The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Nature

Bringing Home Your Own Bacon with Fitness Expert Ben Greenfield

Fitness and nutrition expert, Ben Greenfield takes his food seriously.

The author, speaker, podcast producer, and coach has made a career of advising athletes on how to train and maintain good health habits. To practice what he preaches, Greenfield has transformed the kitchen in his Spokane, Washington, home into a living example of to eat locally and produce your own food. There, he gardens, hunts, and ferments—and plans to have his own chickens and goat before long.

“I love that we have a real connection with our food, and that our kids can identify the plants in our garden,” he says.

He hopes his habits will convince his clients and followers to overcome the intimidation factor in growing and sourcing food. By following some of the Greenfield family’s simple habits, anyone can take a more active role in deciding what foods to eat.         

“People are out of their comfort zone,” Greenfield explains. “They don’t know where to start.”

Many of his culinary strategies are easy for novices to adopt, while others require more work, skills, and space. One of the most basic ways to start producing your own food is by gardening. City dwellers with no yards of their own can seek out a plot in a local community garden.

And because some plants require less maintenance and care than others, Greenfield suggests starting with fast-growing crops like arugula and radishes. Another quickly flourishing plant is kale, which Greenfield suggests as a staple in an athlete’s diet because of its high iron content. Zucchini and summer squash are also easy to grow, he says, adding that they can serve as an alternative to pasta for athletes looking to limit their carbs.

At Greenfield’s house in Spokane, he and his wife, Jessa, have turned their backyard into a garden, where they grow all these vegetables. Most mornings, Greenfield heads to the garden to pick kale or other dark, leafy greens for his daily smoothie, which, he swears, tastes more robust as a result. The family also grows cucumbers, berries, corn, tomatoes, herbs, and other crops.

Aside from fresh produce, the Greenfields preserve food by canning and fermenting it. They take cucumbers from the garden and brine them to make pickles. They ferment carrots, cabbage, and peppers to make kimchi, and also make their own yogurt and kefir. Anyone can ferment or can food, Greenfield explains—and they don’t even need their own garden to do so.

Greenfield suggests that fermenting novices start with his family’s pickle recipe. Not only is the process easy, but pickle juice can help athletes replace electrolytes after a long run or ride. The Greenfields place cucumbers in an ice bath for two hours, then transfer them to a glass jar with a tablespoon of mustard seed, two fresh heads of dill, two heads of garlic, one tablespoon of salt, and four tablespoons of whey. (You can get whey from a yogurt container by simply scooping out the liquid that settles at the top.) They fill the jar with water to cover the cucumbers and let it sit on the counter at room temperature for three days. During that time, they shake the jar vigorously for 30 seconds two to three times a day and briefly open the lid after each shaking to release the gases that accumulate. The pickles are then ready to put in the refrigerator and eat.

In addition to gardening and preserving, Greenfield supplies much of the household meat by hunting, bringing home 50 to 60 pounds of white tail deer each season. He plans to start hunting turkeys as well. Since Greenfield doesn’t have to travel far to hunt, he spends little on the endeavor, paying only for a license and a butcher, who parcels the meat into freezer-friendly cuts.

If hunting isn’t an option, Greenfield suggests buying a portion of a grass-fed cow from a local company, as he does every year. The Greenfields save money by purchasing the meat in bulk, supporting a local rancher in the process.

Down the road, the Greenfields plan to continue expanding on the ways they can produce their own food. They’re building new digs on a larger plot of land so they can cultivate a bigger garden, raise ducks or chickens for fresh eggs, keep a goat for milk, and possibly even build a greenhouse for growing crops that normally wouldn’t survive Spokane’s northern climate.

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Going Wild In The New Costa Rica, Part II

The earthquake came in like a gale, shifting and groaning, gathering force, as though fulfilling the idea of itself. April is the windiest month on Nicaragua's Pacific coast and at the beach earlier in the day we'd been pelted with sand by nearly constant 40 mile-per-hour gusts. So when the rumbling began, it was easy to mistake it for the wind rattling the walls or someone in the condo upstairs dragging furniture across the floor.

It was a little after 2:30 in the afternoon on our second day at Rancho Santana, a high-end resort about three hours west of Managua. We'd spent all morning swimming and had finally gotten our daughters, ages three and five, settled down for a nap in the next room. Steve and I stretched out with our books in the living room, the breeze blowing in through screen doors and ceiling fans whirring maniacally overhead. Siesta, Nica-style.

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But the mind works in funny ways during an emergency, and almost instantaneously my brain started screaming "earthquake!" The shaking was coming from within the walls and the floor, from above and below and from all sides at once. It made a noise, not the telltale clattering you'd expect from dishes falling out of the drying rack, but a deep, almost primal roar that sounded like nothing I'd heard before.

There are a few exceptions for the old saying, "Never wake a sleeping baby." Earthquakes are right up there at the top the list. When I flung open the bedroom door, they were curled together like cats, cocooned in sleep. I grabbed Pippa and Steve picked up Maisy, and we ran outside into the courtyard. Housekeepers from neighboring condos had gathered on the steps and they looked at us with our flushed, discombobulated girls in our arms and cried, "Fuerte!" Strong.

We'd come to Nicaragua to find the wilder side of Central America, hoping for an alternative to the increasingly Americanized Costa Rica, where we could get a taste of local culture and live as close to nature as possible. In the week we'd been the country, we'd done some of the swankiest "camping" of our lives in the open-air bungalows at Morgan's Rock; been treated to the gritty, after-dark tour of Managua; wandered around the Plaza in colonial Grenada; and spent nearly every other waking minute playing in the pristine sea. Now we were being rocked by a 6.6 magnitude earthquake just 40 miles away. You don't get much closer to nature than that.

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The quake was over almost as soon as it began, an aftershock to a quake that had struck Managua the day before, destroying buildings and leaving at least one person dead. The land-based tremor posed no threat of tsunami, but President Daniel Ortega had put the country on a red-alert earthquake watch. Our condo was exactly one foot above sea level, and for a while I stood vigil on the porch, watching the ocean and waiting with dread for the giant sucking surge of a tidal wave. But the afternoon heat was easing, and with it the wind, and the girls were clamoring to swim. So eventually I abandoned my post and we went to the beach instead.

Founded in 1997, Rancho Santana is one of Nicaragua's oldest and largest luxury resort  development, with a couple dozen condos and casitas and nearly 100 private villas spread along five of the Pacific Coast's finest beaches and some of its best surf breaks. Our tasteful two-bedroom condo had a full kitchen, a patio with ocean views, and—something of a shock after our airy, screened palapa at Morgan's Rock—air conditioning. It was a mere two-minute walk from both Playa Santana and the beach club, the heart of the resort with a pool and restaurant, oceanfront massage and yoga cabanas, bocce court and horseshoe pits, and unimpeded sunset views. With options like that right out our front door, it would have been tempting to stay put, but we only had three days to explore the ranch and its more remote playas.

South of Santana, the small, steep arc of yellow sand at Playa Escondida feels desert-island remote—a good thing for the green turtles that come ashore to lay eggs in the sand. When we arrived the next morning with the resort's resident naturalist, Fredder, he showed us the white board used to record the nests and estimated hatch dates. The Nicaraguan government employs round-the-clock turtle-watchers to monitor nesting beaches along the Pacific coast and guard against poachers trying to nab eggs (local lore claims they're aphrodisiacs) during the 51-day incubation.

As we left, Fredder asked the turtle man to call him at the first sign of a hatch. We hadn't gotten more than 100 yards away when Fredder's cell phone rang. "They're hatching!" he exclaimed, turning on his heels and motioning for us to follow. Back at one of the sand pits, the turtle man held a small, black writhing newborn in his palm. It was hardly the size of my three-year-old's fist, and its eyes were almost entirely encrusted in sand. Fredder explained that as soon as they're born the baby turtles have to make their way to the ocean on their own (their mother has long since left the nest), which somehow imprints the beach's location into their turtle brain, ensuring they'll be able to find their way back in three to five years to lay their own eggs. That is, if they survive. 

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Within minutes, Fredder and the turtle man had plucked a couple of dozen tiny turtles from the pit, and they were already beginning to drag themselves toward the water, leaving what looked like miniature tire tracks in the sand. As he pulled more from the hole—there are often 80-100 per nest—he placed them gently in the girls's palms, where they fluttered like earthbound butterflies. The first turtle to reach the sea was tossed about in the waves at the water's edge, thrusting its head above the surface to breathe every so often, until at last it was carried out into the deep and disappeared into the turbulent surf. Back on the beach, the sand itself seemed to be shifting and rippling, alive with dozens of baby turtles crawling toward the light of the ocean—pure, animal instinct that left us nearly speechless.

It's hard to top the spectacle of new life being born before your eyes, but we came pretty close in our remaining time at Rancho Santana. We rode horses from the ranch's stables, along Playa Santana toward a jagged point of land called Magnific Rock, went tide-pooling along the jagged volcanic shelf in front of the beach club, ran sections of the ranch's 16-mile trail network, and spent a lot of quality time doing laps between playa and pool.

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When it comes to surfing, Steve and I are opportunistic, lazy, and inexperienced. If there are boards on hand, and we can drag them straight from our front door across the sand to a low-stress, beginners' break, then we'll surf. But the break at Playa Santana looked fast and intimidating, and there were nearly always at least a dozen surfers bobbing on their boards, waiting to drop in—and just as many on shore, scoping the action in the simultaneously intent-yet-laid-back way that true surfers have. Clearly we had no business on that wave, so instead I watched the surfers watching the surf. Between sessions, tattooed, deeply-tanned twenty-somethings from southern California and Hawaii lazed in the pool and sprawled out in the shade of the canopied chaises that looked like hermit crab shells.

The breaks at and near Rancho Santana lure surfers from around the world, but at times it felt like everyone at the resort was American and that we'd stumbled into spring break in San Diego South. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Despite its groovy surfer vibe, especially during $5 margarita sunset happy hour, Rancho Santana also exudes a genuine, palpable sense of community, whether you're first-time visitors like we were, or more committed transplants who bought condos or built villas on the property.

By our second day there, we'd met families from North Carolina, Vermont, and New Mexico, who'd been drawn to the surf and gorgeous beaches, as well as full-time expats from Florida and Maryland, who loved it so much they'd moved down for good, with kids in tow. Rancho Santana is one of the only resort developments in Nicaragua with its own school, a sweet, two-room schoolhouse, next to the organic garden and just behind the beach.

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On Saturday night, our last in Nicaragua, Steve and I dropped Pippa and Maisy off at school for the weekly kid's night out, where $15 each bought them dinner, a movie, and four hours of babysitting—like much of Nicaragua, a pretty great deal. Steve and I had been having so much fun with the girls all week that we didn't need the break, but they were clamoring to play with their new friends, so we obliged and headed off to a lobster-and-steak dinner at a gorgeous new villa overlooking Playa Escondida.

It was a fitting end to a nearly perfect Nicaragua family beach adventure. At three-and-a-half and five-and-a-half, our girls are old enough that we don't have to watch them constantly or shadow their every move; increasingly independent, they sought out children wherever we went and were game for almost everything Nica threw their way: tortilla-making, cow-milking, chicken-petting, turtle-birthing, hermit crab racing, horseback riding, even napping through their first earthquake. And after five years of lugging around a crazy mountain of gear—diapers and car seats and baby carriers and portable cribs—this time we got by with a couple of suitcases and booster seats. If one way to measure relaxation is by how many books you read while on a trip, then in Nica—where I notched a personal best of three-and-a-half—I really kicked back. For the first time since becoming parents, we felt like we'd had a true vacation.

More than that, though, in ten days we saw just enough of Nicaraguan culture to feel as though we'd actually left the U.S., and leave us wanting more—not always an easy feat on a beach trip. The girls are still too young to fully grasp the poverty that grips most of the country, but like the wilderness raft trips we've taken since they were babies, I like to think that exposure at any age becomes part of their subconscious, another link in a chain of memories that turns curious, engaged little girls into true travelers. Despite our doubts at the outset, from the moment we arrived, Nica delivered just the right dose of adventure, and then some. Earthquake and all. 

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How Far Fitness Has Fallen

If you were to cross paths with one of your farming ancestors (circa 7,500 to 2,000 B.C.), he'd shove you to the ground, kick sand in your face, and jog off into the sunset with your mate slung over his shoulder. And even with somebody else’s partner slung over his other shoulder, you’d probably never catch up to him. Such has been our musculoskeletal decline in only a handful of millennia.

“Even our most highly trained athletes pale in comparison to these ancestors of ours,” says Dr. Colin Shaw of Cambridge University’s Phenotypic Adaptability, Variation and Evolution Research Group. “We’re certainly weaker than we used to be.”

Alison Macintosh, one of Shaw’s PAVE colleagues, thinks so, too. She’s the one whose recent paper, “From athletes to couch potatoes: Humans through 6,000 years of farming,” claims that, when Central Europeans made the transition from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural ones, men’s lower limb strength and overall mobility decreased (even more so than among women).

Macintosh, a Cambridge Ph.D. candidate, compared laser-scanned femurs and tibia of skeletons from around 5300 B.C. to A.D. 850 She then cross-checked her findings with Shaw’s study of bone rigidity among modern Cambridge undergraduates, and found that the ability among male farmers to move about their environment 7,300 years ago was, on average, at a level near that of today’s student cross-country runners.

Our overall strength declined because, as technologies improved and men’s and women’s tasks diversified, people became less active. The result: today’s man is not only more sedentary than ever before, but compared to men of yon, we’re practically enfeebled. “We do much, much less than our ancestors,” says Robb Wolf, author of The Paleo Solution, “and our skeletons reflect this decrease in activity.”

This decline in physical activity and bone strength has led to osteoporosis, decrease in fitness, obesity, and myriad other problems and diseases. Ironically, “We have an overabundance of nutrition and we train better,” says Shaw, “but we’re overweight and we’re not challenging our bodies like we used to.”
 
“The average U.S. citizen is considerably less fit than the average hunter-gatherer or forager,” says Dr. Loren Cordain, professor emeritus of health and exercise science at Colorado State University and author of The Paleo Diet. “The lesson to be learned is not from early farmers and their dietary and exercise patterns, but rather from our hunter-gatherer ancestors and their dietary and exercise patterns. These examples represent the norms for our species and the environmental experiences which conditioned our genome.”
 
Indeed the hunter-gatherers of 30,000 to 150,00 years ago traveled extremely long distances while hauling all kinds of weight. “They were much stronger than the long-distance runners of today,” says Shaw. In a study he published earlier this year, he concluded that “the people back then were monsters by comparison. What you see today is quite pathetic.”
 
Cordain, for one, thinks we should eat and live like our hunter-gatherer ancestors, whose meat-heavy diets gave them more muscle mass and enhanced their athletic abilities and performance. Wolf would add in weight training, stretching, and, in particular, cross-country running, because it challenges our bodies in the same ways hunter-gatherers had to navigate uneven terrain and the up-and-down of hills—all of which increased their physical robustness.
 
Do all that and you can reclaim your ancient potential, advises Wolff. “If folks train hard they can achieve remarkable levels of physical development.”  

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The Rise of Lyme Disease

Now that the polar vortex has (hopefully) been banished for the year, you're probably chomping at the bit to get back out to your favorite hiking trail—likely with your canine adventure companion in tow. But fresh research about Lyme disease suggests you should think twice before throwing Fido in the back of your truck.

In Banfield Pet Hospital’s 2014 State of Pet Health Report, researchers found that Lyme disease in dogs has increased 21 percent since 2009. The report, which based its results on medical data from more than 2.3 million dogs, found that in 2013, one in every 130 dogs carried the disease-causing bacteria.

"Because it’s been a long winter, especially in many areas where Lyme disease is prevalent, the natural thing for everyone to do is to go outside and enjoy the wonderful weather," says Dr. Sandi Lefebvre, a veterinary research associate at Banfield. "Although it's fabulous to be outside with your dog, you need to be conscious of the dangers that are lurking out there."

Those dangers vary depending on which state you live in. Take New England, where Lyme disease rates are much higher than in the rest of the country. In New Hampshire—the state with the most reported cases of Lyme disease—one in every 15 dogs examined was infected. Compare that to the Pacific Northwest, where just one in every 1,000 dogs carried the bacteria.  

Since 2009, populations of the two species of ticks that carry Lyme disease have exploded. The white-tailed deer populations that ticks feast upon—and that primarily occupy states east of the Rocky Mountains—have also grown since then, says Lefebvre.

"Ticks like to feed off of these deer, so the more deer there are, the more ticks there are, and the higher the chance that those ticks are infected," Lefebvre says. "And the more infected ticks there are, the higher the chance of dogs getting bitten by them."

Climate may also have played a role in the Lyme disease boom. Simply put, ticks like warmer weather. Short, mild winters like the one two years ago translate to longer tick seasons. 

"Any mammal, whether dog, raccoon, or cat, that travels through those environments is potential target for hungry ticks," says Banfield’s Regional Medical Director Amy Bowman. "Ticks don't jump, leap, or fly. They merely climb plant life and release onto the potential host. What can you do to break that cycle? You have to prevent ticks from attaching and feeding on your pet."

But before you decide to lock your four-legged friend in the kennel, take a second to reconsider. Just because your dog is carrying the bacteria doesn’t mean he’ll show any of the disease’s symptoms. And while others can have life-threatening kidney failure, there are a few simple precautions you can take to keep your pup healthy.

With that in mind, Bowman provided some tips to keep your pup safe, identify signs of Lyme disease, and treat the ailment.

Medication and Gadgets

You wear sunblock to prevent sunburns, so why not give your dog a similar treatment to deter ticks? Bowman suggests a chemical method, like the popular parasiticide Advantix, or a flea and tick collar. Both are available at most pet stores and animal clinics.

Grooming

After any outdoor adventure, remember to check your dogs for ticks. "Ticks need to feed on your pet for about 24 hours," says Bowman. "So when you get back from your activity, groom your pet for ticks. That greatly decreases exposure."

Know the Symptoms

The incubation period and symptoms of Lyme disease in canines vary drastically. However, if your dog exhibits lameness, limping, fever, lethargy, joint soreness, or joint inflammation, it might have Lyme disease and you should seek veterinary help as soon as possible.  

Don't Ignore Your Vet

"The best thing you can do to know whether or not your dog is positive for the bacteria is to have it tested regularly for exposure to Lyme disease," Bowman says. "That is usually done in conjunction with your pet's annual heartworm test. We often pick up Lyme disease in pets who have never shown symptoms." These tests are simple, requiring only a drop of blood, and will help detect other potentially harmful diseases in your dog.

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Baked Alaska: Surviving Aniakchak National Monument

Jimmy's Store in Port Heiden, population 102, stocks all the staples of Alaskan bush life, at bush prices: $14 cans of Folgers, $7.50 packs of sunflower spits, something called the Jerky Master. And on the wall, hanging from a nail: very large steel leg traps, without price or explanation.

“You’re goin’ up there today?” Jimmy asks from behind the counter, in what passes for a formal greeting. Jimmy’s gaze trails across the ample gray acreage of his sweatshirt and settles on the window, where right now a slasher-film fog is sticking to what little scenery presents itself. Tundra. Truck. Still more tundra, unspooling to a horizon so unbroken by man or mountain range that the sky would start at your shoelaces if only you could see them. Welcome to July on the Alaska Peninsula. 

Twenty minutes ago, our bush plane nosed down into the soup and left us on a gravel airstrip, where we hitched a ride to Jimmy’s along with the mail sacks in the back of a gutted eighties Econoline van. QUAYANA (“thank you”), the door read. NO PETS. 

Jimmy Christensen is half Aleut, and like many of the native Aleut here, he’s broad, quiet and kind, and in possession of his people’s sly, dry sense of humor. The way everybody is always asking Jimmy for advice or to borrow his dozer until next Friday, he seems to run his hometown. He’s sort of the gentle Tony Soprano of Port Heiden. There’s not much new here for a man like Jimmy, and our sudden appearance and determination seem to amuse him. He sells us a gallon of white gas and offers to drive us to the road’s end. 

Grabbing his keys, Jimmy says we’re the first backpackers he’s seen in weeks. This doesn’t surprise us. Nobody comes to the Alaska Peninsula by accident. Even fewer come here for fun. The peninsula marks the start of the Aleutian island chain, the 1,400-mile tail that wags west toward Kamchatka. It’s a slim, Vermont-size piece of nearly trackless green with a population of fewer than 3,000 residents, almost all of whom live in just a few villages that sit uneasily on the map, as if nature might evict them at any time. Naknek. South Naknek. Port Heiden. It’s a tortured landscape, pummeled by unrelenting storms and warted with semiactive volcanoes. In a state grinning with superlatives, this is one of the wildest, rowdiest, most remote places around. It remains a question mark to even the most sporting Alaskans. 

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Which is exactly why we’re bouncing in the back of Jimmy’s king cab. I’m obsessed with blank spots on the map, the places nobody goes. I’ve learned to follow my cell phone like a reverse Geiger counter: the poorer the coverage, the more enticing the destination. For ten years, I’ve tried without luck to visit the most promising one of all, the one that now lurks out there in the murk: Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve, the least visited of the entire 401-unit national park system. 

Already it has taken my companions—guide Dan Oberlatz and photographer Gabe Rogel—and I three flights from Seattle to reach Port Heiden, which sits about 450 miles southwest of Anchorage. Our plan is to backpack 22 miles into the monument’s centerpiece, an ancient and massive crater, and then float 38 miles to the Pacific using ultralight, stowable rafts crammed deep in our packs. From there we hope to hoof and paddle nearly 80 miles down the coast to the native community of Chignik Lagoon, where the closest airstrip awaits.

Inconvenience is the least of the obstacles that Aniakchak throws up for the would-be visitor. The central peninsula is home to one of the largest concentrations of the biggest brown bears on earth. Then there are the man-eating vegetables, alder jungles that swallow bushwhackers, and cow parsnip with poison leaves that blister the skin. Add routinely nasty meteorology—“This is where a lot of the weather is made for the rest of the country,” a guide once told me—and the challenge we face is pretty stark. 

We’re not even out of sight of Port Heiden’s last house when Jimmy starts in on his version of Alaska’s familiar “out of the car, into the food chain” axiom. “Just remember there’s a bear up here, he’s about 12 foot,” Jimmy says. “The worst thing up here, though, are the wolves,” he adds. “They’ve been hanging out now in packs of 40.” The leg traps suddenly make sense. In 2010, wolves in Chignik Lake killed a petite schoolteacher while she was out for a run. The incident was only the fourth documented account in North America of unhabituated wolves killing a human being. 

The truck stops where the muddy track meets a creek, and we pile out.

“What kind of gun you got?” Jimmy asks.

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Dan introduces Jimmy to Pepe, his handgun and the fourth member of our group. Pepe is a brawny, confident-looking .44 Magnum. Dirty Harry’s gun. I liked Pepe the moment I met him in Anchorage—a fondness that grew once Dan discouraged me from bringing my bear spray, explaining that not only is bear mace unpredictable, it’s also not allowed on commercial planes.

Feeding Pepe ammo at the trailhead, Dan suddenly seems apologetic. “Probably won’t do more than piss off a 12-footer,” he says to Jimmy.

The Aleut’s silence is a verdict. Jimmy then says that he prefers to carry a shotgun with slugs, the Alaska-approved way to stop one thousand pounds of charging meat. 

Before we shoulder our packs, Jimmy pauses to offer some parting native wisdom. “What you gotta do is file the tip of the sight off,” he says, eyeing Pepe. “So it won’t hurt so much when the bear shoves it up your ass.”

In 2012, 9.7 million visitors drove through the gates of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the country’s busiest. That’s nearly 19 people per minute. Meanwhile, 19 people stopped by Aniakchak all year. This isn’t because Aniakchak lacks merit; it may be the coolest place you’ve never heard of. Around the time the Egyptians were at the height of their powers, a 7,000-foot stratovolcano blew its top with a force equal to 10,000nuclear bombs. Bowels emptied, and the peak collapsed on itself, leaving a six-mile- wide crater with walls rising as much as 2,500 feetfromthefloor.Forthenextfewthousand years, it sat resting in near anonymity. Then, in 1930, the Glacier Priest arrived. 

Father Bernard Hubbard was a Jack London character sprung to life—a self-promoting Jesuit and peripatetic head of the geology department at California’s Santa Clara University who was as quick with a bear-felling shot as he was with a Hail Mary. Hubbard’s scrambles all over pre-statehood Alaska, sometimes accompanied by a crew of strapping Santa Clara footballers who wore their leather helmets for protection, made the Glacier Priest a household name at a time when a depressed nation hungered for heroes. His exploits appeared in The Saturday Evening Post and National Geographic; for a time, he was said to be one of the top-paid speakers on the planet. “The world’s most daring explorer,” one magazine declared.

Hubbard’s visit to unknown Aniakchak, though, really shot the Glacier Priest to fame. Inside the “great moon crater,” as he called the long-quiet caldera, his crew discovered “paradise found… a world within a mountain,” where orchids bloomed in the volcanically warmed soil and the rabbits were so guileless that the padre and his crew felt guilty eating them (but did anyway).

Then Aniakchak erupted again, in the spring of 1931. When the holy man returned that summer and peered over the crater’s edge, he likened himself to Dante on the edge of the Inferno. “It was the abomination of desolation… the prelude of hell,” he wrote in his book Mush, You Malemutes! “Black walls, black floor, black water, deep black holes and black vents; it fairly agonized the eye to look at it.” Hubbard’s Eden had been obliterated, replaced by a Hieronymus Bosch canvas of cauldrons bubbling with sulfurous yellows and greens and fumaroles hot enough to cook his crew’s beans. 

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Eighty years later, Aniakchak is a quiescent member of the Pacific’s volcanic Ring of Fire but is considered “potentially active” by the Alaska Volcano Observatory. The crater and surrounding areas have started to recover. So why does nobody come? Access, for one. No roads reach Aniakchak. The aforementioned nasty weather, for another. Stuck between the raging Bering Sea and North Pacific Ocean, the Alaska Peninsula is forever buffeted by storms like a beleaguered referee trying to separate heavyweights. Skies are cloudy 300 days a year, with low ceilings. Flying here is akin to navigating inside an old gym sock. Parties can wait days to get in or out.

Then there are the brown bears Jimmy warned us about. “The Alaska Peninsula has, if not the highest density in the world, then close to it,” Dave Crowley, a biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who manages the area’s bears, told me before I left. Recent studies have found up to 400 brown bears per 1,000 square kilometers. (By comparison, it's estimated that just 718 of the famous, feared Yellowstone grizzlies are sprinkled across 72,500 square kilometers in the greater park area.) The peninsula’s bears are genetically similar to the famed Kodiak brown bears, which along with polar bears are the largest bears on earth. 

If you do manage to reach Aniakchak, you will find no broad-brimmed park rangers. No Winnebagos. Not a single marked trail. As the National Park Service’s website for Aniakchak puts it, “No lines, no waiting!”

“We gotta get up and outta this shit,” Dan says as he climbs back into the tent on the second morning. He’s soaked. After our group left Jimmy yesterday afternoon, we squished southward for seven miles across tundra and through low grasses that felt like someone’s overwatered lawn. Just a dozen miles from the grumpy Bering Sea, the landscape almost cowered; bent beneath our 65-pound packs, we were still the tallest things for miles. We eventually pitched camp in what felt like the inside of a milk jug. Now we can’t see 50 feet. I thought back to two days ago, when we’d stood in the airport departure lounge in sunny, 75-degree Anchorage before a mural highlighting marquee destinations like Lake Clark National Park and Katmai and read Gateway to Alaska’s Southwestern Wildlands. Aniakchak wasn’t on the mural. 

If this trip is a fool’s errand, I can’t think of better fools-in-travel than my companions. Dan, 45, is a smart-ass native of Northern California with sharp blue eyes behind his geek-chic horn-rimmed eyeglasses. A ball cap that hides a backpedaling hairline advertises Alaska Alpine Adventures, his 16-year-old company that guides trips ranging from ski-touring from a yacht to climbing in the Brooks Range and then floating to the Arctic Ocean in inflatable canoes. A few years ago, Dan also launched Adventure Appetites, a gourmet backcountry food company that has supplied the fare for our trip. Gabe, 37, from Washington, is an up-for-anything photographer whose goofiness makes it easy to forget that he’s a former mountain guide who has worked everywhere from the top of 8,000-meter Shishapangma to the unclimbed vertical walls of Ethiopia.

“Chimps in the mist,” Dan dubs us after breakfast as we hunch under our packs and trudge into the never-ending whiteout. The land rises almost imperceptibly in a long, green, mossy ramp that, the map tells, is the volcano’s flank. We see bear tracks. We see caribou tracks. We see wolf tracks that stalk the caribou tracks. 

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/baked-alaska-4_fe.jpg","caption":"Scouting the 38-mile Aniakchak River.","size":"large"}%}

The fog machine is on full. We steer by GPS. Condensation drools from Dan’s hat brim and from Pepe’s barrel, which rides holstered within easy reach on his hip. Gabe and I are jittery in the spooky murk. Wolves appear at the corner of our vision, only to resolve themselves into shrubs. Bruins become boulders. “Alaskan rock bear,” Dan says after I yelp at one. With no bear spray to comfort me, I calm myself by recalling what bear-expert Crowley had told me: Aniakchak bears live at the largest buffet table on earth—berries, salmon, moose. They’re so well fed they “tend to be fat and lazy,” he said; he’d watched bears catch salmon and only lick them, they were so full. “If you don’t do anything stupid, you’ll be alright.” I repeat the words buffet table like a mantra.

Eventually, the moss gives way to black-pebbled plains and ash piles and rivers of pumice. There is no wind, no birdsong, as if even sound itself has abandoned us. 

“This place is so otherworldly,” says Dan. “Dead. Not a thing alive.” 

Up and up, we chimps walk through the monochrome for hours. Finally, a black line materializes from the white mist: the crater lip. Now the wind rouses, as if Aniakchak has awakened to the trespass. It roars, grabs backpacks, lifts us like bright bits of cloth and practically tosses us over the rim, sending us running down the steep pumice ramp into the crater.

Inside the caldera, the wind relents. The clouds lift. The sun shines. Finally, we can see where we’ve arrived.

“Oh, my God,” I say, looking at Gabe. 

“Oh, my God,” says Gabe, looking at Dan.

“Oh, my God,” says Dan, looking everywhere.

A “bewitched stadium” is how Hubbard described the crater the first time he stepped inside. My initial thought is less poetic. It feels like we’ve stumbled into a gargantuan gopher hole. Inside it’s sunny and dry: an ash-filled bowl more than six miles across whose floor is so large—nearly 30 square miles—that Manhattan could easily fit inside. Before us spreads a scene that’s Land of the Lost meets nuclear holocaust. Eighty years on, the ground underfoot still looks charred. A few sprigs of dwarf fireweed flower bravely in the dry ash. Cinder cones pimple the crater 

floor, and all around us queer volcanic monuments pepper the landscape. To our left is a huge scoop in the earth called Half Cone, remnant of some bygone blowout. Behind us lies a scab of hardened lava the size of a neighborhood which oozed up during the 1931 eruption. As if the scene lacked for drama, high above us fog pours over the crater rim in spectacular cascades that shred and evaporate on the descent. “Cloud Niagaras,” Hubbard called them. 

There’s green water in the distance. We head toward it instinctively, kicking up ash like postapocalyptic pilgrims.

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After the 1931 eruption, the Glacier Priest had damned Aniakchak as the pit of Hades. The intervening years have softened the place slightly, rinsing off the heaviest soot and endowing it with a flinty beauty. Call it desolation sublime. We hike past walls candy-striped in sherbet pinks and reds. A caribou prances by, a sole welcoming host. In the middle of the crater, we tramp past the huge cone of 3,350-foot Vent Mountain—“a volcano within a volcano!” Hubbard had exclaimed upon first seeing it—looking sullen with its burnt top. In the distance, glaciers cling to the shadier walls.

Then there’s Surprise Lake, the crater’s psychedelic gem, which glows the unreal green of Imodium A-D, thanks to suspended volcanic particles in the water. The specially evolved sockeye salmon that spawn here are essentially raised on soda water. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen in Alaska, that’s for sure,” Dan says that evening after we make camp in a sheltered elbow along the lake and tuck into his company’s reindeer rotini. 

The next morning, wearing only daypacks, we explore the crater’s oddness. It’s like taking a walking tour of our dyspeptic planet. We cross electric green moss and black sand dunes so full of iron they stick to the magnet on the chest strap of Gabe’s CamelBak. We hoof across otherworldly plains of dust staged with small rocks, where I’m pretty sure NASA faked the Mars rover landing. We peer into springs bubbling with a witchy brew of ferric browns and pumpkin oranges. I keep thinking of how one early geologist described Aniakchak: a “pleasing weirdness,” he wrote. And all the more pleasing for our aloneness.

Or at least we seemed alone. “Now that’s a big bear right there. That’s a coastal brown. That’s huge,” Dan says, looking down at muddy paw prints along the lake near our campsite. The claws on the front paw print are as long as Swiss Army blades. The rear print swallows my XL hand with inches to spare. “Definitely a ten-footer,” Dan says.

{%{"quote":"Exploring the crater is like taking a walking tour of our dyspeptic planet. We hoof across otherworldly plains of dust staged with small rocks, where I'm pretty sure NASA faked the Mars rover landing."}%}

“So, uh, how old do you think those are?” I ask, second-guessing our solitude. I search to see if Pepe is still strapped to Dan’s hip.

“At least a few days.” I exhale.

That afternoon, as the guys nap in warm 70-degree sunshine, I tie a fly to the end of my line. Standing atop some of those bear tracks, I’m soon yanking in Dolly Varden trout, their polka dots pink in the yellow sun, from where the Aniakchak River exits the lake. Every few casts, I swivel around to make sure my fly hasn’t foul-hooked the ten-footer. Some people prefer meditation to make them feel present; for me, nothing focuses the mind quite like knowing I’m a potential crudité.

From the moment it tumbles out of the crater, the 38-mile Aniakchak River runs south toward the Pacific as if it’s late for dinner. It will be our escape route. We’ll use our packable Alpacka rafts to float right out of the caldera. At one time the inside of the crater had been filled with a 600-foot-deep lake. That changed about 2,000 years ago, when an earthquake or eruption or massive rockslide cracked the crater wall. A biblical flood gushed through the gap, with a flow close to the Mississippi, overwhelming the landscape downstream. Today, the designated Wild and Scenic Aniakchak River still charges through that 1,000-plus-foot cleft, called the Gates, as it carries Surprise Lake to the sea.

Yesterday, we’d climbed high onto the crater rim to scout our departure. 

“Not a lot of volume,” Gabe had said, watching the small river squeeze through the Gates before uncoiling on distant green plains. “Looks like it might be hard to get in a lot of trouble.” 

More-careful inspection showed garage-size boulders frothing the green waters. I knew the river dropped 75 feet per mile through here—honest rapids. I also knew that my entire whitewater experience consisted of Mom letting me ride the log flume, twice, at Virginia’s Kings Dominion amusement park.

The next morning we wisely portage past the chewing rocks and Class III-plus rapids of the Gates. Downstream, we suit up in ultra-light drysuits for a practice run. Dan gives us whitewater kayaking 101. “They’re super-agile,” he says of our micro rafts. “They’ll bounce off rocks. You’ll spin around,” he adds. “You’ll be fine.” 

For its first third, the Aniakchak is as wide and shallow as a sluicebox. This late in summer, it’s a fun-house ride of mostly Class II rapids. We bounce downstream for 13 miles of unbroken whitewater, hooting and hollering.

It’s comforting to see Pepe riding high on Dan’s life jacket. Which reminds me—what should I do if I see a bear standing in the river?

 “Enjoy the experience,” Dan says. Then, after a short pause, he flashes a wide grin. “And paddle to the deepest water.” 

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/baked-alaska-5_fe1.jpg","size":"large"}%}

Later that afternoon, we finally see our first: a honey-colored beauty who quickly bolts deeper into the nearby willows after spotting our odd armada. 

The river slows dramatically the second day, as the land palms open into perfect bruin country. The terrain even looks bear-like—humped, alder-furred hills that seem to root around in the underbrush. We find the calm pace of this new land, sometimes dozing off while seated upright in our kayaks, other times tossing pumice stones at one another and watching them float. 

As we drift languidly, I remember something Dan told me over lunch before we left Anchorage. “I could grow my business and do stupid touristy shit,” he said, making a sour face. “But the soul of my business is in the wilderness.” He’s led fifty-some trips in Alaska since founding his company, but these days he personally guides only those, like Aniakchak, that he hasn’t done yet. Alaska is too big and too cool, he said, to not keep exploring.

That afternoon, the Pacific Ocean welcomes us with a stiff-arm breeze and an incoming tide. After a short struggle against both, we spy an old cannery cabin refitted by the Park Service above the beach. After five days of so much expansiveness, the confines of four walls and a small space is a relief. Inside, the cabin’s logbook records many wild things: Trips of 30-bear sightings. Parties pinned down for days by hurricane winds. Savaged boats. I turn to the most recent entry and count backward. Just 11 visitors so far this year, not including us—and three of them were here for work.

Most visitors to Aniakchak get picked up by floatplane at the cabin after their paddle to the sea. The reason that Dan suggested we keep going on foot is simple: he’d never hiked the rarely trammeled, four-day, 80-mile route along the Pacific to Chignik Lagoon and wanted to do some recon for a possible client trip. Gabe and I were game. 

Our trek along the beach is no Tahiti vacation. We spend long days bent under our still-heavy packs. We make decent time cruising never--ending stretches of firm sand and sneaking around barnacled headlands at low tide. Sometimes, though, we’re forced upland into thickets of alder that grow as tight as prison bars and slow progress to a heartbreaking quarter-mile per hour. Whenever possible, Dan sniffs out bear trails, centuries-old bruin inter-states that are the path of least resistance through the tangle. One is so disturbingly popular that it’s trenched three feet deeper than the abutting alders.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/baked-alaska-8_pg.jpg","align":"right","size":"medium"}%}

The miles blur in a fever dream of suffering and spectacle. I remember bald eagles posing atop sea stacks like hood ornaments for the continent. I remember inflating the pack rafts nervously for a 13-mile paddle around a headland on the rolling Pacific, only to be pleasantly distracted by orange-beaked puffins and curious sea lions. I remember Pepe, drawn and ready to shout, after we surprise a chuffing brownie on a kill. And how that bear is the last of 19 we see in 24 hours as we leave the preserve and enter the Alaska Peninsula National Wildlife Refuge. 

Mostly what I remember, though, is the feeling of a different rhythm taking hold, not of the wristwatch but of natural places. Each day as we hike, the sun sets a little sooner. We see salmon gather in the bays, sniffing for their home rivers—and see bears come down to the shore, ready to flick their sushi onto the sand. My fancy GPS watch dies; I don’t much care. I go days without thinking of e-mail or my iPhone. This is what we want from our Aniakchaks, isn’t it? Places that help us shake off the dross and find a surer and more ancient pulse.

Four days after leaving the cabin, on the puddle-jumper out of Chignik Lagoon, a familiar green ramp comes into view. From 15,000 feet, it appears as smooth as pool felt. I press my forehead to the window and stare for a long time as the ramp finally climbs higher and higher, until it vanishes in a smother of white clouds. I look up. Gabe and Dan are smiling. For a moment we grin like idiots at one another. Then we press our foreheads against the cold of the Cessna’s tiny portholes. Seeing all this, some of our fellow passengers look out their windows, perplexed. If you hadn’t been there, it would be easy to think there was nothing worth seeing at all. 

Christopher Solomon (@chrisasolomon) wrote about a new and controversial approach to marathon training in January 2013.

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