The Outside Blog

Adventure : Nature

Why Did a Man Enter the Appalachian Trail and Never Leave?

Around noon on June 5, a sweaty man walked into the Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center near Dahlonega, Georgia, about 30 miles northeast of Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail. The man put his keys on the counter and told a clerk he’d pay her $200 if she’d watch his car.

How long will you be gone? she asked.

Four to six months, he said.

A few days later, hikers reported seeing a backpack in the middle of the AT, about a quarter mile from the Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center. It hadn’t been moved in days.

Local sheriff’s deputies fetched the pack and found brand new gear inside—hiking boots, a GoPro camera, a GPS system, tent, and a sleeping bag. They also found a wallet containing the driver’s license of a 50-year-old Wisconsin construction worker named Paul D. Paur.

Sergeant Darren Osborn of the Union County Sheriff’s Office tracked down Paur’s girlfriend outside Milwaukee. She told him Paur had suggested he was taking a sabbatical and had withdrawn $5,000 from the bank and split. She was frantically worried about his mental health.

“His girlfriend was very concerned,” Sergeant Osborn said. “He had prepared for a hike, but he just left it all behind. What made it even more strange was the $3,000 he left in his backpack.” 

Sheriff’s deputies launched a search for Paur and tacked “missing person” fliers to trees suggesting that Paur was possibly suicidal. 


In the following days, several hikers called the sheriff’s office to report seeing a northbound AT hiker wearing a T-shirt, khaki shorts, and flip-flops. The man was sleeping inside a trash bag, and he said he was walking the 2,000 miles to Maine’s Mount Katahdin. In Georgia, he was seen at Deep Gap on June 7 and at Plumorchard Gap on June 8. On June 10, he was sighted at the Standing Indian shelter, across the state line in North Carolina. One person who shared a shelter with Paur said he was reading the New Testament and talking about religion. 

“He was saying he was trying to find God,” Osborn said, “searching the pathway of the mountains.” 

Paur’s brother Richard joined the search from Wisconsin, calling AT hostels and state parks. A week ago, on June 17, Richard Paur said, someone saw his brother at North Carolina’s Wesser Bald, in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, roughly 100 trail miles from where he started.

“They sat around the fire and talked four or five hours,” Richard says. “They said he was carrying a black duffel bag with a few aluminum pots.” The hikers, concerned that Paur was unprepared, offered him about a week’s worth of food, which he willingly accepted. “My level of concern is to make sure he’s got what he needs,” Richard says. His brother is strong, weighs about 230 pounds, and is an avid hunter and fisherman.

Osborn still considers the missing person case open and he has contacted officials farther north. But law enforcement may not have any authority to force Paur off the trail, even if a recent report had him walking barefoot. 

“They could try to get him some help,” Osborn said. “If they feel like he’s mentally capable to continue on, they’ll let him.” 

Word of Paur’s unusual journey has spread through the trail community, and reactions have run the gamut. Some say Paur needs help if he’s mentally unstable. Others say he’s come to the right place to find what he’s looking for.

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Summer Camps for Grownups

You've styled your child with an enviable lineup of outdoor camps, slotted in some action-packed adventure festivals for the whole family. Now Mama (or Papa) needs a little solo play time. Fortunately it doesn't take much to recharge. All you need for DIY adventure is 36 hours and a multisport destination a couple hours' drive from home. Or let someone else do the planning and sign on with one of summer's best new guided retreats guaranteed to recapture the sweet freedom you took for granted before the kids came along. Sign up now for mid- to late-summer adventures, and you'll still have the time—and a fresh surge of energy—to pull off that family camping trip and set your little ones loose on spontaneous backyard adventures before school's back in session.


Run Wild Retreats

July 17-20; Aspen, Colorado
If you shy away from Strava, hate wearing a heart-rate-monitor, and just want to run well and feel great doing it, then this four-day holistic trail running retreat in the wilderness outside of Aspen is for you. Blending mindfulness practice, yoga for runners, and plant-based nutrition, the camp—led by running and health coach Elinor Fish—is a stellar primer on how to run mindfully for maximum health, for life. With daily guided trail runs ranging from four to 12 miles (no prior trail experience is necessary), cooking demos on how to fuel and recover with whole foods, yoga classes, and gait assessment, you'll come away with a new vision for how running smarter can increase your energy and reduce your stress, and feel good every time. $697; two-day mini retreat, $397.



River Rites


September 15-20; Cataract Canyon, Utah
Wilderness travel is transformative, but sometimes the epiphanies you have in the backcountry lose their focus as soon you get home. This six-day raft trip through Cataract Canyon, in Canyonlands National Park, is intended to be a modern-day rite of passage to help renew your sense of purpose, empower you to action in the world, release you from stagnation and make lasting change—for both the planet and also yourself.

"Traditional wilderness rites of passage were designed to knit together generations and to prepare for transitions in life," explains Stacy Peterson, a yoga instructor and hypnotherapist, who is co-leading the trip with an eco-psychologist and a climate justice activist. "Because we don't have these opportunities to mark transitions in our lives, we no longer take the time to slow down, deeply reflect, and reset the course of where we want to go."

The expedition through one of West's most stunning, and remote—and imperiled—river corridors incorporates daily yoga and meditation practice, cleansing food, as well as that most rare and restorative perk of all: silence. Out of range from cell phones and schedules, you'll hike into the iconic sandstone spires of the Doll House, in the remote Maze district of the park, and splash down Cataract's Class IV rapids, pulling out of your own busy life and immersing yourself deep into your own true nature. $1199.


Rio Chama Photo Workshop

August 22-26; Rio Chama, New Mexico
Ever wish you could take better photographs while in the backcountry? This five-day raft and photo expedition on the Rio Chama in northern New Mexico offers an intensive dose of both photography instruction and wilderness immersion. Led by The Santa Fe Photographic Workshops—widely regarded as the best in the country, now in its 25th year—the trip launches with a three-day, 33-mile float down the Wild & Scenic Rio Chama, the old stomping grounds of Georgia O'Keefe, Ansel Adams, and Elliot Porter. Under the tutelage of veteran lensman Tony Bonanno (and boatmen from New Mexico River Expeditions) you'll spend your days floating the Class II-III rapids, hiking to hot springs and slot canyons, and photographing the thousand-foot sandstone walls, the meandering high desert river, and the stately ponderosa that line the banks. Back at the Workshop's lab in Santa Fe for the final two days, learn the ins and outs of digital processing and printing on Adobe. You'll be all but guaranteed to come home with stellar expedition photos and the know-how to capture your next trip with equal aplomb. $995.



Make Friends with Fear Workshop

August 1-3; Hammondsport, New York
Former pro skier and Zen therapist Kristen Ulmer has been running Ski to Live camps each winter in Alta, Utah, and around the West for years. What she's discovered in her experience with mindset coaching is that "whether we realize it or not, fear runs everybody's life, even if you don't feel afraid." This three-day retreat at Red-Tail Overlook B+B in the Finger Lakes region is designed to help you change your relationship with fear, to stop treating it like a hindrance and turn it into an ally to create momentum and growth in your life—whether it's in sports, parenting, business, or creativity. Instead of making you walk over hot coals or dangle from high ropes courses ("we don't do that," assures Ulmer), she'll help clients shift into the next level of consciousness while hiking the rolling, wooded trails along Keuka Lake, facilitating creative role playing, and sharing ancient wisdom stories. If it sounds a little out there, the former champion athlete is one of the most respected sports mindset coaches in the field—she's the real deal. Says Ulmer, "If you turn fear into an asset, it will set you free." From $625; two-day fear camp in Salt Lake City, July 19-20, $190. 


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The Freedivers Who Eavesdrop on Whales

I’m in the passenger seat of a white van, on a dusty, potholed road somewhere along the northeastern coast of Sri Lanka. It’s 9:00 p.m. and the stars are out. “Is this the right way?” I ask our driver.

He’s a local named Bobby; that isn’t his real name, but that’s what he wants me to call him. Bobby is shaking his head and flashing me a reassuring smile. It’s the same smile he used ten minutes ago when he took a wrong turn into someone’s front yard, the same one he gave me twenty minutes before that when he brought the van to a dead stop in the middle of a two-lane freeway, stepped out into oncoming traffic, and ran across the street to ask a barefoot man on a bike for directions.

“Bobby? Is this the right way?” I repeat.

That smile.

Then Bobby suddenly pulls into a driveway. Through the headlights, it looks like we’ve just pulled into a junkyard. Twelve hours driving through steep mountain roads, jungles thick with elephants, and dusty towns filled with men in baggy slacks selling boiled peanuts and green bananas – and now this.


He pulls out of the driveway and takes a left. This road is narrower and bumpier. Bushes scrape the doors. The eyes of unknown animals glow from copses of coconut palms. A dog barks. Bats the size of rats flutter and swoop inches from the windshield.

Minutes later, we come to a stop in a barren sandlot. To the right is a creepy-looking, three-story pink-concrete building. A single, bare light bulb shines over a white plastic table on the patio, giving the scene an Edward Hopper feel. Bobby exhales, pulls the key from the ignition, and smiles. We’ve arrived at our destination, he says: the Pigeon Island View Guesthouse.

{%{"quote":"Of the twenty or so sperm whale scientists in the field, none dive, film, or interact with their subjects. Schnöller finds this inconceivable. “How do you study sperm whale behavior without seeing them behave, without seeing them communicate?”"}%}

That evening, after days of air travel from five different points of the globe, the whale search party has gathered and we are all sitting together around the patio table. On one side sits the expedition leader, Fabrice Schnöller, and Guy Gazzo, a 74-year-old freediving legend, both from Reunion Island, a French outpost located 400 miles east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Across the table is South Africa national-record holding freediver, Hanli Prinsloo, and her aquatic he-man boyfriend, a world-champion swimmer from Los Angeles named Peter Marshall. Belgian photographer, Jean-Marie Ghislain, sits next to Prinsloo. Ghislain tells the group that he has just returned from a trip in Botswana to swim with crocodiles. The trip ended after the first day when a team member had his arm eaten off.


Thirty years ago to the week an American film crew came to this spot – Trincomalee, Sri Lanka — and captured the first footage of sperm whales in their natural habitat. The resulting film, Whales Weep Not, narrated by Jason Robards, became an international sensation and helped spark the Save the Whales movement.

Schnöller and his crew hope to have a similar impact by capturing the first 3-D footage of sperm whales and human-and-whale freediving interactions which Schnöller will use an upcoming documentary. We'll also be recording audio data for a group of researchers in France who are trying to decipher the sperm whale click language.

But for any of this to work we’ll first need to find some whales.

Schnöller, who is 45 years old and wears an uncombed swatch of short gray hair and oversize multicolored shorts, first swam with sperm whales in 2007. He was sailing with a friend from his home in Reunion to neighboring Mauritius, when a pod approached the boat. Schnöller grabbed a mask, snorkel, and fins, and jumped in. Within a half hour the pod surrounded him. Then they oriented their bodies vertically, like obelisks, and stared up with wide eyes. They began echolocating his body; Schnöller could feel their echolocation vocalizations, called clicks, penetrate his flesh and vibrate through his bones, his chest cavity. The whales stayed with him for two hours.

Six months after the encounter, Schnöller sold his lumber store and dedicated his life to trying to understand these animals. He built his own A/V equipment to record sperm whale behavior and communication. He enlisted some of the foremost marine scientists to help him crack their “hidden language.”

In the five years since he began, Schnöller and his team — none of whom have had any formal research experience or even hold scientific degrees — have collected the largest database of sperm whale behavior and vocalizations in history.


What's given them such intimate and immediate access is that they are the only researchers in the field willing to swim with whales. More specifically, they are the only researchers freediving to -40 feet and below, then swimming in whales' deep-sea turf.

“Jane Goodall didn’t study apes from a plane,” said Schnöller. “And so you can’t expect to study the ocean and its animals from a classroom. You’ve got to get in there. You’ve got to get wet.” Schnöller’s renegade band believes that the only way to crack the sperm whale language code, and to truly understand these animals, is by diving with them face-to-face.

This balls-to-the-wall approach puts traditional ocean scientists at a disadvantage. No university or institution would permit its employees to motor miles out to sea in a beat-up boat off the coast of a developing country to swim with sperm whales, which can grow up to 125,000 pounds and 60 feet in length and are the largest predators on Earth. And, freediving isn’t a course offered with most ocean-based PhD’s. Few students would want to take the course if it were. Freediving requires months to years of training to master. And if all the training is successful, it would only bring researchers within chomping distance of the four dozen seven-inch-long teeth that line the sperm whale mouth.

Not getting crushed, drowned, or eaten by sperm whales is only one of the challenges of studying them. Another is actually finding the animals. Sperm whales migrate from the north and south poles towards the warmer waters along the equator every summer. If you're lucky enough to see a pod, chances are you’ll never get close enough to dive with them. Schnöller predicts he sees sperm whales about 1 percent of the time he’s at sea looking for them; he’ll dive with them about 1 percent of the time he sees them. In other words, this is hard work with few rewards. It’s made even harder by the fact that most countries with coastlines prohibit swimming with sperm whales.

In late 2012, Schnöller heard that huge pods of sperm whales were congregating off the coast off Trincomalee, a Podunk town along the northeast coast of Sri Lanka. In fact, the whales were regulars in this spot. They've come each spring to hunt, socialize, and mate in the Trincomalee Canyon, an eight-thousand-foot-deep chasm that stretches twenty-five miles across the Indian Ocean, from the northern tip of the country into the Trincomalee harbor. They've come here each spring from around March through August for as long as anyone can remember, and probably for millions of years before that.

Best of all, researching sperm whales in these waters was easy — there are no permits required, no authorities to evade, no cruise ships, no recreational swimmers or divers, no whale-watching industry to speak of. Over the course of a few months in 2012 and 2013, Schnöller shook loose enough funding to send him and a team of expert freedivers to the Trincomalee Canyon for a ten-day expedition in March 2013. He asked if I wanted to come along.

Our first two days treading the Trincomalee Canyon are a disaster. We spend them in two tiny, shadeless fishing boats juddering around the ocean without seeing any whales. The film crew’s cameraman gets seasick the first day and refuses to go back out. Without a cameraman, and still without any usable footage, the documentary director threatens to pull the plug on the documentary.

On the evening of the second day, I meet Schnöller on the second-story patio. He’s sitting alone, haloed in mosquitoes. The blue fluorescent beam of a headlamp shines down on a table filled with half-assembled underwater-camera casings. Behind him, a waxing moon hangs low over a tinseled sea.

“This is very hard work, you see,” he says, looking up as I take a seat at the table. He’s wearing an American flag headband and knockoff Facebook sandals that he picked up at a junk store on the way here, and he looks as ridiculous as that description makes him sound. “Ocean research takes patience, lots of patience, persistence, and is very physically exhausting.”

Schnöller grew up in the west African nation of Gabon, the son of a former French army lieutenant who worked for then dictator Omar Bongo. The family’s house was located beneath a canopy of mango trees at the shoreline of an unpopulated beach, which was where Schnöller spent much of his youth. He told me earlier how he remembered watching crocodiles from a nearby river crawl up the front porch and eat food from the dog bowl. Sometimes while the family was eating dinner, giant mambas would slide in through wooden planks in the roof and drop down on the dining-room table. Schnöller’s father kept a shotgun close by, and after a few years, the roof was peppered with holes.

On weekends, Schnöller would sail along Gabon’s wild coast and make camp on unexplored islands. He learned how to navigate through the ocean’s many moods, keep cool in crises, and improvise his way out of trouble. He learned to be patient.

“There are no fast results in this research,” he says. “That’s why so few people bother doing it.”

Actually, he corrects himself, nobody is doing it.

Of the twenty or so sperm whale scientists in the field, none dive, film, or interact with their subjects. Schnöller finds this inconceivable. “How do you study sperm whale behavior without seeing them behave, without seeing them communicate?” He’s convinced that to understand sperm whales, one must first understand their communication, and to understand their communication, one needs to understand their language, which he believes is transmitted through clicks.

The idea that sperm whales and other cetaceans (dolphins, belugas, orcas, etc) share some form of sophisticated communication is not a New Age theory, and it's not as nuts as it sounds.

At 17 pounds, the sperm whale has brains that are five times the size of ours; it's the largest brain ever to have know to have existed on Earth. The sperm whale's neocortex, which governs higher-level functions in humans such as conscious thought, future planning, and language, is estimated to be about six times larger than ours. Sperm whales also have spindle cells, the long and highly developed brain structures that neurologists have long associated with speech and feelings of compassion, love, suffering, and intuition — those things that make humans human. Sperm whales not only have spindle cells, but they had them in far greater concentration than humans. Furthermore, scientific evidence suggest that they evolved them more than 15 million years before us. In the realm of brain evolution, 15 million years is a very long time.

Sperm whales are the loudest animals on earth. Their vocalizations are loud enough to be heard several hundred miles away, and possibly around the globe. At their maximum level of 236 decibels, these clicks are louder than two thousand pounds of TNT exploding two hundred feet away from you, and much louder than the space shuttle taking off from two hundred and fifty feet away. Sperm whale clicks could not only blow out human eardrums from hundreds of feet away, but vibrate a human body to pieces. The extraordinary power of clicks lets whales use them to perceive an intimately detailed view of their environment from great distances. They can detect a ten-inch-long squid at a distance of more than a thousand feet and a human from more than a mile away. Sperm whales’ echolocation is the most precise and powerful form of biosonar ever discovered.

Not only are sperm whale vocalizations extremely loud; they are also incredibly organized. They sound unremarkable to the human ear — something like the tack-tack-tack of a few dozen typewriters — but when slowed down and viewed as a sound wave on a spectrogram, clicks, which range in length from 24 o 72 milliseconds (thousands of a second), reveal an incredibly complex collection of shorter clicks woven within them. Inside one click is a series of smaller clicks, inside those smaller clicks yet even smaller clicks, and so on, each unfolding like a Russian nesting doll.

Sperm whales transmit these clicks at very specific and distinct frequencies, and can replicate them down to the exact millisecond and frequency, over and over again. They can control the millisecond-long intervals inside the clicks and reorganize them into different structures, in the same way a composer might revise a scale of notes in a piano concerto. But sperm whales can make elaborate revisions to their click patterns then play them back in the space of a few thousands of a second.

“These patterns are very structured; this is not random,” says Schnöller, taking a sip of beer. The only reason sperm whales would have such incredibly complex vocalizations, Schnöller suggests, is if they were using them in some form of communication.

Schnöller isn’t alone. Most marine biologists believe that sperm whales are in fact communicating through their clicks. They just have no idea what they’re saying. Schnöller hopes to be the first.

{%{"quote":"Sperm whale echolocation, even from miles beneath the ocean’s surface, is strong enough to vibrate five feet of wood and make an audible clicking sound. It sounds like a signal from another world, which, in a way, is precisely what it is. I get chills listening to it."}%}

“When you think about it, human language is very inefficient, it is very prone to errors,” Schnöller says. Humans use phonemes—basic units of sound, like kah, puh, ah, tee—to create words, sentences, and, ultimately, meaning. (English has about forty-two phonemes, which speakers shuffle around to create tens of thousands of words.) While we can usually convey phonemes clearly enough for others to understand them, we can never fully replicate them the same way each time we speak. The frequency, volume, and clarity of the voice shifts constantly, so that the same word uttered twice in a row by the same person will usually sound discernibly different, and will always show clear differences when viewed on a computer. Comprehension in human language is based on proximity: If you enunciate clearly enough, another speaker of the same language will understand you; if you bungle too many vowels and consonants, or even pronunciation (think of French or a tonal Asian language), then communication is lost.

Schnöller’s research suggests that sperm whales don’t have this problem. If they’re using these clicks as a form of communication, he believes, it would be less like human language and more like fax-machine transmissions, which work by sending out microsecond-length tones across a phone line to a receiving machine, which processes those tones into words and pictures. (Perhaps it’s no coincidence that a pod of socializing sperm whales sounds a lot like a fax transmission.)

Human language is analogue; sperm whale language may be digital.

“Why do they have such huge brains, why are these patterns so consistent and perfectly organized, if they aren’t some kind of communication?” Schnöller asks rhetorically. He mentions that sperm whales have more brain mass and brain cells controlling language than humans do. “I know, I know, this is all just theory, but still, when you think about it, it just doesn’t make sense otherwise.”


To illustrate his point, Schnöller relates an encounter he had the previous year with a pod of sperm whales. The pod whales, both adults and their young, were hanging out in the water, clicking and socializing, when Schnöller approached them with a camera attached to a bodysurfing board. A calf swam over and faced Schnöller, then took the camera in its mouth. A group of adults immediately surrounded the calf and showered it with clicks. Seconds later, the calf let the camera go, then backed up and retreated behind the adults without ever looking at them. To Schnöller, the young whale looked ashamed. “It got the message not to mess with us.” He laughs. “That’s when I knew, they had to be talking to it. There’s just no other way.”

Schnöller says he’s also witnessed, on numerous occasions, two sperm whales clicking back and forth to each other as if they were having a conversation. He’s seen other whales pass clicks and then suddenly move in the same direction. He’s watched a whale bend its head in exaggerated motions to face one whale head-on and pass one pattern of clicks, and then bend in another direction to face another whale and pass a completely different pattern. To Schnöller, it all looked like they were talking.


But neither Schnöller nor anyone else will be translating the cetacean language anytime soon. It’s too complicated, and both resources and personnel are too scarce to study it closely. The DareWin team has come here to collect data in the hope of simply proving that sperm whales use clicks as some form of communication. They’ll record as much sperm whale socializing as they can, then correlate coda clicks with specific behaviors. The crazy-looking pod at Schnöller’s feet, called a SeaX Sense 4-D, uses a underwater-camera housing with twelve minicameras and four hydrophones to document the sperm whale interactions in high-definition audio and video, in all directions at once.

Nobody has ever recorded sperm whale interactions and behaviors with such sensitive equipment before, because no such equipment had existed. And even if it had, academic and institutional scientists couldn’t get in the water to use it because none freedives with whales. Schnöller and his crew are allowed such intimate access to whales because they approach them in their natural, most unthreatening forms, by freediving with them. The whales don’t scare off, they don’t swim away, and they don’t attack. They become curious. Often, the whales welcome him and other freedivers into their pods and try to communicate with them.

At seven in the morning on the third day, the boat captains arrive and lead us back to our hired beat-up “research vessels — two decades-old pangas with wooden planks for seats.”


I’ll be on a boat with Hanli Prinsloo, Peter Marshall, and Jean-Marie Ghislain. The plan is for the two boats to head out together, several miles off the coast, to a spot in Trincomalee Canyon where the seafloor drops off to a depth of more than six thousand feet. From there, we’ll split up and look for whales. Should someone on either boat spot any, he’ll use a mobile phone to alert the other boat. We’ll then trail the whales, wait for them to slow down or stop, and then get in the water.

We pack up, squeeze in, and set off south toward the horizon, our rickety craft riding low in the water. Hours later, we're tweny miles off the coast, floating in a dead-calm sea. Still, no whales.

“There were just so many out here last year,” Prinsloo says, who had travelled here last year and had a half-dozen whale encounters. She’s curled up in a sheet wet with seawater and sweat, leaning against Peter Marshall. Both of them are wearing T-shirts around their faces, so only the lenses of their sunglasses peep through. “I don’t know,” Prinsloo laments. “I don’t know what happened.”

Ghislain, the photographer who told us the unfortunate crocodile tale earlier in the week, wipes his sweaty palms against his T-shirt. He emits an exaggerated sigh, takes a sip of water, and turns to stare into the open ocean. A minute becomes an hour; an hour becomes two. I check my dive watch: the temperature gauge reads 106. Even my fingers are sunburned.

The notion of all of us trying to arrange a peaceful encounter with whales is bit ironic, given the way humankind has treated them for centuries.

According to legend, in 1712, an American ship captained by Christopher Hussey was hunting right whales off the southern coast of Nantucket Island when a gale suddenly blew the vessel dozens of miles south, beyond sight of land, to a barren stretch of deep water in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The crew struggled to regain control of ship and were readying the mast to tack back to shore when they noticed columns of mist shooting up at odd angles from the water’s surface. Then they heard heavy, heaving exhalations. They had floated into a pod of whales. Hussey ordered the men to draw lances and harpoons and stab the whale closest to the ship. They killed it, tied it to the side of the boat, fitted the mast, and sailed back to Nantucket, then dropped the whale’s body on a south-facing beach.

This was no right whale. Hussey knew that the mouths of right whales are filled with baleen, a hairlike substance used in filtering out krill and small fish. The whale he had just caught had enormous teeth, several inches long, and a single nostril on top of its head. The bones of its flippers looked eerily like those of a human hand. Hussey and his crew cut open the whale’s head, and hundreds of gallons of thick, straw-colored oil oozed out. The oil must be sperm, they thought (wrongly); this strange whale must be carrying its “seed” within its oversize head. Hussey named it spermaceti (Greek sperma, “seed”; Latin cetus, “whale”). The English version of the name took hold: sperm whale.

From that point forward, the sperm whale was screwed.

By the mid-1700s, whale ships had flocked to Nantucket to join a thriving industry. Sperm whale oil, the straw-colored seed taken from the whale’s head, turned out to be an efficient and clean-burning fuel for everything from streetlamps to lighthouses. In its congealed form, it made top-quality candles, cosmetics, machine lubricants, and waterproofing agents. The Revolutionary War was fueled by sperm whale oil.

By the 1830s, more than 350 ships and 10,000 sailors were hunting sperm whales. Twenty years later, those numbers would double. Nantucket was processing more than five thousand sperm whale corpses a year and reaping upwards of twelve million gallons of oil. (A single whale could yield five hundred or more gallons of spermaceti; oil from boiled blubber could produce about twice that amount.)

But hunting the world’s largest predator didn’t come without dangers.

Whalers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were attacked regularly. The most famous incident occurred in 1820. The Nantucket whale ship Essex was off the coast of South America, its crew hunting whales, when they were rammed twice by a charging bull. The ship was lost. A crew of twenty men escaped in smaller boats and drifted off into the open ocean.

Nine weeks later, still drifting, the crew was close to starvation. Following maritime custom, the men drew lots to see who would be eaten. The captain’s cousin, a seventeen-year-old named Owen Coffin, was chosen. Coffin put his head on the side of the boat; another man pulled the trigger of a gun. “He was soon dispatched,” wrote the captain, “and nothing of him left.”

Ninety-five days later, the boat was rescued. There were two survivors: the captain and the man who had pulled the trigger. The harrowing tale served as the basis for Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick and, more recently, Nathaniel Philbrick’s nonfiction bestseller In the Heart of the Sea.

As sperm whale stocks decreased in the ocean near Nantucket, and whalers had to search farther away, the cost of oil increased. Meanwhile, a Canadian geologist named Abraham Gesner invented a method of distilling kerosene from petroleum. This process produced a substance close to whale oil in quality, but much cheaper. In the 1860s, the whale-oil industry collapsed.

The discovery of petroleum sounds like a death knell for whaling, but ultimately, this new cheap fuel would hasten the sperm whale’s destruction.

In the 1920s, new diesel-powered ships could process whale bodies so quickly and easily that whaling become profitable again. Sperm whale oil became a primary ingredient in brake fluid, glue, and lubricants. It was used to make soap, margarine, and lipstick and other cosmetics. The whale’s muscles and guts were mashed up and processed into pet food and tennis-racket strings. (If you own a top-quality wooden tennis racket made between 1950 and 1970, chances are it was strung with the sinew of sperm whales.)

Whaling went global. From the 1930s to 1980s, Japan alone killed 260,000 sperm whales—about 20 percent of the total population.

By the early 1970s, an estimated 60 percent of the ocean’s sperm whale population had been hunted, and the species was nearing extinction. While the world had grown proficient at hunting sperm whales, the whales themselves were a complete mystery. No one knew how they communicated or socialized; no one even knew what they ate. They had never been filmed underwater.

The documentary Whales Weep Not, which was seen by millions of people in the 1980s, offered the public the first view of sperm whales in their natural habitat. Sperm whales seemed far from the image handed down by history and literature. They were not surly brutes munching boats and men but gentle, friendly, even welcoming. The global antiwhaling movement gained support throughout the early 1980s and eventually ended all commercial whaling by 1986.

The general increase in awareness of the sperm whale’s intelligence and human-like behavior has not deterred some countries from trying to hunt them again. As of 2010, Japan, Iceland, and Norway have been pressuring the International Whaling Commission to end its thirty-year moratorium on whaling. Schnöller and other researchers predict the moratorium could be lifted as soon as 2016, and hunting of sperm whales could again become legal.

Sperm whales have the lowest reproductive rate of any mammal; females give birth to a single calf once every four to six years. The current sperm whale population is estimated at about 360,000, down from approximately 1.2 million just two hundred years ago, where it probably hovered for tens of thousands of years before whaling began. Nobody knows for sure, but many researchers fear the population has been declining once more. Continued hunting could significantly decrease the population for generations and eventually push sperm whales back toward extinction.

Back on the boat, another hour passes. And another. I check the thermometer on my dive watch and notice the temperature has climbed to 109.

Then, suddenly, an electronic chirp blasts from the back of the boat. It’s Schnöller, calling our captain’s cell phone. The DareWin team has just spotted a pod of sperm whales near the Trincomalee harbor. Schnöller says the whales have probably been there the whole time; we just hadn’t been far enough out to spot them. They’re following slowly behind the pod, waiting for an opportunity to get in.

The captain starts the motor and we shoot south.

“You see the ploofs?” says Prinsloo, pointing east at the horizon. What look like little mushroom clouds shoot from the surface at a 45-degree angle. A sperm whale has only one external nostril, which is located on the left side of its head and causes its exhales to emerge at an angle. These distinctive blows can go about twelve feet high, and on a windless and clear day, they’re visible for a mile or more.

“They look like dandelions, don’t they!” says Prinsloo. Three hundred yards to our right, another blow erupts.

“Get your mask,” she says.

Our team has agreed to put only two people in the water at any one time, to avoid scaring off the whales. I’m on the first shift. The captain turns and pulls parallel to the pod so that we’re a few hundred feet in front of them.

“You can never chase down a whale,” Prinsloo explains as she yanks off the sheet and grabs her fins. “They always need to choose to come to you.” If we move slowly in predictable motions, just in front of the whales’ path, they can easily echolocate the boat and get comfortable with our presence. If they’re disturbed by us, they’ll take a deep breath and disappear beneath the surface. We’ll never see them again.

As the boat edges closer, the whales still haven’t dived—a good sign. Prinsloo says it’s not a full pod, just a mother and calf. Another good sign. Calves get curious around freedivers, and their mothers, in Prinsloo’s experience, encourage them to investigate.

Both whales are four hundred feet from the boat when they slow down, almost to a stop. Our captain cuts the motor. Prinsloo nods to me; I pull on my fins, mask, and snorkel, and we quietly submerge.

“Take my hand,” she says. “Now, follow.” Breathing through our snorkels with our faces just below the surface, we kick out toward the whales. Today, the visibility is mediocre, about a hundred feet. We can’t see the whales in the water, but we can certainly hear them. The blows grow louder and louder. Then the clicking begins; it sounds like a playing card stuck in the moving spokes of a bicycle. The water starts vibrating.

Prinsloo tugs my arm, trying to get me to hurry up. She pops her head above the surface for a moment and stops. I stick my head up and see a mound a hundred feet in front of us, like a black sun sinking on the horizon. The clicking grows louder. The mound pops up from the surface again, then disappears. The whales leave; we don’t see them depart. But we can hear them beneath the water, their blows softening as they drift off. The waters calm, the clicks slow like a clock winding down. And they’re gone.


Prinsloo lifts her head and faces me. “Whale,” she says. I nod, smiling, take the snorkel out of my mouth, and begin to tell her how incredible the experience was. Then she shakes her head and points behind me.

“No. Whale.”

The mother and calf have returned. They’re stopped and are facing us in the other direction, a hundred and fifty feet away. The clicking starts again. It’s louder than it was before. I instinctively kick toward the whales, but Prinsloo grabs my hand.

“Don’t swim, don’t move,” she whispers. “They’re watching us.”

The clicks now sound like jackhammers on pavement. These are echolocation clicks; the whales are scanning us inside and out. We watch from the surface as they exhale. With a kick of their flukes, they lunge toward us.

“Listen,” Prinsloo says urgently. She grabs me by the shoulder and looks directly at me. “You need to set the right intention now. They can sense your intent.” I know how dangerous human-whale interactions can be, but I strive to set my fear aside, calm myself, and think good thoughts.

Behind Prinsloo, the whales approach, hissing and blowing steam like two locomotives. “Trust this moment,” she says. The whales are a hundred feet, seventy-five feet away. Prinsloo grips my hand. “Trust this moment,” she repeats, and she pulls me a few feet beneath the surface.

A hazy black mass materializes in the distance, growing larger and darker, like a drop of ink on a paper towel. Details emerge. A fin. A gaping mouth. A patch of white. An eye, sunk low on a knotted head, peers in our direction. The mother is the size of a school bus; her calf, a short bus. They look like landmasses, submerged islands. Prinsloo squeezes my hand and I squeeze back.

The whales approach us head-on. Then, thirty feet from colliding with us, pull softly to the side and languorously veer left. The rhythm of the clicks shifts; the water fills with what sounds to me like coda clicks. I believe they are identifying themselves to us. The calf floats just in front of its mother, bobs its head slightly, and stares with an unblinking eye. Its mouth is turned up at the end, like it’s smiling. The mother wears the same expression; all sperm whales do.

They keep their gaze upon us as they pass within a dozen feet of our faces, shower us with clicks, then retreat slowly back into the shadows. The coda clicks turn to echolocation clicks, then the echolocation fades, and the ocean, once again, falls silent.

Trying to save and study sperm whales is not without dangers either.

One of my companions tells me about a freediver-whale encounter in the Azores, off the west coast of Africa. After more than an hour of friendly contact and observation, a young bull approached and apparently got jealous. The bull turned and shot the freediver with clicks that left the man with hours of debilitating pain in his stomach and chest. (Long term, he suffered no ill effects.)

Schnöller told me a similar story. He was diving with sperm whales in 2011 when a curious calf approached and started bumping him with its nose. Schnöller held out his hand to push the calf back and felt a sudden shock of heat rush up his arm. The energy from the clicks coming out of the calf’s nose was strong enough to paralyze Schnöller’s hand for the next few hours. He too recovered.

Prinsloo and Ghislain had their share of close calls in Trincomalee last year. After spending hours in the water with a pod, a bull approached Ghislain at a fast clip. Prinsloo motioned to Ghislain to get out of the way. Just then, the bull turned, raised his twelve-foot fluke above the surface, spun it, and slapped it down. If Ghislain hadn’t moved, his head would have been crushed. Prinsloo and Ghislain claimed the fluke slap was possibly a playful interaction, not meant to harm. But when you’re in the water with an animal five hundred times your weight and ten times your size, such play can be fatal.

The fact is that nobody—not Prinsloo, Schnöller, or Buyle—really knows how risky these kinds of encounters are. Up until ten years ago, Schnöller told me earlier, nobody was diving with whales.

“Everyone thought it was too dangerous,” said Schnöller. Today, only a handful of divers attempt it, and most have had their share of narrow escapes.

Few people — and no other researchers — would dare risk their careers — and lives — to dive with these animals.

Luke Rendell, a sperm whale researcher at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, told me in an e-mail that Schnöller’s research approach looked like “a pile of hokum” and was probably a “pretty flimsy scientific cover to go swimming with whales.” His team was perfectly capable of “collecting data without freediving with the animals, thank you.” To be fair, Rendell said he welcomed more researchers to the field, but he thought the DareWin’s website looked suspiciously like pseudoscience.

Schnöller brushes off the criticism as “normal scientist reaction.” And he’s finding legitimacy with partnerships with researchers at the University of Paris and other oceanographic institutions. “This will all be official, it will all be scientific,” he says.

Institutional scientists study sperm whale communication by recording clicks with a hydrophone from the deck of the boat, without ever knowing which whale is clicking and why. One of the longest-running sperm whale research programs is the Dominica Sperm Whale Project, headed by Hal Whitehead. The group studies sperm whale behavior by, among other things, following pods around and snapping photographs of flukes when the whales come up for air.

Meanwhile, last year Schnöller had a face-to-face encounter with five sperm whales that lasted three hours. The entire dive was documented in three-dimensional video and high-definition audio and is, to date, the longest and most detailed footage of sperm whales ever recorded.

Schnöller insists he’s not trying to subvert the scientific system—he wants to work within it—he is simply trying to speed up the collection of data, which, at the institutional level, happens at a glacial pace. For Schnöller, and perhaps for the whales, that pace may be too slow.

If hunters don’t eradicate sperm whales, pollution might. Since the 1920s, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), carcinogenic chemicals used in the manufacture of electronics, have slowly seeped into the world’s oceans and, in some areas, reached toxic levels. For an animal to be processed as food, it must contain less than 2 parts per million of PCBs. Any animals that contains 50 ppm of PCBs must, by law, be considered toxic waste and be disposed of in an appropriate facility.

Dr. Roger Payne, an ocean conservationist, analyzed sea life for PCBs and found that orcas had about 400 parts per million of PCBs—eight times the toxic limit. He found beluga whales with 3,200 ppm of PCBs, and bottle-nosed dolphins with 6,800 ppm. All of these animals were, according to Payne, “mobile Superfund sites.” Nobody knows how much more pollution (PCBs, mercury, and other chemicals) whales and other oceanic animals can absorb before they start dying off en masse.

Payne and other researchers point to the baiji dolphin, a freshwater native of China’s Yangtze River, as a possible portent of the sperm whale’s fate. Considered one of the most intelligent of all dolphin species, the baiji dolphin has become functionally extinct due to pollution and other manmade disturbances. (At last count, there were about three baiji dolphins left.)

For Schnöller, sperm whale research isn't recreation; he doesn't spend months away from his family, using his own money, just to go “swimming with whales.” He's in a race to understand these animals before humans wipe them off from the face of the Earth.

On the fourth day, the film crew leaves. The cameraman had been violently seasick since the first day and refused to spend another ten hours motoring around in a rickety boat. The director, Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee, was exhausted.

“You never told me it would be this hard,” said Vaughan-Lee when I’d talked with him the previous night. He was scratching his bald, sunburned knees beside the patio table. I had warned him, repeatedly, but the point was moot. He told me he’d decided to cut his losses and take the next flight home to San Francisco.

They left a day too soon.

That morning, the remaining team of seven, plus the hired boat hands, cram into a single boat designed for half our number. With the motor coughing and wheezing, we head south. Hours later, we’re fifteen miles from the coast and idling over the deep water of Trincomalee Canyon again. Schnöller checks his GPS, putting us near where they saw the whales yesterday.

“Turn the motor off. I listen for them,” he says. From the bow of the boat, he grabs a sawed-off broomstick with a metal pasta strainer tied to the end. He inserts a small hydrophone into the center of the strainer and drops the whole contraption into the water, then puts on a pair of ratty headphones.

This strange device, which is wired to an amplifier, works like an antenna to home in on sperm whale clicks. By spinning the strainer around, Schnöller can determine what direction they’re coming from. Frequency and volume give him an idea of how deep the whales might be.

“They sell these to institutions for fifteen hundred euro,” he says, laughing. “I make mine from junk, and it works just as good.” Click Research, a new oceanographic manufacturing company he’s now building, will offer a version that works as well as the institutional model for only $350.

Schnöller puts the headphones over my head and hands me the broomstick. “What do you hear?” he asks. I tell him I hear static. Schnöller cups the headphones tightly over my ears. “Now listen. What do you hear?

He takes the broomstick from my hands and spins the strainer slowly around below the surface. Through the static, I begin to hear a syncopated rhythm, like distant tribal drums. I tell Schnöller to stop moving the strainer. Everyone on the boat falls silent. The rhythm speeds up and grows higher in pitch, the patterns overlapping. What I’m hearing isn’t drums, of course, but the echolocation clicks of sperm whales hunting in the deep-water canyon miles beneath our boat.

Schnöller grabs the headphones and passes them around the boat. Everyone is entranced. A boat hand listens for a moment, then passes the headphones back to Schnöller. He gingerly walks to the bow and picks up a worn, wooden oar, then dips the paddle in the water and sticks the end of the handle in his ear.

He explains in stilted English that this was how Sri Lankan fishermen used to listen for whales hundreds of years ago. Sperm whale echolocation, even from miles beneath the ocean’s surface, is strong enough to vibrate five feet of wood and make an audible clicking sound. I give it a try and hear a faint tick-tick-tick. It sounds like a signal from another world, which, in a way, is precisely what it is. I get chills listening to it.

Schnöller puts the headphones on and spins the strainer dexterously. He tells us the whales will switch from making echolocation clicks to codas as they ascend. By listening to these subtle shifts in click patterns, and the volume and clarity of the clicks, he has taught himself to predict the location and moment that the whales will surface, with startling accuracy. I ask him: How accurate? Then he demonstrates.

“They are two kilometers that way,” he says, pointing west. “They are coming up. They will be here in two minutes.” We sit, staring westward. “Thirty seconds...” he says. “They are moving to the east, and... right...”

Exactly on cue, a pod of five whales surfaces about fifteen hundred feet from our boat, each exhaling a magnificent blow. He grins, obviously proud of himself, takes off the headphones, and throws the strainer and broomstick in the bow. I give him a high-five. The boat captain looks dumbfounded.

“Okay, now,” says Schnöller. “Who wants to go in?”

After dinner, Schnöller, Gazzo, and Ghislain are sitting around the patio table going over the day’s footage. The clips are hypnotizing. Each of us had short encounters with half a dozen different whales. Schnöller and Gazzo recorded the interactions in 3-D high-definition video. He says this is the first time some of these behaviors have been documented at such at close range. The most impressive footage, he says, comes from the dive that Guy Gazzo and I took at the beginning of the day.

A pod of about five whales turned and approached our boat. Schnöller told me to grab my mask and follow Gazzo, who was carrying the 3-D camera, into the water. At first the whales were moving away from the boat, but as we swam out farther they changed direction to meet us face to face. Some two hundred feet in front of us, a shadow expanded, then separated into two forms—two enormous whales, perhaps thirty-five feet long. One whale, a bull, came directly at us but then unexpectedly spun around so that its belly was facing us. We couldn’t see its eyes or the top of its head. As it approached, it dove just beneath our fins and let out a rapid burst of coda clicks so powerful that I could feel them in my chest and skull. The bull, still upside down, released a plume of black feces, like a smoke screen, and disappeared. The entire encounter lasted less than thirty seconds.

Schnöller boots up the video on his laptop and plays it back for me. This time, he turns up the volume on his laptop speakers.

“You hear that?” he says, then reverses the video again, and again. I listen closely. The clicks sound harsh and violent, like machine-gun fire. “That’s not a coda.” Schnöller laughs. He plays the clicks back again. “And he’s not talking to you.”

What Gazzo and I heard and felt was a creak—the echolocation click train that sperm whales use when they’re homing in on prey. The whale flipped on its back so it could process the echolocation clicks more easily in its upper jaw, much as a human might cock his head to focus on a sound. Schnöller plays the video again and again, laughing.

“He was looking at you to see if he could eat you!” he says. “Lucky for you, I guess you didn’t look too delicious.”

But this brings up a question I’ve had ever since we first boarded the boats. Why didn’t they eat us? We’re certainly easy prey.

Schnöller believes that, when the whales echolocate our bodies, they perceive that we have hair, big lungs, a large brain—a combination of characteristics they don’t see in the ocean. Perhaps they recognize that we’re fellow mammals, that we have the potential for intelligence. If this theory is correct, then sperm whales are smarter than us in one crucial way: they see the similarities between our two species more readily than we do.

He then brings up another file on his computer, a ten-second audio loop he recorded with the hydrophones earlier in the day. He clicks Play.

“Well?” He looks at me. I tell him the only thing I hear is distant echolocation clicks, which sound like random emanations from a drum machine. He orders me to put on his headphones, turns up the volume, and blasts me with what sounds like an enormous bomb exploding from miles away.

“I think this is something big,” he says. I ask him if the hydrophone just bumped into the side of the boat. “No, impossible,” he says. “This is something important. I promise you, this is big.”

Excerpted from James Nestor's DEEP: Freediving Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves (An Eamon Dolan Book/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Available Tuesday, June 24, 2014.

On June 23, 2014, Schnöller took his sperm whale research public. He launched a crowd-funding campaign, called THINK!, to raise funds for four sperm whale research expeditions over the next year. High-level contributors to the campaign will be able to join the expeditions at research points around the globe—Oman, Sri Lanka, Guadaloupe, and more—and swim face-to-face with sperm whales as Schnöller and his crew document the encounters. All proceeds go to sperm whale research, specifically, to cracking the cetacean language code.

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Top 8 Ultra-Long Distance Adventure Runs

Trail-running is exploding in popularity, and for good reason. What’s not to like about a sport that requires virtually no equipment—except (maybe) shorts and trail running shoes—and allows you to explore vast mountain ranges and terrain that most people will never experience? Even better, our country has some of the most beautiful and remote lines in the world.

Here are our picks for the best long-distance adventure trail-running routes in the country.

Wonderland Trail

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Mount Rainier National Park, Washington (93 miles, 24,000 feet of ascent)

It doesn’t get much better than running around the crown jewel of the Pacific Northwest, 14,410-foot Mount Rainier. The active volcano is the most glaciated peak in the contiguous United States. Phase change is visibly and audibly evident as you cross over sculpted valleys and moraines along the 93-mile Wonderland Trail. The 360-degree view of Mount Rainier starts at Longmire Visitor Center traveling counter-clockwise to Mowich Lake, then White River Campground before arriving back at Longmire. These are also the vehicle accessible locations where you can drop food and water if you’d prefer to break the route up into manageable chunks. Vast and remote in scope, the well-worn trail—often wide enough to run side by side—traverses through peaceful old-growth forests and subalpine meadows of wildflowers.

The Fastest Known Time: Kyle Skaggs; 20 hours, 53 minutes; September 23, 2006

Zion Traverse

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Zion National Park, Utah (48 miles, 9,000 feet of ascent)

This 48-mile route takes you on a tour of massive red cliffs and lush green valley floors as you run across the entire National Park. Just six years ago, this challenging point-to-point was virtually unknown. Then, two of ultrarunning’s hardmen revived the route and brought it into the sport’s consciousness. Most choose to run west, getting the big climb out of Zion Canyon over with early in their adventure. The views from the West Rim are breathtaking, but what makes this route amazing is its diversity: slot canyons with flash flood potential, switchbacks up sheer cliffs, jagged peaks, expansive sandstone slabs, improbable mounds of earth, sandy creek beds, and valley floors. The trail out of Zion Canyon uses about half of the Angel’s Landing hike, which you should include as an out-and-back add-on because it’s one of the best hikes on earth.

The Fastest Known Time: Mike Foote & Justin Yates, 7 hours 22 minutes, May 26, 2013


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Silverton-Telluride-Ouray, Colorado (100 miles, 34,000 feet of ascent)

One race has captured the attention of the best mountain runners in the world—the Hardrock 100 Mile Endurance Run. It’s so coveted, in fact, that it’s nearly impossible to gain entry (first-time applicants have about a 1.4 percent chance). A popular way to experience the majestic 100-mile loop through the San Juan Mountains is to break it into three days ranging from 28-45 miles—a so-called “Softrock.” This ultra-tour of the iconic towns of Telluride and Ouray averages over 11,000 feet in elevation, with a total of 34,000 feet of uphill. Lacking the requisite oxygen to move anywhere near your sea-level potential (the race’s nickname is the “Hardwalk”), your rewards for the pain are plenty: alpine lakes, alpine meadows, remote mountain passes (Virginius pass is only as wide as a VW bus), gnarly scree fields, and the highest point on the course—14,048 feet Handies Peak. By the time you finish this one you will either swear off ultrarunning or throw your name into the lottery.

The Fastest Known Time: Kyle Skaggs; 23 hours, 23 minutes; August 5, 2008

Grand Canyon, Rim to Rim to Rim

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Arizona (42 miles, 10,700 feet of ascent)

Dropping into the South Rim of the Grand Canyon on the South Kaibab Trail is a quasi-religious experience. However, the sheer immensity of it all won’t hit home until you arrive at the North Rim—21 miles from where you started—and realize you now have to run back. Running into and out of the six-million-year-old hole has become a rite of passage for North American ultrarunners. There are some miles of mellow flat running along the Colorado River, but this route is defined by its two massive climbs through millions of years of rock sediment. If you under-hydrate or under-fuel the final 4,860 foot ascent will turn into a death-march (and you’ll understand why entire books have been written about deaths in the Grand Canyon).

The Fastest Known Time: Rob Krar, 6 hours, 21 minutes, May 11, 2013

Teton Circ

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Jackson, Wyoming (34 miles, 8,200 feet of ascent)

Starting at String Lake and following Cascade Canyon the well-maintained trail quickly covers 10,700 foot Hurricane Pass, where you will literally be stopped in your tracks by the view of the South, Middle, and Grand Teton mountains. Circling the youngest range in the Rocky Mountains is not for the faint of heart. The snowy steep descent from Static Peak divide is “no fall terrain,” and this adventure run is almost always a solitary endeavor. Bull moose and black bears will be your only company as you travel over lingering snowfields, past turquoise alpine lakes and paintbrush floral arrangements.

The Fastest Known Time: Evan Honeyfield, 5 hours, 34 minutes, September 17, 2009

Maroon Bells Four Pass Loop

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Aspen, Colorado (27 miles, 8,000 feet of ascent)

If the three-day Softrock is a bit more than you want to bite off, the Four Pass Loop is a more reasonable portion of big Colorado mountain running. Located just outside of Aspen, in the Elk Mountains, the loop starts at 9,500 feet and is the easily the best one-day ultra-run in all of Colorado. The 27-mile journey is an altitude runner’s dreamscape, with 8,000 feet of climbing and four passes over 12,000 feet in elevation (Buckskin, Trail Rider, Frigid Air, and West Maroon passes). If you have the lungs, almost every step is runnable (hence the blindingly fast FKT). Those fit enough to complete the loop are rewarded with some of Colorado’s world-class terrain, with impossibly clear lakes, waterfalls, bald mountains, and endless ridges framing the route.

The Fastest Known Time: Sage Canaday, 4 hours, 27 minutes, September 5, 2013
*Lance Armstrong ran the loop in 5 hours, 40 minutes, August 26, 2012.

Kalalau Trail

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NaPali Coast, Kauai, Hawaii (22 miles, 10,000 feet of ascent)

This 11-mile out-and-back on the northern shore of the island of Kauai feels like you are running along the edge of a deserted island. Dramatic 4,000-foot cliffs shoot out of the Pacific Ocean, covered in nothing but dark green vegetation and broken only by dark brown rock. From the Ke‘e trailhead most tourists only venture as far as Hanakapiai beach, just two miles along the route. Those who continue are treated to three of the seven Na Pali (which means “high cliffs”) valleys, each barricaded from the next by sheer cliffs. When the trail isn’t engulfed in vegetation, it provides stunning views of the coastline. Switchbacks take you from beach, over high cliffs, to high ridges and back again, until you are dropped onto the remote Kalalau beach. There is no road access to this beach, so to enjoy its tranquility you have to earn it on foot (or cheat by boat).

The Fastest Known Time: Max King, 4 hours, 59 minutes, January 22, 2012

Presidential Traverse

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Gorham, New Hampshire (26 miles, 9,600 feet of ascent)

What the “Presi-Traverse” lacks in feet-above-sea-level it more than makes up for in rugged rocky terrain. This is “peak-baggin’” at its best, a point-to-point route from Pinkham to Crawford Notch that summits the nine mountains of New Hampshire’s Presidential Range. The traverse is so technical that it’s hard to get into a rhythm or to feel like you are running for any significant length of time. “Running” through the most extensive above tree line area in the East means conditions can be harsh. Mount Washington, the highest peak on the route (and in New Hampshire) at 6,288 feet, has had some of the highest winds in recorded history, and has killed hikers of hypothermia in the summertime. Although not an official “ultra-distance” this route runs more like a mountain 50k than a trail marathon.

The Fastest Known Time: Ben Nephew, 4 hours, 34 minutes, September 7, 2013

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The Best Meditation Retreats in the U.S.

You don’t have to journey to an exotic ashram in India a la Eat, Pray, Love for an exclusive, life-changing meditation retreat. Whether you’re traveling solo, want to reconnect as a couple, or take an unforgettable trip with friends, some incredible resorts and getaways in the States are geared to help you decompress, reenergize, and connect with yourself and the natural world.

Shambhala Mountain Center 

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Red Feather Lakes, Colorado
How to disconnect to reconnect: The Shambhala philosophy teaches the wakefulness of human goodness and being, and at the 600-acre Rocky Mountain retreat you’re sure to find your own meditative style among the diverse offerings of mindful practices and expansive landscape. Plus, cellphones don’t work here. Guests can create a personal retreat package or register for the many programs that range from “Running with the Mind of Meditation,” based on the best-selling book by Sakyong Mipham, to nature-based programs with an interdisciplinary focus on astronomy or botany. Stay for a weekend, a week, or a monthlong journey of self-exploration that focuses on body awareness, mindful living, contemplative arts, or personal transformation. Lodging varies from tent platforms that get you close to nature to lodge suites with modern amenities. There is vegetarian and vegan cuisine, as well as meals for carnivores, ranging from Italian to Indian.

Get outside: Eight miles of trails await for hiking, running, or snowshoeing, which transcend into the practice of active or moving meditation. Visitors also have access to the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya, a Buddhist monument that stands 108 feet tall and is open to the public on the first level.

Take me there: Lodging rates include three healthful meals a day and start at $109 per night per person. Programs charge additional tuition fees.


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Hana, Maui, and Austin, Texas
How to disconnect to reconnect: True luxury and tropical paradise meet in this experiential Hawaiian destination that features an enchanted itinerary of guided meditations, nurturing yoga, luxury spa services and accommodations, eclectic and nourishing gourmet meals, and endless adventure. There are no dedicated retreat dates, so book a stay when it works for you and do exactly what your heart desires. The Austin resort is equally indulgent and only 20 minutes from the city. Surrounded by the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, the property includes a 3.5-acre organic farm with gardens, chickens, and horses. Executive chef Benjamin Baker and his staff specialize in farm-to-table cuisine with local, organic ingredients.

Get outside: Jump on a paddleboard or canoe, or try one of Hana’s unique adventures, such as a soaring the skies over Maui for a 30- or 60-minute glider plane ride; enjoying an equine encounter that focuses on nonverbal communication, self-awareness, and intention; or learning the Hawaiian tradition of throw-net fishing, passed down through generations. In Austin, mountain bike or take advantage of challenge courses between guided meditations, tai chi, and nature hikes.

Take me there: All-inclusive packages for lodging, meals, and spa/activities credit start at $600 per night per person in Hana and $475 per night per person in Austin. Extra charges for some adventure experiences apply.

The Standard Spa

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Miami Beach, Florida
How to disconnect to reconnect: Soak in the Florida sunshine and positive vibes at this spa hotel that offers a spectacular lineup of meditation experiences and workshops, including garden fire-pit meditations, crystal sonic-sound bath meditations, healing through chakras, breathwork, and kundalini and yoga workshops. Inspired by a holistic approach to wellness that incorporates fitness, nutrition, and bodywork, the Standard offers a hydrotherapy playground featuring an arctic plunge pool, mud lounge, Scotch hoses, infinity pool, and hamam, plus services such as acupuncture and life coaching. On the menu, you’ll find fresh, raw, organic, and spa-inspired Mediterranean cuisine (even a hamburger and tater tots) as well as a selection of juices and smoothies. If completely immersing yourself in life’s most sumptuous treatments is your goal, the Standard has you covered—in algae-infused detoxifying mud.

Get outside: This is Miami Beach, so all the water has to offer is at your disposal, including swimming and stand-up paddleboarding. Guests can also enjoy daily sunrise yoga, martial arts instruction, and rides on rented Warby Parker bicycles.

Take me there: A range of rooms and packages are available at the Standard Spa. For a retreat and workshop schedule and to find specials on select packages.

Rolling Meadows Retreat

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Brooks, Maine
How to disconnect to reconnect: Take unplugging to a deeper level at an intimate silent meditation and yoga retreat that hosts up to 11 people on Maine’s northeastern coast. There’s no small talk to navigate or distractions to dodge with the retreat’s social silence policy—it’s just you slowing down. Designed to increase awareness and simplify life, a daily schedule of multiple meditation sessions, yoga, and free time lead guests through a contemplative process that heals and connects. Talking is encouraged during guided sessions, which offer opportunities to ask questions and discuss ways to integrate experiences into daily life. Fresh vegetarian meals are prepared three times a day from teacher and co-director Patricia Brown’s cookbook and feature Indian-inspired recipes and organic vegetables from the garden.

Get outside: Hike the trails on the property’s 100 acres or take a swim in the spring-fed pond. The unstructured time between sessions, when guests are eating, resting, or walking, can be the most awakening, says Surya Chandra Das, teacher and co-director. Take, for instance, the story of a guest who tackled her first hike on a challenging trail in about 45 minutes; by the end of the retreat, that same hike took four hours.

Take me there: To register or find a list of upcoming themed retreats, which range from two to six nights and start at $595 per person.

Miraval Resort and Spa

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Tucson, Arizona
How to disconnect to reconnect: There’s something innately spiritual about the desert, and Miraval provides a healing oasis for the mind, body, and soul. Meditation offerings range from beginner to advanced and include such experiences as floating meditation, mindful stress mastery, forgiveness meditation, and a labyrinth. Guests have access to enriching and diverse programming that focuses on art and photography, integrative wellness, culinary exploration, equine experiences, and, of course, meditation and healthy living. Outdoor treatment rooms and a full spa and bodywork menu rejuvenate and pamper guests with Ayurvedic, reiki, and Thai massage therapies. Mindfulness, self-discovery, and living in the moment are at the core of this luxury wellness spa, which also extends into the kitchen. Healthful, seasonal, and locally sourced ingredients are featured on a changing menu with vegetarian and vegan options.

Get outside: Whether you want to stay active or jump-start your goals, there are no shortage of activities to keep you moving. Outback hikes, mountain biking, yoga hiking, trail running, challenge courses, and an all-day rock climbing excursion on Mt. Lemmon are all at your fingertips.

Take me there: A variety of packages are available starting at $429 per night per person. For a complete list of retreats, programs, spa services, and accommodations.

Stillpoint Lodge

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Halibut Cove, Alaska
How to disconnect to reconnect: Discover the softer side of Alaska in a secluded lodge that features a poustinia, a silent meditation space open 24 hours a day. Stillpoint Lodge welcomes guests for scheduled group retreats and offers a cabin for private stays where guests can set their own schedule. Guided meditations, yoga, and a labyrinth for walking meditations contribute to the calm, environmentally conscious campus surrounded by majestic wilderness where guests can connect with the spectacle of nature. An organic garden and freshly caught halibut, salmon, oysters, and mussels enhance the pescetarian menu that features artful cuisine.

Get outside: Halibut Cove is located on the edge of Kachemak Bay State Park, Alaska’s only wilderness park. A popular activity is hiking into the park to enjoy a prepared lunch and then set out on inflatable kayaks to explore the glacier lake’s icebergs. Every detail of your day’s adventure is taken care of by Stillpoint’s small and personable staff. Back on Stillpoint’s property, nature trails are easily accessible for hiking and picking berries in the months of August and September.

Take me there: Lodging, meals, yoga, meditation, and various other amenities and activities, including the boat ride to get to Halibut Cove, start at $500 per night per person. Services and experiences, such as spiritual direction, private yoga, or massage, are additional.

Canyon Ranch

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Lenox, Massachusetts
How to disconnect to reconnect: Step into luxurious elegance fit for royalty at this grand estate located in the Berkshire Hills. Beyond the typical experience, Canyon Ranch defines spa as a Special Personalized Adventure. Add transformative programs designed to boost well-being and health to your all-inclusive package and move effortlessly from visualization mediation, spiritual guidance, yoga, the on-site labyrinth, touch therapies, and full-service spa treatments. Create a getaway that fits your style, or step out of your comfort zone with programming options like tarot card reading, astrology, portrait drawing, mandala making, cooking classes, or a Rite of Passage ceremony. Chef-created meals, including vegetarian options, are mindful and focus on health and nutrition and fresh, seasonal ingredients.

Get outside: This is New England, so guests can enjoy the outdoors year round. Hiking, biking, kayaking, canoeing, skiing, and snowshoeing will connect you with nature, or challenge yourself on the ropes course’s zipline and giant swing.

Take me there: All-inclusive packages offer accommodations, meals, and a variety of activities and classes. For a comprehensive list of rates ranging from two to 10 nights and to find out more about Canyon Ranch’s Lenox property or other properties, including Tucson, Las Vegas, and Miami.

The Raj Ayurveda Health Spa

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Fairfield, Iowa
How to disconnect to reconnect: Ayurveda translates to “knowledge of life” and is an ancient Indian preventive health practice that incorporates meditation, nutrition, yoga, massage, and herbs to bring the body and mind into balance and a state of healing. Located on 100 acres of countryside in Fairfield, Iowa—also home to Maharishi University—the Raj is part of the offical town of Vedic City, where the Transcendental Meditation (TM) program is taught and practiced. Guests have the option of visiting the health spa for a complete Ayurvedic treatment that includes wellness sessions, daily two- to three-hour cleansing spa treatments, yoga classes, lectures, organic vegetarian meals, and meditation. There is also a four-day Transcendental Meditation retreat to learn the practice and enjoy the various benefits of the Raj, including gem light therapy, anti-stress massage, and aromatherapy.

Get outside: Strenuous physical activity is discouraged while going through the full Ayurvedic treatment program, but guests can stroll the walking trails around the tranquil property day or night. Gentle yoga is also offered daily.

Take me there: Packages range from three to 21 days or longer and start at $2,200 per person. Additional services, treatments, and programs are available at extra cost.

The Esalen Institute

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Big Sur, California
How to disconnect to reconnect: Free your inhibitions while you raise your self-awareness and explore human possibilities in the awe-inspiring setting of Northern California’s spiritual coast. Various meditation practices are offered here, from Buddhist to tantric, depending on the workshop and instructor. A meditation roundhouse is located on the scenic 27-acre property, where guests can also enjoy cliffside hot springs (clothing optional), ocean views, healing arts, and soul-seeking meditation and mindfulness workshops that incorporate a hybrid of interdisciplinary themes, such as yoga, music, self-connection, stress-reduction, and fulfilling relationships between fathers and sons. Part of the experience at Esalen is its historic lodge that has hosted legendary guests like Henry Miller, Steve McQueen, Joan Baez, and Hunter S. Thompson. Family-style communal dining at the lodge features vegetarian and gluten-free options, organic produce from the on-site garden, and locally sourced eggs and fish.

Get outside: Although the California vibe is more Zen than adrenaline, guests can run along the Pacific Coast Highway, go on a nature hike, or enjoy the ocean by kayaking and surfing.

Take me there: Packages range from two to seven days; monthlong work-studies are also available. All-inclusive weekend workshops in a private suite start at $1,750 per person.

Omega Institute for Holistic Studies

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Rhinebeck, New York
How to disconnect to reconnect: Just a train ride from New York City beckon six learning paths spanning health, healing, and sustainable living to awaken your spirit. The 200-acre Hudson Valley campus offers more than 350 workshops, yoga teacher training, and rest and rejuvenation retreats each year. Meditation, both guided and self-practice, is integrated into classes like Zen archery, moving meditations, or meditation-focused workshops that teach techniques such as Vipassana meditation. A sacred space called the Sanctuary is open for daily group meditation and contemplation hours. Omega’s two- or five-day R&R retreats are perfect if you want to release and unplug without a set schedule. Yoga, shamanic healing, acupuncture, massage, henna, facials, and chakra portraits are some of the services and treatments offered in the Wellness Center. An integral emphasis on sustainability and farm-to-table is reflected in Omega’s dining hall, which serves mostly vegetarian meals and is three-star certified by the Green Restaurant Association.

Get outside: Wooded trails and country roads provide the perfect setting for a walk, run, or hike. Explore the quiet 80-acre Long Pond Lake by kayak, canoe, or rowboat, and take a swim in warmer months. If you decide to adventure off campus, be sure to ask about nearby hot-air balloon rides and state parks.

Take me there: Two-night single cabin room accommodation packages, which include three meals a day, start at $662 per person. Depending on the program, workshops and specialty services have additional tuition and fees.

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