The Outside Blog

Adventure : Exploration

The 25-Year-Old at the Helm of Lonely Planet

I'm supposed to go flying over New Zealand's South Island with the director of the world's largest guidebook company, but I'm feeling haggard. Last night, Daniel Houghton and I made a little tour of Queenstown's bars: Winnies, the Buffalo Club, Zephyr, a few other places. There was a retractable roof, a lot of Red Bull and vodka, dancing and yelling, and a video of a man in a wingsuit tearing through narrow canyons. I left the last place—I think it was the Boiler Room—before Houghton did. "I don't feel anything yet," he said, ordering another drink around 2:30 a.m.

But when I knock on his hotel room door at 7:30, Houghton, now 25, is chipper. The space is fastidiously organized: bed made, camera gear in one neat pile, North Face and J.Crew clothes in another. Houghton, who is six foot four and 150 pounds, with a long neck and blue eyes, has rewired the sound system in the room to allow him to play M83 and the Lord of the Rings soundtrack from his iPhone. As he waves me in, he's on the line with his boss, billionaire Brad Kelley, the former tobacco magnate who bought Lonely Planet last year, when the storied company was in the midst of a financial nosedive. Houghton wishes Kelley a happy birthday, then we're off to ride what's billed as the steepest tree-to-tree zip-line on earth.

Houghton is in New Zealand to relax. He has been at Lonely Planet's helm for nine months, during which time he has invested heavily in a digital revamp and laid off nearly one-fifth of the workforce. "It's hard to turn a cruise ship around, so we had to get in a lifeboat," he told me before we traveled to Queenstown. "A small one." He has also come to see how the sausage gets made, accompanying a writer and a photographer on assignment for the company's glossy British magazine. The itinerary includes rafting the Class IV Shotover River, hiking the famed Routeburn Track, drinking Pinot at top wineries, off-roading in Houghton's dream truck (a Land Rover Defender, not available in the U.S.), watching the sunset over Lake Wakatipu, and searching for the moa, an enormous flightless bird capable of disemboweling a man with a claw swipe. Scientific consensus says that the moa probably went extinct about 400 years ago, but that doesn't dissuade Houghton. A typical guidebook-reporting trip, he tells me, "would be boring."

{%{"image":"","caption":"Houghton shooting from a helicopter."}%}

A former wedding photographer, Houghton is documenting all this with his beloved GoPro for Lonely Planet's website. "We're paying people to survey the earth," he's told me a few times, "and that's awesome. But readers should have the full experience writers are having." 

After a quick drive from the hotel and a short gondola ride, we're at Ziptrek EcoTours' mountainside course. Our launch point is a wooden platform built among some massive beech trees 1,650 feet up a hillside, where we clip into our harnesses and make our way to the pièce de résistance: line six, the steepest in the world. Houghton makes the leap. He flies upside down, holding his GoPro in one hand, his free arm relaxed behind his head and his legs crossed above him, swami style. He reaches 45 miles per hour, then flips back over smoothly as he meets the far-off platform in the trees, where a cute Ziptrek operator compliments his style. "This is gonna be a really cool video piece," Houghton says with a smile.

Houghton grew up in a leafy Atlanta suburb. His parents worked for Delta Air Lines: Dan was a mechanic, Jean a flight attendant. The family flew for free, so Daniel visited 28 states by age 15. He liked anything fast—he started skiing at three—or high-tech. Dan thought he might have a pilot on his hands.

He was a middling student, but by tenth grade Houghton had discovered his real passion: photography. He enrolled in the photojournalism program at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green and worked as a stringer for the Lexington Herald-Leader. At the Kentucky Derby, he twice captured the winning horse crossing the finish line, beating out older cameramen. He regularly skipped parties to be up and shooting at dawn. On breaks he flew standby to Argentina, France, and South Africa, where he photographed orphans with AIDS. Professors gushed about the maturity of his work, and Dan began to think that his son might someday shoot for National Geographic. Houghton interned at the Seattle Times and made the Sunday front page four times.

During his junior year, he interviewed at the Chicago Tribune. It went well, but then the Tribune began layoffs. Houghton graduated in 2010 with a major in photojournalism, a minor in entrepreneurship, and no dream gig. He married his college girlfriend, Susan, whom he'd met in the marching band. (He played Coldplay's "Postcards from Far Away" for her on piano before proposing.) Ultimately, Houghton landed at a small marketing agency in Bowling Green, shooting bank interiors. 

"I remember thinking, Damn, that's lame," says college friend Luke Sharrett, a photographer who has shot for The New York Times. After six months, Houghton quit the agency, filing for a business license the same day. He'd created a website for his work: Houghton Multimedia. Marketing jobs trickled in. He shot weddings on the side and made a little extra money as digital media adviser for WKU's student publications.

{%{"image":"","caption":""Sending one author to write about a vast place is antiquated," says Houghton."}%}

While Houghton was shooting a Bowling Green furniture company in May 2011, his cell phone rang. A local businessman who'd seen his website wanted to meet. Houghton showed up in jeans at a modest downtown office with no name on the door. He shook hands with three men and sat down. They watched some of Houghton's work on Vimeo—a video called "The Beauty of Digital Film," about his grandfather's film projector; a contracted piece on Auburn University's new athletic arena—and asked questions: How did you make it? What did it cost? Did you have help? He was pretty much a one-man show, he told them. They said little about the nature of their business but asked him to come back next week for a meeting with their boss.

This time, Houghton showed up in nicer clothes. In the lobby, he was greeted by a big red-bearded man: Kelley. A self-made billionaire raised on a nearby farm who'd dropped out of WKU, Kelley, 57, had earned the majority of his money from tobacco and was now the fourth-largest private landowner in the United States, with property in Tennessee, Wyoming, Florida, New Mexico, Kentucky, Texas, Colorado, and Hawaii. Kelley did most of the talking, mainly about new media but also travel, conservation, and music. At the end of the meeting, he made Houghton an offer: keep doing what you're doing, but work for me. It was a handshake agreement, no contract. He never asked Houghton his age. For the next year, Houghton helped found and run NC2 Media, Kelley's fledgling company, with a staff that topped out at five. NC2 is short for in situ, a Latin phrase meaning "in position." They launched OutwildTV, a website featuring sponsored expeditions—including a cowboy-journalist's 10,000-mile trip on horseback from Canada to Brazil, advertised as "one of the most daring journeys of the 21st century." They also produced a gear blog.

{%{"image":"","caption":"Brad Kelley."}%}

Less than a year later, Kelley saw an opportunity. Lonely Planet, the Melbourne, Australia, guidebook company, seller of 120 million books, was struggling. In 2007, the BBC had bought Lonely Planet from its founders, Tony and Maureen Wheeler, for $210 million. Profits had since cratered due to the global recession, appreciation of the Australian dollar, and the struggling book industry.

Kelley offered $77 million for the company and closed the deal on April 1, 2013. There was no search for a new boss; he'd already tapped Houghton to captain the sinking ship. A few weeks before closing, the president of BBC Worldwide, Marcus Arthur, announced the impending purchase. Houghton, who was less than three years out of college, made the rounds at Lonely Planet's international offices. In London, before he introduced himself, someone projected an image of the biblical scene of Daniel in the lion's den on a screen. 

"That pissed me off," he recalls, "but I tried not to show it." 

Staffers were predictably bewildered. "I figured there had to be more to the story than 'reclusive billionaire hires 24-year-old with no known experience to run the joint,' " a veteran Lonely Planet author e-mailed me. "But I think it's as silly and fucked-up as it sounds." 

Lonely Planet's largest office is still in Melbourne, but the de facto headquarters are now located in Franklin, Tennessee, a wealthy town of 65,000 described by its chamber of commerce as "fourteen miles and a hundred years from Nashville." In March 2012, Kelley bought a $24 million business complex there and placed NC2 Media in a 12,000-square-foot studio of a former stove factory. 

In October, two months before our New Zealand trip, I come for a visit. Houghton shows me his handsome corner office, a Restoration Hardware–inspired, compulsively organized aggregate of wood, leather, plasma screens, and family heirlooms. "We spent a lot of time putting this together," he says. By "we" he means himself and his father—the elder Houghton did the drywall himself. 

Today the CEO is wearing a denim jacket, skinny khakis, desert boots, Burberry glasses, a $4,200 Bell and Ross watch ("a gift to myself"), and enough hair gel to spike his Lincoln-esque frame to six foot five. He recently gave up on growing a beard. Houghton's desk is huge, made out of hundred-year-old French wood, and empty save for his computer and an odd adornment: a brass nozzle. "That's a fire-hose nozzle that Brad gave me," he says. "It's sort of an inside joke between us. Doing this work is like trying to drink from a fire hose. Business is moving all day, every day, in different time zones."

Some 400 e-mails met him when he arrived at 5:30 this morning—messages from Lonely Planet's other offices, in Melbourne, London, Beijing, Delhi, New York City, Los Angeles, and Oakland, California. His energy is high, boosted by a thermos of coffee. "You could argue that this is a bad time to get into the business," he says. "But I think otherwise. The best time to get into an industry is when it's in flux." Whether he learned this in college, heard Kelley proclaim it, or had an epiphany in the past 24 months—"since the early days," he says, not meaning to sound funny—it comes across with surprising authority.

Houghton is a technophile. He owns two iPads (both sizes), an iPhone 5S, an HTC One (unlocked), a Samsung Galaxy Note, a Microsoft Surface tablet, and a 13-inch MacBook Pro. He shows me his iPhone. "Check out this awesome app," he says of Fitbit. "It tells you how much you slept last night. I got five hours and forty-nine minutes! And 
I took 14,096 steps yesterday," he continues. "I love apps. Our challenge is to design one that will change the way people travel."

{%{"image":"","caption":"Houghton's library."}%}

His confidence seems natural. Then again, it doesn't hurt to have a billionaire backer. From the start, Kelley didn't make Houghton adhere to a budget. His guiding principle, according to Houghton: As much as necessary, as little as possible. "There are million-dollar decisions I can make without asking him," Houghton says of Kelley. "And $10,000 decisions I need to make with him." 

Though he consulted with Kelley, the layoffs were ultimately Houghton's call. Last July, a few months after NC2 took over the company, 75 of Lonely Planet's 383 full-time employees were made redundant. "I walked up in front of a microphone in Melbourne, where most of the redundancies occurred," he says, "and told them, 'Today is going to be a really tough day.' " The Internet rushed to write Lonely Planet's obituary; the hashtag #lpmemories took off on Twitter.

Among those laid off was longtime editor Suki Gear, along with her five-person publishing team in Oakland. "We all knew there was going to be an announcement," she recalls. A travel site called Skift had broken the news before Houghton. "We cried and we laughed," she says, "like in the movies." 

Many of those laid off were, like Gear, book editors. Houghton's not a print purist. "I woke up the other night thinking about digital publishing," he says, pacing his office. "I know we want to do a digital magazine. When I see opportunities, my instinct is to jump on them. Ripping a book's pages out and putting it in an e-book: We can do that, and it's great. But that's not a paradigm shift." He pauses. "We'll keep publishing books. We can make the crap out of books. And books are going to remain relevant to people who like to hold things."

I ask what the market research says about all that. "I didn't really look at it," he says, lowering his voice conspiratorially. "I don't really go with market research. I kinda go with my gut."

Lonely Planet's head of mobile products, Matthew McCroskey, 26, knocks. He resembles a young Steve Jobs: the glasses, the hair, the beard, the pallor. McCroskey was running his own mobile-consulting firm in Nashville when Houghton saw his website and hired him. They discuss a postcard app, which Houghton calls low-hanging fruit. Using reader-submitted photos, the app will offer a stream of postcard-style travel pictures for aspirational viewing on a smart device. Houghton shows me a few images on his iPad and suggests some design elements to McCroskey. "

We can get this knocked out in a week," he says. "Travel porn in time for Christmas!" 

This is a far cry from the rough-and-tumble beginnings of Lonely Planet. In the early seventies, a newlywed couple from England and Ireland took off on an adventure and wrote a how-to book about it for their friends, called Across Asia on the Cheap. Along with standard travel advice, Tony and Maureen Wheeler offered political and religious commentary, tips on dope ("Have your last drag before you get to the Iranian border"), and financial advice during emergencies ("Several places have a good price for blood"). It became the first Lonely Planet text in 1973. The company name came from Tony's mishearing of a lyric in Joe Cocker's "Space Captain": Once I was traveling across the sky/This lovely planet caught my eye. Lonely Planet found authors in bars. 

{%{"image":"","caption":"Lonely Planet founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler in 1974."}%}

Before long, the company was dominating the guidebook market in the UK, Australia, and much of the rest of the world by, as former CEO Judy Slatyer says, "telling it like it is, without fear or favor." By 1999, it had sold 30 million guidebooks. As Lonely Planet pursued wealthier readers, it inevitably became more mainstream and flush. Authors enjoyed profit sharing and weeklong bacchanals in Australia on the company dime. These events culminated in a Christmas ball at the Melbourne office, to which authors were chauffeured in limousines. "The events were renowned for their scandals, brawls, and general tomfoolery," says longtime author and former publisher Ryan Ver Berkmoes. "In the morning, you'd tamp down your hangover by gleefully figuring out who'd slept with whom the night before. Utterly ridiculous, but very fun to live through."

Things changed after 9/11, as fewer people left home and the travel industry took a major hit. The growth of online publishing also hurt. Lonely Planet's profits suffered from 2001 to 2007. Then came the recession. Between 2007 and 2012, combined sales from the top five travel publishers fell from $125 million to $78 million. Online resources like TripAdvisor and Wikitravel gained ground as Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, Frommer's, and others struggled to make a digital footprint. Lonely Planet soldiered on, creating an online forum for travelers called Thorn Tree and pursuing opportunities in television and burgeoning markets in Asia. By 2008, however, the parties were over and the books had lost even more of their signature spunk. "They were editing like every verb might have a bogeyman underneath," says Ver Berkmoes. "You couldn't say a town was bad."

"We should have moved much more aggressively into creating a digital space where travelers could engage, interact, write their own guides," says Slatyer, Lonely Planet's CEO at the time of the BBC purchase.

After the BBC bought the company from the Wheelers, it appeared to embrace a strategy of overspending and underimagining. "The BBC's culture is inherently conservative," says Vivek Wagle, Lonely Planet's director of editorial for digital platforms from 2004 to 2011. "It's tough to innovate." Tony Wheeler, watching his old company from the sideline, grew concerned. "If I have a single look-how-it-went-wrong pointer," he says, "it's TV. Lonely Planet made more television in the five years before the BBC's purchase than in the five years after."

Lonely Planet wasn't for sale when Kelley first approached the BBC, in April 2012. But the broadcasting corporation quickly made it clear that it would prefer to be unburdened of its investment. So why did Kelley buy? He didn't respond at first when I posed the question to him through Houghton—he famously avoids press attention—but those who know him insist that he doesn't make vanity purchases. Kelley, who says he has never smoked, founded tobacco company Commonwealth Brands in 1991 and sold it a decade later for $1 billion. He also owns Calumet Farm, a producer of thoroughbred horses, and a northern Colorado business park called the Center for Innovation and Technology. 

Houghton did much of the due diligence in preparation for the Lonely Planet purchase. By December 2012, he felt that he was going to have a major role in the takeover. A month later, they were sitting in the Franklin office. Kelley said, "There's something important I need to ask you. Do you need to be liked?" Houghton replied, "Well, I want to be liked." 
"That's not what I asked," Kelley said. "I don't need to be liked," Houghton said. "Good," Kelley said. "Needing to be liked is a problem. As long as you understand that, this will be fun." Recalling that conversation now, Houghton says, "I became the director, 24 years old, and I go fire a bunch of people. They think I'm an idiot. It didn't make me popular. Brad prepared me for that. The guy is a fucking genius."

After repeated requests, Kelley finally consented to a written interview about Houghton's hire. Houghton mediated it, because Kelley doesn't use e-mail. It was one of the land baron's only interviews in the past decade and the only time he has spoken publicly about Lonely Planet. His answers totaled 118 words. He wrote, "Daniel has created his own opportunity. While we share some characteristics, such as drive and an ability to adapt, his superior organizational skills along with personal and communication skills have made him invaluable to the business." About that first meeting with Houghton, in Bowling Green, Kelley wrote: "Kismet. Simply put, a fortunate event."

Like most everyone else, Dan Houghton still wonders why exactly his son has been given such power. Kelley provided a clue when they met one day at NC2 headquarters. "Did Daniel tell you what I called him the other day?" Kelley asked, according to the elder Houghton. The Delta mechanic shook his head. "Well, I told him he's like a Mennonite. You just don't find that many young people who are so focused on becoming something."

Tony Wheeler used to have a routine in which he'd hold up his laptop, GPS, and cell phone and say, "Here's the guidebook of the future." Then he'd hold up a PalmPilot and continue, "All we have to do is squeeze it into this." The technology to do just that exists, of course, but neither Lonely Planet nor any of its competitors has got a handle on the squeezing yet. No one seems to know what, exactly, the guidebook of the future should look like. Google bought the U.S. company Frommer's in 2012 for a reported $23 million, announced plans to discontinue the print edition—then sold the company back to founder Arthur Frommer without explanation for an undisclosed amount. Since then, the publisher's biggest move has been releasing 30 significantly smaller guides this past winter. London-based Rough Guides is digitizing its entire travel catalog and acquiring author rights "for a fully flexible future," according to its publisher, Jo Kirby. Let's Go and Fodor's are doing much the same. But these are minor adaptations. "

I travel as often with digital guidebooks as print ones these days," says Wheeler, "but they're far from perfect. It's often way faster to find things in a book than on an iPad. And the batteries don't go flat." But is Houghton the guy to reinvent Lonely Planet? "If you're going to do something different," Wheeler says, "you better do it with somebody different. Certainly you don't want someone old and set in his ways—like me—at the controls. Is he the right 25-year-old? Jury is out on that one. He seems a nice guy."

Of course, there's a saying about nice guys. Some observers are skeptical that Houghton has the skills necessary to run a multinational business. One former editor, a victim of the layoffs who asked not to be named because he still freelances for the company, says, "Houghton's age isn't an issue, but his lack of experience is. Daniel has never run a company of any size before and has only a few years' experience of even being in the workforce. Kelley himself has never run any sort of content business or global company before. There has been no articulation of future strategy other than vague, empty phrases such as 'digital first.' "

Suki Gear, the former head of the Oakland office, worries that Lonely Planet will become like TripAdvisor—crowdsourced, free, often unreliable. "I hope they keep the authors," she says. "They're a goldmine. If they go with user-generated content, it's all over."

Still others think that the company will only succeed if it ditches books entirely. Last year, at the All Things Digital conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, Myspace cofounder Chris DeWolfe approached Houghton and asked, "Are you the young guy running Lonely Planet?" According to Houghton, DeWolfe said that the company wouldn't succeed unless it moved to Silicon Valley. 

"I have great respect for him," Houghton says of DeWolfe, "but when he said that, I got even more amped about succeeding. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. But what really frustrates me is when they say things that aren't true. People continue to claim that we're getting out of the content business. I'm like, What? That's not right at all."

{%{"image":"","caption":"Houghton at the company's Franklin, Tennessee headquarters."}%}

One day in his office, Houghton reveals a bit more about his content strategy, drawing a pyramid bisected by four horizontal lines on a piece of paper. In the top section he writes authors. "There aren't many of them," he says, "but they're really important." The next section says residents. It's followed by somewhat vague and overlapping categories: freelance, super fans, and online community. Some of these "content producers" will be paid. But most will not. 

"It's not perfect," he admits. "But the system of sending one author to write about a vast place is antiquated. And there's a lot more information we need to supply more quickly to remain relevant. We want the latest content, in real time."

That means apps. Lonely Planet's apps have been downloaded 11 million times, about the same number as Yelp. (Houghton wouldn't comment on the company's profits since he took over, but he says that digital now accounts for 30 percent of Lonely Planet's revenue.) In November, Lonely Planet purchased TouristEye, an app for planning trips and discovering new things to do while traveling. It was a six-figure deal, but not just for a cool app. Houghton was most excited about recruiting the talent behind it to help him answer what he and his team consider to be a billion-dollar riddle.

"Can you tell a traveler what he should be doing right now?" asks McCroskey. "Based on time of day and where he is and the weather and a million other factors? A lot of people have made headway in that space but hit a wall because they didn't have enough information. Well, we have tons of information—all of Lonely Planet's historic content. And we're building really great technology to analyze that content and understand all the ways you can put it together."

McCroskey then offers a concrete example of how the system will work: "You're in Rome, standing by the Colosseum. It's 3 P.M. on a Thursday in summer. You open your phone, and it says, 'Hey, glad you enjoyed the Colosseum, which was on the itinerary we helped you make. We know you love coffee. Time for a cappuccino! The best cappuccino place in Rome is two blocks away. Here are walking instructions. And while you're walking, you should know: Don't order a cappuccino in the afternoon in Italy; they only drink them for breakfast, and they're going to think you're a stupid American. So you should get a macchiato. And this is how you ask for it.'"

"If I were you," continues McCroskey, "I'd assume we don't know how to do that. It's not here now, it's not trivial to build, and I'm not going to give a release date. But we've got most of the people who can deliver that kind of experience. And Daniel is finding more." 

One morning in Franklin, as I walk into the Lonely Planet offices, Houghton is seeing out a serious-looking young man named Joe Bochenek. When Houghton reappears, he says, "Dude, he's a particle physicist. He helped discover the God particle! And he just explained to me why time travel won't work." The man—who did indeed contribute to the discovery of the Higgs boson—has just accepted an offer to be a Lonely Planet data scientist. His role is to analyze the company's vast stores of travel information, helping 
McCroskey's team categorize customers. Lonely Planet is no longer hiring in bars.

Personally, I'm not sure I'd hand over a company valued six years ago at a quarter of a billion dollars to a 25-year-old. But if I did, he'd be a lot like Houghton: impossibly driven, optimistic, charismatic, with a tech fetish and a welcome dose of humility. "Zuck," Houghton tells me, referring to Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, "has a card that says 'I'm CEO, Bitch.' I'm the opposite of that." Houghton prefers not to use titles at all. During the week we spend in New Zealand, he repeatedly takes pains to avoid discussing his job. If pressed, he just says, "I work for Lonely Planet." 

Houghton also displays very little fear. While rafting the Class IV Shotover, he paddles with the zeal of a GoPro-clad Ahab. In Queenstown, the adrenaline capital of the world, he wants to try out a frightening thing called a canopy swing—basically a free fall from a cliff while attached to a rope that swings outward instead of plummeting straight down. Against my deep reservations, he convinces me to join him. Fortunately, it's closed when we arrive. 

Instead, we head to Fergburger—a hyped-up burger joint in Queenstown whose fame is partly due to Lonely Planet's recommendation—and then back to our hotel, where we sit on the patio and drink: water for me, wine for him. Houghton makes a call, hoping to lock down new office space in London. He laughs a lot on the phone. "I've got a great team," he says, sincerely, after hanging up.

I can't help but nod my head when, moments later, he utters one of his motivational standbys, apropos of nothing in particular: "Travel is a force for good."

We try that mantra out a few days later on the Routeburn Track, one of the most famous walks in the world. The three-day hike is fairly busy for a remote place, with people trudging along happily in small groups. Ours consists of about 15 people, including a TV producer from New York, a lawyer from Colorado, and a biology professor from Massachusetts. One day we eat lunch in a hut with a young couple from Belgium, who've mentioned their love of the company's books. When Houghton gets up to refill his coffee, I can't resist telling them his secret. 

"He's a writer?" asks the man. 

"No," I say. "He's the CEO." The woman turns pink and adjusts her hair. When Houghton returns, the man eagerly pitches his brother as a candidate for a guidebook-writing job. Houghton, used to this, patiently tells the man to have his brother e-mail someone at the company. "They read every e-mail," he says. "I promise."

The quietest member of our group is a college kid from Colorado who packed his MacBook. At the lodges where we stay each night, the kid sits down after dinner, puts his headphones on, and codes. Even on his 21st birthday, with a forgotten beer nearby, he's coding. He's working on an app, the third or fourth one he has written. He and Houghton quickly bond over apps and their mutual dislike of Zuckerberg. "I got off Facebook a few years ago," says Houghton. 

"Yeah, it's really just for old people now," says the kid. "Our parents are on it. It's not the future anymore."

The kid eventually describes the app he's been coding, a social-media tool that sounds a lot like Twitter. But Houghton is impressed with his ambition and work ethic. "You know," Houghton says to me later, "given the right opportunity, he might end up doing some pretty awesome things."

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Helping Google Map the World

You've probably used Google's Street View feature to find a restaurant, gawk at your house, or peek into the Grand Canyon. Soon you'll be using it to scout bomber singletrack. As part of its effort to build the world's most comprehensive map, Google has launched a new program that will put Trekkers—40-pound back-pack versions of the ­cameras used on its Street View ­vehicles—in the hands of trail-­management crews, tourism bureaus, universities, and other nonprofits around the world.

The first Trekker was sent to Hawaii's Big Island last August, to Rob Pacheco, cofounder of outfitter Hawaii Forest and Trail. "It's like being a cinema­tographer—you keep thinking about how everything's going to look," says Pacheco, who hiked past ohia lehua trees, lava flows, and a 400-foot-deep pit crater in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park while the camera's 15 lenses snapped every 2.5 seconds. When the Big Island images are released in March, viewers will be able to navigate 46 miles on 24 trails.

Google aims to have hundreds of the 360-­degree, 75-megapixel devices in the field by the end of the year. Which made us wonder: How do we get our hands on one? We asked Evan Rapoport, a 33-year-old product manager for Street View who helps select the Trekker ambassadors.

Get affiliated. The loan program is limited to organizations in 35 countries. "We're looking for partners who have a lot of respect for the land and celebrate preservation," says Rapoport. Apply at

Think big. Rapoport settled on Hawaii in part because it's a place people "dream of going." In other words: skip Kansas.

Make it count. Google partnered with the Charles Darwin Foundation in 2013 to photograph critical wildlife habitat in the ­Galápagos Islands, providing baseline visual data for scientists around the world to track environmental conditions.

Flaunt your access. It's tough for Google to get permission to take commercial photographs in places like national parks—which is why it's turning to groups like Hawaii Forest and Trail, which already had a relationship with Volcanoes. If you have permission to photograph a hard-to-access place, you'll have a better shot.

If all else fails, DIY. The search giant recently launched Photo Sphere, a new feature in Google Maps that lets users upload location photos to create their own Street View–like panoramas.

Stay tuned for additional coverage of the Trekker Loan program.

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The Men Who Dream of Bigfoot

Among those who believe that such a thing as the Sasquatch exists, there is general agreement that the creature probably stands between seven and ten feet tall, weighs between a thousand and two thousand pounds, has elongated arms, is covered with either black or auburn hair (depending on the season), and often walks scores of miles a day on feet that may be as long as twenty-two inches-this last and most prominent physical characteristic having spawned the lay term for the beast, Bigfoot. Field Guide to the Sasquatch, a handbook by David George Gordon, a marine biologist, describes the typical Sasquatch as "generally reclusive and shy" and suggests that it is omnivorous, much like a bear. Like many Sasquatch reference books, the field guide also suggests that the Sasquatch may have evolved from the Peking Man or some other prehuman anthropod in an evolutionary path that has led to a point somewhere between the orangutan and the human, and that its most likely habitat is the forests of the Pacific Northwest. (Sasquatch sightings have been reported in every state except Hawaii.) But almost every other detail about the creature-whether it is nocturnal or diurnal, passive or aggressive, lives alone or in groups-is disputed by the people who regularly hunt for the Sasquatch. They also argue over whether a specimen should be killed and studied or whether the Sasquatch should be treated as an endangered species and simply photographed in the wild and left alone.

In the same way that it is impossible to say precisely how many, if any, Sasquatch there are in the millions of acres of forests in the Pacific Northwest, it is also impossible to say exactly how many people are searching for them. There are a few prominent investigators: Peter Byrne, a flamboyant former R.A.F. pilot and African safari guide, who now runs the Bigfoot Research Project on Mount Hood, in Oregon; Cliff Crook, a mild-mannered gardener who is the executive director of suburban Seattle's Bigfoot Central, the "nonprofit foundation for the preservation of the Sasquatch"; and René Dahinden, a tenacious sixty-seven-year-old who works out of a camper that in off weeks he parks on the grounds of a Vancouver, British Columbia gun club. And there is also any number of investigators who work anonymously in the woods on their own. It is thought that most " believers,'' to use their term, tend to attach themselves to the group that invariably forms around a particular region's best-known figure; these groups then become like little tribes dotting the wilderness of the Cascades and the Coast Range mountains through Northern California all the way into southern Alaska. Investigators are known to have established several twenty-four-hour Bigfoot hotlines, one of which is toll-free, and another which uses a fifteen-page hoax-detection questionnaire. They have identified the golden-mantled ground squirrel as a prime Sasquatch food source, and they have helped establish protection ordinances like the one in Skamania County, Washington, which, should it ever be invoked, will impose a ten thousand dollar fine or up to five years in jail on anyone caught killing or injuring a Sasquatch. Most likely, the ranks of Bigfoot investigators alternatively swell and thin, in the manner of a self-regulating herd, as someone either supposes that he has spotted the beast or any of its telltale signs and, as a result, joins the hunt or loses hope and quits after months, or years, or even decades, without any sign of it at all.

Even the total number of Sasquatch sightings is unknown. This is partly because word of a sighting often goes directly to the local investigator and his allies, who are unlikely to share their information with other groups. And the interest of local newspapers in the ongoing Sasquatch investigation fluctuates over time. The most recent high point began in the early eighties with a wave of reported sightings and culminated in 1987, with the release of Harry and the Hendersons—a film that many investigators, even though some of them had consulted on it, felt trivialized the phenomenon. To date, the closest anyone has come to what Bigfoot researchers refer to as "a geo-time pattern'' is in postulating that the number of sightings in a given area increases in direct proportion to the number of campers that happen to be there. At the moment, there is a feeling among some investigators that the quality of reports may be declining, because of an overall lack of training and standards. "The Sasquatch at this point is the side issue," Ren Dahinden says, in his thick Swiss-German accent. "The driving force is the people and their egos, their personalities. The good ones, they are in it totally, because in this business you can't be in it part-time. You have to be in it totally and above everything. The bad ones, they are the rejects from the U.F.O. field."

There is plenty of evidence that Bigfoot exists—if you have faith in the evidence. Thousands of footprints have been turning up all over the Northwest since it was first settled, when Indians began describing them in legends. In 1811, David Thompson, the Northwest's first white explorer, described such a footprint in his journals. There are numerous feces samples, which investigators tend to keep in Zip-Lock storage bags, and there are many hair samples. One man in Eastern Washington discovered what he maintains is a Sasquatch nest—a mass of sticks and twigs tangled with reddish-brown hair and doused with a putrid stench, which is said to be the creature's trademark; he keeps it tucked away in his basement. After sifting through hundreds of plaster casts of footprints and talking to scores of eyewitnesses, Grover Krantz, an anthropology professor at Washington State University, in Pullman, has hypothesized a possible Sasquatch skeletal structure and has given it the scientific name Gigantopithecus blakii.

But the best-known and most controversial piece of evidence for the existence of the Sasquatch remains what experts refer to simply as the Patterson film, a 16-mm movie taken in 1967 by Roger Patterson, a part-time rodeo cowboy from Yakima, Washington, and Robert E. Gimlin, Patterson's friend, in Northern California along Bluff Creek. In a few blurry, over-exposed seconds of color film, a large, hairy female (its "pendulous breasts'' are invariably referred to in studies of the film) lumbers along the creek and into the dark of the woods. The Disney film studio once examined the film ( "If it is a fake, then it is a masterpiece,'' a technician was quoted by a Sasquatch investigator as saying); books have been written about it; and it is shown religiously at Bigfoot-related gatherings or events. Over the past twenty-five years, the Patterson film has become the Zapruder film of Bigfoot hunting-obvious proof of a fur-suited hoax for those who don't believe, and incentive to press on with the search for those who do. The film and its considerable royalties have also been at the center of numerous lawsuits, with as many as seven different people claiming that Patterson sold them sole ownership rights while on his deathbed.

In fact, the dark side of the Bigfoot hunt-the bitter disputes that obsess the investigators as they proceed on their quest-may be its single most tangible aspect. In a recent letter to Ray Crowe, the president and founder of the Portland-based Western Bigfoot Society, Peter Byrne said, "There are a number of rivalries in the Bigfoot field. Their principal basis is of course the belief that at the end of the Bigfoot rainbow there lies a pot of gold. ...[h]ad they over the years projected a fraction of the time and money that they spend vilifying each other on Bigfoot research [they] would surely have solved the mystery by now." And not long ago Professor Krantz told me, "You have to watch out, because there's a lot of backstabbing."

In many ways, the Western Bigfoot Society is typical of the Northwest's numerous grass-roots Bigfoot organizations. It counts about forty people as members and meets on the last Thursday of every month in the basement of Ray Crowe's store, Ray's Used Books, just outside Portland, Oregon. Ray has decorated the meeting room with a mixture of large footprint casts, oddly twisted willow branches, a 21.6 cm. strand of cinnamon-colored hair, maps of nearby wilderness areas, with pins marking recent Bigfoot sightings, and tabloid headlines that the group finds humorous ( "Beautiful Women Help to Lure Bigfoot," reads one. "Sasquatch Likes to Study the Ladies."). Lately, Ray has taken to putting up photos from the group's occasional field trips, like the one to the nearby Primate Research Center, in Beaverton, Oregon, or the one to the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant, in Rainier, Oregon, where Ray thinks the buzz of the power lines may act as a lure.

In the past, speakers at the meetings have included a dog trainer, who addressed Bigfoot's fear of dogs (a phenomenon often mentioned at Ray's meetings); a member of a local search-and-rescue team, who said that the media had neglected to mention that a three-year-old boy whom he rescued in the summer of 1989 from the forests around Mount Hood had credited a "large hairy man" for keeping him company during the long night; and a former paramilitary officer with the National Security Agency, who, on a top-secret mission somewhere in the rainforests of Mato Grosso, Brazil, photographed what he now thinks must have been a Sasquatch, only to have the film confiscated by higher-ups. On one occasion Ray even invited a U.F.O. expert who is a vocal proponent of the theory that Sasquatches have come from another world-a postulate that the W.B.S. as a group opposes. "They may be full of poop," Ray said, "but I figure I might as well let them have their say."

Like most part-time Bigfoot investigators, Ray, who is now fifty-five, got into Bigfoot hunting by accident; he was doing research for a novel that included a Sasquatch rape scene and then decided to research the Sasquatch beyond the scope of the book. Shortly afterward, in 1991, he founded the W.B.S., and then began The Track Record, a monthly newsletter containing Bigfoot gossip, inspirational quotes, and the latest sighting information people have related to Ray. Once in a while, Ray publishes letters, like the one that Erik Beckjord, director of the U.F.O. & Bigfoot Museum, in Malibu, California, sent him, which complimented the W.B.O.'s work, or the letter that Ray himself sent to the United States Forest Service, citing the Freedom of Information Act and demanding to see the Mount Hood National Forest rangers' Bigfoot log book, if it exists. (Ray thinks the rangers may keep a log of Bigfoot sightings.) A few years ago, on a spring evening, Ray had his first Sasquatch "experience," as he calls it, which began when he accidentally scared an elk away from his camp, at the end of an old logging road. "I was getting ready for dinner and while I'm standing there I hear what sounded like these two giant birds arguing," he told me. "I say arguing, but they were chattering, really. And, anyway, I just assume that they were two Bigfoot, just arguing with each other-p.o'd at me for losing their elk for dinner."


René Dahinden, who is sometimes called the giant of the Sasquatch field, has a résumé that is almost a history of modern Sasquatch investigations. He began in 1956, shortly after he arrived in Canada from his native Switzerland, during what is sometimes called the golden age of Sasquatch hunting. After the Patterson film was taken, he spent several months examining the scene of the shoot. His first full-time Sasquatch work was in 1960, as a member of the fabled Pacific Northwest Expedition, financed by Tom Slick, a Texas oil-airline-and-ranch magnate who also financed the American Yeti Expedition in the Himal-ayas and who died in a plane crash that some Bigfoot investigators believe was mysterious (Slick was said to have been on the verge of the secret of the Yeti). Since then, Dahinden has never stopped investigating-supporting himself financially in part with the interest in the Patterson film that he bought from Patterson's widow, with royalties from his book, Sasquatch, and by working at the Vancouver Gun Club in Richmond, British Columbia. Barbara Wasson, in her book Sasquatch Apparitions: A Critique on the Pacific Northwest Hominid, said of Dahinden: "Ren walks as he lives, securely, energy pervading each step, generating a rich supply of drive and magnetism. He either attracts or repels others, as he sees fit. He seduces admiration from the majority of people, enemy as well as friend, or lashes out to win, where necessary, and to determine realities. Dahinden can cope with a rain soaked floor tarp, though he hates it, in the interior wilds of British Columbia or a formal academic gathering. He does this by being himself at all times, honest, realistically critical, at ease with others, and always challenging. He dresses in dirty torn clothing, shoveling gunshot from peat fields for hours, at home in mud-soaked trousers and sweat; or in clean pressed casual attire, neat and attractive, an eye appeal for females, fresh cologne radiating from a ruddy, scrubbed unwhiskered face."

Though he has never seen a Sasquatch himself, René Dahinden is said to have one of the most extensive Sasquatch files in the world, which includes tape recordings of conversations with thousands of people all over the Northwest who have seen a Bigfoot in the past century or so. It is also said to include information regarding all those people and regarding other investigators who talked to the people who say they saw a Bigfoot. "If a guy is in the newspaper, let's say, with a sighting or something like this, then we look at him," Dahinden says, pronouncing his 'w's as 'v's "We know all about him. We tape conversations. We listen. We have rooms full of files. Probably ninety-nine per cent of the people we are dealing with, we have them on file. We cover the whole of North America. The F.B.I., the C.I.A.-they have nothing on us." Dahinden prides himself on the files concerning two rival investigators, Peter Byrne and Grover Krantz. Regarding Krantz's most recent book, Big Foot Prints: A Scientific Inquiry into the Reality of Sasquatch, Dahinden told me, "Not to be nasty, but it's the worst book ever written."

One evening, at a Bigfoot festival in the foothills of Mount St. Helens in Washington, Dahinden talked mostly about investigators; he was particularly upset about the way one recent sighting had been handled. "What was it, last year?" he asked. "We had three kids, I think. Saw one of the things out on a lake. And here's the investigator asking how big was his eyes! You don't ask how big was the eyes. He was across the lake, for Christ's sakes! What kind of a silly question is that?" The next morning he gave me a tour of the converted Ford van he uses as a base for field research. It has a tired green cabin on the back of it and is equipped with a wood-burning stove, an inlaid map table that came from an old McDonald's, and a gun rack that holds a rifle, two cameras with telephoto lenses and automatic advance mechanisms, a video camera, and a simple point-and-shoot camera.

After the tour, Dahinden sat on his bunk, lit his pipe, and talked to me about his thirty-seven years in the field. He wore old khakis, a frayed work shirt, and camp sneakers, and the autobiography of Lee Iacocca lay half read on his pillow; he looked like a tired field marshall, and he spoke as if he were more concerned with the aftereffects of a significant Sasquatch discovery than about actually finding one. "I'm afraid what will happen if the Sasquatch is found by me or somebody else is that the people with the so-called brains and logic, the scientific community, will—knowing what I know about human nature—the government will go to the scientists who rejected this totally with us, the ones who know nothing about the Sasquatch, and they would reinvent the goddamned wheel," he said. "Guys like me who have collected ten thousand bits and pieces of information would be shoved aside. In Canada, they would spend six million just to decide what to do. But I already know what to do." He banged on his bunk. "Of course I want to be the guy who finds the Sasquatch! Oh yeah-glory, fame, everything I can wring out of it. But, more than that, I'd like to take the scientific community and beat the shit out of it. Of course, the older I get, the more I realize that's just a pipe dream."

When we finished talking, Dahinden marched out of the cabin and across the campground, his chin in the air and his notes shoved under his arm like a riding crop. A crowd was assembling near a makeshift stage. Footprint casts were scattered across a long table, and the people shared blurry photos and details of recent sightings. At the center of the exhibit, centered on a table draped with white paper, the Patterson film played over and over on a small video screen. Soon, Dahinden approached Datus Perry, an old man with long white hair and a long white beard who works in kitchen-waste recycling and, possibly because of this (he often smells of lard), claims to have a knack for Sasquatch sightings. (At that time, Perry had logged approximately a dozen sightings, mostly while burying explosives in lava caves with his wife.) Perry's let-them-come-to-you approach is completely opposed to Dahinden's head-on investigative style. To make things worse, Perry had set up several life-sized cardboard Bigfoot cutouts, which are much too pointy-headed for most investigator's tastes. "You're a disgrace!" Dahinden said to Perry.
"You ain't never seen one!" Perry snarled back. "And you never will if you keep on smoking that pipe!"

In the halls of academia, Bigfoot-related research is often discriminated against and lumped in a huge category that includes research on aliens and the Bermuda Triangle. The publications that give it the most coverage tend to be sold in supermarket checkout lines; as a rule, Sasquatch research grants are hard to come by. Grover Krantz knows this firsthand. For a long time, there was a professor on the academic review board of Washington State University who was a nonbeliever, and until that professor retired, in the late seventies, Krantz was consistently denied tenure in the department of anthropology. Krantz ran into similar public-relations trouble a few years later, when the public at large heard about his controversial proposal to kill a Sasquatch specimen ("[B]e absolutely certain the quarry is not a human being," he warned in one paper). The school switchboard was flooded with calls suggesting that Krantz be taken as a specimen too.

Usually, however, as the author of some of the first scholarly anthropological studies to deal with Sasquatch skeletal structure—Anatomy of the Sasquatch Foot, Additional Notes on the Sasquatch Foot, and Sasquatch Handprints—Krantz has received the critical attention he deserves: He was a keynote speaker at the last international Sasquatch conference, once appeared on the Merv Griffin Show, and, because of his credentials, shows up in newspapers all over the Northwest whenever there is a Sasquatch sighting. Grover Krantz is not known for his field work, but he may still complete construction on an ultralight helicopter that he keeps under a tarp in his driveway. He has already spent nearly ten thousand dollars on a breadbox-size infrared heat-seeking device for the helicopter. He plans to use it to search the woods for a freshly decomposing Sasquatch corpse during the spring thaw. "The scientific community is always saying give us more serious scientific evidence, more dermal ridges, but it's left to the rugged individual to go out and do the research," he says.


Lately Krantz has been receiving criticism from the other side. Several Bigfoot investigation groups insist that one of his main suppliers of Bigfoot footprint casts—Paul Freeman, a lone-wolf investigator in Walla Walla, Washington—is a hoaxer. Before meeting Krantz, I drove into Walla Walla, at the foot of the Blue Mountains, to see Freeman's evidence first hand. When I arrived at Freeman's house, he was having a yard sale. In 1989, Freeman was fired from the forest service for talking too much about Bigfoot, and he has supported himself since with frequent yard sales, part-time managing of a mobile home park, and the occasional Bigfoot presentation at local malls. He and his family have had to move several times, because of ridicule. He has also suffered physically, and, a few years ago, broke the arch in his foot while hunting in the woods. Last April, he managed to videotape one of his sightings, though the tape was blurry, because in the excitement he forgot to push the zoom button. When I last spoke with him, he was waiting to hear from Scotland Yard about some hair and feces samples he had sent them and to have the video tape computer enhanced. In its current state, the video mostly shows-except for a tiny blur at the dark edge of a clearing-the floor of Freeman's truck as he wrestles with the door; on the sound track Freeman, out of breath, whispers, "Goddamn, there it is! I've been waiting for this son of a bitch! This is it for sure!"

In his garage, Freeman showed me the dozens of footprint casts and odoriferous hair samples that he keeps on hand. (He keeps the remainder of his collection in various rented storage spaces throughout the Walla Walla area.) He also showed me two life-size Sasquatch replicas he had a sculptor at nearby Whitman College build to his specifications. "The lady who made them, she put the wrong eyes in it, but I'm having new ones made," Freeman said. The female had noticeably large breasts, just like the female in the Patterson film, and she was roughly Freeman's size. "You could fall in love with her," he said.

During the garage sale, we discussed the competition among Bigfoot experts. "I'll tell you, it's impossible to prove by yourself anyway, but the people looking are cutting each other's throats," he said. "I always wonder, Why can't we work together? I mean, we're a special little group of people, all of us trying to prove this animal exists. Myself, I just keep plugging along, figuring I might get some real good video someday, but I don't have to prove anything to anybody. My son's seen it, so now we just live with it, though I guess I'd love to see the thing protected. It's one of the greatest mysteries in the world and I'm just glad to be a part of it."

A few summers ago, there was a sighting on the Nez Perce Indian Reservation in Spalding, Idaho, just across the Washington border, in the foothills of the Bitteroot Mountains, and Professor Krantz drove there in a minivan with some plaster-of-Paris for footprint casting and two anthropology graduate students-Mark, twenty-eight, who had seen the Patterson film sixteen times, and Markku, thirty-one, a former soldier from Finland. I had arrived in Krantz's office moments after the sighting had been called into him, and I persuaded him to let me come along. When we pulled into the parking lot of the Nez Perce National Historic Park, there were several people speaking to the local newspaper reporter and to Don Tyler, chairman of the anthropological department at the University of Idaho. Tyler had already briefed Krantz by phone on the character of the witnesses, so Krantz, lurched over, lit a cigarette, and immediately began nonchalantly interviewing them. All at once, they pointed to the top of a hill overlooking the Clearwater River. A few minutes later, a man pulled up, jumped out of his car, and ripped open some pictures that he'd just developed. "These will prove it," an old woman said. There were several photographs of the hill showing a fuzzy little black dot. Krantz didn't flinch. "You wouldn't expect it to be very good without a telephoto lens," he said.


Walking up the hill, Krantz was optimistic. "If it's a big bugger, it could weigh up to a thousand pounds," he said. Suddenly, Markku shouted out. He kneeled and pointed at some tracks. "Its stride is one hundred and twenty to one hundred and forty centimeters," he said.

"O.K.," Krantz said. "Could be an adult female or a young male, and it would have roughly the same length of step as the creature in the Patterson film. So far, though, I can't rule out human feet." he continued pacing the hill, tracking his own thirteen-inch feet along the way. "You could fake it, but it's hard," he said. "Also, if it was a fake you would have better pictures." Somebody spotted a dead cow on the next hill, and Krantz found the imprint of a horse's hoof. Then, Mark discovered another set of tracks. Krantz shouted, "O.K., here we go! This is the real thing. It's a little tight—only thirty-four inches in the stride—but it's real."

Wrapping up the investigation with some notes and a few more interviews, Krantz went back to the parking lot to thank the other witnesses, leaving a plaster cast of a Patterson footprint as a combination thank you-business card. I followed him to a gas station for Cokes and analysis. It would be lost and looking for a place to settle," he theorized. "It may be a young Sasquatch looking for a territory of its own, or being driven away by a forest fire down south. It's just a pity there was nothing good enough to cast." He added, "You've come a hell of a lot closer to one than most people. You've seen what most certainly was a Sasquatch."

When it comes to deciding exactly where to encounter a Sasquatch face-to-face, Cliff Crook prefers the forests around Mount Rainier. Every year, around Labor Day weekend, he drives there from his home, outside Seattle, and spends a few days looking around and just waiting. There have been a couple of what he considers quality sightings near Rainier over the past few years-one by a group of mushroom pickers along the banks of the Nisqually River, the other by a group of people staying at a lodge just outside the western entrance of Mount Rainier National Park, both around Labor Day weekend. "I don't know what it is; I just like it up there," Cliff says.

In contrast to, say, the Pacific Coast Sasquatch Investigation Unit, who consider the woods so many topographical quadrants to conquer, Cliff is more of a Zen Sasquatch hunter: he tries to get in touch with the Sasquatch's woods. Unlike Rene Dahinden, say, Cliff does not carry a gun. He says this is because when he first encountered a Sasquatch, as a young boy, he was struck by the Sasquatch's apparent dislike of acts of violence. When a boy he was with threw sticks at the Sasquatch, it responded by saying, "Argar largar," which Cliff translates to mean, "Don't do that again." Since then, Cliff has become protective of Bigfoot-so much so that when I asked him exactly where around Mount Rainier he was likely to be before Labor Day, he was politely cryptic. Nevertheless, I had an idea of where to find him, and I knew I'd recognize his old maroon Datsun, with the "i brake for bigfoot" bumper sticker. So, on a fall weekend, just before Labor Day, I packed up a tent and went searching for Cliff while he was searching for Bigfoot.

After looking in vain for a few hours at various trailheads and at the lodge Cliff investigated last year ("I really thought it was just a bear," the owner remembered. "But then I heard that combination bear-growl and pig-snort that Cliff tells me they make"), I finally picked a trail whose terrain closely matched all that Cliff had told me about his favorite investigation areas. I had never gone camping in the woods alone before, and as I walked my first mile I realized how difficult it was going to be to find Cliff in such dense forest. I began in a low, marshy area, gurgling with little streams, and dark with towering Douglas fir. I climbed a long hill to drier ground, and, in a while, splintered redwood spilled onto the trail like hot coals. Gory, bulbous growths sprouted from the sides of lodgepole pine trees, and ferns and vines invaded the dark-green horizon. I was looking for what I thought Cliff would be looking for tracks, large piles of scat, and branches twisted at heights of seven feet and up-when I thought I heard a sound. I grabbed my binoculars but saw nothing. A second later, a golden-mantled ground squirrel jumped out of nowhere to scare the hell out of me. In an hour, dusk was on its way and I had seen only two othercamp- ers,both heading off the mountain. I crossed  Kautz Creek, which was roaring with glacial runoff. On the other side, in the sandy bank, I lingered over the imprint of a single large boot.

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At around five in the afternoon, as I started up yet another hill, the trail began to follow a creek called Devil's Dream. In a few hundred feet, the creek dropped suddenly from the trail and into a dark ravine so deep I couldn't see the bottom. I kicked a rock, watched it fall off into blackness, and heard it land many seconds later with a crack! At that instant, I realized that these steep cliffs and the nearby water and the texture of the woods made this just the kind of place Cliff believes to be a prime Sasquatch investigation area. I set up a tent nearby, made dinner and had a beer. Above me, in and out of clouds, the glaciered pinnacle of Rainier appeared like an apparition in the cracks of the ceiling of trees; there was a little less than half a moon. By now resigned to not finding Cliff, I tried to lose myself in my field guide to wildflowers, but it was too dark, and I was getting nervous, so I zipped up the tent flap and hoped for rest.

At 1:20, I awoke from a light sleep absolutely convinced that something was breathing outside my tent. By 2, motionless except for a pounding heart, I was debating two escape strategies: (1) curling up in a ball or (2) screaming and running down the hill to the ranger station. I think it was about 3 when I found the courage to look carefully outside with my flashlight. I scanned the face of the darkness, startling single trees. Daylight was still far away, and I knew at this point that I could never cut it as a Bigfoot investigator. At last, near dawn, looking flashlight-less out my tent, I saw it-staring at me and standing completely still about fifty feet from my camp. As more light fell, I realized that it was a man, and then that it was a man I knew, and then, though I knew it couldn't possibly be possible, that it was the statue of Father Duffy, three thousand miles away in New York's Times Square. At around 5 a.m., I took a big gulp and watched the cold gray face of Father Duffy melt into the decaying corpse of a weathered old pine.

After I was home, I got a call from Cliff. He said that I was pretty close to where he had been that night, and he asked if I'd seen the cougar roaming around. He was upbeat, having just wrapped up an investigation: he had successfully linked a set of tracks that he'd initially thought to be those of a female Sasquatch to a hermit who lives in the woods outside of Seattle and is known as the Ice Man because he walks barefoot through ponds and streams in the winter. The next day I got a call from René Dahinden who had some information on the sighting that Grover Krantz had taken me to in Idaho. "It was a fake," he said. "I heard from a guy in L.A. that it was just a man in a suit." He added, "As a group, we know nothing about Krantz as a person. We know nothing about his upbringing. I would like to know about his father. You know, how many brothers, how many sisters, some background-because I'll tell you, he certainly has a problem trying to be somebody."

A few days later, I talked to Ray Crowe, who seemed to be having a little bit of a crisis. "I don't know if you've thought it through," he said, "but if you were running this whole thing as a business and if after twenty-five years you didn't have any results, then you'd begin to chop heads. So I'm assuming what they've all done before me is wrong. They go to these sightings and investigate them and they want to study the people who saw it, put `em through the lie detector. But I'm thinking that maybe you're better off sitting up on a lonely ridge waiting and looking. I don't know, I'm just looking to break away. I only wish I could make more damn money on the whole thing. I think I made thirteen dollars and fifty cents last night and it cost twelve dollars to rent the extra chairs."

The reason for extra chairs was a speaker named Jim Hewkin, a retired wildlife biologist for the state of Oregon. When Hewkin spoke, he jumped over the proof part of the Sasquatch issue and right into Sasquatch habits, the way W.B.O. members like their speakers to. "We don't know much but we're beginning to draw pictures," he said, "and we've started to frame out something that a Bigfoot is like. We're probably looking at ourselves about four million years ago, living off the land with no tools, probably talking about the Dark Ages. And then we changed in one direction, and the Bigfoot kept going back into the rough country and living off the land in the roughest kind of habitat there is. And it makes you think again: Well why? Must have been man that caused that. Probably a lot of friction between man and Bigfoot in those days and he just spread out. I'm getting into the kind of scientific part where archaeologists and people who study this, the past, should be, but today we have to look at all the animals there are that we know and find all the evidence there is that's logical, true, factual, listen to anybody that has anything to say, separate the wheat from the chaff. There's a lot of chaff. And don't let your imagination go too wild when you're out there alone, looking around for signs. You think you'll find a sign. You hope you find a sign, and maybe you do."


Since I researched this story, a few years ago, there have been numerous possible sightings of Bigfoot and some more possible tracks but no definitive finds. In addition, the cast of hunters and Bigfoot enthusiasts has changed somewhat. Last I heard, Ray Crowe has sold his bookstore and closed up his museum, though he still publishes a newsletter and hopes one day to open up the museum again. René Dahinden continued to keep tabs on sightings in his area and to stay in contact with hunters throughout the Northwest, but in his final years—he passed away in 2011—he didn't get out into the field as much. Grover Krantz died in 2002. I never heard from Cliff Crook after I last saw him near Mount Rainier. Datus Perry passed away a number of years back, which was sad news in the Bigfoot community because even Bigfoot hunters who didn't feel his sightings were properly substantiated enjoyed seeing him and talking with him at Bigfoot events, where he was a regular.

One day I was talking to Peter Byrne, still the most prominent Bigfoot hunter; he has searched full-time for Sasquatch on several occasions, at one point spending five years at an operations base on Mount Hood. I had last talked to him in the summer of 1997 when he had just wrapped up his Mount Hood investigation. At that point he was considering starting up another one. As it turned out, even he had downsized his operations: he still goes to check out sightings on occasion, but he is taking it easy at the moment, taking the time to write and travel. It was still early in the summer when I talked to him, but he said that in general the Bigfoot investigation field is slow at the moment. "It's been extremely quiet," he said. "There's been nothing really."

Robert Sullivan is the author of Rats, A Whale Hunt, and, most recently, My American Revolution, among other books. He lives in New York City.

This story originally appeared in Open Spaces.

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Ten Questions for Parker Liautaud

On December 24, 19-year-old Parker Liautaud arrived at the South Pole after skiing 563.3 kilometers in 18 days, four hours and 43 minutes. He set a new world record for the fastest unsupported trek from the coast to the Pole, and became the youngest man ever to ski to the South Pole.

Along the way, he endured a myriad of discomforts you'd expect from crossing the frozen continent, which despite the 24 hours of midsummer daylight, still thrashed him with flesh-freezing temperatures and blasting winds. Call it suffering in the name of science: Liautaud, a geology and geophysics major at Yale, partnered with veteran polar explorer Doug Stoup, 50, to research and raise awareness for climate change.

Before they set out on their speed attempt, the team spent eight days traveling 1,800 kilometers overland from the Pole to the Ross Ice Shelf in a custom-built ice truck/mobile laboratory, collecting snow samples to test for the effects of global warming. The data is still in New Zealand being analyzed, but Liautaud had no shortage of learning moments on his epic quest to the Pole. 

How does it feel to be home?
I feel good. I'm just trying to get back into my regular life. In the grand scheme of things, I escaped barely unscathed. A lot of people get frostbite, but I've recovered quickly. The feeling has come back in my fingers. 

Tell me about the toll it took on your body.
I could go on and on about it, but at base camp on the coast, I picked up a virus. I had a viral infection and a cough the whole way through. I had minor sprains in my ankle, tendinitis in both ankles, back and knee pain. These things sound so basic in day-to-day life, but on an expedition they're not as obvious. I kept worrying, Is it going to get a lot worse? Are these problems going to keep me from completing the expedition?

How did you get into doing polar expeditions?
When I was 13, I became interested in climate change. I'd been told that it was important, but I knew nothing about it. So, I set out to try to learn as much as I could. I met a British explorer named Robert Swan, the first person to walk to both the South and North Poles. He really developed the idea of using polar exploration to demonstrate climate change. I saw him lecture in California and basically harassed him for six months. When I was 14, I joined him on a small trip to the Antarctic Peninsula. I did my first North Pole ski expedition when I was 15, but we had to turn back because of open water. I went back when I was 16 and 17, and made it to the Pole both times. It really all started with climate change. I am the least athletic person. In high school, I was always the last one picked for a spot on a team. I've had to learn how to train like an athlete, and behave like an athlete.   

How did you train for Antarctica?
A lot of polar explorers train by dragging tires, but I go to university in the center of a city, so I didn't have the ability to drag tires. You need a big field or open area, and some place to store them. I live in a dorm. At the time, I didn't have a driver's license. I was a full-time student and I couldn't take a week off to go to the Rockies. This sort of freaked me out at the beginning, but then I realized that people train all the time in different ways, some of them using nothing but the floor. So I talked to a trainer I'd worked with before [Sham Cortazzi], and we created a training plan broken into three stages: developing strength, developing endurance, and mixing the two. I went from barely being able to do one pull-up to being able to do 12 five times. It's a workout called Death by Pull-up. You do one in the first minute, two in the second, three in the third, and so forth. I couldn't believe I was able to do it.

How did your parents support you?
They've been through this four times with me, so they're getting used to it by now. They didn't support me financially or with contacts, but they did give me a lot of moral support. They've always encouraged us [five kids] to be very independent and deeply involved in what we're interested in. To just go after it. During tough times of preparation, my mother knew to remind me why I was doing it, and to not let up on any of my goals, whether it was training or fundraising.

What was the low point of the speed record?
This was an expedition, so there was a low point every day. But the low point of the whole trip was days four through nine. All the little things that had started to bother me were at their most severe, but I hadn't figured out what to do about them. I was also very short of breath, and it was hard for me to deal with the high altitude. I knew this would be a challenge because I wasn't able to train in the high mountains. The pressure at that latitude makes 9,000 feet feel more like 12,000. At that point we were still carrying all our supplies, pulling probably 170-180 pounds, and I'd start to break down after about eight and a half hours. I was sitting in our tent, five or six days in, wondering if I was even going to be physically capable of doing this. That's a terrifying thought. That means I didn't train hard enough. And that's the thing that's most in your control. Everything else is out of your control. Over the next few days, I kept thinking about the crevasses in the glacier. What if I fell into one and broke my leg? And that started to seem like a legitimate way I could get out of this. I still had 250 miles to go. That was the low point.

How did you pull yourself out of it?
I worked with a mental trainer before I left, and we developed a strategy for those moments: breaking everything down into manageable chunks. In whiteout and 40 mph winds, I could handle ten steps before resting. In better days, maybe I could handle a one-and-a half-hour session, which is how Doug and I broke down our day. Maybe I could handle thinking about the bigger picture. I also brought good luck notes from people at home that helped me get back in the game. Down there, it was very easy to feel that no one was with me, not just in Antarctica but in the whole world.

What was the high point?
Beyond the obvious of reaching the Pole, it was when we started to maintain a steady, good daily distance. This was about day 12, when I realized I was beyond the low point, and I wasn't going to go back to that. I had defeated that mindset. If we could just get after it and keep doing eleven and a half hour days, we'd have a shot of getting there in record time. 

What were your impressions of climate change in Antarctica?
We did all our data sampling from the South Pole to the Coast, so that the science wouldn't interfere with the speed work and vice versa. We don't have any of the information yet; it's in New Zealand going through the scientific process. I don't know enough about Antarctica to draw conclusions from what I saw. It's not like I've been going there every year for 30 years. I'm impatient to get the data back, because when we do, it will give us a much clearer picture.

What was the coldest temperature you endured?
Negative 40 Celsius. It was a whiteout, with fast winds. I didn't get hypothermia, but I did get cold damage on my nose, cheeks, and several fingers. At the end of each day, my shell jacket would be covered in ice. All I'd want to do is take it off, but I would put my down jacket over top of it to melt the ice. Otherwise, there'd be permanent ice buildup. It would just be a giant chunk of ice. So I would sit there with ice melting over me. Short term pain for long term gain.

What's next for you?
I'm going to do another expedition, but I don't know what it is yet or if it's going to be polar. There are so many opportunities. Right now I get to kick back for a little while and brainstorm and day dream a bit. It's the most carefree part of an expedition. 

I've read that you want to get your PhD?
First I have to graduate! And then apply to programs. There are no guarantees.

Do you have any advice for aspiring young advocate-explorers?
All I would say is just do it. I was a really pathetic case. I had no athletic promise or connections for funding. If you have a good idea and a good reason for wanting to do it, eventually you will find people to support it. You'll have to go through a lot of boring cold calls and emails. But people want to help. They're positive and enthusiastic, especially with young people. And don't be discouraged if it takes longer than you planned to get ready. At least for the next few years, the mountains aren't going anywhere.

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Surviving Tasmania

The cave is like a womb. Cocooned in my sleeping bag, I stare a foot above me at whorls of coral and register that I'm lying under thousands of tons of overhanging rock. We're camping alongside the Franklin River at the Newlands Cascades rapids, in the shallow caves that form the base of a limestone wall 100 feet high. I can make out a delicate web on the ceiling, likely the work of a Tasmanian cave spider, and wonder if a tiger snake, the world's fourth-deadliest serpent, will slither past. But that's not my most pressing concern.

The rain has been pouring down in sheets for the past 12 hours, and the thundering rush of the swiftly rising Franklin is just 30 feet below. The 78-mile-long, pool-drop river boils with technical Class III–VI rapids crashing through the nearly impenetrable Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park, in the heart of the 3.5-million-acre Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. Its tannin-stained water is as dark as Guinness beer but so clean we drink it straight, with no filtration. The Franklin flows through a deep ravine (1,300 feet at its deepest) and is so wet (100 inches of precipitation per year fall in some places) that just two inches of rain can cause it to rise ten feet in two hours. Which is what I fear is happening now.

The river has risen 13 feet since our seven-person group—four Australians, one South African, one Austrian, and me—arrived at the campsite two days ago with dramatic flourish. Right before eddying out, Ron Wiffen, a 63-year-old plumber from Queensland, and Graham Freeman, a 25-year-old from Johannesburg, who were powering the front of our 15-foot rubber raft, were deep-sixed headfirst into the 50-degree water after we banged into a boulder.

The next day, which we spent exploring, went smoothly. We swung like monkeys on branches, bushwhacking through the temperate rainforest, a primeval garden of giant man ferns, sassafras, pandani, and rare, slow-growing, 130-foot Huon pines that were here before Christ, in wilderness so empty that we've seen zero people in six days. But the rain started late that night and has remained steady, stranding us for the foreseeable future. Brett Fernon, our 53-year-old Aussie guide and the owner of outfitter Water by Nature Tasmania, tells me that this is the highest level he's ever seen. "Bloody hell! I don't think it's peaked yet," he says, scanning the narrow sliver of sky. "It's a bit tricky trying to get out of here at the moment."

We're not the first party to be buggered by the Franklin. Fewer than 500 people per year attempt it, and some don't come out the other end. In 1822, eight convicts fled into the Franklin watershed to escape Sarah Island prison, the British Empire's version of the Gulag Archipelago, on Tasmania's west coast. Only one man, Alexander Pearce, walked out alive—after killing and eating five of his fellow escapees. The river's namesake, colonial governor and Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin, crossed the waterway but never paddled its length. (He died of starvation in 1847 while searching for the Northwest Passage.) And in 1994, author Richard Flanagan wrote Death of a River Guide, a grim read based on his own near drowning on the Franklin. The book is sitting next to my sleeping bag.

{%{"image":"","caption":"Bruny Island, off Tasmania's southern coast."}%}

Fernon's oft repeated mantra echoes through my brain: "You can never be too paranoid down here." He would know. The so-called Godfather of the Franklin has paddled the river more than 200 times in the past 26 years. A lanky six foot one, he's a registered nurse and Sydney native, and he resembles a bird of prey, with winged graying hair, a beaked nose, and fierce intensity when he's on the water. When he's relaxed, he unleashes a goofy, talkative side while whipping up dinner. Fernon's seen it all down here, including runaway rafts, snake-infested campgrounds, bones and boats cracked in half, and helicopter evacs. But he feels at home on the Franklin, even as it's threatening us. "We've been trapped by Mother Nature," he says. He sounds exhilarated.

The Franklin River is a fitting metaphor for Tasmania: beautiful, terrible, sublime, bizarre, and very, very remote. This West Virginia–size island invented the bushranger (the Oz version of an outlaw hero), gave Hollywood Errol Flynn (who was born in Tasmania's capital, Hobart), and established the world's first green party in 1972.

I've been obsessed with the island's extremes for years. I was raised on Looney Tunes, and my interest was aroused by the Tasmanian Devil, a.k.a. Taz, a whirling dervish that zoomed around like a tornado, slicing through boulders and trees. In 2000, I cycled and road-tripped for six weeks through mainland Australia while reading Robert Hughes's The Fatal Shore, a history of Oz's settling, in which Tasmania played a critical and dark role. In 1803, the British capitalized on the island's isolation, colonizing it as Van Diemen's Land, the dumping ground for repugnant criminals, harmless urchins, and homeless women. It took the penal colony just 73 years to wipe out the estimated 4,000 pure-blood Aboriginal people, whose lineage here dates back 40,000 years. It took only 60 more for the motley crew, along with the few free settlers who chose to live among them, to hunt the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, to apparent extinction. But the convicts who managed to stay out of trouble served their seven years of hard labor and took advantage of the freedom in Tasmania. Even today, the state's license plate reads Explore the Possibilities.

Because their ancestors forged civilization out of ferocious wilds, many Tasmanians have a deep love and respect for untouched territory. More than 40 percent of Tasmania's landmass is protected in reserves, World Heritage Areas, and 19 national parks. "In a world where wilderness is perhaps the fastest-disappearing natural resource and the pristine values of nature are being destroyed at a great rate, Tasmania is like a Noah's Ark," says Bob Brown, a medical doctor and the state's most iconic environmentalist; he was the head of the Wilderness Society, then went on to spend 16 years as a Green Party senator in the federal government. "Our glory days are ahead of us, but not without eternal vigilance."

{%{"image":"","caption":"Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Claire National Park."}%}

There's a lot worth protecting. Of Tasmania's 500,000 residents, 212,000 live in Hobart, a funky waterfront city on the slopes of 4,166-foot Mount Wellington, with paved and off-road hiking and mountain-biking trails in every direction. The city sits on the mouth of the Derwent River, which flows into the Tasman Sea, and its convict-built, waterfront sandstone facades have been renovated into hipster hotels, restaurants, and bars—at least five floating shacks sell fish-and-chips in the harbor. They're all packed with locals, climate scientists on break from Antarctica, or Asian tourists dining on the day's oyster and seafood catch, accompanied by pinot noirs produced just down the road. One reason the state is getting an infusion of international travelers is MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art, a $200 million steel bunker dreamed up by local gambling tycoon David Walsh that is full of provocative works—like a defecating machine that unleashes "feces" at 2 p.m. every day.

Beyond Hobart, there are countless treks, including seven Great Walks, and 3,355 miles of coastline. The annual Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race, a 628-mile sufferfest, is one of the most coveted cups in sailing, and surfers flock to the consistent breaks near the east-coast town of Bicheno or to the more extreme swell at Shipstern Bluff off the Tasman Peninsula, renowned for 40-foot waves, great white sharks, and the possibility of crashing into a 200-foot-high cliff.

And Tasmania contains a number of animal species that live nowhere else, including marsupials like the Tasmanian bettong, eastern quoll, Tasmanian pademelon, and, some scientists believe after alleged recent sightings, the Tasmanian tiger. There's also the notorious Tasmanian devil, a skunk-size, carnivorous marsupial, which is sadly being driven to extinction by devil facial tumor disease, a cancer that has likely killed 80 percent of the species.

But there's a flipside to all this wonder. Tasmania is the poorest state in Australia, and it has a fierce loyalty to forestry, mining, and hydropower. The state's resource battles are reminiscent of environmental fights around the globe, except here they're on a finite stage, which makes the island a sort of petri dish for the rest of us. Last summer, Tasmania's Parliament passed the historic Tasmanian Forest Agreement, which will add 420,000 acres to the existing Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area and transfer a total of 1.2 million acres of vulnerable native forests from Forestry Tasmania to the Parks and Wildlife Service. If the right-wing Liberal Party comes to power this spring, however, its leadership has vowed to reverse the agreement and log in the World Heritage Area. Meanwhile, many of the remaining disease-free Tasmanian devils live in the Tarkine, a 1.2-million-acre unprotected wilderness also in a conservation battle. Environmentalists are lobbying for national park and World Heritage status, but competing for space are timber leases and proposals for ten new tin and iron-ore mines, slated to roll into operation over the next five years.

It seemed like a good time to explore the state's rawness and dichotomies, in the fickle height of spring, when the lilacs bloom, horizontal snow falls, and the sun beats down, all within a few hours. And there's no better place to start than the Franklin, a flash point in Tasmania's conservation history, too: led by Bob Brown, 2,500 protestors formed a human blockade in 1982 to stop a hydroelectric dam. (Their efforts were rewarded.) I'd heard about the river a couple of years ago from Peter Grubb, the founder of Idaho-based Row Adventures, who described an almost mythic Tasmanian wilderness, known among guides as having one of the most technical whitewater runs in the world. I knew I had to see it for myself.

It's 2:22 a.m., and the river is still rising. Fernon and his co-guide, a 38-year-old transplanted Austrian named Klaudia Marte, shine like apparitions in the glow of their headlamps as they drag the rafts 15 feet farther up the limestone shelf and place them on our stone dining room table. I can't move any higher, so I cover my head with my sleeping bag and wait until whichever comes first: dawn or drowning.
At 6:55 a.m., it's still raining, and the water level is now two feet higher than Fernon has ever seen it, but it miraculously retreats enough for us to consider launching into a sketchy Class IV wave train. At 10 a.m., the rain stops. We load, launch, and paddle, whooping like rodeo cowboys. Beyond the first hurdle, the river is so swollen that the rapids have disappeared, replaced by swirling boils. We book it 26 miles downriver to the confluence of the Gordon, which was dammed in 1972, in record-setting time. An hour before we reach the shelter of a hydro-workers' hut, the pelting rain resumes. "This is the moment I question my sanity," says Ron Wiffen, who was ejected out of the raft a few days ago.

Possibly hypothermic, or maybe just euphoric to have safely shepherded everyone off the Franklin, Fernon stands up in the raft, shakes his fist at the sky, and yells at the top of his voice in mock-apostle style: "Is this all you've got?! C'mon! Bring it!"

{%{"image":"","caption":"Cape Raoule."}%}

Our floatplane is grounded in Hobart, so the next day at dawn we catch a ride with a yacht that motors us six hours across Macquarie Harbor to Strahan, where a van drives us six hours back to Hobart. But first we raise our plastic glasses of Shiraz in a toast to a perfect trip.

"Who wants a life that goes according to plan?" says Dave James, a 38-year-old consultant and outdoor-education guide in Hobart and the only native Tasmanian in our group. "There's no fun in that."

That's part of the charm of Tasmania—the weather can derail even the best-laid plans. A day after I'm off the river, I meet up in Hobart with a rugged, 28-year-old, fifth-generation Tasmanian named Rob Knight, my guide for the next eight days. Knight, who lives with his fiancée on a 32-foot sailboat south of the city, has mapped out a 1,000-mile drive with stop-offs to explore the east coast's vacant beaches and the state's famous treks. "I like to come home bleeding and covered in mud," says Knight. "It's a bit masochistic, isn't it?"

We make a quick first stop at Freycinet Peninsula, 121 miles from Hobart, and walk to the overlook of Wineglass Bay, a famous stretch of sand that's like the Playboy centerfold of beaches, with perfect, bodacious curves. Our objective the next day is to hike a truncated version of the 40-mile-long Overland Track, which starts at Cradle Mountain–Lake St. Clair National Park and traverses a World Heritage Area that includes Tasmania's highest peak, 5,305-foot Mount Ossa; its deepest lake, St. Clair; and miles and miles of wide-open views to the Pelion Range. Trekkers who do the six-day through-hike have three options: camp, stay in basic government huts with bunks, or book a trip through an independent operator and end the day in a private hut with a hot shower, a few glasses of Tasmanian wine, fresh bread, and a fluffy bed. Instead of a through-hike, we'll veer off-track and climb 5,069-foot Cradle Mountain, the most photographed feature in Tasmania, which looks like it has a handsaw blade for a summit, and be back at Cradle Mountain Lodge in time for dinner.

{%{"image":"","caption":"The Franklin River."}%}

As the trail winds upward, I learn just how masochistic Knight is. In less than three decades, he has crossed the Southern Ocean 66 times as an Antarctic guide, run an off-the-couch Antarctic half-marathon fueled by Red Bull, and become the youngest Australian to ski to the North Pole, which he did with a broken wrist. He has also kayaked the Franklin, a rite of passage for every budding Tasmanian badass. In addition to guiding, Knight just launched a new company, the Bruny Island Long Weekend. It's a three-day, yacht-in, fly-out luxury escape on Bruny, a mountainous 62-mile-long stretch of land just down the D'Entrecasteaux Channel from Hobart, with world-famous oysters (which, I'm able to confirm when I visit a few days later, deserve their reputation) and an obscenely perfect seven-mile beach.
Given Tasmania's notoriously fickle weather, our hike quickly turns feisty. We're at 5,000 feet, but it may as well be 17,500. Near the summit—which requires postholing through snow, followed by a slippery scramble over sandpapery dolerite boulders—the winds amp up to 50 miles per hour. We slip and slide to a hut at the base of Cradle Mountain to warm up with a cup of tea before hightailing it five miles back to the trailhead.

By the time we reach the Tasman Peninsula two days later, the sun is blazing. Just 90 minutes southeast of Hobart, the peninsula is home to Capes Hauy, Pillar, and Raoul, which rise hundreds of feet above the Tasman Sea and will be connected by the 40-mile Three Capes Track starting in the fall of 2015. We hike Hauy, then visit the gut-wrenching World Heritage prison site of Port Arthur. It looks like a Scottish castle grounds, with imposing sandstone facades surrounded by lush lawns and rosebushes. But it's the home of many past horrors, including the Separate Prison, a chamber of solitary confinement in which convicts weren't allowed to speak and were forced to wear masks. The goal was to break down the mind as well as the body, perhaps one of the reasons the freed prisoners would later fare so well in the wilderness.

Offshore, though, things get more fun. Knight sends me off on Rob Pennicott's 46-mile boat tour along the Tasman Peninsula. Fifteen years ago, the 48-year-old entrepreneur founded Pennicott Wilderness Journeys, a tour company that offers thrill rides in 43-seat rigid inflatables that can bash through the Tasman Sea to reach otherwise unreachable stretches of the coastline. Between the 1,000-foot stands of dolerite and the 20-foot ocean swells, the coastline looks like an impenetrable prison fortress. But it's impossible not to laugh out loud as the boat gyrates among dolphins, white-bellied sea eagles, albatross, a colony of seals, and a breaching humpback whale.

{%{"image":"","caption":"The Overland Track is designed to reduce human impact on the environment."}%}

Almost everyone I meet in Tasmania has conservation on his mind. "My dad worked for hydro, which dammed a lot of Tasmania, but I believe we have to have balance," Pennicott, who donates 25 percent of his company's profits to local environmental causes each year, told me when I met him in Hobart before the boat ride. "Economic development is important, but sustainability is everything."

The fact that I didn't contract giardia by drinking from the Franklin River sends shivers of hope for Tasmania down my spine. Before my odyssey with Knight ends, he shows me the eastern edge of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, the opposite side to where the Franklin flows. We drive 90 minutes southwest of Hobart, past the logging town of Geeveston, to the trailhead of Hartz Peak. In a few hours, we're at the 4,117-foot summit, a conical pile of dolerite. Despite the proximity to Hobart and it being a Sunday afternoon, we've seen only three other hikers. Directly east is civilization: a clear-cut forest and the pastoral orchards and vineyards of the Huon Valley. To the west, clouds roll in from the ocean like waves. There's snow on the ridges of the Western Arthurs, a line of jagged peaks that disappear in the fog. Somewhere out there, miles and miles beyond the mountains, is the free-flowing Franklin.

"There's no way into this wilderness except your feet," says Knight. "It's hard to believe there's not a Tasmanian tiger in there somewhere."

Contributing editor Stephanie Pearson wrote about Dave Kalama in October 2013.

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