, perfectly reflecting the first patches of blue sky we’ve seen since arriving in Glacier Bay yesterday morning. I rest my paddle across the kayak and listen. A barely audible moan of wind floats down from high in the mountains, then fades away. A bald eagle screeches, briefly piercing the quiet; but as soon as the sound passes, the silence that returns seems as deep as the sea we’re floating on.
On the second afternoon of a five-day sea kayaking trip, 55 miles up this Southeast Alaska fjord where cliffs shoot straight up out of the sea and razor peaks smothered in ice and snow rise thousands of feet overhead, I’m taking a moment to enjoy a rare pleasure: listening to the cacophony of nothing.
My seven-year-old daughter, Alex, who is perfectly content to sit back and let me power our two-person kayak loaded with food and gear, points to the eagle perched in its nest in a snag high up a cliff. “He’s watching the kayakers go by,” she informs me. A harbor seal pops its head above water nearby, inspecting us with dark eyes. Alex faintly catches her breath as she and the seal lock gazes. A moment later, it disappears with a “bloop.”
Then a sharp concussion rips open the quiet.
About six miles away, visible at the other end of the inlet, the mile-wide, twelve-mile-long Johns Hopkins Glacier has dropped another immense piece of itself into the sea. The native Tlingits, who have lived on this coast for centuries, call that explosive noise “white thunder,” which strikes me as the best possible descriptor for it.
The Hopkins Glacier is the most active remnant of an unimaginably massive river of ice that filled this realm of liquid water in the geologically very recent past. Tomorrow, we will paddle up this inlet for a close-up view of that dynamic glacier. We’re hoping this improved weather will hold out at least until then.
My family, including my wife, Penny, and our nine-year-old son, Nate, are taking a sea kayaking trip run by Alaska Mountain Guides. With our two guides and six other clients, we’ve come to paddle around Glacier Bay’s upper West Arm, probing deep within a national park the size of Connecticut, at the heart of a contiguous protected wilderness area the size of Greece.
By mid-afternoon, we pull up onto a rocky beach at the mouth of the inlet, where we’ll camp for two nights. The sky has mostly cleared and the water’s still dead calm. Icebergs float in the bay. Glaciers pour off of serrated peaks on all sides; tendrils of clouds wrap themselves around the mountaintops.
And throughout the evening, every 15 or 20 minutes, another sharp report booms down the inlet.
Dan Berk paddles beneath the Lamplugh Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park.
Two centuries ago, there was no Glacier Bay. When British Capt. George Vancouver sailed the H.M.S. Discovery through Southeast Alaska’s Icy Strait in 1794, he wrote in his ship’s log about a “compact sheet of ice as far as the eye can see.” He was looking at a colossus of ancient, frozen water 4,000 feet thick and up to 20 miles wide that reached more than a hundred miles into the St. Elias Mountains. By the time John Muir visited in 1879, the tongue of ice that had touched the waters of Icy Strait had slid 30 miles backward. He wrote that, at night, “the surge from discharging icebergs churned the water into silver fire.”
Glacier Bay has seen the fastest glacial retreat on the planet. The ice has pulled back 65 miles, unveiling a fjord with numerous inlets and 1,200 miles of coastline. While the national park still has more than 50 glaciers covering 1,375 square miles—more than a quarter of the entire park—most are in declining health, a trend driven largely by one factor: In the past 60 years, the state’s average temperature has increased 3° F., more than twice the average warming worldwide.
A scientist who has studied Alaska’s glaciers for 40 years told me that 99 percent of them are shrinking. Just in the four decades since he first kayaked in Glacier Bay, the number of so-called tidewater glaciers, those that extend from the mountains to the sea in various inlets, has gone from a dozen to five.
Named a national monument in 1925 by President Calvin Coolidge and a national park and preserve in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter, Glacier Bay today attracts more than 250,000 visitors a year. The vast majority of them see the bay from the railing of the park’s tour boat, which is certainly a great experience. But so few people go kayaking in the bay—and it is so vast—that kayakers run into very few other people on multi-day trips here.
On our first day, we paddled into Reid Inlet and explored the hundred-foot-tall snout of the Reid Glacier, where a river of gray water poured out of a blue-ice cave. After camping at the inlet’s mouth, we started our second morning with a visit to the ruins of a cabin inhabited eight decades ago by Joe and Shirley “Muz” Ibach. The couple staked their claim to mine the land a year before the bay became a national monument, and were permitted to continue living and mining there for another 16 years, making perhaps $13 after expenses in a good year, until their deaths.
Frowning at what’s left of their former one-room wood structure in the middle of the wilderness, Alex asked me, “How did they entertain themselves?” Even by the simpler lifestyles of those times, it’s hard to imagine such solitude.
Then again, there would be that constant soundtrack of white thunder playing in the background.
Our second campsite in Johns Hopkins Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park.
Another morning of glassy waters greets us as we push the kayaks out into Johns Hopkins Inlet on our third day. Under clear skies and a warm sun that will deliver our trip’s warmest day, pushing 60º F, we cruise slowly up the inlet, passing icebergs ranging from truck-size to chunks of ice that look like abstract mantelpiece sculptures.
Capt. Cook saw these peaks in 1778, during an identical short reprieve from the typically wet, gray Southeast Alaska weather, and named them the Fairweather Mountains. Given that the region receives six feet of rain a year and is much more frequently enveloped in fog than bathed in sunshine, it may be the most misleading place name on the planet.
We’ve arrived in late July, just a few weeks after Johns Hopkins Inlet was opened to kayaks and boats. The park closes this inlet to human traffic every year during spring and early summer to avoid disturbing the thousands of harbor seals that birth their pups and keep them on floating icebergs to protect them from predators.
Glacier Bay is something of a northern paradise, teeming with life. Humpback whales and orcas ply its waters. On the four-hour park ferry tour up the bay that first morning, en route to our drop-off point, we saw brown bears ambling down rocky beaches and mountain goats scrambling up sea cliffs. Scores of Steller sea lions, the largest males ten feet long and over 2,000 pounds, piled up on the barren rock of South Marble Island, where researchers have counted 1,100 of them.
We spotted black-legged kittiwake nesting in sea cliffs, pigeon guillemot with its red legs and beak, and the more-common tufted puffin as well as the rare horned puffin. Some species threatened or endangered outside Alaska, like the bald eagle and marbled murrelet, abound in Glacier Bay.
The bay also offers a rare natural laboratory displaying a living timeline of plant succession in the wake of deglaciation. In the lower bay, ice-free for 250 years, a mature temperate rainforest of spruce and hemlock grows almost impenetrably thick. As one travels up the bay, the forest gets younger, dominated by deciduous cottonwood, willows, and alder. In the upper bay, there’s little vegetation beyond mosses, lichens, and a few determined wildflowers. Waterfalls plummet hundreds of feet down cliffs scarred by the glacier that scraped past just decades ago. The upper bay opens a window onto what North America looked like when the last Ice Age drew to a close 10,000 years ago.
Our group paddles up Johns Hopkins Inlet toward the Johns Hopkins Glacier in Glacier Bay.
As we paddle farther up Johns Hopkins Inlet, the icebergs crowd more densely around us, some as large as tiny islands. We weave more cautiously among them, careful not to get too close, in case one abruptly rolls over.
About three hours from our camp, we take out on a beach of sun-warmed, fine black sand a quarter-mile long, littered with blocks of ice gleaming a brilliant white in the sunshine. Gulls are squawking. Backing the beach, multi-tiered Chocolate Falls sends a column of brown water crashing over cliffs. A half-mile away, the Johns Hopkins Glacier spans the entire head of the inlet, a sheer wall of ice a mile across and 300 feet tall, roaring at us at irregular intervals.
A couple of pairs of binoculars come out and we discover that the bergs across the inlet are covered with hundreds of seals. Some of the seals approach our beach, poking their heads above water to stare at us, then diving under again.
Earlier today, Arlie and Mike, a young American couple living in Vancouver, B.C., had broached the idea of taking a swim in the bay. The water is right around freezing. When I remind Arlie about her idea, we instantly have a party of swimmers: Arlie, Mike, our assistant guide Dan Berk, who’s in his early twenties, and me. We strip to underwear and, with the video camera rolling—of course—dash down the beach shouting and dive into the waves.
I’ve jumped into lakes within several degrees of freezing before, but this is the most frigid dip I’ve ever taken. The shock seems to squeeze my chest; my head pulses with a cold ache. All four of us jump up and immediately turn back for shore as the rest of our group on the beach hoots and laughs—Alex and Nate the loudest. For no logical reason, I turn and dive in again, thinking it will be the finale.
But back on the warm sand, the four of us shivering, Dan suggests one more plunge. I can’t very well back out. So with our half-frozen legs not working as well this time, we jog over and dive in again. This time, when we come out, I chatter through blue lips, “That’s the last one.” We trot around on the warm black sand for several minutes before getting our core body temperatures back up to normal.
We were right to presume that this warm sunshine would offer our only enticing opportunity for a swim. Tomorrow will deliver more raw overcast and a few hours of steady rain as we paddle to our final campsite, where the park tour boat will pick us up the following morning. We will paddle tomorrow among a few icebergs and see more waterfalls, seals, bald eagles, numerous other birds, and even a porpoise—while listening to those sporadic rumbles of white thunder.
[Author’s note: I write more about this trip and Glacier Bay’s climate story in my book, Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks, due out from Beacon Press on April 3, 2012.]
My outdoor choice is Castle Island in South Boston. Great place to walk anytime, but particularly with the onset of Spring when the ocean air smells great and a hot dog at Sullivan's is the perfect reward for circling the whole Sugar Bowl.
The historic spot is the Old South Meeting House. Though there are many wonderful spots in Boston to experience its history, anytime I'm in this church, I can practically feel the place pulsating with 5,000 angry colonists on the eve of the Boston Tea Party.
And of course, the North End touches me personally in a way no other place in Boston does. All three of my immigrant grandparents lived there, my dad was brought up there, my parents dated at restaurants in the neighborhood, and the Italian experience is still vibrant and unrivaled. I feel comfortable there always, at one with my past, whether walking the crooked, narrow streets, spending a few minutes inside St. Leonard's Church, or enjoying dinner with friends. I've never lived there, but it's always felt like home.
Photos of North End by Jessie Bennett. Photo of St. Leonard's interior by wgdavis on Flickr.
John Hanson Mitchell is the author of The Paradise of All These Parts: A Natural History of Boston. concentrated much of his earlier early work, including, most famously, Ceremonial Time, on a square-mile tract of land known as Scratch Flat, located thirty-five miles northwest of Boston. He is the author of numerous books and editor of the award-winning magazine Sanctuary, published by the Massachusetts Audubon Society. Mitchell lives in Littleton, Massachusetts.
Not an easy question, actually, there are so many favorites, but two stand out:
The main one is probably the little warren of cobblestone streets in the North End between the Copp's Hill Burying Ground and the Paul Revere Mall and Hanover Street. I don't even remember the names of the streets and enjoy very much getting lost there.
Do Cambridge or Somerville count? Two of my favorites are: True Grounds Cafe in Ball Square, Somerville-- the best scones and most artful lattes in town. Also Porter Square bookstore in Cambridge, a wonderful independent bookstore with a warm atmosphere and a great series of readings.
Editor's note: I don't usually chime in with my own opinions, but I have to add that Beacon Hill is one of the most beautiful places in the Boston area, and it's an absolute joy to work here, especially in the springtime. Here are a few photos of my favorite spots, including, of course, Beacon Press headquarters! -- Jessie
Michael Lanza is a freelance photographer and writer. The creator of TheBigOutside.com, Lanza dedicates his site to sharing personal hiking adventures and offering guidance to fellow wilderness enthusiasts. He is the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine, blogs for backpacker.com, and a former editor for AMC Outdoors magazine. Author of previously published hiking guides, Lanza's newest book, Before They're Gone (Beacon Press, spring 2012), examines climate change in national parks through the lens of family hiking excursions.
Fat, perfect snowflakes pour down in a silent, frozen torrent from a blank white page of sky, as if the mountains are inside a Christmas snow globe that someone just shook vigorously. Powder lays several feet deep on the ground and smothers the tall ponderosa pines, looking like dozens of clean, white mittens on their boughs. No wind stirs the still air, and it’s not too cold. The quiet could drown out any negative thoughts.
It’s the kind of day that can make you wish winter lasted all year.
I ask four of my skiing partners what they think of the storm. My question triggers a blizzard of opinions.
“It’s pretty snowy.”
“I’m getting snow in my face. I love it!”
“I say it’s perfect.”
They’re strikingly casual about skiing into a snowstorm, but not entirely out of ignorance. They’ve all skied into the backcountry in these conditions before—four years in a row in these same mountains on almost exactly the same dates, in fact. So they’ve come to expect this.
The four are my son Nate, 10, and daughter Alex, seven, and family friends Lili and Sofi, 10-year-old twins. Also with us on this cross-country ski trail are my wife, Penny, and Lili and Sofi’s parents, Vince and Cat. It’s just after Christmas, and we’re on our way to the Skyline yurt, two miles and several hundred vertical feet uphill from ID 21 in Idaho’s Boise National Forest.
The Banner Ridge yurt in the Boise National Forest, Idaho.
For anything else, we’d have trouble tearing our kids away from their new Christmas loot. Not for this annual expedition, though. They’ve been talking about it for weeks.
Michael Lanza is a freelance photographer and writer. The creator of TheBigOutside.com, Lanza dedicates his site to sharing personal hiking adventures and offering guidance to fellow wilderness enthusiasts. He is the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine, the voice behind the Trip Doctor blog on backpacker.com, and a former editor for AMC Outdoors magazine. Author of previously published hiking guides, Lanza's newest book, Before They're Gone (Beacon Press, spring 2012), examines climate change in national parks through the lens of family hiking excursions. The following post is an example of one such adventure.
We hiked slowly but steadily uphill through switchbacks in the cool shade of Pacific silver fir and Alaska yellow cedar draped in Spanish moss. With melting snow swelling every river, stream, and rivulet in the 470 miles of waterways within the boundaries of Mt. Rainier National Park, the Cascade Range erupted in a riot of greenery all around us, the forest a happy drunk on an H2O bender.
The temperature was a just-about-perfect 60° F. or so, and a breeze wandered through the big trees—weather copied and pasted directly from my backpacking dreams. I barely broke a sweat despite carrying a pack weighing as much as my nine-year-old son, jammed with much of the gear, clothes, and food for our three-day, 24-mile family backpacking trip across Rainier’s northern flanks, from Mowich Lake to Sunrise. I tried not to think about the forecast of rain for the next two days, or that my itinerary assumed our nine- and seven-year-old kids would happily hike nine miles and 2,000 feet uphill on our last day.
We emerged from the dense forest and crossed a log bridge over a small stream, passing through a threshold of conifers into a spacious meadow—and a vision of impossibility suddenly loomed on the horizon before us.
Today is election day in Sri Lanka, and today's post is from Adele Barker, who was awarded a Ucross Fellowship for her work on her latest book, Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka. Barker has taught at the universities of Arizona and Washington, and is the author and editor of five books on Russian literature and cultural life. In 2001-2002 she received a Fulbright Senior Scholar grant to teach and write in Sri Lanka. After the tsunami she returned to the island where she traveled to the areas most devastated by the waves and by the thirty year old civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the central Sinhalese government. This post is part of a series, appearing at the Huffington Post marking the anniversary of the 2004 tsunami.
January 4, 2010
It's kite season on the Jaffna Peninsula in northern Sri Lanka. On the tip of the peninsula, people are flying their homemade kites along the sea's edge with a little help from the northeast monsoon winds. It's a good season up here for other things as well. Peace has come to the north of this war torn country. It's a very different place than it was three years ago when I was here. Sri Lankans from all over the island are now free to travel to the north. For foreigners it is still problematic. Small guest houses that had gone to ruin are being rebuilt. Just outside of town the land is being cultivated for the first time in many many years. People are busy turning the soil, and planting everything from onions to cabbage and chilies on land that was occupied by the military during war time. Each week more land is being released back to the population at large, something that is absolutely crucial given the number of people up here who need to be resettled.
Downtown Jaffna is booming with the kind of energy that tells you that this is an area intent on rebuilding. Three years ago when I was up here working on my book Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka, the center of Jaffna looked like a poster city for civil war, twenty-six years of it to be exact. Mostly the stores sold tools and twine, the markets were bare, textile shops sat waiting for the odd customer. The only shops that seemed to be doing well were the ones selling bicycle seats since petrol was both expensive and generally unavailable.
Today's post is from Adele Barker, who was awarded a Ucross Fellowship for her work on her latest book, Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka. Barker has taught at the universities of Arizona and Washington, and is the author and editor of five books on Russian literature and cultural life. In 2001-2002 she received a Fulbright Senior Scholar grant to teach and write in Sri Lanka. After the tsunami she returned to the island where she traveled to the areas most devastated by the waves and by the thirty year old civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the central Sinhalese government.
This post is the first of a series, appearing at the Huffington Post, marking the anniversary of the 2004 tsunami. This week's tragedy in Haiti calls painfully to mind the human loss and devastation of five years ago.
December 25, 2009
Everyone is complaining about the heat here, even the stalwarts who were born to it. Disgorged from mind numbing twenty-some odd hour flights, my son and I arrived to find the chocolates we had brought as Christmas presents liquefied into something the consistency of a post-rain mud flow. Vitamin capsules succumbed to the heat in Ziploc bags; lipstick lost its former identity as we moved to the tune of Christmas carols, bright lights and election streamers that dot the streets of this country just a heartbeat north of the equator. We are back in Sri Lanka. It's Christmas in Colombo!
My son Noah and I have come back to this island that was our home for a year after 9/11. Noah has not been back since 2002. I returned for eight months after the tsunami to work on my book about the island Not Quite Paradise. I thought I had finished the book in 2004, but then the wave hit. And everything changed. The book will be out in a few days. We both decided we needed to return, to put our feet on the island again, to take stock of a place that had so deeply defined our lives for that year and longer. In just days it will be five years since the tsunami. It feels to us as if it should be marked in some way, but so far there has been nothing in the press about it. Friends tell me that the country is too busy with other things, the upcoming presidential election in January for one. The kickoff to the campaign began the day after we arrived. For many this is going to be a bitterly fought contest between the incumbent president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, and General Sarath Fonseka both of whom claim responsibility for the victory in May of this year over the Tamil Tigers. Some say this election is going to determine the future of this country. Others fear that the direction has already been charted and that nothing is going to change regardless of who is running the place. But this is what is garnering the attention these days as Noah and I thread our way through the traffic of Christmas shoppers and campaign throngs in downtown Colombo.
On Christmas Day, Yemeni student Umar Farouk
Abdulmutallib nearly blew up a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit using three
ounces of the explosive PETN sewn into his underwear. Only a faulty detonator
prevented more than 300 people from perishing. As is so often the case in
instances like this, the only real casualty of the abortive terrorist attack
will be personal privacy.
Just a few days after the attack, the Dutch government
announced that all passengers emplaning for the United States will be required
to go through a "full body scanner." The more technical term is a
"backscatter X-ray," a device that uses high energy X-rays to scan
under an individual's clothing and reveal whether they are concealing any
weapons or contraband. If Abdulmutallib had been required to go through such a
device, security experts say, it is likely that technicians would have detected
the presence of the PETN in his underclothes.
Since the 9/11 tragedy, the Transportation Security
Administration has been pushing for the installation of full body scanners
around the nation, but the roll-out has been slow. Currently, just 19 airports
are using a total of 40 machines, although TSA has another 150 ready for
installation in the coming year. The agency is also planning to buy an
additional 300 machines, each of which costs between $130,000 and $170,000.
The devices have sparked opposition from a variety of
quarters, chiefly due to the fact that the backscatter x-ray technology is
capable of producing highly detailed images of the body of each person who
steps into the machine. The images are so accurate that the American Civil
Liberties Union describes the experience as a "virtual strip
search." A European child rights advocate believes that the
images are so revealing, in fact, that scans of teens and pre-adolescents could
qualify as child pornography.
Today's post is from Jay Wexler, whose first book, Holy Hullabaloos: A Road Trip to the Battlegrounds of the Church-State Wars, will be published by Beacon Press in Spring 2009. Wexler is Professor of Law at Boston University, where he teaches first amendment and environmental law. His website is www.jaywex.com.
We had been living in Krakow for three months when I started feeling homesick for Boston. It's not that I don't like Krakow. As everyone knows, Krakow is the new Prague. It is blessed with magnificent architecture, a vibrant student population, and more beets than you can shake a stick at. But it just isn't Boston. Nobody honks a horn just to hear how loud it is. You can't find a bowl of clam chowder anywhere. And while plenty of drunk guys roam the streets, they generally aren't chanting "Yankees Suck."
We didn't have time to cross the ocean, though, so we decided to seek out one of Boston's "sister cities" instead. The "sister city" concept was the brainchild of President Dwight Eisenhower, who wanted to encourage more Americans to travel abroad and cooperate with overseas friends. "The Sister Cities Program," according to the City of Boston website's sort-of incomprehensible description, "promotes world peace in an individual level and encourages citizens to better understand community." Cities can find "sisters" in all sorts of ways, including through a matchmaking service provided by an organization called Sister Cities International. Single, land-locked, authoritarian Central Asian capital seeks strategically located steel producing sister city for economic cooperation, militaristic conquest, and long walks on the beach.
Boston has eight official sister cities, including Kyoto, Melbourne, and Sekondi-Takoradi, which is the capital of the Western Region of Ghana. The two closest sisters to us, though, were Padua, Italy ("Padova" to Italians) and Strasbourg, France, so we decided to pick one of these. I'm sure Strasbourg is plenty nice, but how could a French city be anything like Boston? Padua, on the other hand, now that had potential. Sometimes, like when Italy won the World Cup in 2006, it seems like half of Boston is Italian-American. And what Bostonian could ever forget the commercial from the early seventies where Anthony Martignetti runs home through the streets of the North End for Prince Spaghetti night? Want to guess who the Patron Saint of Padua is? That's right: St. Anthony. I booked our tickets and looked up how to say "wicked pissah" in Italian.