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Expedition Watch: Hiking the Keystone XL Trail

There's no pipeline—or anything even resembling a trail or infrastructure—yet. And that's precisely why Ken Ilgunas decided to head out in September on a 1,700-mile hike tracing the planned route for the Keystone XL Pipeline—from Hardisty, Alberta, Canada, to Houston, Texas. He wanted to chronicle the opinions of the people who live along the proposed route.

Before he left, Ilgunas shared all of the logistics. He detailed his food supplies (6.5 pounds of mashed potato powder and 228 candy bars), his plan for staggering his supply pickups (sending individual boxes via Priority Mail to small town post offices), and shared his design of a homemade lightweight camp stove (tin foil and an empty Purina cat food can). He wrote a post about how he broke his pinky toe after tripping down the stairs in his friend's basement to add some pre-trip drama. He wrote another post about all of the gear he would take with him, 27 pounds of stuff that includes a can of bear spray he's had at the ready for plenty of non-bear-related incidents. He's been in defense mode a fair amount of the trip, something that becomes obvious after a quick survey of of his blog post titles: "It finally happens, I'm attacked by cows," "Finally get going, have an interesting bar experience outside the Alberta/Saskatchewan border," and "A posse of paranoid Montanans surround my tent."

Here's a bit more on his trek, in case you want to follow along.

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Family Brand of the Year

SKI6247Home on the range: Stio's Jackalope pom-pom makes its East Coast debut. Photo: Katie Arnold

It might seem a little presumptuous to declare Stio the outdoor brand of 2013 only a week in, but I have no qualms nominating the new mountain-lifestyle clothing company for the honors. Launched in Jackson, Wyoming, in September by the design duo that started Cloudveil, Stio came out of the gates with some serious adventure cred. Not to mention some cool products for the whole family.  

Like most startups in their first season, Stio’s line for men, women, and kids isn’t exhaustive—but that’s a good thing. At least for kids, more choices aren’t always better. So far for little ones, there’s a windproof jacket, a couple of super cute T-shirts, a hoody, and a hat. But who needs five variations of technical fleece when one stellar one will do the trick? Less time shopping equals more time skiing.

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Ridge Distillery's American-Made Absinthe

Organicabsinthe By Dana Allen

Fifteen miles down the road from Montana’s Whitefish Mountain Resort in Kalispell, Montana, Joe and Jules Legate, owners of Ridge Distillery, are crafting American absinthe.

Once thought to be hallucinogenic, absinthe was banned. That absinthe is a hallucinogen is, in fact, an early 20th-century urban myth. Thujone, the supposedly psychoactive ingredient, chemically resembles THC, which causes the "high" in marijuana. But Thujone doesn’t have the same effect on humans.

Absinthe originated in the Jura mountains of Switzerland, but gained popularity and infamy with bohemian artists living in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. Wine was too expensive—insects had decimated two-thirds of Europe’s vines—and absinthe became the working class drink of choice. Not only was it a stronger spirit, but its unique herbal mix reputedly heighten some senses while dulling others. Legendary drunken debauchery ensued, with tales of impressionist painters being led to artistic revelation by "the green fairy," a euphemism for the spirit's effect. Soon the liquor was reviled, blamed for insanity, and outlawed.

Production went underground until 2007, when the American Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau lifted the ban by clarifying rules governing thujone content in foods and beverages. American distillers, including the Legates, brought the green fairy to life.

The Legates discovered that Artermisia absintheium, grand wormwood, the flavor in distilled absinthe, grew wild on their property. Curious, they sent samples to a Seattle distillery, which reported enthusiastically on the quality of their plants. Soon the Legates were growing and supplying herbs to distillers around the country.

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Feedback, January 2013

Feedback-pic

MUDSLINGERS
As Scott Keneally reported in "Playing Dirty" (November), nearly 1.5 million people participated in an obstacle race in 2012, and the sport's popularity has inspired some pretty cutthroat business tactics among its Big Three: Tough Mudder, Spartan Race, and Warrior Dash. "I'm not bothered by the competitive spirit that would naturally be associated with the promotion of these events," wrote Douglas Young, or Portales, New Mexico. "But I am troubled by the juvenile behavior reflected in that promotion. The shenanigans cited in Keneally's article took me back to junior high." Karen Latchford, from Palo Alto, California, wrote, "It was an in-depth, very well written article about some poeple I found pretty repulsive." On Twitter, PatsHoppedUp wrote, "And here I thought people who humblebragged about obstacle races were the worst. Turns out it's the creators." Others found parallels between those business tactics and the ethos embodied by the races. "I have to give credit to Tough Mudder founder Will Dean," wrote Frank Shipley. "Dean brought muddy obstacle courses to the backyards of millions. I get the feeling his drive is fueled by the same desire as those of us who sign up for his events: the desire to challenge yourself." Still others simply acknowledged the allure of this new brand of suffering. "These races seem much more interesting than running 26.2 miles," Wes Hall posted on Facebook. "With the cubicle life most people lead, I completely understand why they want a little adventure."

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Lightning Deaths and Injuries, by the Numbers

Shutterstock_85169098Lightning. Photo: Shutterstock

On Wednesday January 2, 42-year-old Irish adventurer Ian McKeever was leading a group of more than 20 people through the lunar landscape section of Mount Kilimanjaro when he was struck by lightning and killed instantly. The Telegraph reported that fellow climber Jack O'Donahue, 60, was hiking just three feet away from McKeever when the bolt knocked him off his feet. Donahue survived. At least six other people on the expedition were treated for injuries, including McKeever's fiance, whom he planned to wed in September 2013.

The Irish Times reported that friends were surprised that McKeever would die from a lightning strike on Kilimanjaro, as he had climbed much more difficult and dangerous terrain. In 2007, he set the speed record for climbing the seven summits, achieving the feat in 156 days. (Vern Tejas now holds the record—he climbed all of the peaks in 136 days.) "I am absolutely shocked to hear about the death of my friend Ian. It was a freak accident and a complete fluke," Irish explorer Pat Falvey told the Independent. "I have lost two friends in lightning strikes, including one on the Himalayas—but they are very rare on Kilimanjaro."

Screen Shot 2013-01-04 at 3.05.18 PMIncidence of lightning strikes (click on image for full size). Photo: NOAA

Death caused by a lightning strike is an incredibly rare event, but there are some areas in the world where it occurs at a higher rate than others. Central Africa has a greater incidence of lightning strikes than any other large region. (See the large black area in the map above, which is to the west of Kilimanjaro.) Moist airflow from the Atlantic Ocean couples with mountainous terrain and leads to year-round thunderstorms in a location where much of the population is rural, few advanced warning systems exist, medical facilities are often sub-standard, and most buildings are rudimentary. Though there is no definitive overall set of statistics for the region, there is not a shortage of reported strikes. In 2011, 18 children and a teacher were killed in a primary school in Uganda when it was hit by lightning.

Here's a quick breakdown of lightning deaths and injuries, with statistics taken from a study in the September issue of the journal of Wilderness and Environmental Medicine, NOAA, the National Lightning Safety Institute, and a few other scientific studies.

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