The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Exploration

Alaskan Road to Nowhere

Forge your way through 495,000-acre Chugach State Park and the 1.9-million-acre Kenai National Wildlife Refuge on a 500-mile pilgrimage through the Last Frontier.

Packing List: Rubber boots and rain jacket, fly rod, bug spray

Highlights: Acclimate to your moose-heavy surroundings in Anchorage with an 11-mile run or hike along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. Then head south in a high-clearance vehicle. (Most of the roads are good, but the best side trips will require something rugged.) An hour away you’ll find the Alyeska Resort and its 50-mile maze of mountain-biking trails (full-suspension bike rental with pads and helmet, $100).

In Seward, stay at the Exit Glacier Lodge, where the staff packs bag lunches for early-rising fishermen and stores their catch in a giant freezer (from $159). If you want to go for the big boys—halibut and king salmon—head out with Crackerjack Sport Fishing Charters ($350); if fishing isn’t your thing, go for an all-day ice-climbing lesson on four-mile-long Exit Glacier ($185).

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On the way to Homer, pitch a tent along the Sterling Highway at one of 45 sites at Quartz Creek Campground. Bank-fish for rainbow and Dolly Varden trout, or drive four miles east to Cooper Landing and sight-fish in the Russian River for sockeye salmon. In Sterling, stop to test the Blind Cat moonshine at Highmark Distillery.

At the end of the road in Homer, hop a water taxi across Kachemak Bay to your own remote cabin—complete with woodstove and minimal kitchen—and set up camp for the 
next two nights. From there, launch a kayak to paddle among orcas, sea lions, and humpback whales ($395 per person for two nights). 

Detour: Hop on a quick one-hour flight from Homer to Katmai National Park and Preserve for a guided tour and watch brown bears congregate on the tidal flaps to feast on running salmon ($675).

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The Culture Shock of Coming Home

We shuffled off the plane in Miami at 6:30 in the morning, our stream of passengers merging with other streams of passengers all flowing toward Baggage Claim and Customs. We entered a wider portion of the hall where large armed men held their ground in the middle of the crowd, scanning for people to pull aside and question.

“Wow, not too warm; not even a smile,” our daughter Molly noted.

“Pick up the ball! Pick up the BALL! PICK. UP. THE. BALL!” It took our son Skyler a minute to realize the uniformed man with the rearing German shepard was talking to him. Chagrinned he snatched up the soccer ball he’d been dribbling with his feet.

“Don’t worry Skyler. The dog just wanted your ball,” I said, pulling him closer.

We were returning home to the U.S. after a year living in Brazil. These returns are always an eye-opening jolt and, for me, a long, slow adjustment. It usually takes me a full year to reintegrate into life at home.

We managed to find all our bags, make it through Customs, recheck the bags and enter Security. There we stood one-by-one in the beam-me-up-scotty Imaging Station, our hands raised over our heads, while our bodies were stripped to their bones.

I wondered what our Brazilian friends from the small, rural town where we'd been living—a town where for many people the luxury of running water was erratic—would make of all this and the self-flushing toilets, and automatic paper towel dispensers.

As we were repacking and redressing (the TSA agents had even scrutinized our flip flops) we were put through not one but two episodes of shouted, “Halt! Everybody, Don’t Move…. Okay, you can go, just a drill.”

We were definitely not in Brazil.

“Whew, this is intense,” Skyler said. “Let’s get out of here, before they do another one.”

Things had gone smoothly, until we hit the First World. Then things began to go awry. Our flight out of Miami was delayed for maintenance, which was okay. We happily rounded up a breakfast of things we hadn’t eaten for a year.

"That’s what they don’t have in Brazil: muffins, whipped cream, and vending machines,” Skyler exclaimed seeing one for the first time in 12 months.

This is why it's worth all the trouble of leaving one's job, renting one's house, learning other languages, uprooting one's kids, and struggling through cultural adjustment: for this chance to pull back. And especially so our kids can get that perspective at young ages. But the return is hard.

What do you say to all your old friends asking, “How was it? I bet it was so fun.” I don’t know if I could really say living abroad is fun. Certainly it can be exhilarating. It's definitely stimulating, but it's also painful and hard. It’s more like giving birth to a child. Not fun, but so worth it. Worth if for the connections we’ve made with people so different from ourselves, culturally, racially, economically, socially; and the pride, and I hope the increased confidence for our kids, because of the obstacles we had to overcome.

So what’s the sound bite that will somehow encapsulate our hearts cradling the people of Penedo (our small town in Brazil), the quilt of sherbert colors, palms clacking in the breeze, horse hooves on cobblestones?

I settled on, “Well, it was really rich, and well, really hard, so I feel relieved to be back and—sad, too.” It was lame, but the best I could do. Then I’d flip the conversation.

There was still too much to say. It would take months to boil it down. So it seemed simpler to say nothing. Besides no one really wanted more than that ten-second sound bite anyway. We'd warned our kids not to expect lots of interest from their friends. It's both disheartening and understandable.

Home was so familiar, too familiar. Had we ever left? I resented it a little. I wasn’t ready for this huge experience that my family and I had just had to be reduced to a dream. As I rode my bike and drove around our Montana town in my car, I realized we couldn’t have chosen a foreign town more the opposite of home. Penedo’s hard surfaces and chute-like streets were met with Missoula’s sprawling-wide, leafy-soft avenues; Penedo’s bright oranges and pinks with Missoula’s muted greens; Penedo’s constant scraps of ricocheting sound with the quiet, steady susurration of Missoula’s water.

I kept finding myself thinking "here, there, here, there."

In my next life, I dream of lobbying Congress to create a program to send every American teenager abroad, preferably to a developing country. It would change our relationship to the world, as individuals and as a nation, completely. Those kids would come back with a visceral understanding of why they’re so lucky to have been born in the U.S.—recognizing how precious is their ability to speak out without risking their lives; seeing how well the law works, mostly. But they’d see, too, that we’re not so different, nor are we "ahead"; that our breakneck speed might be breaking us down; that our touted 24/7 access to work might be sapping our energy and stealing time, time we could be spending with others, face to face, as families do every Sunday in Brazil. Those U.S. kids would learn that maybe we need to look a little farther afield before we claim the bragging rights some of us seem to cherish as Americans. They would be shocked, as I was, that we have Congressional leaders who have never left our shores, have never been issued a passport, but make our foreign policy.

Some of those kids would decide they never want to leave the U.S. again, that they’re in the place they love. Others might decide, like me, that the world is their home, and it’s both inexhaustibly big and very small; that it’s full of people just like them, trying to find their place, their role, their identities; trying to take care of people they love. Then together they could change the world.

I hope that my children will be able to see how they can fit into that larger world—one bigger than nations, broader than race—and feel comfortable enough in it to know they can jump and then look, because they’ll know they can cope when they land.

I think they will and when they do I hope they take me with them.

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The Outdoor Exchange: Never Buy Gear Again

If your friends’ lack of kayaks keeps spoiling your dreams of organizing flotillas in nearby lakes, weep no more: last week, a small group of New Jersey men formally quit their jobs to focus on The Outdoor Exchange (OX), a subscription-based gear closet.

The brainchild of outdoor enthusiast and startup veteran Dariusz Jamiolkowski, five-week-old OX gives subscribers access to a catalog of high-end, expensive gear. Basic subscriptions to OX (there are a few options, the cheapest of which is $100) allow users to rent one item per week. You can rent more items at 10 percent of each additional product’s value. OX recently started an Indiegogo campaign to boost its membership, and expects to be “fully operational” by July, after which point basic subscription costs will double. 

So far, most of the rentals come from New Jersey (OX is based in Fairlawn), but subscribers hail from California, Colorado, Florida, and even England. Jamiolkowski estimates the young company rents about 10 items per week, and he hopes to attract more than 1,000 total subscribers by the end of summer, mainly by preaching the company's cause at big events like the Philly Folk music festival and relying on word of mouth. 


But while OX is still young (currently it only has a couple hundred paying members), it's run by seven business- and tech-savy teammates whose resumes are padded with names like Lockheed Martin and Novo Nordisk. Jamiolkowski officially left his position as Handybook’s vice president of finance in February after being accepted into startup incubator TechLaunch, while marketing lead Adam Hackett quit his day job on June 6.

That team has come up with a unique gear-sharing model. Unlike GearCommons—another peer-to-peer program that depends on its users to supply gear—OX stocked its warehouse full of gear by working directly with manufacturers and distributors. The majority of the 300 products in its inventory were provided by companies like Black Diamond, Hobie, Maverick, and Folbot, a foldable kayak manufacturer. It's a relationship that benefits both parties. 

“The issue (Folbot’s) having is that they have a great product, but it's hard for somebody who hasn't been in a foldable kayak to spend $1,200 on a foldable kayak,” Jamiolkowski said. “So we're putting butts in the seats for these guys. We're gonna get people to try the product and nine out of 10 people are gonna try it and say it was great, but one person is gonna end up purchasing the kayak...And our customers are going to be happy because they get to use a premium product at a low entry-point.”

The company is still working out some kinks, including how to streamline shipping costs. For New Jersey residents, OX will drop off and set up gear at trailheads within 25 miles of its warehouse for $20. But the idea of spending $100 a year on shared gear doesn’t sound as good if you have to pay an additonal $200 in shipping.

This week, OX began testing what its founder calls the Trailblazer Program. For a set $74 per year, subscribers can ship all their rentals for free within the continental United States. Ultimately, the team hopes to open local warehouses where subscriptions are most concentrated to help defray costs. 

You may be wondering, “What happens if the gear gets damaged?” Well, Jamiolkowski and his team have set up a system to incentivize good gear treatment. OX rates both customers and gear internally when products are returned. If a customer gets low enough marks, she can’t rent gear anymore. “In order for this to work, it's gotta work both ways,” says Jamiolkowski. “Have you seen Meet the Fockers? We're building the Circle of Trust.

“We have families to support and mortgages to pay for, but we strongly believe in what we're doing, based on everything we've done so far to build a very successful, not only business, but a community for outdoor enthusiasts,” he says. 

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National Parks Are About to Get Way More Fun

Next summer, some 110 million visitors will enter America’s National Parks. Among the most enthusiastic will be the paddlers running whitewater sections of the Merced River through Yosemite. That’s because, for the first time since the invention of modern whitewater kayaks and rafts, the National Park Service is allowing them on parts of the river that offer some of the most scenic and challenging rapids anywhere in the world. The opening up of the Merced is part of a much larger project, five years in the making, that will attempt to alleviate road traffic problems, as well as roll back some of Yosemite’s early, ill-conceived development—the ice rink in the shadow of Half Dome will be moved—while allowing more access for some of the sports that have come to define modern adventure.

The Merced River Plan, as it’s called, is a small but significant example of a transformation under way in our national parks. Last October, in a speech before the National Press Club, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced an “ambitious initiative … to inspire millions of young people to play, learn, serve, and work outdoors.” Among her goals is getting ten million urban kids into the parks by 2017, a response to the country’s evolving demographics and the aging of park users. At Yosemite, the average age of visitors is 38, with the largest group between 46 and 50.

Jewell’s vision of inclusivity should be enthusiastically supported by anyone who cares about the future of our park system. I say this despite the fact that it falls well short of what we need. Because, while she has the right idea in reaching out to new communities, like her predecessors, she’s ignoring the people who are most desperate to be allowed in: the paddlers, mountain bikers, and other adventure-sports athletes who are banned from many of the nation’s best natural playgrounds. It’s an outdated stance that overlooks the role these activities now play in our relationship with wild places, and it seriously undercuts public support for an expansive and growing park system.

Since the Park Service was founded in 1916, managers have struggled to decide which activities to allow. The congressional mandate is to leave the land “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” “Not dented, not scratched, but unimpaired,” says Mike Finley, a former superintendent at Yosemite, Yellowstone, and several other national parks, who now heads up the Turner Foundation, media mogul Ted Turner’s family land-conservation outfit.

Of course, “unimpaired” and “enjoyment” have always been fuzzy concepts, open to interpretation by whoever happened to be making the rules at the time. From the outset, commercial cattle grazing was grandfathered in at a number of parks. Then, in 1957, Congress approved Mission 66, an unprecedented ten-year, $700 million series of construction projects intended to improve infrastructure by building thousands of miles of roads, visitor centers, campgrounds, bathrooms, gift shops, and maintenance bays. The parks as we now know them are a reflection of this single act. In his 2007 book, Mission 66, Ethan Carr, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, writes that the act “came to symbolize … a willingness to sacrifice the integrity of park ecosystems for the sake of enhancing the merely superficial scenery by crowds of people in automobiles.”

As Carr notes, Mission 66 certainly opened the parks to more people, but it was widely viewed as a disgrace for the Park Service. Oddly, the backlash hasn’t so much been against cars or hotels or sprawling RV campgrounds but against recreation, which many preservationists came to see “as the primary agent of … destruction.” Officially, superintendents, who have wide latitude in determining what’s allowed in each park, weigh the impact of activities like kayaking against that “unimpaired” mandate. Unofficially, though, as Finley explains, the debate is both simpler and more philosophical: “You can’t roller-skate in the Sistine Chapel, nor should you.” Which is to say that adventure sports are banned in parks for cultural reasons.

What all this has left us with is phenomenal natural areas that are for the most part managed like drive-through museums. Meanwhile, a growing number of outdoor athletes, who should be among the most committed park stewards, have been ostracized. The nonprofit Outdoor Alliance, a Washington, D.C., umbrella group for human-powered-advocacy organizations like American Whitewater, climbing’s Access Fund, and the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), has 100,000 members and skews toward a Gen Y demographic. By comparison, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the historical champion of the national parks, has 500,000 members with a median age in the sixties.

“There’s a real relevancy problem with the parks,” says Adam Cramer, Outdoor Alliance’s executive director. “They’re shutting off vectors like bikes and kayaks for people to have the kinds of meaningful experiences that are the genesis for a conservation ethic.”

Indeed, many young people fall in love with wild places by playing in them. And yet, in a number of instances, park authorities have taken moves to curtail sports. Last December, Death Valley National Park canceled the iconic Badwater Ultramarathon, citing safety concerns for runners in the heat. And despite intervention from Colorado senator Mark Udall and governor John Hickenlooper, the USA Pro Cycling Challenge was denied a permit to use roads that pass through Colorado National Monument.

“It’s a case where the paperwork hasn’t kept up with the sports,” says John Leonard, a ranger in Denali National Park, which requires guides and clients to be roped together much of the time on Mount McKinley, effectively banning guided skiing. “Out of one side of our mouth we’re saying we want millennials to come to the parks, and out of the other we have all these bureaucracies in place that make everything difficult.”

The result is that many wilderness-loving athletes find themselves opposing new public-land designations because the added protections would get them barred from areas they currently use. This dynamic was revealed starkly in 2011 when bikers and climbers sided with motorized off-roaders in opposing the Hidden Gems Wilderness Area near Aspen, Colorado, which would have locked out all three groups. (In the end, the IMBA and others successfully advocated for backcountry land that was bike-friendly but not open to development.)

In another instance of odd bedfellows, last February Cynthia Lummis, a Republican congresswoman from Wyoming, introduced the River Paddling Protection Act, which would give the Park Service three years to figure out how to allow boats on Yellowstone’s waterways. In February, it passed the House of Representatives. It’s hard to say whether the bill was a politician representing her constituents or a shrewd way for a conservative to divide environmentalists, but it effectively set paddlers against the NPCA, which opposes boating on the park’s rivers.

Within the parks, much of the progress has been due to the efforts of advocacy groups. In Yosemite, long an outlier in welcoming athletes—hang gliding has been permitted since the late seventies—the Merced River Plan was championed by D.C.–based American Whitewater. In 2011, the IMBA helped convince managers at Texas’s Big Bend National Park to perform an environmental assessment and allow a comment period for the new Lone Mountain Trail.

If anyone understands the need to evolve the Park Service’s attitude toward recreation, it’s Jewell, who spent 17 years at REI before she was appointed by President Obama. So far, though, she has ignored the topic. If Jewell truly wants to build a park system that will endure, her next move should be to issue a directive for superintendents to study where and when outdoor sports might be appropriate. Nobody is demanding that bikes be allowed on every trail, that kayakers be given license to bomb every creek, or that climbers be granted blanket permission to start bolting routes. But there is room for more sports alongside the quiet reverence.

Imagine the possibilities. You could park near an entrance point, grab your bike, boat, climbing gear, or even wingsuit, and, you know, roller-skate in the Sistine Chapel. When I asked IMBA executive director Mike Van Abel what his dream trail would be, he was ready with an answer: circumnavigating Grand Teton National Park and connecting to Teton Village. Then he offered something more provocative: “There’s some real interest in winter fat biking on the roads in Yellowstone. Wouldn’t that be cool?”

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