New Year's Trips: Ringing It In Outdoors

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, January 1994
New Year's Trips: Ringing It In Outdoors
By Bob Howells

New Year celebrations being among the most tedious of social obligations, the best way to get through them is to be irrevocably out of town. Out of any town, that is, because stargazing from a North Country yurt as the timberwolves howl is an infinitely more appropriate way to meditate on the start of a new cycle than fox-trotting to the strains of some Guy Lombardo knockoff on time-delayed TV. Whether you're willing to meet winter head-on or prefer a low-latitude adventure, it's not too late to plan a worthy New Year escape. Figure on some sort of homage to the changing of the calendar, but goofy hats and cheap champagne are definitely optional.

Mushing Minnesota's Boundary Waters
When winter renders the Boundary Waters Canoe Area uncanoeable, you can mush your way through the million-acre wilderness with an outfit called Boundary Country Trekking. Arleigh Jorgenson, who has finished ten 500-mile dogsled races in his career, conducts a briefing on fundamentals at base camp, 32 miles northwest of Grand Marais. You then meet your team of six huskies, harness them to your personal sled, and run them 15 to 25 miles to a communal backcountry yurt in Superior National Forest, where a host prepares a Mongolian fire pot--a hearty Asian version of meat fondue. In all likelihood, you won't last till midnight, but you can celebrate early out on the nearby frozen lake, listening for the aforementioned wolves and watching the star show--maybe the Northern Lights, if you're lucky.

On the second and final day, you mush another 25-40 miles to a wilderness cabin,where everyone trades dog stories in the sauna or over a dinner of maple-cranberry-glazed duck, grilled trout, or shish kebab. If you've discovered that mushing's in your blood, you may decide to stick around to see the Grand Portage Chippewa John Beargrease Sled Dog Festival, which precedes a race just slightly longer than the name (500 miles) from Duluth to Grand Portage and back. Events, including a cutest-puppy contest, a weight-pull competition, and a meet-the-mushers banquet, begin January 2 in Duluth; the race starts January 9.

Cost for the December 31- January 1 mushing trek is $490 per person, extendable for another mushing day and night at the cabin ($230). Fly to Duluth and drive 110 miles northeast on U.S. 61 to Grand Marais and 32 miles north on the Gunflint Trail to base camp. Call Boundary Country Trekking at 800-322-8327 (218-388-4487 in Canada); for information about the festival and race, call 218-722-7631.

Learning to Climb at Joshua Tree
The infamous winter climbing scene at Joshua Tree National Monument makes an inspirational backdrop to Vertical Adventures's four-day Rockcraft Seminar, held January 1-4 here in southern California's Mojave Desert. Watch your nervous buddy creep along an easy crack while an unroped Euro star prances up a 5.11 face next door. No such antics for you--you'll have a bombproof anchor and a snug belay at all times--but the seminar will have you progressing quickly, climbing up to 5.7 with a top rope the first day and maybe "leading" a carefully supervised 5.9 by the fourth. The course, headed by Bob Gaines, pioneer of more than 100 area climbs, emphasizes safety and the basics of terminology, knots, and equipment. Most participants learn enough to begin climbing on their own after graduation.

Camping at Joshua Tree is free but primitive. It's also optional--12 miles away are the three-hot tub Yucca Valley Inn and other motels--but it's more fun to camp with the guides at the Sheep Pass group site, where informal buffets tend to materialize around the campfire. Bring your own shelter, sleeping bag, food, and plenty of water.

Joshua Tree is 30 miles northwest of Palm Springs on California 62. The seminar costs $285 per person. Call Vertical Adventures at 714-854-6250, Joshua Tree National Monument at 619-367-7511, and Yucca Valley Inn at 619-365-3311.

Bicycle Touring Central Florida
A winter cycling holiday is not the time for hammerhead training or traversing major mountain passes. It's a time to spin and/or lollygag, to give thanks for some miles that don't involve an indoor trainer or full-face fleece apparel--something, say, in Florida. Something like Backroads's central Florida trip, out of sight and scent of Daytona Beach and Mickey Mouse's teeming kingdom. You'll ride between 20 and 64 miles a day (though you can always opt to go longer or shorter) along country roads beside streams and lakes, horse farms and cattle ranches, orange groves, pine forests, and mangrove swamps, all in the area of the genteel antique-boutique town of Mount Dora. On the December 27- January 1 outing, you'll spend New Year's Eve pedaling and gator-spotting for 46 miles through mangroves in western Lake County, or you can take the long option of 83 miles around three lakes and acres of vegetable farms. Supplement your PowerBars with roadside purchases of fresh-picked oranges and boiled peanuts, and fuel up with fresh seafood in the evenings. Half of the second day is spent off the bike and in a canoe exploring the Wekiwa River.

The first two days are based out of the Lakeside Inn in Mount Dora, the last three out of the Mission Inn resort in Howey-in-the-Hills. Mount? Hills? Yes, there's some distinctly un-Floridian contour to the land here, but the cycling is still easy--particularly enjoyable for couples of disparate abilities or for spending time with Florida-dwelling parents who ride a bit.

The fully supported five-day, five-night tour costs $1,095, including most meals. A van transfer from Orlando costs $50, and you can rent one of Backroads's touring bikes for $109. Call Backroads at 800-533-2573. The Lake County Alternative Transportation Specialist's office (904-343-9655) can help you plan a self-guided or abbreviated tour; call the Mount Dora Chamber of Commerce (904-383-2165) for maps and information about lodging along the route you decide to take.

Tracking Mountain Lions in Idaho and Utah
OK, so you spent the holiday on the couch after all, but while you were there you watched a PBS special on big cats and resolved to do something to save wildlife this year. Here's your chance. With Earthwatch, a nonprofit group that recruits paying volunteers to help scientists research environmental and cultural change, you can spend a rigorous nine days tracking, tranquilizing, and radio-collaring mountain lions in the arid, cold mountains of south-central Idaho and north-central Utah. Volunteers rise at 5 a.m., begin tracking at 5:30, and often hike up to ten miles a day in rugged canyons. The purpose of the long-standing project, which is run in conjunction with Idaho State University, is to study feeding and breeding patterns in shrinking and fragmented habitat.

Home base is a ranch house in Malta, Idaho, with modern conveniences. Evenings are mostly spent being exhausted and preparing one-pot meals, but the scientists and professional trackers are good raconteurs, and project head John Laundré plays a mean fiddle.

The first expedition of 1994 is January 8-16; the tax-deductible cost per volunteer is $1,295. Figure on flying to Pocatello, Idaho, via Salt Lake City on the seventh. Call Earthwatch at 800-776-0188 (617-926-8200 in Canada).

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