The Outside Blog

Adventure : Ryan O'Hanlon

Beavers Save Salt Lake City Water

Salt Lake City, thank your local beavers. Were it not for them, you might be drinking/watering/irrigating with diesel fuel this morning.

A beaver dam helped stop a Chevron pipeline's 8,000-gallon diesel fuel spill from spreading into a reservoir in Willard Bay State Park, which supplies water to Salt Lake City. The two beavers in the dam were soaked in diesel fuel and are being treated at a local wildlife rehabilitation center.

“They are doing fairly well. One is coping better than the other,” DaLyn Erickson, executive director of the rehabilitation center, told the Salt Lake Tribune. “There is some evidence they did at least sample some of the food left for them overnight. We are doing what we can and hoping for the best.”

The benign beavers are thought to be yearlings and possibly siblings. Wildlife rehabilitators are cleaning the fuel from the beavers’ fur with dish-washing liquid, a standard and effective means of removing oil products from fur, feathers, and other animal parts.

Locals can donate “fresh willow and cottonwood branches” to feed the beavers during treatment.

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Get Me Out of Here: Horseback Riding

The first time I went horseback riding I was eight years old and a Girl Scout-in-training (a Brownie, to be specific) who would never quite make it to the Girl Scouts. It was a surprise, too, because as a child I liked uniforms and codes of conduct and members-only salutes. But the wilderness skills, the large group socializing games, the requirement that we become door-to-door saleswomen who didn’t get to keep even a little of the money we raked in—it wasn’t for me. I earned three or four badges over two months, and then I quit. One of these—ironed onto my tiny brown vest by my mother—was the Horse Rider Badge. 

I got it on a summer troop field trip to a stable in the suburbs. (All the badges I earned were ones given to us, collectively, after field trips that forced the relevant achievement upon us—there were always girls with vests almost full, coming into meetings with forms and evidence that they’d learned to knit or, like, helped a younger child in distress, and the troop leader would help them send away for the appropriate badge. They were a pain.) The only thing we had to do to earn the Horse Rider Badge was to allow ourselves to be pushed up onto a horse and to remain seated there until the trail ride was over. It was easy and pleasant and when we reached the end of the trail I knew that I hadn’t messed it up. The guide circled us up so that we could dismount, and that’s when my horse decided he’d had enough of me and bucked. 

The good news is that I didn’t fall all the way off my horse; the bad news is that I did fall off part of the way, and that the thing stopping me from falling off all the way was a metal garbage can behind the horse’s rear. I didn’t fall in the garbage, but I hovered a lot closer than I’d have preferred, and then there was all the clanking. The cool Brownies laughed at me scrambling to climb back up my horse’s body, which set off the nerd Brownies laughing extra-loudly to fit in with the cool Brownies. Worst of all, my mom was on the trip as a chaperone, asking me if I was OK, even though she had to know how uncool it was, as an eight-year-old, to appear loved by and dependent on an adult. I got my badge, but really: was it worth it?

I’D ALWAYS LOVED HORSES, or at least what I’d read of them in books. There are so many paragraphs in so many period novels devoted to describing young women and their horses—feeding them shiny red apples and cubes of sugar, brushing their manes, fastening saddles over thick and symbolically meaningful horse blankets, galloping off over fields to see boys or to get away from them, dismounting their mares, un-lady-like, with dirty petticoats and rosy cheeks. You get this idea that they—we—belong together. A girl and her horse, the great abiding love story.

I asked my parents for a horse a number of times, like everyone, not recognizing the various impossibilities of the request: our tiny house in the city with an even tinier backyard, the cost, the way my parents knew before I did this was a fiction-based desire I’d grow out of by the time I started middle school. Instead my brothers and I made up horses and trotted them around the backyard in circles—what that must have looked like, I do not know—but even then it should have been clear: we spent so much more time describing the food we’d pretend to feed them than we did pretend-caring for the horses themselves.

The idea of it is so enduringly romantic that I almost always have some vague desire to go horseback riding, even after a few outings as a teenager that were modestly enjoyable but ultimately underwhelming. (Not being allowed to gallop or even trot really tempers the reckless, revolutionary-American girl spirit of the thing.) A lot of us have these weird, lingering feelings about horses, and that is probably why so many couples end up going horseback riding on the beach as a date, even though it seems to rarely work out as planned. That’s how it happened the last time Rylee went: with an ex-boyfriend in college, whom she took out horseback riding and to a fancy, expensive dinner, and who, right after all that, said “OK, see ya!” and went to hang out with his friends. And then they broke up.

It is in a semi-confused emotional state, then, that she and I arrive at Bunker Park Stable for a trail ride on a Saturday in mid-March. I’m excited and I don’t know why. I half expect to fall in love with a stable boy.

AFTER PAYING OUR FEES, we spend the 10-minute wait watching a group of little boys—one of whom adorably waves at us each time he passes, as though he were in a parade—receive a riding lesson in an enclosed arena. “I’m glad I don’t have a tail,” says Rylee, suddenly. “Just one more thing to worry about.” Things don’t often occur to us in the same way, but I can’t say I disagree.

A few minutes later a woman named Jackie takes us to meet our horses. I’m given a white horse named “Jericho,” and Rylee is given another named “Sarge,” who is white with brown splotches. Another guide, Doug—who is wearing a cowboy hat, somewhat incongruously, over a head and neck warmer—shows us how to lead the horses, but in truth we’ll never have to direct them even once: the trail is a narrow, packed-down path about a foot across, with four to five inches of snow everywhere on either side. There isn’t much room for interpretation.

Jericho doesn’t seem to think about escaping the trail even once in our time together, but I do constantly. It’s an impulse to do something bad, like thinking about driving into oncoming traffic but much less severe. What would happen if I yelled “HYAH” and dug my heels into his sides, and we took off galloping into the snow? How quickly would Doug catch me and how would I be punished, if at all? I already paid. They couldn’t arrest me. Right?

I’ll never know, I suppose. It was on me to make that ride into something closer to an adventure, but I never could break a rule. If I am honest with myself, I never would have wanted to get my petticoats dirty. Instead, ours is simply a pleasant (if freezing) ride in a very pretty area—forested in parts, clearing onto lakeside fields in others. And though I try to bond with this animal by rubbing its neck and calling it “Jeri” for short, there’s only so much you can accomplish in an hour. We’ll never ride into the sunset together. But at the end, when I step out of the stirrups, Jericho stands perfectly still until I am safe on the ground, and I would like to think that’s because he knew.

Katie Heaney is a writer based in Minneapolis. She has a memoir coming out in early 2014.

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Golfer Swallowed by Golf Course

Two weeks ago, Mark Mihal was having a pretty good Friday at Annbriar Golf Course in Waterloo, Illinois, until he got halfway through the course’s dogleg-left par 5 number 14. The 43-year-old mortgage broker from St. Louis had driven 40 minutes from home because it was the first good weather they’d had for awhile. He and the rest of his regular Friday foursome—Mike Peters, Ed Magaletta, and Hank Martinez—came too. Since they’d played in a tournament at Annbriar a few months earlier, they played for free this time.

The plan was for Mihal and Peters, who teamed up, to destroy Magaletta and Hernandez in a pairs competition and take all their money in some friendly betting. By hole 14, they were up about 50 bucks each.

Mihal, about a 5 handicap, was 1-over for the day and had just put his second shot within 80 yards of the green, setting him up for an easy birdie attempt. Meanwhile, Magaletta and Martinez were stuck in the woods across the fairway, trying to chip out.

And then the earth opened beneath Mihal and swallowed him up.

After Mihal’s second shot, he walked toward the middle of the fairway to check the yardage for Peters. He noticed a strange indention. “Hey, check this out,” he said to Peters. “Look at this depression right in the middle of the fairway.”

Peters chuckled and said, yeah, you could hit a great drive and end up in what looked like a sand trap without sand, and that isn’t too fair. Peters then turned to size up his shot while Mihal, wanting to see what it would take to actually hit out of the thing, stepped down into the indention. That’s when he fell through the ground.

MIHAL GRABBED AT THE ground as he dropped, but it crumbled in his hand, and he fell for what felt like a very long time. Twenty feet later, he landed, crashing to the ground and badly dislocating his left shoulder. He fought back panic—Mihal is a self-diagnosed claustrophobe—as he yelled for help and tried to figure out what the hell had just happened.

Hearing Mihal’s shouts, Peters turned to find that his friend had vanished. He followed the shouts to the indention, which now featured a three-foot-wide hole that looked like it descended into eternal darkness. He yelled to Magaletta and Martinez to call 911, saying Mark fell into the ground.

He what?

When they called 911, they had to convince operators that it wasn’t a prank. Same for when they called the clubhouse. When the 911 dispatcher contacted EMS, they asked if they should send a fire truck. The dispatcher said no—apparently misunderstanding Mihal’s plight and thinking that some guy had just tipped over—and merely sent an ambulance.

Meanwhile, Mihal was underground, trying to figure out what the heck had just happened. Looking around his new cave, he thought it was in some sort of horror-movie trap. The walls looked manmade. He tried not to obsess over the news report he’d seen the other night, the tragic one about the man in Florida who’d fallen through a sinkhole in his own home, never to be seen again. It didn’t help that dirt kept falling on his head. He tried to take his mind off of it, which worked at first when he thought about how he’d ruined his sweater and how filthy he was, but then he started thinking about snakes crawling out of the walls, so then he started analyzing his cave some more, but then he kept seeing cracks in the ground where the darkness just went on forever, so then he just tried to stop visualizing the ground giving way again.

It took about 10 minutes for someone from the clubhouse—which was only 400 yards away—to show up. The ladder they brought only reached 12 feet down. They lodged it precipitously on a seven-or-eight-foot mound of mud in the cave, but Mihal’s shoulder was so hurt that he couldn’t climb.

Magaletta carefully and anxiously climbed down into the hole to help Mihal out. He made a sling out of his windbreaker for Mihal’s shoulder and tied a rope around Mihal’s waist and helped hoist him up the ladder and to safety.

They did not finish the round, meaning the bets were never settled, meaning that although Mihal was probably the victim of a freak nature accident, also maybe he was shrewdly sabotaged by Magaletta and Martinez, fed up with him always emptying their wallets. Naturally, they claim innocence, and lucky for them, science backs them up.

SAM PANNO, A SENIOR geochemist at the Illinois State Geological Survey, told the Associated Press that sinkholes are actually common in the area—there are about 15,000 recorded in southwestern Illinois, Panino said. This is because of the scores of underground mines in the area. Panno also said that Mihal’s sinkhole was caused by subsurface limestone that dissolves from acidic rainwater, melting snow, and carbon dioxide, which will, well, make you fall through it.

What happened next was just as unexpected.

Mihal’s wife, Lori, posted the story to GolfManna.com, a fledgling fantasy golf website that Mihal recently launched. Within hours the Associated Press called, and then many more after that. Mihal appeared on dozens of websites and major networks and had reporters camping out on his street and even on his lawn. The traffic to GolfManna.com rocketed from 500 to 1,000 hits a week to more than 200,000. Mihal did interviews with Good Morning America, Jim Rome, Howard Stern, and even an Australian radio station, and in the past two weeks, he’s turned down more than 200 more interview requests.

“I’ll be honest, I think it’s gotten kind of ridiculous,” he said with a laugh. “And really, I think the story’s just kind of embarrassing. I’m just glad I didn’t get hurt worse or get buried alive.”

His shoulder is totally wrecked. It has two fractures that he just had surgically repaired last Thursday by the St. Louis Cardinals’ orthopedic surgeon. Had to get screws put in and everything. He’s going to have to keep it immobilized for a month and a half, followed by four months of rehab, meaning he’s facing a mound of bills and he’s going to miss all the best of golf season. Annbriar said they would get back to him with their insurance information, but “they haven’t followed through,” Mihal said. “At least, not yet.”

On top of all that, he didn’t even get his winnings from that day. He actually lost money because he had to take the guys out to dinner as a thank you.

So when he’s all healed up, the first place Mihal’s going is back to Annbriar to finish that round and conquer his fears, right? Yeah—not so much, he said. “I kind of doubt I’ll be going back out there.”

Brandon Sneed is a writer based in North Carolina. He blogs at brandonsneed.com and he does Twitter as @brandonsneed.

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Plaid and Canvas: Audubon's Birds of America

Right now, somewhere in New York City, some corner of Texas, the mountains of North Carolina, or in a house in Portland, Oregon, the story of contemporary America is being written about, filmed, or painted. The art of today will be the historical documents of tomorrow, telling future generations what the here and now was like.

When you read Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, you get so much more than a story about a fanatical captain chasing a whale; you get the story of our country less than a century after its founding. You get a sense of America’s growing pains and confusion in the years leading up to a war that would divide the country in half. Norman Rockwell painted scenes of an everyday America during the World Wars, while playwrights like Arthur Miller and essayists like Joan Didion helped tell the story of the post-war American Dream gone wrong. You can get to know the people of America from its inception all the way to today through art; you might not understand the entire country, but our paintings, books, films, and songs help to give us an idea of what life was like throughout our young nation’s lifetime.

Yet, no artist, living or dead, has done more to showcase the natural beauty of America quite like John James Audubon did.

AUDUBON WAS, AND STILL is, the greatest documentarian of American wildlife. And now, 162 years after his passing in 1851, we are living in a sort of re-golden age of the man’s work, thanks to a three-part exhibition of Audubon’s watercolors of the birds of America being shown at the New York Historical Society. Beautifully presented in book form, these selected pieces are some of most beautiful collections of the American icon’s work in Audubon’s Aviary (Rizzoli). Simply put: these are good days for those who already know and cherish Audubon’s work, and a perfect time for those unfamiliar to find out.

The first part of the exhibition at the New York Historical Society (running now until May 19), will feature all 474 watercolors related to The Birds of America, Audubon’s series published between 1827 and 1838. Visitors will be able to get up close to view every detail in his famous rendering of the Snowy Owl, or his 1821 painting of two red-tailed hawks fighting over a still-alive, and very frightened (as evidenced by the fact that it is defecating itself) rabbit, clutched inside the talon of one of the birds of prey. Long before television programs on the National Geographic channel showed us the violent beauty that is nature, John James Audubon was painting it, and giving future generations of Americans a chance to see American birds that have since become extinct.

For those who can’t make the pilgrimage, there’s still the massive book, which is well worth the $85 price tag. Hundreds of pages of Audubon’s watercolors and the stories behind them make this one of the finest collections of his works. Audubon’s Aviary serves as a historical document comparable to any great work of literature, painting, film, music, or any other kind of American-made art. Beautiful and unparalleled in creating and preserving what we know about natural America, the work of John James Audubon will always be in style. 

Jason Diamond lives in New York. He has a wife, a dog, two cats, and a Twitter account that can be found at @ImJasonDiamond.

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Men Charged in Cycling Tourist Rape in India

Authorities have arrested six men in connection to the rape of a Swiss woman who was on a cycling tour with her husband in Madhya Pradesh, India. The men are believed to all be between 20 and 25 years old and from a local Indian tribe. According to deputy inspector general of police D. K. Arya, all six have confessed to the crime.

From the Washington Post:

The 39-year old Swiss woman and her husband were traveling by bicycle Friday to the city of Agra, site of the renowned 17th-century marble mausoleum the Taj Mahal. The couple pitched a tent in a jungle off the highway after sunset to rest during the night. But a group of men circled them, raped the woman, beat the husband with wooden sticks and stole their laptop, cell phone, and cash.

Arya said police had recovered the stolen laptop and some cash from the men.

While the prevalence of rape in India has recently received significant media attention—see the story of a 23-year-old student who died after being gang raped on a bus in December—some government officials have attempted to shift the blame to the tourists, suggesting that “nobody goes into these jungles in the night” and that the Swiss couple should have informed police of their plans.

The woman and her husband have since left Madhya Pradesh for the Swiss embassy in Delhi.

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