The Outside Blog

Climbing : Adventure

What Qualifies as Dangerous Parenting?

"In six days I can’t possibly describe the range of emotions I have felt so far: anger, joy, sickness, exhaustion, exhilaration, wonder, awe, contentment, peace."

So wrote Charlotte Kaufman in her blog on March 25 (Day 6 out at sea) from the cabin of her 36-foot sailboat, the Rebel Heart.

By now many of you have probably read of the dramatic rescue of Charlotte, her husband and two daughters, ages 1 and 3, from their failing vessel—900 miles off the coast of Mexico, out in the Pacific Ocean; a rescue that involved the California Air National Guard, the U.S. Navy and the Coast Guard. The cost of the rescue, and the fact that it was spurred by the sickness of their one-year old, has triggered a lot of debate about parenting. Their choice to sail from Mexico to New Zealand with young kids has been called anywhere from "child endangerment" to "tantamount to child abuse" by folks posting comments on a New York Times article about the incident.

For me it also raises lots of questions, but maybe different ones.

  • When is it okay for others to judge, even intervene in one's parenting?
  • How do we as parents give our kids experiences that stretch their conception of what's possible?
  • How do we as parents combat the potentially numbing effects of a cushioned life? How do we give our kids experiences that help them learn to assess risk for themselves?
  • How do we help our kids feel the wide range of emotions that make them uniquely human: the "anger, joy... exhaustion, exhilaration, wonder, awe, contentment, peace" that Charlotte writes about. The "sickness" I guess we mostly try to avoid; though even that is a question for me. What do we not do for fear of getting sick?

Before we cast stones, let's look at the choices we've made ourselves. I, at least, can't say I haven't made some that endangered my children, but like the Kaufmans I'd stand by them, mostly. And, by odd coincidence, I've also had a window into the business of accusing parents of incompetence and taking their children away.

When our daughter Molly was two, she and my husband, Peter, and I flew up to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories of Canada. From there we hired a car to drive us the 150 kilometers out the ice road to the tiny Inuit village of Tuktoyaktuk, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. It was winter. It was cold. It felt very exposed.

After three days of snow and wind and dropping temperatures we were told the ice road was closed. We now had two choices, fly out or stay indefinitely. I had a New Year's Eve dance performance to produce back in my hometown of Missoula, Montana. I felt I had to be there. I wanted to get out.

Luckily for us, the next day we got news a small plane would be coming in and we were told we could get on it, if we'd be willing to escort some kids bound for Inuvik. Why not! Sure, we said.

That Christmas Eve, the dim twilight that passes for day had slipped back into darkness. We stood by the chain link fence that delineated the airfield, a short strip of asphalt in a patch of windswept tundra, beneath the single light. We were bundled in all the winter gear we had but were chilling down fast, our eyes tearing in the bitter wind. Then everything seemed to explode into chaos.

An unmarked van pulled up and three small kids were lifted out and thrust into our arms. The pilot, appearing out of nowhere, was shouting,

"We have to get out of here! Now!"

I ran toward the small propeller plane, with Molly hanging onto one hand and a small boy, maybe four?, holding onto the other. Peter was ahead of me with a baby in his arms, pulling along a trundling toddler.

"Strap your seat belts on painfully tight. There're hundred-mile-an-hour winds ahead. It's gonna be a rough ride!"

The plane was used for the transport of goods, so had only a few seats bolted haphazardly into the floor in no obvious pattern. As soon as all our buckles were fastened the plane was bumping down the runway. The small boy dropped his own toy plane and watched unhappily as it skidded away, clattering over the metal grate of the floor, and crashed into a bulkhead in the back. I couldn't reach it, as we slanted up, bouncing into dark sky, but tried to reassure him that we'd get it. The baby began to cry. These kids' mom, we were told, had been found drunk in a snow bank.

When we landed in Inuvik, Molly and I got to head for a B&B, but Peter had to accompany our charges to their new homes. They were being split up. On this Christmas, these Inuit children would start a new life with white families, in a new town—without their mom, without their brothers and sisters, without their extended family, without their community, without their culture. When Peter returned his face was ashen.

It's a big debate: when are parents judged unfit for parenting, and by whom, and what then, and will that be better? Certainly there are terrible parents who physically and sexually abuse and are drunken, drugged and neglectful. The Kaufmans out sailing on the Pacific, however, with their love of adventure and hopes, I imagine, to raise their daughters to feel that much in their lives will be possible, even crossing an ocean, would not seem to fit into this category.

On that plane, bucking and dropping in the night, the needs of my dance performance suddenly seemed ridiculous, compared to endangering our daughter. We could have crashed. In the best-case scenario we'd have been the beneficiaries of an expensive rescue, like Charlotte and her family out on the Pacific. In retrospect, I would say we made a stupid choice. But I'm not talking about the choice to go way out. I'm talking about the choice to allow our grid-locked, time-clocked world, our world of career ambitions, run our lives, rather than listening to nature. Nature will always outdo us in the end.

But then we all make poor choices, for the wrong reasons; or sometimes, good choices that have risks attached and go awry. Hopefully we learn something and figure out how to make a better choice next time.

Charlotte's blog, Rebel Heart, March 26 (Day 8 at sea—clearly she's already letting go of the time-grid because her dating is funky): "I stepped out into the cockpit and turned slowly in a complete circle. All around me is water. Not still-standing water, like in a bathtub. The waves are alive. They are on a mission. They roll heavily southward, determined to get to an equatorial shore somewhere, or even further along towards Chile and the Antarctic. And the waves provide no exit or short cuts; we cannot get off this boat. There are no rest stops. No Holiday Inns. We can’t stop at a friend’s house. No Grand Slam breakfasts at Denny’s or Blizzard cones at Dairy Queen. We can’t walk into the waves. The only way to move is forward, or in our current trajectory, westward. If something breaks, we must fix it. The girls have no one to talk to but each other, and me and Eric."

Now there's an experience that would instill wonder, inspire awe, and teach resilience. I would hope I could offer my kids those kinds of experiences, if not in exactly that way. And yes there's the risk. Most of us aren't going to take a risk that big. But the fact that others do, helps us push our own boundaries, if only a little bit. 

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Baked Alaska: Surviving Aniakchak National Monument

Jimmy's Store in Port Heiden, population 102, stocks all the staples of Alaskan bush life, at bush prices: $14 cans of Folgers, $7.50 packs of sunflower spits, something called the Jerky Master. And on the wall, hanging from a nail: very large steel leg traps, without price or explanation.

“You’re goin’ up there today?” Jimmy asks from behind the counter, in what passes for a formal greeting. Jimmy’s gaze trails across the ample gray acreage of his sweatshirt and settles on the window, where right now a slasher-film fog is sticking to what little scenery presents itself. Tundra. Truck. Still more tundra, unspooling to a horizon so unbroken by man or mountain range that the sky would start at your shoelaces if only you could see them. Welcome to July on the Alaska Peninsula. 

Twenty minutes ago, our bush plane nosed down into the soup and left us on a gravel airstrip, where we hitched a ride to Jimmy’s along with the mail sacks in the back of a gutted eighties Econoline van. QUAYANA (“thank you”), the door read. NO PETS. 

Jimmy Christensen is half Aleut, and like many of the native Aleut here, he’s broad, quiet and kind, and in possession of his people’s sly, dry sense of humor. The way everybody is always asking Jimmy for advice or to borrow his dozer until next Friday, he seems to run his hometown. He’s sort of the gentle Tony Soprano of Port Heiden. There’s not much new here for a man like Jimmy, and our sudden appearance and determination seem to amuse him. He sells us a gallon of white gas and offers to drive us to the road’s end. 

Grabbing his keys, Jimmy says we’re the first backpackers he’s seen in weeks. This doesn’t surprise us. Nobody comes to the Alaska Peninsula by accident. Even fewer come here for fun. The peninsula marks the start of the Aleutian island chain, the 1,400-mile tail that wags west toward Kamchatka. It’s a slim, Vermont-size piece of nearly trackless green with a population of fewer than 3,000 residents, almost all of whom live in just a few villages that sit uneasily on the map, as if nature might evict them at any time. Naknek. South Naknek. Port Heiden. It’s a tortured landscape, pummeled by unrelenting storms and warted with semiactive volcanoes. In a state grinning with superlatives, this is one of the wildest, rowdiest, most remote places around. It remains a question mark to even the most sporting Alaskans. 

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Which is exactly why we’re bouncing in the back of Jimmy’s king cab. I’m obsessed with blank spots on the map, the places nobody goes. I’ve learned to follow my cell phone like a reverse Geiger counter: the poorer the coverage, the more enticing the destination. For ten years, I’ve tried without luck to visit the most promising one of all, the one that now lurks out there in the murk: Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve, the least visited of the entire 401-unit national park system. 

Already it has taken my companions—guide Dan Oberlatz and photographer Gabe Rogel—and I three flights from Seattle to reach Port Heiden, which sits about 450 miles southwest of Anchorage. Our plan is to backpack 22 miles into the monument’s centerpiece, an ancient and massive crater, and then float 38 miles to the Pacific using ultralight, stowable rafts crammed deep in our packs. From there we hope to hoof and paddle nearly 80 miles down the coast to the native community of Chignik Lagoon, where the closest airstrip awaits.

Inconvenience is the least of the obstacles that Aniakchak throws up for the would-be visitor. The central peninsula is home to one of the largest concentrations of the biggest brown bears on earth. Then there are the man-eating vegetables, alder jungles that swallow bushwhackers, and cow parsnip with poison leaves that blister the skin. Add routinely nasty meteorology—“This is where a lot of the weather is made for the rest of the country,” a guide once told me—and the challenge we face is pretty stark. 

We’re not even out of sight of Port Heiden’s last house when Jimmy starts in on his version of Alaska’s familiar “out of the car, into the food chain” axiom. “Just remember there’s a bear up here, he’s about 12 foot,” Jimmy says. “The worst thing up here, though, are the wolves,” he adds. “They’ve been hanging out now in packs of 40.” The leg traps suddenly make sense. In 2010, wolves in Chignik Lake killed a petite schoolteacher while she was out for a run. The incident was only the fourth documented account in North America of unhabituated wolves killing a human being. 

The truck stops where the muddy track meets a creek, and we pile out.

“What kind of gun you got?” Jimmy asks.

{%{"quote":"Nobody comes to the Alaska Peninsula by accident. It's a tortured landscape, pummeled by unrelenting storms and warted with semiactive volcanoes. In a state grinning with superlatives, this is one of the wildest, rowdiest, most remote places around."}%}

Dan introduces Jimmy to Pepe, his handgun and the fourth member of our group. Pepe is a brawny, confident-looking .44 Magnum. Dirty Harry’s gun. I liked Pepe the moment I met him in Anchorage—a fondness that grew once Dan discouraged me from bringing my bear spray, explaining that not only is bear mace unpredictable, it’s also not allowed on commercial planes.

Feeding Pepe ammo at the trailhead, Dan suddenly seems apologetic. “Probably won’t do more than piss off a 12-footer,” he says to Jimmy.

The Aleut’s silence is a verdict. Jimmy then says that he prefers to carry a shotgun with slugs, the Alaska-approved way to stop one thousand pounds of charging meat. 

Before we shoulder our packs, Jimmy pauses to offer some parting native wisdom. “What you gotta do is file the tip of the sight off,” he says, eyeing Pepe. “So it won’t hurt so much when the bear shoves it up your ass.”

In 2012, 9.7 million visitors drove through the gates of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the country’s busiest. That’s nearly 19 people per minute. Meanwhile, 19 people stopped by Aniakchak all year. This isn’t because Aniakchak lacks merit; it may be the coolest place you’ve never heard of. Around the time the Egyptians were at the height of their powers, a 7,000-foot stratovolcano blew its top with a force equal to 10,000nuclear bombs. Bowels emptied, and the peak collapsed on itself, leaving a six-mile- wide crater with walls rising as much as 2,500 feetfromthefloor.Forthenextfewthousand years, it sat resting in near anonymity. Then, in 1930, the Glacier Priest arrived. 

Father Bernard Hubbard was a Jack London character sprung to life—a self-promoting Jesuit and peripatetic head of the geology department at California’s Santa Clara University who was as quick with a bear-felling shot as he was with a Hail Mary. Hubbard’s scrambles all over pre-statehood Alaska, sometimes accompanied by a crew of strapping Santa Clara footballers who wore their leather helmets for protection, made the Glacier Priest a household name at a time when a depressed nation hungered for heroes. His exploits appeared in The Saturday Evening Post and National Geographic; for a time, he was said to be one of the top-paid speakers on the planet. “The world’s most daring explorer,” one magazine declared.

Hubbard’s visit to unknown Aniakchak, though, really shot the Glacier Priest to fame. Inside the “great moon crater,” as he called the long-quiet caldera, his crew discovered “paradise found… a world within a mountain,” where orchids bloomed in the volcanically warmed soil and the rabbits were so guileless that the padre and his crew felt guilty eating them (but did anyway).

Then Aniakchak erupted again, in the spring of 1931. When the holy man returned that summer and peered over the crater’s edge, he likened himself to Dante on the edge of the Inferno. “It was the abomination of desolation… the prelude of hell,” he wrote in his book Mush, You Malemutes! “Black walls, black floor, black water, deep black holes and black vents; it fairly agonized the eye to look at it.” Hubbard’s Eden had been obliterated, replaced by a Hieronymus Bosch canvas of cauldrons bubbling with sulfurous yellows and greens and fumaroles hot enough to cook his crew’s beans. 

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Eighty years later, Aniakchak is a quiescent member of the Pacific’s volcanic Ring of Fire but is considered “potentially active” by the Alaska Volcano Observatory. The crater and surrounding areas have started to recover. So why does nobody come? Access, for one. No roads reach Aniakchak. The aforementioned nasty weather, for another. Stuck between the raging Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean, the Alaska Peninsula is forever buffeted by storms like a beleaguered referee trying to separate heavyweights. Skies are cloudy 300 days a year, with low ceilings. Flying here is akin to navigating inside an old gym sock. Parties can wait days to get in or out.

Then there are the brown bears Jimmy warned us about. “The Alaska Peninsula has, if not the highest density in the world, then close to it,” Dave Crowley, a biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who manages the area’s bears, told me before I left. Recent studies have found up to 400 brown bears per 1,000 square kilometers. (By comparison, it's estimated that just 718 of the famous, feared Yellowstone grizzlies are sprinkled across 72,500 square kilometers in the greater park area.) The peninsula’s bears are genetically similar to the famed Kodiak brown bears, which along with polar bears are the largest bears on earth. 

If you do manage to reach Aniakchak, you will find no broad-brimmed park rangers. No Winnebagos. Not a single marked trail. As the National Park Service’s website for Aniakchak puts it, “No lines, no waiting!”

“We gotta get up and outta this shit,” Dan says as he climbs back into the tent on the second morning. He’s soaked. After our group left Jimmy yesterday afternoon, we squished southward for seven miles across tundra and through low grasses that felt like someone’s overwatered lawn. Just a dozen miles from the grumpy Bering Sea, the landscape almost cowered; bent beneath our 65-pound packs, we were still the tallest things for miles. We eventually pitched camp in what felt like the inside of a milk jug. Now we can’t see 50 feet. I thought back to two days ago, when we’d stood in the airport departure lounge in sunny, 75-degree Anchorage before a mural highlighting marquee destinations like Lake Clark National Park and Katmai and read Gateway to Alaska’s Southwestern Wildlands. Aniakchak wasn’t on the mural. 

If this trip is a fool’s errand, I can’t think of better fools-in-travel than my companions. Dan, 45, is a smart-ass native of Northern California with sharp blue eyes behind his geek-chic horn-rimmed eyeglasses. A ball cap that hides a backpedaling hairline advertises Alaska Alpine Adventures, his 16-year-old company that guides trips ranging from ski-touring from a yacht to climbing in the Brooks Range and then floating to the Arctic Ocean in inflatable canoes. A few years ago, Dan also launched Adventure Appetites, a gourmet backcountry food company that has supplied the fare for our trip. Gabe, 37, from Washington, is an up-for-anything photographer whose goofiness makes it easy to forget that he’s a former mountain guide who has worked everywhere from the top of 8,000-meter Shishapangma to the unclimbed vertical walls of Ethiopia.

“Chimps in the mist,” Dan dubs us after breakfast as we hunch under our packs and trudge into the never-ending whiteout. The land rises almost imperceptibly in a long, green, mossy ramp that, the map tells, is the volcano’s flank. We see bear tracks. We see caribou tracks. We see wolf tracks that stalk the caribou tracks. 

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The fog machine is on full. We steer by GPS. Condensation drools from Dan’s hat brim and from Pepe’s barrel, which rides holstered within easy reach on his hip. Gabe and I are jittery in the spooky murk. Wolves appear at the corner of our vision, only to resolve themselves into shrubs. Bruins become boulders. “Alaskan rock bear,” Dan says after I yelp at one. With no bear spray to comfort me, I calm myself by recalling what bear-expert Crowley had told me: Aniakchak bears live at the largest buffet table on earth—berries, salmon, moose. They’re so well fed they “tend to be fat and lazy,” he said; he’d watched bears catch salmon and only lick them, they were so full. “If you don’t do anything stupid, you’ll be alright.” I repeat the words buffet table like a mantra.

Eventually, the moss gives way to black-pebbled plains and ash piles and rivers of pumice. There is no wind, no birdsong, as if even sound itself has abandoned us. 

“This place is so otherworldly,” says Dan. “Dead. Not a thing alive.” 

Up and up, we chimps walk through the monochrome for hours. Finally, a black line materializes from the white mist: the crater lip. Now the wind rouses, as if Aniakchak has awakened to the trespass. It roars, grabs backpacks, lifts us like bright bits of cloth and practically tosses us over the rim, sending us running down the steep pumice ramp into the crater.

Inside the caldera, the wind relents. The clouds lift. The sun shines. Finally, we can see where we’ve arrived.

“Oh, my God,” I say, looking at Gabe. 

“Oh, my God,” says Gabe, looking at Dan.

“Oh, my God,” says Dan, looking everywhere.

A “bewitched stadium” is how Hubbard described the crater the first time he stepped inside. My initial thought is less poetic. It feels like we’ve stumbled into a gargantuan gopher hole. Inside it’s sunny and dry: an ash-filled bowl more than six miles across whose floor is so large—nearly 30 square miles—that Manhattan could easily fit inside. Before us spreads a scene that’s Land of the Lost meets nuclear holocaust. Eighty years on, the ground underfoot still looks charred. A few sprigs of dwarf fireweed flower bravely in the dry ash. Cinder cones pimple the crater 

floor, and all around us queer volcanic monuments pepper the landscape. To our left is a huge scoop in the earth called Half Cone, remnant of some bygone blowout. Behind us lies a scab of hardened lava the size of a neighborhood which oozed up during the 1931 eruption. As if the scene lacked for drama, high above us fog pours over the crater rim in spectacular cascades that shred and evaporate on the descent. “Cloud Niagaras,” Hubbard called them. 

There’s green water in the distance. We head toward it instinctively, kicking up ash like postapocalyptic pilgrims.

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After the 1931 eruption, the Glacier Priest had damned Aniakchak as the pit of Hades. The intervening years have softened the place slightly, rinsing off the heaviest soot and endowing it with a flinty beauty. Call it desolation sublime. We hike past walls candy-striped in sherbet pinks and reds. A caribou prances by, a sole welcoming host. In the middle of the crater, we tramp past the huge cone of 3,350-foot Vent Mountain—“a volcano within a volcano!” Hubbard had exclaimed upon first seeing it—looking sullen with its burnt top. In the distance, glaciers cling to the shadier walls.

Then there’s Surprise Lake, the crater’s psychedelic gem, which glows the unreal green of Imodium A-D, thanks to suspended volcanic particles in the water. The specially evolved sockeye salmon that spawn here are essentially raised on soda water. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen in Alaska, that’s for sure,” Dan says that evening after we make camp in a sheltered elbow along the lake and tuck into his company’s reindeer rotini. 

The next morning, wearing only daypacks, we explore the crater’s oddness. It’s like taking a walking tour of our dyspeptic planet. We cross electric green moss and black sand dunes so full of iron they stick to the magnet on the chest strap of Gabe’s CamelBak. We hoof across otherworldly plains of dust staged with small rocks, where I’m pretty sure NASA faked the Mars rover landing. We peer into springs bubbling with a witchy brew of ferric browns and pumpkin oranges. I keep thinking of how one early geologist described Aniakchak: a “pleasing weirdness,” he wrote. And all the more pleasing for our aloneness.

Or at least we seemed alone. “Now that’s a big bear right there. That’s a coastal brown. That’s huge,” Dan says, looking down at muddy paw prints along the lake near our campsite. The claws on the front paw print are as long as Swiss Army blades. The rear print swallows my XL hand with inches to spare. “Definitely a ten-footer,” Dan says.

{%{"quote":"Exploring the crater is like taking a walking tour of our dyspeptic planet. We hoof across otherworldly plains of dust staged with small rocks, where I'm pretty sure NASA faked the Mars rover landing."}%}

“So, uh, how old do you think those are?” I ask, second-guessing our solitude. I search to see if Pepe is still strapped to Dan’s hip.

“At least a few days.” I exhale.

That afternoon, as the guys nap in warm 70-degree sunshine, I tie a fly to the end of my line. Standing atop some of those bear tracks, I’m soon yanking in Dolly Varden trout, their polka dots pink in the yellow sun, from where the Aniakchak River exits the lake. Every few casts, I swivel around to make sure my fly hasn’t foul-hooked the ten-footer. Some people prefer meditation to make them feel present; for me, nothing focuses the mind quite like knowing I’m a potential crudité.

From the moment it tumbles out of the crater, the 38-mile Aniakchak River runs south toward the Pacific as if it’s late for dinner. It will be our escape route. We’ll use our packable Alpacka rafts to float right out of the caldera. At one time the inside of the crater had been filled with a 600-foot-deep lake. That changed about 2,000 years ago, when an earthquake or eruption or massive rockslide cracked the crater wall. A biblical flood gushed through the gap, with a flow close to the Mississippi, overwhelming the landscape downstream. Today, the designated Wild and Scenic Aniakchak River still charges through that 1,000-plus-foot cleft, called the Gates, as it carries Surprise Lake to the sea.

Yesterday, we’d climbed high onto the crater rim to scout our departure. 

“Not a lot of volume,” Gabe had said, watching the small river squeeze through the Gates before uncoiling on distant green plains. “Looks like it might be hard to get in a lot of trouble.” 

More-careful inspection showed garage-size boulders frothing the green waters. I knew the river dropped 75 feet per mile through here—honest rapids. I also knew that my entire whitewater experience consisted of Mom letting me ride the log flume, twice, at Virginia’s Kings Dominion amusement park.

The next morning we wisely portage past the chewing rocks and Class III-plus rapids of the Gates. Downstream, we suit up in ultra-light drysuits for a practice run. Dan gives us whitewater kayaking 101. “They’re super-agile,” he says of our micro rafts. “They’ll bounce off rocks. You’ll spin around,” he adds. “You’ll be fine.” 

For its first third, the Aniakchak is as wide and shallow as a sluicebox. This late in summer, it’s a fun-house ride of mostly Class II rapids. We bounce downstream for 13 miles of unbroken whitewater, hooting and hollering.

It’s comforting to see Pepe riding high on Dan’s life jacket. Which reminds me—what should I do if I see a bear standing in the river?

 “Enjoy the experience,” Dan says. Then, after a short pause, he flashes a wide grin. “And paddle to the deepest water.” 

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Later that afternoon, we finally see our first: a honey-colored beauty who quickly bolts deeper into the nearby willows after spotting our odd armada. 

The river slows dramatically the second day, as the land palms open into perfect bruin country. The terrain even looks bear-like—humped, alder-furred hills that seem to root around in the underbrush. We find the calm pace of this new land, sometimes dozing off while seated upright in our kayaks, other times tossing pumice stones at one another and watching them float. 

As we drift languidly, I remember something Dan told me over lunch before we left Anchorage. “I could grow my business and do stupid touristy shit,” he said, making a sour face. “But the soul of my business is in the wilderness.” He’s led fifty-some trips in Alaska since founding his company, but these days he personally guides only those, like Aniakchak, that he hasn’t done yet. Alaska is too big and too cool, he said, to not keep exploring.

That afternoon, the Pacific Ocean welcomes us with a stiff-arm breeze and an incoming tide. After a short struggle against both, we spy an old cannery cabin refitted by the Park Service above the beach. After five days of so much expansiveness, the confines of four walls and a small space is a relief. Inside, the cabin’s logbook records many wild things: Trips of 30-bear sightings. Parties pinned down for days by hurricane winds. Savaged boats. I turn to the most recent entry and count backward. Just 11 visitors so far this year, not including us—and three of them were here for work.

Most visitors to Aniakchak get picked up by floatplane at the cabin after their paddle to the sea. The reason that Dan suggested we keep going on foot is simple: he’d never hiked the rarely trammeled, four-day, 80-mile route along the Pacific to Chignik Lagoon and wanted to do some recon for a possible client trip. Gabe and I were game. 

Our trek along the beach is no Tahiti vacation. We spend long days bent under our still-heavy packs. We make decent time cruising never--ending stretches of firm sand and sneaking around barnacled headlands at low tide. Sometimes, though, we’re forced upland into thickets of alder that grow as tight as prison bars and slow progress to a heartbreaking quarter-mile per hour. Whenever possible, Dan sniffs out bear trails, centuries-old bruin inter-states that are the path of least resistance through the tangle. One is so disturbingly popular that it’s trenched three feet deeper than the abutting alders.

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The miles blur in a fever dream of suffering and spectacle. I remember bald eagles posing atop sea stacks like hood ornaments for the continent. I remember inflating the pack rafts nervously for a 13-mile paddle around a headland on the rolling Pacific, only to be pleasantly distracted by orange-beaked puffins and curious sea lions. I remember Pepe, drawn and ready to shout, after we surprise a chuffing brownie on a kill. And how that bear is the last of 19 we see in 24 hours as we leave the preserve and enter the Alaska Peninsula National Wildlife Refuge. 

Mostly what I remember, though, is the feeling of a different rhythm taking hold, not of the wristwatch but of natural places. Each day as we hike, the sun sets a little sooner. We see salmon gather in the bays, sniffing for their home rivers—and see bears come down to the shore, ready to flick their sushi onto the sand. My fancy GPS watch dies; I don’t much care. I go days without thinking of e-mail or my iPhone. This is what we want from our Aniakchaks, isn’t it? Places that help us shake off the dross and find a surer and more ancient pulse.

Four days after leaving the cabin, on the puddle-jumper out of Chignik Lagoon, a familiar green ramp comes into view. From 15,000 feet, it appears as smooth as pool felt. I press my forehead to the window and stare for a long time as the ramp finally climbs higher and higher, until it vanishes in a smother of white clouds. I look up. Gabe and Dan are smiling. For a moment we grin like idiots at one another. Then we press our foreheads against the cold of the Cessna’s tiny portholes. Seeing all this, some of our fellow passengers look out their windows, perplexed. If you hadn’t been there, it would be easy to think there was nothing worth seeing at all. 

Christopher Solomon (@chrisasolomon) wrote about a new and controversial approach to marathon training in January 2013.

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Law and Order at 17,500 Feet

For the entirety of its existence, Base Camp on Mount Everest has been self-policed. No more. After last year’s brawl on the Lhotse Face, in which European alpinists Ueli Steck, Simone Moro, and Jonathan Griffith clashed with a group of Sherpas fixing ropes, Nepal’s tourism ministry has decided to step in. Come April, a nine-member armed security contingent made up of Nepali soldiers and police will keep order in the temporary city, which swells to nearly 1,000 people during peak climbing season.

“By the time the first expedition team arrives in Base Camp, our group will be in place,” says Maddhu Sudan Burlakoti, a joint secretary of the tourism ministry. “The team will ensure security of the climbers and also get involved in rescue operations. We’ll also make sure that, in the case of such an incident, the accused doesn’t get away.” 

Will this sort of warning, and the presence of a police force, have any tangible effect? It seems unlikely. Most of the action on Everest takes place higher up on the mountain. Last year’s brawl occurred at Camp II, nearly 4,000 vertical feet above Base Camp. 

“Unless the soldiers or police officers are trained as climbers, they won’t be on the mountain,” says RMI guide Dave Hahn. “That fight was a sorry little episode, but this won’t do anything to prevent another one above Base Camp.”

So what’s the point? Many Everest vets consider the force to be little more than a publicity stunt engineered to stave off negative media attention. Everest expeditions, after all, add roughly $15 million annually, from permit fees and general spending, to Nepal’s struggling economy.

“Everest gets headlines every year,” says Hahn, “but I worry that this is just another layer of bureaucracy from a country having a hard time keeping the lights on in Kathmandu.”

“It will be business as usual,” says Russell Brice, founder of Himalayan Experience. “Everyone will work around the new rules, and very little will change.”

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The Border or Bust: A U.S.-Mexico Road Trip With Steve Inskeep

I've always been impressed by the power of radio to transport me to places I've never been, to weave travel stories in a way that holds me rapt. National Public Radio does a particularly good job of it, and their current series, Borderland, which began airing on March 18, is no exception. The program, which features NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep, explores the U.S.-Mexico border while traveling east from El Paso, Texas, to Tijuana, Mexico, dipping across the international line, chatting with locals on both sides, and recording plenty of great stories.

The road trip spanned some 2,428 miles and involved 22 crossings. Along the way the team of radio personalities were harassed by border patrol, attended pop-music concerts, sat in on a "grito" (shouting) contest, and sipped margaritas in a city best known for intense drug violence.

In a rare opportunity to turn the microphones on one of America's best-known and most capable radio interviewers, I caught up with Inskeep on his way home to Washington, D.C., to ask him a few questions about the adventure. You can listen to the full interview here. Highlights below:

On the origins of the project
I've always been interested in [this area]. The thing that really drove the trip, though, was a book that I was reading that divided the U.S. into 11 areas… It had this region on the map called El Norté, and this book argued that both sides of the border were very culturally similar and had a lot more in common with each other than with the countries on either side. And that made me want to go there.

On surprises during the reporting
What we tried to do, rather than big pieces about issues, was small, personal stories. You begin the subject thinking you know the big issues: immigration, the drug problem, trade, and then you hear the details of someone's story and you realize that you don't know it all.

On the porosity of the border
There's intense security, particularly on the U.S. side. You are always aware that people are watching. There are border patrol vehicles everywhere. The border patrol itself has nearly doubled in size in the last decade. You see them in filling stations. You see them in restaurants. You see them parked along the border. You pass them on the highway. You see these aerostats, blimps attached to cables. It is a heavily policed area.

But is it porous? We were in the Tohono O'odham Indian reservation, in Arizona, which goes down to the border. Last year the border patrol seized 476,000 pounds of marijuana on that Indian nation. If that's what being seized, you know a lot more is being sent or they'd stop sending it that way.

On tensions he encountered along the border
We visited one section of the border wall, this big concrete slab. You can stand on the south side of the wall, but there's a little distance between it and the Rio Grande. People trying to sneak into the United States would come and try to scale the wall. While were there something like 14 people got arrested right in front of us—this whole collection of men, women, and children. There are also people who live on the U.S. side who stopped crossing the border for fear of crime and drug-related violence.

However, when we crossed, it seemed quite relaxed. The people were very friendly and open. Statistically speaking the violence in northern Mexico is much better than it used to be. There's still crime, but less violent crime.

On visiting Juarez, Mexico
In 2010 there were more than 3,000 murders in Juarez. There's a new documentay, that was mostly shot in 2010, called Narco Cultura, and it is just unbelievable what was happening back then. But since then, the murder rate has gone down dramatically. I think there were 500 murders last year. It doesn't feel like a city at war anymore. We were able to run freely. I've been to a few interesting places. I've been to Syria, I've been to Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. You learn to sense how dangerous it is and how scared you should feel, and it just never felt particularly terrifying in Juarez.

On parts of border that were really enjoyable
There were some stunningly beautiful places. In El Paso, there was a former state park ranger who said, "I gotta show you this." And he takes us up this tram to the top of a mountain. Were more than a mile high looking down on Juarez and El Paso, in the sunshine. It looks like a map, we're so high.

Driving into Columbus, the landscape is just amazing. You can see the town from like 15 miles away, with mountains studding the desert. The Tohono-O'odham Nation is incredible, with its cacti and mountains and these sweeping valleys. I would even mention that there's this Lawrence of Arabia moment near Yuma, in California, where there are these waves of pure sand. It completely looks like Saudi Arabia—or what I'd imagine Saudi Arabia to look like since I haven't been there.

On beverages
We did have margaritas! There's a place called the Kentucky Club in Juarez, which claims to have invented the margarita. I think that claim is disputed but it's a good margarita. And the second was better than the first.

There's another drink down there called a Michelada. It's different in different parts of Mexico, but in Matamoros, where I first had it, it's tomato juice and Worcester sauce and lime, and you pour a beer into the mix. That was interesting to say the least.

On how Mexicans view border issues
I think there's a little bit of resentment. There is historical resentment of the United States. And there's resentment toward the massive security that is in place on the U.S. side. But it was not overt when we were there. To the extent that you saw demonstrations, they were about the drug gangs or the past violence. They were about losing people in Juarez. One area of contention, of course, is with the border patrol. There have been a number of shootings of unarmed people, who were reported to have only rocks—they were throwing rocks. There is even a lawsuit going on involving shooting someone from U.S. soil while they are still standing in Mexico… But even all that said, the rawness of feeling toward the U.S. isn't the same as what you would find in Syria, Afghanistan, or Iraq.

For many people in the U.S., Mexico is an abstraction. And I bet if you went to Mexico City, for many Mexicans the U.S. would be an abstraction. But along the border, each country is a reality to the other. 

On getting out of the studio and doing first-hand reporting in the field
Oh my gosh, it's the most valuable thing that I do. And it's the only thing that makes it possible for me to come back into the studio and know what I'm talking about, or at least know the right questions to ask… You just get completely different stories. On road trips like this, you meet people you never would otherwise. You turn your focus on a region and you learn about people you otherwise never would have met. We met writers, musicians, so many different kinds of people, and you see them in the context in which they live. The very act of traveling forces you to think about the region that you're traveling through, and to realize the complexity of it.

On advice he'd give to other travelers
The more I travel the less I pack, so I don't have any great gear suggestions. But here is some mental gear, if you will: Be willing to go and travel somewhere that strikes you as a little bit scary. There are so many places in the world, and northern Mexico is one of them, that people are terrified of because of events that have happened in the past. I don't mean don't be cautious, but you can go to places like that and look at them and give them some thought, and you realize that most people are really very nice and will actually take care of you if you're an outsider. It's worth having a margarita at the Kentucky Club in Juarez. It's worth seeing the central square in Matamoros. A lot more of the world is open to you than you might think at first glance.

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The Extreme Sport of Solo Parenting

For the past ten days, I have been on a solo expedition, a rigorous mission that demands both mental and physical stamina, getting up before first light, and carrying heavy loads. 

I've been at home, taking care of the kids. 

When two adventurers marry and produce offspring together, the opportunity for solos automatically doubles. Your partner's going to want to leave town, or you will, and somebody has to mind the babies. It's good to be positive about this. Just as solo adventuring makes us stronger athletes, solo parenting makes us better mothers and fathers.

Steve's been going backcountry skiing in British Columbia almost every winter for the past five years. In the past, my strategy for solo parenting usually entailed avoiding it. I'd call in grandparent reinforcements or decamp with Pippa and Maisy to my mother's in Connecticut. But now that our daughters are three and five and act less like little wild wolverines and more like semi-rational human beings, they've become easier to manage by myself. So this year, I decided, we'd stay put on home turf.

The key to soloing, I've learned, is to keep expectations low. When Steve's away, I clear my schedule and simplify. This is not the time for planning dinner parties (not that I ever do) or redecorating the house (ditto) or booking non-essential doctor's appointments or getting cavities filled or taking the recycling out or doing anything above and beyond daily survival. The only real goal is that everyone lives. You'd be surprised how easy it is to let go of trivial concerns when your partner is deep in the backcountry skiing unstable snowpack above tree line every day. When you're worrying about avalanches sweeping away your true love and father of your children, you can become very Zen about daily life on the homefront.

Still, the minute Steve left, I knew I'd have to bring my A game. The last words he said to me at 6 a.m. before he left for the airport were, "Sorry to tell you this, but Pete had diarrhea all over his crate."

As I lay there in the dark bedroom, my mind raced to make a plan. Ten long days of soloing stretched before me. I needed a strategy, but there were so many unknowns, it would be impossible to map them all out. Then I remembered a exercise I'd done in a Native American-inspired dawn ceremony at a resort in Sedona a few years ago. There, in a dimly-lit crystal grotto, we silently declared our intentions for the day, giving thanks in advance that they would come true. It had felt contrived and New Agey to me at the time, but it had worked that day and maybe it would again. "Please let us have a nice, calm family day," I vowed to myself. "And let me accept help if it's offered." Then I got up to face the day, and the week.

Outside in the first rays of morning, I cleaned the poop and one very filthy, remorseful puppy while Pippa coached me through the window. It wasn't as bad as I'd expected. When you have no choice but to hose down the dog before dawn and no partner to pawn it off on, you hose down the dog before dawn. That's the beauty of soloing: It requires you to do what is in front of you when it is front of you. There's no time for idle internet surfing or various other forms of goofing off when dinner needs to be made. You have ravenous children about to go out of their minds if they're not fed, so boiling noodles is your exact, only option. Vigilance like this is kind of liberating.

Thus was born my two-part strategy for the week. Before I got out of bed each morning, I tried to remember to set my intentions for the day—let me get my writing done with ease and efficiency; let me be more patient with the girls; let me not try to cram too much in. Once I was clear on how I hoped the day would go, then I could focus on running a tight ship. I got them to school on time, wrote while they were away, made dinner and fed them early, before they went crazy, and put them to bed by 7:30. I did the dishes while they were in the bath, made their lunches for the next day after they were asleep, and fed the dog before going to bed. Hyper organization, never my strong suit, became my system, my religion.

Meanwhile, Steve was crushing it in his own way. He and a group of friends and friends-of-friends had helicoptered into the Hilda Hut, a luxe, privately-run wilderness cabin at 6,300 feet in the Valhalla Range in the Selkirk Mountains, where they were skinning and skiing fresh lines all day everyday for a week. With an abundance of fresh snow following a warm spell, the snow pack was sketchy, like almost everywhere in the northern Rockies. "You can find the weak layer down there if you look for it," Steve emailed me the day they arrived. "Don't find it," I responded.

When it comes to outdoor adventures, I can worry about almost anything. I'm particularly skilled at conjuring up images of horrific avalanches ripping off the tops of entire mountains, a season's worth of snow burying everything and everyone in sight. But once I began to focus on what was in front of me, a funny thing happened. I stopped worrying so much about Steve. As the days went on, I no longer obsessively checked the clock every afternoon, wondering if he was back safely at the hut. Part of this was simple logistics. Because the Hilda Hut has wireless internet, unlike others run by the Canadian Alpine Club where they'd stayed in years past, I could follow his progress on Facebook. I knew he'd survived another day when I saw his friends' photos pop up on my newsfeed. But part of this was practice, too. The more present I became to mothering my girls alone, the less gripped by worst-case scenarios I became.

Since we first met, Steve and I have always gone off on our own trips. We share a love for rivers, trails, mountains, and snow, but sometimes our priorities diverge, and we've learned to give each other time and space to do what we love. This is healthy. I want to mountain bike the White Rim trail. He flies to Hawaii to play in an Ultimate tournament. I spend a week whitewater kayaking in northern California and riding in the Sawtooths. He goes climbing in Red Rocks. Divide and conquer. It makes homecoming, and the adventures we plan together—trekking Nepal, skiing in Austria, and paddling rivers, and climbing peaks throughout the Southwest—even sweeter.

But once we had kids, I had to re-learn how to be gracious about Steve's leaving. Even though I get to go on my own adventures nearly as often, I've been known to grouse before he leaves and guilt him for going after he gets back. That's like hitting the delete button and wiping out all the fun he had in one fell swoop. Totally pointless. If he's going to go, he might as well have the best possible time ever, and come home happy and recharged and stay that way for as long as possible. Everyone wins. 

While Steve was skiing freshies and hot-tubbing and sauna-ing high in the Selkirks, back at home one of us after another fell victim to the stomach bug. First Pete. Then Pippa, who woke moaning once, twice, three times a night. Then me. We were sleep deprived and sick, but we still managed to carry on with our usual weekly roster of work and fun school, skiing, playing, writing. What choice did we have? Single parents know this intuitively, but even under less than ideal circumstances, soloing isn't so hard if you get organized, come up with a system, and try your best to stick with it.

By the time the helicopter flew into the Hilda Hut to retrieve Steve and his friends, I'd barely eaten in four days. I'd forgotten to fill the bird feeders and take out the trash, but the pets were fed and the girls were alive, and even in my depleted state, I was full of something else: pride in myself, and the girls, all of us, for keeping it together. We'd done more than that. Rather than rush through my days in the usual blur, I'd felt myself sink in and slow down—a rare gift. I was more exhausted than I'd been the morning Steve left, but calmer, too.

You'd think that coming back together would be easier than saying goodbye, but this isn't always the case with soloing. One person has been out in the wild, the other deep in the routine of home, and it always takes Steve and me a day or two to readjust to life as a team again. We share the details, but it's almost impossible to get or give the full download; regular life sweeps over us, and the best we can do is replay the highlight reel and carry on.

Maybe it's better this way. You experience something singular that sticks with you, and changes you for good, in different ways each time. This is why it's so important to go, and to stay behind. You feel empathy for the other, and a hunger to go. Either way, it's your turn next.

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