From that first stinging cannonball off a riverside bluff to the last day at the beach, our idea of a sweet summer is one by, on, and in the drink. To get things flowing, we've charted the waters for you.
Blissful Indolence Made Simple
A Florida Stream, an inner tube, and no ambition in sight.
There are two ways to tube down north-central Florida's Ichetucknee River: the easy way and the easier. Let's examine the easier first, assuming it's a radiant midsummer day, air temperature about 95, humid enough to confuse a frog.
Lie on your back, hindquarters submerged in the 72-degree water, gazing drowsily up through the overarching canopy of Spanish moss. Recall the First Law of tubing physics: The chill of the booty is directly proportional to the circumference of the vulcanized vessel. Fail to think of a Second Law. As the black rubber heats up, regulate body temperature by idly flicking water onto your belly and sighing.
Among Florida's many artesian springs, famous for their mermaids and manatees, none is more beloved by inner tubers than this perfect conduit for the indolent. Though parts of the Ichetucknee are narrow and serpentine, its banks are buffered by a luxuriance of eelgrass that will gently catch and release your tube with a soft, whispering sound. Do not attempt to steer the tube, except in slow circles to rotate the sky and invite musings on the immensity of the ether, which is frankly miraculous and ultimately exhausting. It's possible at any moment to be struck by a falling stinkpot, a turtle known to climb high into the canopy and leap into the water when startled. Possible, but unlikely. Disregard the threat, or think to yourself, If the blow must come, let it be fatal. Drifting, drifting, you've made your peace.
With the easier path, it's more likely you'll fall asleep, only to be wakened by the laughter of other tubers. You've gone aground in a shaded eddy, your mouth comically gaping. Sit up, blinking and grinning sheepishly. Now is a good time to tackle the easy way.
This way is more gear-oriented (a mask and snorkel). Flop onto your belly and, chin resting on rubber or head slightly elevated, survey the banks for stalking egrets, sunning Suwanee cooters, or periscope-nosed softshell turtles. You might see otters and beavers, but by and large this is wilderness writ small, though with startling clarity. Because many springs feed the Ichetucknee as it winds through pines, hardwood hammocks, and swampland, visibility is forever. It opens wee mysteries like a microscope slide.
Plunge your mask into the stream. Now you see the spring's power, pumping an average of 233 million gallons a day. The fish, you see, the bream and bass and little sailfin mollies, are working hard not to drift. The eelgrass is waving as if in a gale. You see breaks in the streambed, phosphate pits and sudden overhanging caverns. Unable to resist, you slither from the tube like a gator and dive deep, and are rewarded by a chance meeting with a siren, a three-foot-long legless salamander. Which is thrilling and, ultimately, quite chilling.
You'll need to get warm again. Clamber back aboard the tube like a cooter (from kuta, an African word for "turtle"), and take it easier.
Wild, Wild Midwest
This just in: You can say Wisconsin and wilderness in the same breath.
The kayak is often associated with rugged terrain, where rivers rise and fall with the melting of mountain snows. Wisconsin, on the other hand, is canoe country, which is to say it's mostly flat, pressed smooth by the weight of long winters and the Ice Age, the longest winter of all. Topographic relief appears not on land but in the bouldery staircases and slick-water chutes of the rivers that drain it. Midwesterners feeling hard-put to explain why they even own a kayak need only run the Flambeau, a splash-and-dazzle river that barrels out of the North Woods as if from a glacier.
The Flambeau cuts across north-central Wisconsin in two branches. The North Fork has more quiet water, the South Fork more rapids. Between the forks lies some of the wildest country anywhere: pine forests banded in autumn with sugar maple, yellow birch, and hemlocks; trackless alder marshes like the Million Acre Swamp; and black bears, otters, eagles, ospreys, and at least two packs of timber wolves. Not to mention the isolated tavern, all knotty pine and smoke, with more antlers than bottles above the bar.
"It's a gem of a river," David Kelly says of the South Fork. "No dams. No towns to speak of. And it doesn't get the traffic of better-known rivers like the Brule or Wolf. Already today I've seen a bald eagle and a coyote just out my front window."
Kelly owns the general store in Lugarvillein fact, the only store in Lugarville ten miles northwest of Phillips and overlooking the South Fork. He also runs a shuttle service and canoe rental. Put in at Lugarville and you can cover the 20 miles to Little Falls in a day of hard paddling or two days at a leisurely pace, allowing time to play in the rapids.
The first half of the trip is easy, Class I rock gardens and a couple of Class II rapids. (Water levels fluctuate according to weather; September usually beats out the dog days.) On the second stretch, the rapids are more concentrated and evocatively named: Cornsheller, Big Bull, Prison Camp Rapids. The last is just upriver from the State Prison Forestry Camp, where trustees in green dungarees and white T-shirts, many of them former urbanites, stand around and perfect the long stare.
The best whitewater comes at the finale at Slough Gundy, where the river accelerates as it enters a narrow cleft between a cedar island and a high granite ledge, dropping in three separate pitches over a half-mile. The first pitch is a straight shot down a center chute; the second is complicated by a crosscurrent that sweeps you toward the rock ledge.
On my initial trip, this current caught my paddle and neatly rolled me, so I rode the third set of rapids hanging upside-down, submerged rocks whizzing past my head. I managed to tow the kayak to shore before it went over Little Falls and, after sun-drying on the rocks, lugged it up the footpath to run Slough Gundy again.
A Piece of the Shore
Skinny-dipping under the stars, and other reasons to go cottaging in Ontario
In Ontario, "cottage country" is a precise geographical term, "to cottage" a common verb. The province has a pleasing ratio of 220,000 lakes to 200,000 or so private cottages beside them; about one of every 20 families owns one. And most of the other 19 families manage to cadge an invite or two.
Muskoka, Georgian Bay, the Kawarthas: The topography of the cottage regions changes from one to the next, and the cottages range from million-dollar showplaces to rustic one-rooms (like mine, where running water means hustling from the dock with a bucket). The uninitiated can't see the appeal of suffering through Friday gridlock out of Toronto, of returning to the same place time after time. "You have to do it to understand it," says a friend.
For me, the reasons come clear each time I arrive and slide my kayak into Mississagua Lake. I make a circuit to see what's new, knowing almost nothing is. But always discoveries await: the loon's nest on the edge of an islet; the heron stalking its supper; evening light striking the long fingers of granite that reach into the water.
Perched on Precambrian rock, our tiny, green-stained cottage is barely visible from the water, hidden among pines. The land around us belongs to the Crown and can't be built on, so the bay is almost ours alone. When the urge for greater exploration strikes, we pack dry bags into the kayaks and go, because Mississagua Lake spills into the Mississagua River, which alternately meanders and rushes into a lake a dozen or so portages downstream. At its other end, Mississagua connects to a chain of other lakes via a wetland where snakes slither in the shallows, frogs bask on logs, dragonflies mate, and platter-size snapping turtles paddle in deeper stretches.
Any cottager will tell you a cottage is a place stacked with memories of what you can't wait to do again. Skinny-dipping on a starry night. Devouring the season's first ear of fresh-picked peaches-and-cream corn slathered in butter. Screaming along on the Laser, hiked out, head almost touching the water, laughing out loud. Sometimes when I'm back home, caught in the city's hustle and hassle, the clatter seems to retreat and I hear instead the slap of the waves against the dock. I'm up north again, and all's right with the world.
To the Inland Sea
The best swimming in Mexico: Ocean?
Somebody asked Subcomandante Marcos, the figurehead of Mexico's Zapatista movement, how he first came to Chiapas. Half-jokingly, he answered that he got drunk and wound up in Ocosingo instead of Acapulco. "There is a lake near there called Miramar," he said. "I asked which way the sea was, and they told me, 'That way,' so I started walking. Pretty soon I realized I was in the mountains, and I never left." It's not a bad story, and it's even plausible once you've seen Miramar for yourself.
I'm a lake lover of four decades, and I have never seen anything like it. Laguna Miramar ("sea view"), as it is called in Spanish, lies in a ring of mountains 47 miles southeast of Ocosingo, in the southern state of Chiapas, the heart of the Lacandòn rainforest and the Montes Azules Biosphere Reserve. It is also the Zapatista heartland, one reason Miramar may not be for everybody. Access is through the Maya community of Emiliano Zapata, where you are already "back there," so to speak. Then it's a four-and-a-half-mile hike to the lake.
The trail ends at a long, narrow beach. There, beneath chicozapote trees bristling with orchids, bromeliads, and epiphytic cacti, the community has erected two thatched, open-sided palapas, one for tents or hammocks and one with a traditional raised hearth for cooking. Zapata and the other lake communities bar hunting and logging near Miramar, so the only sounds are "lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore," in Yeats's words, and the unceasing drone of howler monkeys.
I visited Laguna Miramar with Fernando Ochoa, a bilingual outfitter from San Cristóbal who helped Zapata develop its tourism plan. We paddled the lake's more than seven square miles for three long days and didn't see it all, though we did visit pictographs, rock carvings, and a full-scale island ruin left behind by Miramar's ancient inhabitants, ancestors of the Maya who live there now. A thousand feet deep, Miramar sustains enough aquatic life to entertain a Cousteau, including turtles, crocs, and a cryptozoological creature the Indians say resembles a manatee. In our canoe cruising, however, all we saw were several dozen species of tropical and migratory birds, a bewildering array of plant life, and fish. Mostly we swam.
And the swimming was the best I've ever had, anywhere. The few divers who have sampled Miramar's depths can get downright poetic about it. We paddled from one travertine shoal to the next, diving into water the color and clarity of Aqua Velva and basking in shallow depressions eroded along the shore. Once in a while we saw a single dugout in the distance. The rest was silence.
The Hillbilly Autobahn
West Virginia's most wicked whitewater, speed limits be damned.
I'm supposed to be listening to my guide, Sib, who barks directions at us in fluent Appalachian. But I can barely hear him over the roar of the water, so I stare at the snarling froth thundering out of Summersville Dam and feel my leg stubble prickle against my rented wetsuit. The first raft to launch is a rowdy all-male squad from Buffalo. They grunt like apes as they try to muscle downriver, but their raft gets swirled around and sucked sideways while the guides on the shoreline whoop with uncivil glee. Our group pushes off next, thwacking paddles and stroking furiously, only to have the Gauley's unforgiving current push us back to shore. We finally make it through the spin cycle, and Sib yeehaws while grabbing a smoke from his waterproof pack. Fortunately, I'm upwind.
It could drive anyone to tobacco, or worse, taking boatfuls of tourons into world-class West Virginia whitewater. The Gauley has more than a hundred Class IV and V rapids in a 28-mile stretch; even in late summer and beyond, when western rivers whimper down to a trickle, the Gauley rages. Back in 1988, Congress mandated that on 22 days between Labor Day and late October, Summersville Dam must release 2,800 cubic feet of water per second2,800 basketballs with each tick of the clockjust for rafters and kayakers. Not surprisingly, guides from around the world migrate here before they follow the sun to the Southern Hemisphere.
We approach Insignificant, the first Class V. Sib keeps his instructions light and funny, but since he's puffing like a furnace while trying to position the raft, I'm not sure I shouldn't be terrified. The white foaming jaws come into view just before they swallow us. Sib's yelling, "Paddle, paddle!" but all five of us have been thrown to one side, and we paddle only air. When I dig in for a real stroke the raft suddenly buckles, and I'm waterborne, sucked under like driftwood.
Before I can panic, though, the river's spit me out and I'm swimming jerkily toward the rocky shoreline, instead of toward the boat as instructed. But, serendipity: The boys from Buffalo are waiting in the eddy, and they yank me up by my life jacket. I lie sputtering in their boat until my own raft comes, then I grin a goofy thanks-for-saving-my-sorry-butt smile and hop back in. Cold, beat-up, and sure I've broken my foot, I couldn't be happier. I've been baptized by the mighty Gauley. Just 99 more rapids to go.
God's Own Plunge Pool
A grotto behind the waterfall, a bracing New Hampshire river, and thou.
During a desert-dry lull in an otherwise water-obsessed lifetimein west TexasI used to drift off to sleep imagining perfect swimming holes. They always had a waterfall, for aesthetics and to keep the air moist, and cliffs for diving, à la Acapulco. The diving had to be into a deep pool of exceptionally clear water, with underwater formations to explore. The outlet was usually a tumbling riffle over smooth granite. Maybe fruit trees lined the banks, dropping, oh, ripe plums in my lap while I sunbathed.
Years later I discovered just such a place, although the fruit is blueberries and their season ends just before the swimming gets really enjoyable. My nomination for the world's best swimming hole is the Upper Falls of the Lower Ammonoosuc, near Fabyan, New Hampshire. Pure snowmelt flows from Mount Washington, plunges 12 feet into a succession of three glacial potholes, and exits gracefully over the required smooth rock, spilling into a trout pool to break Izaak Walton's heart.
The slick granite chute above the waterfall is sized for human buttocks, a natural slide. A small cave behind the waterfall can hide a couple of swimmers at a time. But it's the potholes themselves that cause swimmers' hearts to flutter. The first, probably 20 feet around and nearly as deep, is ringed by 20-foot cliffs. The second, connected to the first by an underwater passageway, is larger, and its cliffs offer launch points from perhaps 10 to 40 feet, choose your height. The third pothole is larger yet, with even more diving heights, and sunnier, thus attracting more leisurely attention.
Pardon my obsession with structure: The sheer geology of the place offers all a swimmer could devise for fun in water, except a rope swing. Its only problem: See "snowmelt," above. The water temperature is bearable for about three weeks in August, past the blueberries' prime. So bring your own.
Flipper . . . Is That You?
North mixes with tropics in the Channel Islands' underwater bizarro world.
Suspended 40 feet beneath the surface. Visibility, maybe five body-lengths. Kicking in slow motion through a forest of kelp. Enormous, sinuous stalks, some nearly 200 feet long, rise from the sea floor and grope for light.
To the right, a large, dark shape lingers, barely discernible in the green murk. Consider the possibilities. It's not a curious sea lion, or it would've already stormed your face mask. A great white shark would make great bar-stool fodder, but those are thin odds; people dive southern California for decades without even glimpsing one. Charlie the Tuna? Easy, man; don't lose your grip here.
Whatever it is, it's approaching. The other divers seem to have vanished. But then, adrenaline surges and otherworldly ambience are the draw in the Channel Islands, less a Disneyesque reef dive than a bushwhack through the jungle. Warm and cold currents collide here, attracting a through-the-looking-glass collection of species that rarely lurk in the same circles. Other kelp forests grow up north, and some of the same fish, invertebrates, and mammals swim farther south, but only here do they mingle.
At last, the behemoth emerges from the soup: a giant sea bass longer than you, bulkier than you (maybe two or three hundred pounds), and probably tastier, too. Gargantuan up close but a runt among its peers. Its world-record forebear, weighing in at almost 600, succumbed to a hook near Anacapa Island in the sixties. Mouth gaping and eyes bulging, this one circles around and then back for a second pass unusual for a fishbefore it slips away into the gloom. The pulse gradually slows.
Nights later come the surreal dreams, of hulking, amorphous creatures seen only out of the corner of the eye. And in the morning, musings about the ones that choose not to be seen at all.
Time Off the Grid
In blissful isolation along the Rogue River, where it's easier to find a fly rod than a phone.
From its headwaters near Crater Lake, the Rogue River twists and veers for several hundred miles through the lower left-hand corner of Oregon before arriving at its broad estuary on the Pacific at the town of Gold Beach. But the part of the Rogue I love is its 40-mile run through a corridor of Klamath Mountains wildernessone of those faraway worlds you can still find in pockets all over the Northwest, where the nineteenth century lasted at least halfway through the twentieth. Even today, it's a long way to a phone.
The surrounding landscape is an absurdly crenellated empire of sharp ridges, steep fir-covered slopes, and deeply notched ravines; a perfect refuge for coots, renegades, and survivalists; and a terrible place for cars. (A wag in Yreka once put up signs that read, "Our roads are not passable, hardly jackassable.") The sheer cussedness of this terrain has been the Rogue's best defense against civilization's embrace.
The Rogue played a supporting role in the Meryl Streep vehicle The River Wild, and it's a popular summer run for rafters and kayakers. Dams upstream have partly tamed it, but once it enters this coast range the river reverts to a primordial rush of swift and sometimes ferocious Cascadian snowmelt. Still, the pleasures I've found along the Rogue have mostly been slow ones. They began with a six-month caretaking job I had at a remote ranch homestead near Horseshoe Bend, a blissful interlude that offered a pretty good argument for the Unabomber lifestyle. I hiked through gorgeous swaths of old growth, saw a pair of cougars lope side by side up a hillside, heard the kind of lore that seems to thrive in the absence of electricity, and had my first taste of fly-fishing for the late-summer run of Rogue steelhead, the signature species of the place.
Steelhead embody the secretive, once-upon-a-time glamour of the Rogue. Like their cousins the salmon, steelhead spawn in rivers and migrate to the sea. But these Homeric fish sojourn in the ocean and return to the river twice before they attain the four- to eight-pound size and quick-strike savagery of the classic Rogue steelhead. Alas, like the Rogue itself, they are threatened, but like the wild Rogue, they triumphantly persist.