The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Adventure

Looking for Clarity In and Around Lake Tahoe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Secret Lives of Mushroom Hunters

Foraged wild mushrooms are among a four-star chef's most prized and coveted ingredients. But they are also the fruit of a secretive and sometimes dangerous subculture. In The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America, author Langdon Cook sets out to shed light on the modern mushroom trade, tracking fungi from patch to picker to buyer and, ultimately, the finest New York City restaurants. 

Informed by a decade of hobby mushroom picking, and fueled by legends of territorial gun battles, Cook makes for the woods to hunt mushrooms, live and dine with pickers, and discover a hidden way of life in some of the country's most beautiful and wild places. We asked him to share a little of what he found. 

OUTSIDE: What's the deal with mushrooms? They seem to drive people nuts. COOK: Fungophiles say that mushrooms can save the world, and there is some truth to that.We've discovered that mushrooms can mitigate oil spills; they've been shown to cleanse radiation out of the environment.

And finding mushrooms in the woods is like a treasure hunt. I'm just as excited to find the hundredth morel as the first.

How did you get into it? I've been a recreational mushroom hunter and outdoorsman for over a decade. My first book, Fat of the Land: The Adventures of a 21st Century Forager has a moment in it that was really the germination of this second book. 

I was in the North Cascades hunting morels in the woods with a friend. We started hearing these strange sounds around us—yips and hollers. We backed off a little and emerged into a meadow just as these other two guys popped into it on the other side. 

They were commercial mushroom pickers with these huge packs on that towered over them, with probably 80 pounds each of morels. Here we were with our little Guatemalan mushroom basket holding maybe five pounds. 

I'd heard rumors about mushroom pickers, all the stories about how they packed heat in the woods and were running gun battles over prized patches. With that lore out there, we were a little concerned. But nothing was said, and they disappeared into the timber.

It stuck with me—how did they find this many mushrooms in the bush? I realized I had to get to know some of these guys and answer that question.

Was that an easy process?
It's very hard to find out basic information. People tend to be secretive about their patches. 

I got ahold of the number-one wholesaler and called. The first thing he asked was how I'd gotten ahold of his number—he was suspicious from the get-go. I said, Look, I got your number from one of your pickers, and I'm curious to see how the business works. I don't want to get in the way. He just said no. "It's like the cops," he said. "We're not interested." I would get that a lot.

Speaking of clandestine operations, your book opens with some illegal foraging near Mount Rainier. Is this sort of activity common? I debated over that prologue, because in some respects I'm playing into the hands of those who would say there's all sorts of illicit behavior going on with the whole mushroom trade. 

But as I point out later in the book, to a large extent that view has been mythologized. There was a period in the mid-90s when there were all kinds of media reports of wild-mushroom hunting getting out of hand. There was quite a bit of money changing hands, and many of the mushroom camps swelled with new initiates. There were some incidents—a couple of shootings, a murder or two. 

But if you look deeper, you find that they didn't have anything to do with the mushrooms themselves. It was the usual story of inebriation and relationship problems.

Did you get into any tough scrapes while researching the book? I was hanging out with the matsutake pickers in Central Oregon, many of whom are Lao. I was staying at a mushroom camp where they had a big Buddhist festival. They slaughtered a steer and had a huge barbecue. They commandeered this Lao pop star who was on tour in the U.S. and somehow brought him out to the woods of Oregon and piped in electricity from town, set up a tent, and this guy sang his weirdly mesmerizing songs to the crowd. Everyone was drinking and having fun.

I remember turning to one of the pickers whom I'd been following around, and he said, "Nights like this usually end in a fight." A few minutes later, I'm sitting outside by the fire, and there's this young kid—probably early 20s—from Weed, California, or somewhere. I was one of the few white faces. I had my camera with me, and I might have been interviewing some people—obviously not one of the Lao pickers. He looked at me from across the fire, crushed a beer can, and asked me what I was doing here. And I said, "You know, I think I'm leaving." That was the end of the night for me.

Is that sort of hostility common?
I had a few moments like that, where I was perceived as an outsider who didn't have any skin in the game. But mostly I was met with enthusiasm by people who were eager to share the novelty of what they did—people who recognized that picking wild mushrooms for a job was unusual, and they were eager to show me how it was done and why it was cool. 

And even though there is this veil of secrecy, I was surprised at how much folks were willing to share. People took me to patches; showed me places that had been handed town from their parents to them; let me camp with them and showed me around; fed me and took me in.

You write about people gathering hundreds of pounds of mushrooms in a single outing. How sustainable is mushroom hunting in its current form? There have been a number of studies, and so far no one has been able to link mushroom harvest with a decline in mushroom populations. Pickers liken it to picking cherries from a cherry tree: as long as you don't harm the cherry tree, you're going to have cherries to pick next year. Same thing with mushrooms: as long as you don't harm the mycelium, you'll have mushrooms to pick.

You have environmentalists who are concerned about sustainability, and I consider myself an environmentalist. But I think a lot of the people working on these issues don't have a really good sense of the natural history and biology of the mushrooms that they're trying to protect. It's the "museum under glass" approach to the natural world. From my perspective, I just want to see people get outside, interacting with their environment, and we're seeing more and more barriers to that.

Favorite mushroom dishes?

 have this really rich, deep earthiness that goes great with soups, stews, or sauces. 

Then there are mushrooms like morels, a flavor that's almost impossible to pin down. When people ask me about morels, I like to say we haven't invented the words to describe what they taste like. They're meaty, which is great for vegetarians. I like to make a morel sauce and put it over a veal chop or a good steak. But for vegetarians, just toss the steak and give them the morel sauce, and they'll be very happy.

There's something about mushroom cookery that inspires a kind of camaraderie, gathering around the hearth, sharing a bottle of red wine, and having a feast with your friends.

Favorite spot to hunt? Or is that top-secret? How can I put this? The Olympic peninsula is like one big chanterelle factory. So if you can't find them, you're not looking very hard. 

But I love to go to eastern Washington in the spring to pick morels and spring porcini when the snow is melting off and the mountains are greening up, and the birds are singing. There's this whole reawakening in the mountains, and I love to be out there when it's unfolding. And of course when you get home, you've got this wonderful food to cook.


An Exerpt from The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America

The next morning the sun was already above the trees when we finished our coffee and walked out of camp at 6 a.m. It would be a warm day for the Yukon. I was dressed in light pants, heavy socks, and boots. In my pants pockets I kept two granola bars, a mimeographed Forest Service map of the burn, and my wallet (just in case). I wore a long-sleeved capilene t-shirt and a compass around my neck. My mushroom knife was sheathed on my belt and a water bottle tied to my pack. I had a rain slicker stashed in one of the baskets. We passed by the spot-burned woods adjacent to camp, strode through blackened hot burn to the ridge, switchbacked up, and then began following the drainage. Before leaving me, Faber suggested I keep to the edge of the hot burn. The picking would be better on the edge, and, perhaps more importantly, by keeping to the edge I wouldn’t get lost. Unlike the evening before, I was now looking for the highest densities of mushrooms before dropping my pack. I walked by onesies and twosies, scouting for the large clusters that would make the picking go faster and increase my chances at a hundred-pound day. Each time I dropped my pack I would make circles around it, carrying my bucket to points beyond and then leaving that on the periphery to make even wider concentric circles using my shirt as a receptacle. These orbits around orbits insured that I would cover the most ground possible without the burden of carrying my pack. With the hem of my shirt clenched firmly between my teeth, I sliced off morels as fast as I could and dropped them into the makeshift pocket of the shirt. Pretty soon I got in the habit of walking with my knife unsheathed to save time. I could hear my seventh grade teacher telling us a story about how her son had stabbed out one of his eyes in a swing set mishap involving an open pocket knife. All my life this story had made me cautious around blades—but not today. Honor trumped eyesight. The shirt bulked up quickly. I could smell its contents as the mushrooms piled up to my chin. Unlike chanterelles or porcini, fresh morels don’t have a particularly appetizing aroma, certainly nothing that suggests the wonderful and complex aroma of cooked morels. The smell is dank, almost milk-like, and hardly hints at what lays ahead in the pan. Nearby, the white bucket stood out against the earth tones of the burn like a beacon, calling me in after each sally through this one small wrinkle of burned-over forest. I’d circle back to the bucket with a full shirt, then make another foray before picking up the bucket and going elsewhere, until I’d covered an area around the pack the size of a football field, at which point I’d hoist the pack again and look for a promising new area.

The day heated up and the burn offered little respite from the sun. For the Yukon it was hot, about 75 degrees. Downed timber lay higgledy-piggledy across the earth, like a goliath’s game of pickup-sticks. Under the burnt logs and in the depressions left by uprooted stumps grew morels. They poked their impish heads through the ash, phallic in the extreme. A pornographer would see penises everywhere—rudely shaped penises popping out of every nook and cranny, mocking our taste in psycho-sexual foods. I followed the ridgeline and picked as fast as I could. My teeth began to hurt, as if I had spent the night anxiously grinding them together. After four shirtfuls my five-gallon bucket was nearly full and I emptied it into a basket. Each basket took a bucket and a half of morels to fill. When the basket was full I covered it with a lid, nested it among the empty baskets, and lashed them all to the packboard with bungee cords before moving on. My cords were color-coded. I had two long red bungee cords to cinch the baskets to the pack and two short blue bungee cords to keep the baskets nested together with their lids tight. These were not the sort of bungee cords with weak, bendable hooks and short-lived elastic that you might find at a typical hardware store; they were bungee cords that Navy Seals could endorse. Faber wouldn’t even tell me where he’d found them. The packboard was the kind preferred by big game hunters, and the extendable top braces were crucial for stacking a maximum number of full baskets, not that I required this carrying capacity, yet. Soon, though, I had two full baskets tied together, and then three.

The idea of lurking grizzly bears had long since vanished from my mind. There was no time to worry about such beasts. I was driven to pick as many morels as I could. Strategy now occupied my head. When I wasn’t in the middle of slicing morels off at the ankles and filling my bucket, I was scanning the burn, trying to deduce its secrets. Looking at a burned-over forest is like seeing the landscape naked. It can’t hide. The drainage reveals itself in all its crimps and creases. I studied the topography for clues—slope aspect, moisture pockets, percentage of standing timber, whether any of that timber was alive. The deeper I progressed into the burn, the more I learned from experience. The forest—this badly wounded northern boreal forest—was eerily beautiful in its most desperate moment. Blackened trunks rose in silhouette against a gray sky. The dense mat of sphagnum moss ran like a green maze where it hadn’t burned into ash. Clumps of perfect morels sprouted from divots in the singed moss and on tufts of red spruce needles. Despite Faber’s warning to stick to spot burn on the edge, I was finding it easiest to cover ground by walking right through the hot burn. Here the trees had mostly burned up and it wasn’t necessary to hurdle downed timber. The ground underfoot felt spongy and tentative, like it might just give way once and for all and send me hurtling to untold depths. Little wisps of smoke followed my footfalls like stepping on ripe puffball mushrooms. There were morels in the hot burn, though not as many as in the spot burn, and many of them were dried out from direct sunlight and wind. The hot burn was apocalyptic—the popular imagination of forest fire, with virtually nothing left alive and only a few skeletal trees to tell you this was once a forest at all. Just the same, next summer it would be pulsing with new plant growth. Fireweed would be the first to erupt in colorful bursts of green and pink, providing shade for new saplings to sprout. In time the ash would melt into soil, shrubbery would take hold, and moss would reclaim the ground. In this way a new forest would rise from the ashes of the old.

The other reason I preferred walking through the hot burn was the need to keep moving. A cloud of flying insects harried me constantly, buzzing in my ear. Now I realized what a miscalculation I’d made in allowing Faber to shame me into not buying any bug spray. At the time I had decided he was right—dealing with insects in the bush required changing one’s state of mind. Bugs only bothered you, I told myself, if you let them. But now I realized how mistaken I’d been. The phraseeaten alive came to mind. A hoary phrase—and yet so correct. I couldn’t shake them. Insecta had it out for me: mosquitoes large and small, black flies, sand flies, no-seeums, deer flies, horseflies. Morel picker flies. The list went on. They pursued me like the furies, darting in when my hands were full of mushrooms, penetrating my ears and nostrils, clawing at the corners of my eyes, finding sweaty folds of skin and clothing under which to burrow in and hide. They gave no quarter. Just before 1 p.m. I reached my limit, turned around, and headed back toward camp, where we had agreed to meet for lunch. I was a mile or more away. I had four full baskets and a half-full bucket—about 50 pounds, half my goal. Miraculously, I passed Faber a quarter mile from camp. He’d already eaten lunch and was on his way back into the bush. All along, with nobody to talk to except the voice in my head, I had been wondering what Faber would say about my first full day of picking professionally. I replayed little scenarios over and over, imagined bits of conversation. Would he be critical? Dismissive? I was on his turf, trying to prove something. Now he looked at my load and said, “Well, you’ve outpicked everyone else around here. Go get some lunch and take a break.” It’s understood that the level of picking doesn’t impress Faber, but still, he’s not one to offer empty praise. I’m feeling good. The way home was treacherous, however. I carried my heavy load over countless deadfalls and beneath leaning snags. The top of my pack, with its extended frame that rose a foot above my head, was now a liability. Like a buck that must lower his antlered head in thick cover, I was forced to duck and weave among the downed timber, several times getting hung up while trying to scoot under suspended logs. Potential widow-makers littered the ground. It’s easy to see how a picker might come to a grisly end in the burn, impaled on a sharp branch or crushed by a tree. By the time I reached camp I was exhausted. The bugs had had their way with me. At times there were so many crawling over my skin that I felt like I was walking through spider webs. My body was covered with raised red welts—more than a dozen on my right wrist alone where the skin was exposed. Behind each ear collected a dry, crumbly crust of blood, matted hair, and squashed flies, and beneath that the Braille-like pattern of bumps where they had pierced tender recesses of epidermis before I could swat them away. The bumps followed my hairline all the way around the nape of my neck, while the larger welts of horseflies and deerflies adorned my shoulders, back, and chest, with a collection of bloody lumps in the pit of my chest where they had gotten under my shirt and more on my abdomen. Mosquito bites were indiscriminate. They were everywhere, wherever the bloodsuckers could get purchase. I had flecks of bright red blood all over me. My hands were black with soot, not to mention my own dried blood from swatting so many half-sated mosquitoes. My pants had turned from a light khaki color to lead gray. My feet ached.

But hey, more than 50 pounds before lunch. I’m feeling good.


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Unveiling the Jetforce Avalanche Airbag Pack

On Thursday, Lou Dawson at Wild Snow gave the first detailed look at Black Diamond’s new Jetforce Avalanche Airbag pack.

It's the first airbag pack that inflates and deflates with a battery-powered fan instead of a cartridge or a canister of gas or air. Because of that,  this pack can be deployed multiple times in one ski day or trip if necessary—no recharging of batteries required.

Interest in the Jetforce was so great that it crashed Wild Snow’s server. The reason: Black Diamond’s Jetforce solves nearly all of the major issues with current avalanche airbag packs.

  • Skiers, riders and others no longer have to think twice about deploying their pack. If you’re afraid, pull the trigger. It’s easy to deflate the bag and repack it, and it will instantly be armed again and ready to go. One battery charge inflates the pack multiple times.
  • No longer do pack owners have to search for a place to refill a canister.
  • There’s no need to haul multiple heavy and expensive canisters on a multi-day trip.
  • You won’t be hassled by the airlines when you fly with the Jetforce.
  • A switch turns the inflation mechanism on and off, so there’s no fussing to zip away handles when you’re loading the heli, and it’s unlikely you’ll accidentally activate it. If you do—no problem. Deflate it, repack it, and you’re still protected.
  • And for tree skiers, one further bonus: Once inflated, the fan keeps pulsing air. So even if the bag gets snagged and ripped—unlikely since the Jetforce’s airbag is slipperier and tougher than most others on the market—it’ll still keep you afloat.

Rumor also has it that Arc'teryx is working on a fan-inflated avalanche pack as well—if so, it hasn't publicly released any details on its system save a patent application for a fan design.

The price and exact release date are still being determined. The Jetfoce 28 will retail for about the same price as other airbag packs, approximately $1,000, in 11-, 28-, and 40-liter sizes; 7 lbs., 4 oz. (28 liters). Black Diamond hopes to make the pack available for Fall 2014.

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An Ode to My Bad Dog

I knew I had a special dog when he attempted to undress the first two women I introduced him to, not counting my mom. (He's got good taste: one became my girlfriend.) Named after the jazz musician and my childhood dentist, Walter Ray Miles Davis Jr. likes the flavor of blouse buttons and the dangle of lady garments. He humps when he gets nervous, which is often. Once his tan forepaws wrap around a leg, you need a bucket of cold water or a rack of ribs to pry him off. As you try, with whatever implements are at hand, his pleading hazel eyes look up at you, as if to say: "Can you just give us one more minute of privacy here, boss?" I've considered buying a human blow-up doll for Miles, but I fear it wouldn't survive his affection.

I knew Miles was special, in a very different way, before the disrobing and humping began: he had a white scar around his skinny rump when I first saw him last Spring, after a breakup. He bounded around the backyard of his foster family in Clarkston, Georgia, like a huge, deranged rabbit. When he finally stopped, he let me touch the scar. Then we went inside and wrestled on the floor.

Allowing me to touch him there was a rare show of trust; the drooling, however, was standard issue.

I can't explain why he chose me any more than I can explain why he won't run at full speed on a leash or eat those expensive rawhide bones I bought in bulk when he arrived at my home with the small yard in the middle of downtown Atlanta. But he did, and nothing has been the same since.

Miles is seventy-five pounds of muscle, three years old, and prone to sinuous wiggling fits. Dogs like him get the worst pens at the "shelters" in Atlanta's Dekalb County, where he was on death row two years ago, sharing a tiny cell with cockroaches and rats.

His crime: a blocky head, compact body, short coat, triangular ears and a rat-like tail. All of these traits are, sadly, synonymous with violence: if not perpetrated by these so-called "pit bulls," than that which is committed against them by humans. I'll never know the exact cause of Miles' scars, or (god knows what I'd do with it) the names and addresses of his abusers. But it's clear that Miles was wrapped up with a sharp wire that left him looking—if I'm in a mood to joke about it—like he's permanently wearing a garter belt. He was nearly cut in half.

According to Ken Foster's folksy and personal celebration, I'm a Good Dog, the term "pit bull" is used to describe ten to twenty percent of the dogs found in the United States. These dogs may or may not be kin to the American pit bull terrier, the American Staffordshire terrier or the English Staffordshire terrier, breeds that share some combination of the physical characteristics noted above. To most media and lawmakers, they are all simply "pit bulls," and a threat to the public.

Anything resembling such a dog is banned in Denver, and cannot be kept in most apartment and condo buildings nationwide. Even PETA and the Humane Society advised that the pit bulls that narrowly avoided death at Michael Vick's hands be killed. Imagine that sentence being handed down to maimed yellow labs.

In truth, the range of dogs referred to as "pit bulls" make incredibly gentle, loyal companions. Historically, they've scored very highly on the American Temperament Test of dog breeds, outperforming many more popular dogs. According to the ATT, they're better tempered, on average, than the ballyhooed Golden Retriever.

The dogs we call pit bulls arose in England, Scotland and Ireland in the mid-1800s, where they helped round-up large prey, often in so-called "bull pits." From this original mixing, we've gotten everything from the French bulldog to the Bull Mastiff. The United Kennel Club defines the American pit bull terrier—what most of his mean when we say "pit-bull"—as "a dog that combined the gameness of the terrier with the strength and athleticism of the Bulldog. The result was a dog that embodied all of the virtues attributed to great warriors: strength, indomitable courage, and gentleness with loved ones."

"A pit bull is American," writes Ken Foster, "and like most Americans, these dogs are a jumble of DNA and contradictions, which is, naturally, what pit bull lovers love most about their dogs." Which takes us back to Miles, who has contradictions aplenty.

He'll face off against a 140-pound Mastiff at the dog park, but he won't get near a hula-hoop. He'll let me hog-tie him, lay on him, and turn him into a toothy lawnmower, but if he doesn't know you or your dog, well, you'd better heed my doormat: "A fragile and very sensitive big-ass dog lives here."

On my way to Mexico to climb Pico de Orizaba this past January, I got a voicemail from my dad, who was taking care of Miles. "We've had a little incident here," he said gravely, "involving Lucky and Miles." My pit had gotten the best of his pit in a fight over a bowl of kibble. Since both are rescues, locked in eat-or-die mode, we'd carefully socialized them over the first five months I had Miles. They played rough—often approaching the cusp of simultaneous canicide—but never before had they both gone for the jugular.

"Lucky has a deep cut down the middle of her chest," dad continued on the phone. "Mary"—my step-mom—"is pretty upset."

Miles wasn't welcome back for quite a while after that, even once Lucky's stiches were removed. But to Mary's credit, they've been allowed to reunite with close supervision—I keep a spray bottle of water handy at all times, ready to give a reprimanding spritz to the muzzle—and have played for many hours since, without incident. (Observing this "play" still takes some getting used to: it is to normal dog romping what the UFC is to the WWF.)

But pax canis did not last long. Over the next few months, Miles suddenly started nipping at people every once in a while: a pool guy, a neighbor, my girlfriend's older sister and a cat-loving pal of mine were among those scared shitless.

None had done more, it seemed, than reach down to touch him. But in some unknown way, I thought, they must have reminded him of his abusers. Smokers perhaps? Yankees fans? Cat lovers? These incidents left me having to explain this fact again and again: Miles lashes out in fear because he's been abused, not because he's a "pit bull."

And was he even a "pit bull"? My father spent seventy-five bucks on something called the "Wisdom Panel Insights Doggie DNA Test" in order to find out. He sent off a swab of Miles' saliva, and few weeks later we got an email: he's a 'Boxer mix' crossed with 'American Staffordshire Terrier,' it said. From the email: "The Wisdom Panel® InsightsTM computer algorithm performed over seven million calculations using 11 different models (from a single breed to complex combinations of breeds) to predict the most likely combination of pure and mixed breed dogs in the last 3 ancestral generations that best fit the DNA marker pattern observed in Miles Davis." So he was half pit, whatever that meant.

I found this passage in Foster's book: "For better or worse, the adage goes, our dog's behavior is attributed to their DNA ... making it, inevitably, a great family dog, a great hunter, or an alert guard dog. But most of these people are just repeating notions that have been handed down like folklore, rather than via the study of genetics. It is a notion of predicting behavior that we would never claim in humans." Well, almost never. But the point is well taken: behavior is more than genetics.

This summer, Miles scaled his first mountain—Georgia's second-highest—almost entirely off-leash. This freedom owed more to the remoteness of the trail and the absence of dogs/humans to tangle with than any great advances he's made in socializing. I was surprised he made it up the three miles and one thousand feet of elevation without bonking, given how he reacts to a ten-minute city jog. But as he sat atop the observation tower, collapsing in the lone sliver of shade, I got a little misty thinking how far he's come from that Dekalb County cell.

As I type this now, he's curled up in the backseat of my car, in the space not occupied by a cooler full of steak sandwiches.  We're on the way home from Texas, the seventh state we've visited together. It was a solid 18 hours from Atlanta to a 300-acre ranch in the hill country outside Marble Falls where we'd meet much of my girlfriend's family—Miles reacting poorly to only one of them—but I wanted him to come. A dog needs to roam, and Miles hasn't roamed nearly enough.

Free to explore the ranch, he was constantly amazed: the sun was hotter, the prickly things pricklier, and the animals diverged from the squirrel, dog and cat categories he knew. In seventy-two hours, he saw (and chased or ran from) coyotes, lizards, deer, feral pigs and three bikinied sisters. He rolled around in the dirt, howled at the moon, briefly disappeared in pursuit of a pig. So now he's exhausted in the back seat, dreaming about whatever it is that dogs dream, and I'm planning our next trip. I think he'd like the feel of a canoe.

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2014 Ice Climbing Essentials

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