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Looking for Clarity In and Around Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe is the clearest lake of its size in the United States and one of the deepest, but development around the lake has greatly diminished its clarity. In 1968, one could see an astounding 97 feet down from the lake's surface. Now, it's 75 feet—on a good day.

Clarity is important not just because the blue waters of Lake Tahoe help stoke a bustling year-round tourism industry. Clarity is in fact a key to a healthy ecosystem in the lake, says Geoffrey Schladow, who directs the Tahoe Environmental Research Center and is a professor of Water Resources and Environmental Engineering at the University of California, Davis.

"Under clear conditions, we get a lot of penetration of UV radiation" deep into the lake, he says. "It probably has some of the highest UV penetration of any lake in world." Losing that UV penetration has opened the door for invasive species, such as large mouth bass, bluegills and carp. "When these invasives reproduce, their young can't stand that UV radiation and they die. But native fish are adapted to it," he explains.

The loss of clarity in recent decades is due to sediment runoff, which is a byproduct of building and development around the lakeshore, as well as car and truck emissions. This runoff, combined with accidental introductions of invasive species, which can hitchhike a ride into the lake via boats, have significantly altered the lake's ecosystem. The lake temperature is also rising, most likely due to climate change. Schladow and the research center are part of large, coordinated effort to improve Lake Tahoe's clarity and restore its natural habitat.

That is the subject of a short documentary called "Lake Tahoe: Can We Save It?" produced by QUEST, a collaboration between six Public Broadcasting stations around the country. The show premieres October 16, but we've embedded it below so you can watch it now (thanks, QUEST!). 

We've known for decades that sediment runoff is hurting lake clarity and initial steps to combat it date back to 1987, in a plan designed by the Tahoe Regional Development Agency, created in 1969 through a compact between California and Nevada. Property owners around the lake have installed sediment traps, which have lead to better clarity during the wet winter months, but the lake's summertime clarity continues to fall, and Schladow does not know why. "Really, everything is on the table," he says. "We're looking at climate change, the impact of invasive species … There is something there that is causing the lake to change in a negative way."

As reported in January, the Tahoe Regional Development Agency has created a new development plan that will attempt to further mitigate environmental harm to the lake, while also appeasing business interests to grow the infrastructure and services around the lake. The plan nearly fell apart, however, when Nevada threatened to drop out of its long-standing compact with California (1/3 of the lakeshore is in Nevada), but the two States have now settled their differences.

That said, the waters are still far from tranquil. This winter, the Tahoe Regional Sierra Club filed a lawsuit, seeking to stop the new development plan in its tracks. The group claims the new plan does not go far enough to protect the lake, and it cedes too much to developers' interests. 

Not all environmental groups that work to protect the Sierras are on board with the Sierra Club, however. The League to Save Lake Tahoe approves of the new development plan, and recently told the New York Times that although it's not a perfect approach, it will allow developers to rehab and make more ecologically sound many structures that have been languishing since the 1987 development plan.

Schladow says the Sierra Club suit is doing more harm than good. "I think [it is] hampering progress," he says. "If the suit is successful, then suddenly we're back in the possibility that Nevada will withdraw and there will be no compact. Suddenly, two States will be trying to regulate one lake. Would Nevada sue California (over disagreements)? Would California sue Nevada? That would be unworkable."

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The Best New Fall Reads

It’s the spring of 1924, and English playboy Lord Percival Bromley has disappeared in the Himalayas. The climbing world assumes he’s perished in an avalanche. Lady Bromley, his mother, believing otherwise, summons three mountaineers to her estate. “If my Percy is alive,” she says, “I want you to bring him home to me.” So begins prolific sci-fi master Dan Simmons’s brick-thick adventure thriller The Abominable (Little, Brown, $28). Bromley’s an invented character, as are the three sent after him: decorated World War I veteran Richard Deacon, crafty Chamonix guide Jean-Claude Clairoux, and young Harvard grad Jake Perry. Soon enough the trio is battling Nazis disguised as yetis, but the surprise here is how well Simmons knows his climbing history. The team’s gear is supplied by George Finch, the inventor of the down jacket and oxygen kit. And Deacon’s Great War scars (body and soul) were all too common. The Abominable keeps the action roaring through the team’s grueling ascent and Nazi showdown while paying out enough crampon-and-ax accuracy to keep skeptical climbing geeks satisfied.

After two bestselling memoirs (Eat, Pray, Love and Committed), Elizabeth Gilbert returns to fiction with a sweeping tale of fortune, adventure, and the quinine trade. The Signature of All Things (Viking, $29) follows 19th-century scientist Alma Whittaker, whose extraordinary life unspools like a Jane Austen novel as she struggles to be taken seriously as a botanist and find a partner worthy of her love. Gilbert’s blockbuster memoir success has overshadowed her mastery of fiction (Stern Men). But here she claims her rightful spot as one of the 21st century’s best American writers.

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What Would Survivorman Do?

In the sprawling genre of survival television, there is one man who has managed to earn both huge ratings and the respect of bearded guys with big knives on their belts: Les Stroud, a.k.a. Survivorman. Stroud, 52, grew up in Toronto watching Jacques Cousteau and Tarzan, then became a rock-and-roll addict with dreams of being the next Neil Young. At 25, disillusioned by the music industry, he took a survival course at a Toronto college and was hooked. He went on to train for years with elite survival instructors and honed his skills on numerous wilderness forays, including a yearlong honeymoon with his wife in the remote woods of northern Ontario, during which they lived off the land and used no metals or plastics. Early on, Stroud had the idea of creating a home-video series to teach survival skills, but it wasn’t until 2001 that he pitched a more ambitious idea to the Discovery Channel: just him, alone in the bush for a week, filming his struggles—building fires, catching game, fending off the cold.

The runaway success of Survivorman spawned a string of copycat programs, from Bear Grylls’s Man vs. Wild to this year’s over-the-top Naked and Afraid, in which a nude man and woman are stranded together in an extreme environment. But only Stroud has pulled off a literal one-man show—producing, writing, filming, directing, and starring. In 2009, he temporarily switched gears and created Beyond Survival, a series for Discovery in which he studied the wilderness skills of indigenous people around the planet, then returned in the summer of 2012 with four Survivorman specials. In December, he’ll be back with a full season, including two episodes featuring his teenage son, Logan. Here and on the following pages, Stroud shares his hard-earned wisdom about wild places, why he considers Grylls a phony, and what it takes to live through almost anything:

The first night I spent in a shelter I’d made myself, with my feet sticking out and the rain coming down and the mosquitoes buzzing, I said, “This is what I want.”

You wouldn’t watch a ski jumper on TV and then the next day, having never skied, strap on a pair and go jump. And you don’t watch Survivorman and then say, “I’m going to go out alone in the wilderness this weekend.” It took me years to learn these skills.

There’s no such thing as passive survival. Survival is proactive. You’re doing every-thing you can to deal with the situation.

You know those lemons that come up on Vegas slot machines? When I was teaching guides, we’d always say, “When you hit that third lemon, stop—get out.” Maybe the first lemon is an injury. Then the second lemon is exhaustion. Third lemon, storm’s coming. Done, go home, you’re finished.

There’s been too much emphasis over the years on “stay put, stay put.” Survival and first-aid courses all say that. Why stay put if you can walk out? People might be looking for you, but they’ll stop as soon as you get to a phone.

You do have to stop and ask some questions: How far is it to get out? Do I know the way? Am I confident I can find it, or is it a crapshoot? Do I have the strength to make it? Is anybody looking for me if I don’t?

I go out and go through the experience of survival and document it. I hate the concept of reality television. I’m a documentary filmmaker.

Initially, I think people watch out of morbid fascination. But when you see me really struggling, when you see the sweat on my face and know that I’m really going through it, then it strikes a deeper chord: If I had to, could I survive?

All these other shows are created by TV producers. Anything they can do to get higher ratings, be under budget, get it done fast—that’s what they do. It detracts from what it really takes to survive in the wilderness. Many of the things Bear Grylls and other guys do is completely bogus. Wrong skills. Dangerous skills.

Have I ever been pressured to do it differently? To fake it? Once, very heavily by one producer, and I said no.

My son, Logan, started asking to do a Survivorman episode with me when he was 12—way too young. When he was 15, I said, “OK, let’s do this.” Honestly, I’ve been doing Survivorman for over 11 years. I’m tired of being alone out there. Realllllly tired of being alone out there.

You should trust your guide but never rely on them. Before you start the trip, go to them and say, “Can I see a map with the route?” You look at it and maybe you see there’s a road three miles to the west the whole journey. If anything happens, now you know that. A good guide will be happy you asked. They like it when someone takes an interest in his own safety.

In survival situations, go with what you know. If you can turn around and go back the way you came and reach safety, even if it’s 50 miles back, why are you pushing on into the unknown?

We always want to follow the path of least resistance. That’s what we do as humans. It looks good to go downhill. It feels easier. You have to fight this and use your head. The easiest way can be the most dangerous.

Nature is nature. Christopher McCandless was an extremely charming individual, and he charmed his way through a lot of situations. But Alaska didn’t give a shit how charming he was. It’s Alaska.

Everyone who does wilderness adventure of any kind should take a survival course and a wilderness first-aid course. They enhance your experience, and you’ll have greater confidence.

I can see getting to that place where you say, “I’m done. I’m not going to make it.” Hey, I’ve had my moments.

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First Look: 'The Armstrong Lie'

“I DIDN'T LIVE a lot of lies,” Lance Armstrong says at the beginning of Alex Gibney’s new documentary, “but I lived one big one.”

The film’s title, The Armstrong Lie, suggests an exposé, but that heavy lifting has, of course, already been done. Rather, Gibney looks at the Lie as a thing that took on a life of its own, regarding it from every angle. And that includes Lance’s. Gibney, the Oscar-winning director of Taxi to the Dark Side, had unprecedented access to Armstrong’s tightly guarded camp from 2008 until his teary-eyed Oprah confession. So while there are other retellings in the works—Hollywood is reportedly working on two biopics, and New York Times reporter Juliet Macur’s forthcoming book Cycle of Lies is also slated to go to film—The Armstrong Lie is the first and last Lance pic you’ll ever need to see.

In 2008, Gibney set out to chronicle Armstrong’s return to cycling as a friendly embedded in the Lance camp. He was on the Astana bus as Armstrong spied on teammate/rival Alberto Contador’s press conference. He was in the team car as director Johan Bruyneel hatched race strategy. He was at Armstrong’s Aspen house, camera rolling, when the drug testers showed up. The following day, when two more sets of testers came calling, Armstrong snapped: “This is fucking ridiculous!” Watching the film, even this nonfan had to agree.

But then, well, stuff happened, and Gibney was forced to drop the celebratory doc he—and, no doubt, his subject—had planned to make. He phased through stages of disillusionment, anger, and finally confrontation. After Armstrong’s downfall, Gibney goes back, camera in hand, to ask his subject some tough questions.

Gibney performs a masterful balancing act, being tough on Armstrong while remaining fair, although he largely skips over Livestrong’s role in buttressing the Lance myth, as well as the final remaining chapter in this whole saga—the $100 million lawsuit being pursued by the Department of Justice. Regardless, The Armstrong Lie will appeal to curious rubberneckers and cycling fans alike. We hear from two key players who have been largely silent, teammate George Hincapie and Dr. Michele Ferrari, who oversaw Armstrong’s training regimen until doping suspicions forced him to the sidelines. In one scene, a shunned Ferrari, stopwatch in hand, watches on TV as Armstrong tackles Mont Ventoux during the 2009 Tour, still intently tracking his protégé from afar. And we’re offered a few mini scoops, including a suspiciously timed $100,000 donation to cycling’s governing body, the UCI, in 2007, around the time it cleared Armstrong of positive urine-sample tests from 1999.

There are at least four Lances on display here: the teenage Texas punk who drawls, in a priceless archived clip, “Ah just love beatin’ people!”; the shameless liar who won the Tour seven times; the cocksure 2009 Lance, certain that he can win it once more; and the chastened, post-Oprah Lance, who is far more reflective and sympathetic than the jerk we saw squirming in his chair.

To hear him tell it, Armstrong’s decision to dope made perfect sense: he set out to beat the Europeans at their own game, nothing more—and nothing less. Not surprisingly, Armstrong still shows no remorse. “I know what it took to win those Tours,” he says. “Well, it was a little different from what you guys were told, but I know what it took.”

Check out a trailer for The Armstrong Lie below:

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A Tiger's Tale: Doug Peacock's New Book

Doug Peacock, well-known naturalist, grizzly researcher, writer, and inspiration for Ed Abbey’s character George Hayduke in The Monkey Wrench Gang, has turned his formidable literary chops to the subject of climate change and the kind of “Grand Adventure” humans will be confronting in the wake of environmental collapse. His new book, In the Shadow of t­­­he Sabertooth (Counterpunch/AK Press, 2013), takes a deep and scientific look into our Pleistocene past in order to imagine what a post-climate-change future might look like. We caught up with him recently to hear more his latest work.

Outside: Why did you decide to write this book?
When I decided to write this book, the cardinal issue of my generation was clearly the collective damage we’ve done to the planet, the shorthand we call Climate change, but, more accurately, global warming. The prognosis is grim, and it’s a real bummer story. I didn’t want to write a bummer book, so I wondered how to write around it in some instructive way. I have ancient degrees in paleontology, archeology, geology. I knew that modern humans have experienced two episodes of global warming—now and approximately 15,000 years ago when the great glaciers of the Pleistocene began to melt and the first humans showed up in North America. (There’s not a lot of hard evidence to pin down the dates, exactly.) It’s notable that by 40,000 B.C., humans had pioneered most every habitat on earth with the exception of North America, South America, and Antarctica. Something lurking in the Pleistocene bush might have kept them out of North America.

The wilderness those first Americans encountered is difficult to imagine: First, a landmass 5 times the size of Australia without a single human footprint, no smoke on the horizon, not a sign of an upright primate. Add to that the most amazing array of large animals anywhere—mammoths, mastodons, massive pack-hunting lions, Dire Wolves, American Cheetah (double the size of the African ones), and perhaps, most formidable of all, the short-faced bear. Imagine this animal 15 feet tall standing on its hind legs, flaring its nostrils, capable of smelling the carcass of a mammoth 20 miles away, a formidable problem for ancient hunters.  I decided to tell that story. This involved more research than I’d ever done for any book. I read scientific papers for two years. Then I wrote for five years. It was the most serious commitment to a topic I’ve ever undertaken.

You talk about that time when our ancestors arrived in North America and faced all those animals that wanted to kill us, as the Greatest Adventure. We talk about Adventure a lot nowadays. Nothing compares to that.
The notion of adventure involves risky undertakings, hazardous journeys, with uncertain outcomes. I call the colonization of America the Greatest Adventure because I love wilderness because that’s where true adventure takes place. You don’t always know what’s happening or how things turn out. Back then it was all as wild as the most remote mountain in North America.

Today we can manufacture our adventures: We structure rigorous routes and risky river crossings, and ‘hazardous journeys,’ but the ‘uncertain outcome’ is the real stickler. I was most interested in discovering any lessons to be learned from these Pleistocene hunters about adapting to changing climate.  Are there useful comparisons with today’s crisis? Are we are going to recognize and adapt to the beast of our time—the beast that is global warming? This is not easy. A lack of hard data renders the comparison of the Pleistocene to today more parable than parallel.  I feel that speculating into adaptation is important now because we’re facing a world that we’re not going to recognize in 15 years. It’s that simple.

Ice-age people coming to America crossed massive glaciers and treacherous rivers and faced huge, fearsome animals they’d never seen before, some who wanted to eat them. The Short-faced bear must have been terrible—a truly American beast that never crossed into Asia. Today’s adventure sports are a different thing. You can always quit and go home. You’re pretty sure of the outcome. These people didn’t know what they were going to run into. They didn’t know the country and they didn’t know the animals—unexpected outcomes were the norm. Today, we design modern adventures complete with magazine, book, and movie deals, vaguely hoping that something unexpected turns up, hopefully nothing fatal. This is something we still need…we still crave it. Back 15,000 years ago this was totally organic. Nothing was manufactured. It was part of daily life. Getting through each day embraced all shades of courage.

You said, “We still need this.” Why do you think that’s true?
Our Pleistocene odyssey has not yet ended and we’re about to enter an unfamiliar world. We haven’t finished this journey. We haven’t started to adapt to all the things we’ve done to the planet. The experience of adventure is pragmatic lore. The experience of wild living is an incredible survival tool. It’s natural to survive. We’re going to need those skills in the very near future.

Skills? For example?
Humility, mainly.  We are not in charge. We humans don’t control our own fate. Accepting this is not unlike accepting wilderness. I used to go by myself into grizzly country for weeks at a time. Grizzlies instill a sense of humility better than anything I know in the world—with grizzlies you’re definitely not at the top of the food chain. You perceive the world differently. It’s a healthy perception. You sharpen your survival skills. You see and hear and smell better. It’s a rich way to live. We’re going to need some of that. It’s a very utilitarian perception of the world, the one anchored in humility. Which is also the emotional posture behind reason.

Wilderness is important, but how will it prepare us for this upcoming massive change?
Remnants of that habitat encountered by those first Americans are still around today and we call it wilderness. Wilderness is where all of our evolution took place. The human mind was shaped in the wilderness, by the mammoths we hunted and the sabertooths who hunted us.  We need to keep great hunks of it around to remind us of that original experience, that perception of authentic risk. This is something lacking in modern people. We’re unable to accurately perceive what lies in our long-term interest for survival. Somehow we need to make the transition from perceiving the shadow of the sabertooth in the brush, which is an immediate peril, to being able to see, for example, the distant, incremental, and remote ocean rise, which could displace a billion starving strangers.

So what’s wrong with us? You talk in your book about the Clovis people, these amazing hunters with this amazing technology who may be responsible for mass extinctions. Why are we like that?  We have technology but we lack restraint.
Remember, North America was experiencing climate change at the time. The Clovis people blasted down the ice-free corridor to Montana and ran into Mammoths and wanted to kill and eat one because that’s what their ancestors did 400-500 years before. They discovered stone quarries where they could create the incredible, iconic, magnificent fluted, 6- or 7-inch long “Clovis” spear point, a very effective weapon. The terminal dates of the classic megafauna overlap with the time of the Clovis people, who seemed to explode across the continent, almost as if they  showed up everywhere at once. This brings up the dark question of the nature of the beast: Are we the homicidal brutes deservedly kicked out of Eden ready to duke or nuke it out to the end of the Earth? Or are we what we sometimes see ourselves as—the deeply sentient beings capable of the type of empathy that surviving this new, hot future will require?

If what you describe in your book is the last Great Adventure, what’s the next Great Adventure?
It’s not going to be fun. How about the future portrayed in modern sci-fi literature and films of a thug-like future run by warlords in the Arctic? This may not be so far off because that’s may be the only place one will be able to live.

This may not take a hundred years. It might take ten or 15. The polar ice caps are disappearing fast. Once they’re gone, things speed up; the Amazon collapses. Then the permafrost melts, releasing massive amounts of methane, adding another 6-7 degrees of global warming. In Antarctica, when the Ross Ice Sheet goes, oceans could rise 12 feet within a week—everywhere. That will get people’s attention. No one knows exactly what will happen. It’s like removing a top predator from an ecosystem and causing a cascading series of ecological collapses and disasters. No one can predict the effects. Surviving is not going to be fun but it will be an adventure.

Where’s your joy? What keeps you going these days?
Visiting a little pocket of what you and I would call wild country. I go to Yellowstone and leave the road and walk over a little hill and all of a sudden it’s like it was a thousand years ago. I look for bear tracks and watch the bison and any other critters who are there and, as this is available to me everyday, I take advantage of these pockets of wilderness where I live. And I go to Glacier and I visit my bears in the backcountry. That’s a little part of the world that is still as it always was and experiencing it generates joy. I don’t know of a combative weapon greater than the expression of joy. If we can find joy in our lives we can find the strength to fight back and come out of this thing.  It’s our only chance. It’s worth the fight.

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