The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Nature

The Last of the Real Mountain Towns

The best real estate isn't always the most expensive. There are some spectacular mountain destinations in the U.S. that haven’t yet been overrun by mega mansions. Take these five alpine getaways, which each have rustic charm and beauty—and a down-to-earth property prices. For now, at least. 

Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

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Why here: Pigeon Forge, population 5,800, and nearby Gatlinburg are the gateways to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park from the western side. World-class whitewater paddling and climbing, and hundreds of miles of mountain biking and hiking are all at your disposal. 

What $175,000 can buy: A one-bedroom, two-bath creekside log cabin with a sleeping loft and hot tub, listed at $154,900.

Why it’s so affordable: The Pigeon Forge area, home to the Dollywood and NASCAR Speedpark amusement parks, is considered too red-necky for the urban elites of the South and Northeast, who prefer to flock to tonier Asheville, North Carolina. 

Greenville, Maine

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Why here: The old logging town of Greenville, population 1,600, sits on largely undeveloped Moosehead Lake, the largest lake in Maine and the crystal source of the Kennebec River. There’s no mountain town in New England with more remote, or gorgeous, surroundings.

What $175,000 can buy: A rustic, 1-bedroom, 700 square foot cottage with neighborhood access to the lake, listed at $70,000.

Why it’s so affordable: Location. The drive from Boston to Greenville is about 4.5 hours. Meanwhile, Cape Cod is 90 minutes away from Beantown, and the White Mountains and Lakes Region of New Hampshire is two hours.

Darby, Montana

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Why here: Darby, population 700, near the Idaho border, in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana is sandwiched by the Bitterroot Range and Sapphire Mountains, two endless outdoor playgrounds.

What $175,000 can buy: A 1,900-square-foot, 3-bed, 2-bath getaway with broad mountain views listed at $118,000.

Why it’s so affordable: The well-heeled who buy mountain homes prefer to be closer to ski resorts. Darby is a half-hour drive down Route 93 from the nearest one—the humble Lost Trail Powder Mountain. Backcountry skiing, like on Trapper Peak in the Bitterroot Mountains, is practically just out your back door, though.

Sugarloaf, California

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Why here: Fewer than ten miles from Big Bear Lake, Sugarloaf (population 1,800) sits at 7,000 feet in the San Bernadino Mountains of California. The region is a sports paradise—in both summer and winter. 

What $175,000 can buy: A two-bedroom, one bath, 864-square foot cottage with knotty pine-paneled walls, listed at $129,900.

Why it’s so affordable: Because for the hoi polloi from Los Angeles, it’s all about zip code. If a home doesn’t have 92315 at the bottom of its address (meaning it’s in Big Bear Lake) they’re not interested.

Rhododendron, Oregon

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Why here: Mount Hood is the undisputed outdoor recreation nexus for the Northwest, and the hamlets west of the summit along US 26, including Rhododendron, are natural jump-off points for adventure.

What $175,000 can buy: A 3-bedroom, 1-bath cottage on nearly a half-acre by Still Creek in the Mount Hood National Forest, listed at $117,500.

Why it’s so affordable: The actual town of Rhododendron isn’t quite as well-located as Mt. Hood Village (sandwiched by the Salmon and Sandy rivers) to the west, or Government Camp (by Summit Ski area) to the east.

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Ranger Gabriel, Do You Copy?

Some people are heroes; others need saving. Eight-year-old Gabriel Lavan-Ying of Gainesville, Florida, has the soul of the former, but the body of the latter. He suffers from chronic inflammation, loose joints, skin that breaks open at the gentlest bumping, and his body is polka-dotted with black and blue hematomas—all symptoms of the connective tissue disorder Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. Eventually, he’ll have to get surgery to repair the delicate tissue of his aortic route.

“He doesn't heal well or hold stitches, and we've learned that the hard way with his skin rupturing," says Gabriel’s mother, Tara. "So you can imagine what we're looking at when he needs surgery on his heart."

Even with his condition, Gabriel craves time adventuring outside, especially within state and national parks. At a fort in St. Augustine, Gabriel fell upon the Junior Ranger program—if he studied a handout, wrote an essay, spoke with rangers about their jobs, and completed various activities, Gabriel discovered, he could be part of the park system, too. 

“He got a certificate and a patch, and that was it, he was hooked,” Tara says. “So every time we went back to the fort, he would do it over again, although he got the same patch. He didn't care. “

And now, despite Ehlers-Danlos, Gabriel wants to be a park ranger when he grows up.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/gabriel-and-ranger_h.jpg","size":"medium","caption":"Ranger Gabriel learns how to wear his new uniform with pride.","align":"left"}%}

“With that kind of hardship, being a ranger is certainly not ever going to be his reality,” Tara says. Most people suffering from EDS don’t start experiencing the worst symptoms until their 20s, but Gabriel has had EDS since infancy; his condition has progressed well beyond what’s normal for his age.

But after Florida representatives of Make-A-Wish learned about Gabriel’s condition this spring, Gabriel got his chance. On June 3, more than 100 Yosemite National Park employees worked with Gabriel and his family to help him achieve his dream of becoming an honorary park ranger.

The event was just as significant for Yosemite’s rangers as it was for Gabriel: Yosemite has planned events for people with illnesses previously, but park representatives said the park had neither worked with Make-A-Wish before nor created a means of becoming an honorary ranger before Gabriel dreamed up the possibility.

“We have had things like this in the past, but we've never had anything either this formal, this complex or this big,” said ranger Scott Gediman.

Park employees made Gabriel’s experience as official as possible. Chris Raines, the park’s education ranger; Ed Visnovske, the park’s law enforcement supervisor; and naturalist ranger Erik Westerlund worked together to create a day jam-packed with challenging activities that would give him contact with every kind of ranger and make him feel like he earned his badge, but—thanks to input from Gabriel’s medical team—wouldn’t put him in harm’s way.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/http://media.outsideonline.com/images/gabriel-magnifying-glass_h.jpg","size":"medium","caption":"Honorary Ranger Gabriel Lavan-Ying, 8, takes a scrupulous look at the famous park under his care.","align":"right"}%}

Gabriel arrived at the park with his twin sister Angelica, his baby brother Dominic, and his parents. He wore a child-size version of the ranger uniform, the hat covering his scarred forehead and the jacket large on a frame made small by an emergency stomach surgery. Though Gediman, Raines, Visnovske, and Westerlund met Gabriel amidst the click-clicks of perfectly positioned photographers and TV crews, the rangers and his mother all said Gabriel seemed completely invested and in the moment—to him, this was real.

The rangers put Gabriel through his paces right out of the gate. At 9 a.m. Gabriel went through yet another junior ranger program, complete with programs about wildlife and bird watching, which earned him a spot at the morning briefing table. While meeting various rangers, an “emergency call” came in about a forest fire in the park. Gabriel and two rangers quickly hopped into a fire truck and met 20 other fire rangers on the scene.

“They actually set a small ground fire,” Gediman says. “They gave him a hose and he actually put out the fire.”

A small group of rangers took Gabriel to lunch in the shadows of Yosemite Valley’s arching waterfalls and cliffs, where they conveyed to him in what it means to be a ranger: participating in preservation history and the importance of conserving natural resources.

But the park wouldn’t stay quiet for long. Gabriel’s Yosemite-assigned radio (“This is Ranger Gabriel, do you copy?”) soon buzzed with an even bigger emergency: Gabriel’s search and rescue skills were needed.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/ranger-gabriel-fire_h.jpg","size":"medium","caption":"Ranger Gabriel puts a park fire in its place.","align":"left"}%}

“We had a victim (read: a very safe ranger) that was in a litter that we lowered down a cliff,” Gediman says. “Gabriel took the victim to the ambulance and then he rode in the ambulance to the meadow” where a helicopter was waiting.

Proving his well-rounded worth, Gabriel was finally swept up by patrol car to a ceremony around 3 p.m. to celebrate his hard-earned victories. In front of family, new friends, and park visitors, Superindendent Don Neubacher and judge Michael Seng officially made Gabriel an honorary Yosemite park ranger.

“By the end of the day we were all just tired, but I mean, it was a special thing for me seeing that his high fives at the end of the day were stronger than in the morning,” Gediman says. “His mom tried to get him to drink water and relax but he just didn't want to sit; he just wanted to go.”

For Tara, seeing her son power through his wish was a little nerve-wracking. “I kept asking him, ‘Do you need me to carry you, do you need a ranger to carry you?’ and he said, 'No no no,' because he didn't want to look weak in front of the rangers,” she remembers. “I thought, well I'm gonna have to put his legs in cold water tonight to numb and cool some of this inflammation that's bound to be going on.”

But carrying Gabriel through the Sequoias the following day was a small price to pay. “It was emotional,” Tara continues, “just how much work everyone put in to make it so special for him.”

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Going through treatment is rough at any age, but for Gabriel, the prospect of becoming a ranger eased the pain. “For a lot of kids, a wish come true empowers them to continue to do their treatment,” says Josh deBerge, senior manager of national communications and public relations for Make-A-Wish.

If recent events are any indication, Gabriel’s wish experience will be a driving force for a while. The day after his ceremony, his family was driving to a rafting event when they saw a real rescue occurring within the park: a woman had been bitten by a snake.

Gabriel put on his ranger hat and was acknowledged by his ranger colleagues. “Even though it wasn't his wish day, he was still included,” Tara says. “To him, it wasn't a day, he's an honorary park ranger,” she adds, “And that's what he is, forever.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/gabriel-oath-ranger_h.jpg","size":"medium","caption":"After a day of hard work, Ranger Gabriel gets sworn in as an Honorary Park Ranger in front of about 300 people.","align":"left"}%}

Photos courtesy of Yosemite National Park and Josh deBerge.

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Is Seawater the Next Big Fuel Source?

In April, the Navy announced a breakthrough in transforming seawater, the earth's most abundant natural resource, to fuel. Researchers used it to fly a model jet powered with an internal combustion engine like its full-sized counterparts. What are the implications of such a technology in a world scrambling for clean, efficient energy?

According to U.S. Navy research chemist Dr. Heather Wilhauer, the new process takes roughly 23,000 gallons of seawater to produce one gallon of liquid hydrocarbon fuel. You might suspect that solves two problems at once: dependence on fossil fuels and rising sea levels. The trouble with the latter is that the excess water simply goes right back into the ocean. The first question is more complicated.

To create the fuel, Wilhauer's team extracted carbon dioxide and hydrogen bound in the water and recombined those gases in a catalyst reactor to produce the liquid fuel. The process can be applied to different metals to engender methanol, liquid natural gas, gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel. "Because it's a synthetic process, you can tailor it to whatever fuel you need," Wilhauer notes.

If that sounds like the jackpot, it could be—in a perfect world. Like water that's pumped uphill using electricity and later released to generate electricity, the CO2 and hydrogen extracted from the sea end up back in the water where they started. "You have to put more energy in to get the fuel than you get out of the fuel when you use it," says Brentan Alexander, founder of the Stanford Energy Club and Senior Mechanical Engineer at Wrightspeed. "So it's still net-energy negative. When you start applying that towards generating fuel on a larger scale in the United States, you're going to run into a really hard wall to make that cost-effective, because natural gas is cheap."

But for the Navy, which moves 1.2 billion gallons of fuel annually, it makes perfect sense. "Our aircraft carriers are nuclear powered, but we still have to get fuel out to there to fly the airplanes," says Rear Admiral Kevin Slates, who works on the Navy's environmental and energy programs. Barges must frequently haul resupply fuel across oceans to aircraft carriers, and other ships protect those barges, all of which require their own fuel. "This would allow us to produce fuel at the point of consumption and basically untether that ship," says Rear Admiral Slates. It also eliminates risk of potential fuel spills during transport. "The delivered cost of fuel to our fleet at sea is obviously more expensive than what we're paying at a pump. Then [seawater fuel] becomes cost-competitive much quicker than for, say, commercial automobiles."

The same may be true for powering remote islands like Hawaii, which have unlimited access to seawater and whose fuels also need to be hauled in from afar. If seawater processing plants existed on Hawaii shores, it, too, could be untethered. The fuel could even power cars in this scenario if the price is right. And because no chemicals are added in the conversion process, there's effectively no waste, only water released back into the ocean at its initial pH. But this, too, is likely a far-away reality.

"It all hinges on whether it can scale up to produce the quantities that we need," says Rear Admiral Slates, which could take ten to 15 years. "It's clearly a game-changing, innovative technology that we're really interested in."

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Exploring Canada’s Extremes

Want to get off the tourist-beaten track? Then look no farther than our northern neighbor, where a string of five national parks—with shifting ice and steep-walled fjords—peer over North America’s 49th parallel.

These Canadian preserves stretch from Newfoundland to high above the magnetic North Pole, offering stunning views and incredible access to the wild. But beware: these are regions where wildlife reigns supreme and humans submit to Mother Nature. 

We start with the southernmost of the parks, Gros Morne, and end with Quttinirpaaq, at the tip of the continent to the north. This is what you’ll find if you follow the trail less traveled.

Gros Morne 

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Location: Newfoundland
Miles from the Arctic Circle: Roughly 1,200 (south)
Best Time to Visit: May through October
Getting There: Deer Lake airport is less than an hour's drive. Alternatively, a ferry from Nova Scotia docks at Port aux Basques, about four hours away. Because public transportation near the park is very limited, you'll have to have a vehicle to get around.

Sheldon Stone, of Parks Canada’s Western Newfoundland and Labrador Field Unit, knows 697-square-mile Gros Morne National Park is different. “This is not the landscape that people expect for eastern Canada,” he says. “It’s bigger, wilder, and surprising.” The park was even classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the late 1980s.

Challenge yourself by tackling the Long Range Traverse—an unmarked, multi-day backpacking route that requires excellent navigation skills and mental toughness. (Be prepared to get cold and wet.) But you’ll be rewarded with breathtaking views of arctic highlands and the park’s huge lakes.

Must see: Stone suggests the Tablelands. “It’s a big, barren mountain that looks like it belongs on Mars, but it’s surrounded by dense, green boreal forest.”

Torngat Mountains

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Location: Newfoundland and Labrador
Miles from the Arctic Circle: Roughly 560 (south)
Best Time to Visit: Mid-July through mid-August
Getting There: Arrive via chartered boat or plane from Goose Bay, Nain, or Kangiqsualujjuaq (which is in Nunavik, northern Quebec).

With no direct roads connecting it to a larger hub, Canada’s newest national park (established in 2008) is also one of the hardest to reach. Gary Baikie, Parks Canada’s visitor experience and product development manager, has been traveling here since 1981 and argues that the Torngat experience is worth the considerable effort involved in getting there. “Torngat includes spectacular views of the dramatic fjords and barren mountains that rise thousands of feet out of the Atlantic Ocean,” says Baikie. “Wildlife, such as polar bears, roam freely on the coastline, and visitors experience an arctic ecosystem that meets a southern one.”

Travelers seeking out this remote, above–tree line beauty should enter the Torngat Mountains with flexible plans and an open mind—which means being prepared for mercurial weather. Making the most of the park also means utilizing the local wisdom. “The absolute best way to explore the Torngat Mountains is with the Inuits from the area,” Baikie explains.

The Torngat Mountains Base Camp, which is all-Inuit staffed, provides everything from “Bear Guards” for warding off those predators during hikes to a memorable hospitality crew. Because the park is home to both black and polar bears, Torngat Mountains National Park requires visitors to register before exploring the region, as well as to take part in a mandatory bear-safety briefing. The park staff strongly recommends hiring an armed Inuit Bear Guard (visitors aren't permitted to carry their own firearms). 

Auyuittuq

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Location: Baffin Island (Nunavut)
Miles from the Arctic Circle: 0 (the Arctic Circle passes through this park)
Best Time to Visit: Early spring or late summer
Getting There: Even though it’s the most accessible park in the Nunavut territory, traveling to Auyuittuq requires serious planning. Depending on ice conditions, the park can be reached over snow or by boat via Pangnirtung Fjord (from Pangnirtung) or North Pangnirtung Fjord (from Qikiqtarjuaq). When ice is breaking up midsummer, the park is inaccessible.

Polar guide Sarah McNair-Landry lives on Baffin Island. Boasting the largest uninterrupted cliff face in the world (Mount Thor) and world-renowned Mount Asgard, this park is a mountaineer’s dream, she says. Mountains named after Norse gods tower over the valley, and the park offers something for adventurers of every stripe: from hiking up the valley system, to traversing the Penny Ice Cap, to climbing one of the impressive peaks. 

This dynamic place isn’t quiet, due in large part to its brutal climate. The blustery weather that can torment area visitors has ripped away shelters (McNair-Landry says the gales whipping through the park’s Windy Lake campsite have snatched away a number of tents over the years), and high glacial melt in midsummer turns brooks into roaring rivers.

You’ll safely enjoy the park’s incredible beauty if you do your homework ahead of time. That means reading up on local resources, including the park’s visitor-information package, and considering exploring the region with a guide. 

Sirmilik

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Location: Northern Baffin Island (Nunavut)
Miles from the Arctic Circle: 509 (north)
Fair-Weather Friendly: Early spring or late summer
Getting There: Iqaluit, the hub airport Nunavut, offers flights to the communities of Pond Inlet and Arctic Bay. From there, local outfitters can assist with boat or snowmobile travel into the park.

The fifth-largest island in the world, Baffin has ample room to support two of Canada’s national parks: Auyuittuq and Sirmilik. In the latter, slow rivers of ice traverse the park’s 8,571 square miles. 

Visitors to Sirmilik are brought into close proximity with polar bears, so sighting one is not uncommon. The park also offers explorers the chance to observe narwhals and seabird colonies in season. Addressing the park’s diversity of wild inhabitants, Garry Enns, external relations manager in Parks Canada’s Nunavut field office, has this to say: “Wildlife-viewing in and along the park’s edges will give anyone taking the time for this trip an entirely new understanding of what ‘wild’ really means.”

Because the park is so isolated, each visitor is required to attend an orientation that includes information on polar-bear safety. Here, awareness is key: make sure you review the polar-bear safety brochure the park gives out before entering it.

Quttinirpaaq

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Location: Northern Baffin Island (Nunavut)
Miles from the Arctic Circle: 1,113 (north)
Fair-Weather Friendly: Late May to mid-August
Getting There: Fly to Resolute Bay from Iqaluit, then charter a flight to the park. If you aren’t looking for an extended stay, traveling aboard an ice-breaking cruise ship will afford you a taste of the park.

Fittingly, the Inuit name for this remote Canadian park means “on top of the world.” Here, expect wildlife—including arctic wolves, hares, and Peary caribou—to approach closely and without fear of humans.

Harsh weather is another reality. “Very few visitors really understand the meaning of ‘weather permitting’ until they’ve been caught in a fog that threatens to stay for weeks—maybe months,” says Enns. “Anyone planning a trip to this area must allow extra time.” 

Because any emergency help is far away, you have to take the time to slow down. Bring topo maps and a GPS. Decisions that are usually of little note in other areas (traveling when visibility is low) can turn into a life-or-death situation in a place this remote.

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