TheBigOutside Blog

Michael Lanza, creator of TheBigOutside.com and Northwest Editor of Backpacker Magazine, writes about hiking, backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, paddling and other self-powered outdoor adventures

Archive for climate change

The Wildest Shore: Backpacking the Southern Olympic Coast

On a remote, sandy beach on Washington’s Olympic coast, we stop in our tracks and gaze up. A wall of muddy earth rises some 300 feet into jungle-like rainforest. A thick strand of hemp rope dangles down this steep, eroding embankment. A ladder of wooden steps built into the muddy ground rises in tandem with the rope.

We’re going up it.

We’ve reached this spot after an hour of stepping and clambering cautiously over a beach tiled with big boulders, each one coated with wet, slick kelp and barnacles. Our group of six—including my wife, Penny, our school-age son, Nate, and daughter, Alex, my brother-in-law, Tom Beach, and his 15-year-old son, Daniel—crossed that beach while racing the clock against an incoming tide that was rapidly transforming that rocky stretch of coast to ocean. Now, this rope ladder marks the start of a three-mile-long overland trail through the rainforest. This detour off the beach is necessary to get around Hoh Head, an impassable section of coast where cliffs rise straight out of the pounding ocean.

“Oh, there’s a slug! There’s ANOTHER slug!” Nate excitedly calls out every sighting of these slimy creatures that are as long as his hand as I follow Alex and him up the rope ladder—bracing myself to, in theory, catch a tumbling kid.

It’s early on the first afternoon of our three-day, 17.5-mile backpacking trip on the southern stretch of the Olympic coast, from the Hoh River north to La Push Road. On the outer edge of the Olympic Peninsula, Olympic National Park protects the longest strip of wilderness coastline in the contiguous United States. You can’t order fried seafood or buy a T-shirt anywhere along these 73 miles of seashore. In fact, it’s one of the few remaining pieces of ocean-view real estate in the Lower 48 that Christopher Columbus or Capt. George Vancouver would recognize.

It’s also one of America’s most stunningly beautiful strips of shoreline. Up and down the coast, scores of stone pinnacles—called sea stacks—rise as much as 200 feet out of the ocean, some of them topped with a copse of a few trees, others just bare rock

Read the entire story and see photos and a video from this trip at thebigoutside.com/Southern_Olympic_Coast.html. See other stories about outdoor adventures at TheBigOutside.com.

Advertisements

Like No Other Place in the World: Paddling the Everglades

As we turn off US 41 onto an unmarked dirt road, just a few miles north of the boundary of Everglades National Park, a small, homemade sign nailed to a tree reads: “Welcome to the real Florida.” Although the driving directions I received for this put-in on the East River seemed to invite error—they were of the “turn left past the end of the guardrail” variety—this sign makes me think we’ve landed in the right place.

A little while later, under a hot February sun and cloudless sky, we push off from a tiny spot of sandy beach into the perfectly still, dark-chocolate waters of the East River in the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park. My ten-year-old son, Nate, and I share one two-person, sit-on-top kayak; my wife, Penny, shares another with our daughter, Alex, who’s almost eight. We are setting out for a few hours of paddling this river’s pond-like open stretches and tight mangrove tunnels—and getting can-almost-touch-them close to wildlife that you cannot see on most of the planet.

Tomorrow, we will set out for three days canoeing and camping in the Ten Thousand Islands of Everglades National Park.

Mangrove tunnel, East River, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park

Minutes after we launch our kayaks, flocks of snowy egrets fly in close formation overhead. White ibises, black anhingas, tri-colored herons, and brown pelicans flap above the wide river and the green walls of forest on both sides. Great blue herons lift off effortlessly and glide on wings whose span equals an average human’s height.

Our companion today, guide Justin Shurr of Shurr Adventures—who will lead us through the East River’s labyrinth of mangrove tunnels—points at a small, easily overlooked shadow on the dark water.

“See that thing that looks like a piece of driftwood?” he says. “It’s not driftwood. It’s an alligator.” As is typical, only the gator’s head breaks the surface; most of its body floats just below, hidden from sight until you get close. But, Justin explains, you can estimate its size using a simple, reliable formula: Every inch of distance from its eyes to the end of its snout translates to a foot of body length. “That’s a twelve-footer,” he tells us.

Read the entire story and see photos and a video from that trip at thebigoutside.com/Paddling_the_Everglades.html. See other stories about outdoor adventures at TheBigOutside.com.

Completely Alone on Mt. Rainier’s Northern Loop

Contemplating big views and deep solitude on an October hike that turns very, very wet

By Michael Lanza

“There’s absolutely no one out here.”

I was just a few hours into a solo backpacking trip around Mt. Rainier National Park’s 32.8-mile Northern Loop when that realization hit me. It was a cool, clear day in October 2003. None of my usual hiking partners had been available to join me. So I decided to do the trip solo, something I’ve done more times than I could count and felt comfortable with. I had no inkling that this time I’d face circumstances that shrink the safety margins for someone alone in the wilderness down to nothing.

When I picked up my backcountry permit that morning, a ranger told me a snowstorm had hit the park just two days earlier. “You’ll probably run into at least a foot of snow on the ground at higher elevations,” he said. That didn’t dissuade me; I was prepared for snow. Neither of us, however, knew about the much bigger storm brewing out over the Pacific Ocean as we spoke, collecting moisture as it barreled toward the Cascade Range.

That conversation came back to me as I walked past the rippling water of a tiny tarn in a meadow on my way to Windy Gap. Just a few tiny patches of white remained on the ground at 5,600 feet. Sun and mild temperatures had evaporated the recent snow. But apparently no one had been out there since the storm, because even the rangers had no idea what trail conditions were like.

That’s when it hit me: With backcountry rangers warning anyone considering a trip that they would encounter deep snow, I would probably not see another person out there.

Autumn can be the finest time to head into the backcountry. The foliage changes color, brightening the landscape. There are no bugs. The weather often achieves something close to meteorological perfection: skies clear and dry, affording hundred-mile views, and temperatures not too hot during the day, not too cold at night. I’ve enjoyed some of my best days in the mountains in the fall.

But autumn exhibits a bipolar personality. And in October, you are as close to the mountain winter as you are to its summer. In some respects, it is more dangerous than winter because in fall it’s easy to get lulled into trusting the weather. But really good can turn really bad, really fast.

Looking back, I think that most if not all of my hardest, most wretched experiences in the backcountry have occurred between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice. On Mt. Rainier National Park’s Northern Loop, I was about to add another to my list.

Read the full story and see a photo gallery from this trip, as well as other stories about outdoor adventures, at TheBigOutside.com.

Jagged Peaks, Mountain Lakes, and Wild Goats

We’re just seconds beyond the sign at the start of the Gunsight Pass Trail that reads “Entering Grizzly Country” when Nate, who’s a month shy of his tenth birthday, begins aggressively making the case for why he should be armed.

“Why can’t I carry a pepper spray?” he asks me—again and again.

Penny Beach on the Gunsight Pass Trail

It’s an idyllic, late-summer afternoon in the Northern Rockies—the sun shining warmly, a gently cooling breeze rippling the air, not a white speck of moisture in the sky. We are heading out on a three-day family backpacking trip to Gunsight Pass in Montana’s Glacier National Park. One of the logistically easiest and shortest multi-day hikes in the park, the 20-mile traverse from Gunsight Pass Trailhead to Lake McDonald Lodge—both of which are on the Going-to-the-Sun Road and served by the park’s free shuttle bus—takes in some of Glacier’s most spectacular scenery, including views of one of its largest rivers of ice (all of which are steadily shrinking), scores of waterfalls, and a backcountry campsite at Lake Ellen Wilson that is one of the prettiest in the park.

Unfortunately, I was not able to get a permit for the full traverse; it’s popular and backpacker numbers are restricted to avoid overuse and preserve a sense of solitude. So instead, we’ll spend two nights at Gunsight Lake, dayhike to Gunsight Pass, and then backtrack to the Gunsight Pass Trailhead on our last day.

Having hiked the traverse before, I knew Nate and our seven-year-old daughter, Alex, easily have the stamina for the three six-mile days we’ll do. The much bigger concern for my wife, Penny, and me was the preoccupying idea of backpacking in grizzly-bear country with our young kids. In fact, a year ago, I had a close encounter with a sow griz and her two cubs on the Gunsight Pass Trail. Although we know that such encounters are rare, we’ll have to be diligent about making sure the kids don’t inadvertently bring a pocketful of Jolly Ranchers into the tent for the night.

Thinking along similar lines, my hyper-focused son is consumed by the conviction that he should be armed with one of the pepper-spray canisters holstered to the hipbelts of Penny’s and my backpacks. When not distracted by throwing sticks into the raging creek at Deadwood Falls, or watching for moose in the boggy, partly forested flats of the St. Mary River, he persistently returns to his argument that he is just as capable as his mother or me of calmly deploying pepper spray at a charging grizzly. I try, in vain, to convince him that an adult is better able to react to that inconceivably frightful circumstance—although I’m not really sure I believe that.

Read the entire story and see photos and a video from that trip at thebigoutside.com/Glacier_s_Gunsight_Pass_4VU.html. See other stories about outdoor adventures at TheBigOutside.com.

Back to the Ice Age: Sea Kayaking in Alaska’s Incomparable Glacier Bay

The water of Johns Hopkins Inlet lies flat, perfectly reflecting the first patches of blue sky we’ve seen since arriving in Glacier Bay yesterday morning. I rest my paddle across the kayak and listen. A barely audible moan of wind floats down from high in the mountains, then fades away. A bald eagle screeches, briefly piercing the quiet; but as soon as the sound passes, the silence that returns seems as deep as the sea we’re floating on.

On the second afternoon of a five-day sea kayaking trip, 55 miles up this Southeast Alaska fjord where cliffs shoot straight up out of the sea and razor peaks smothered in ice and snow rise thousands of feet overhead, I’m taking a moment to enjoy a rare pleasure: listening to the cacophony of nothing.

My seven-year-old daughter, Alex, who is perfectly content to sit back and let me power our two-person kayak loaded with food and gear, points to the eagle perched in its nest in a snag high up a cliff. “He’s watching the kayakers go by,” she informs me. A harbor seal pops its head above water nearby, inspecting us with dark eyes. Alex faintly catches her breath as she and the seal lock gazes. A moment later, it disappears with a “bloop.”

Then a sharp concussion rips open the quiet.

About six miles away, visible at the other end of the inlet, the mile-wide, twelve-mile-long Johns Hopkins Glacier has dropped another immense piece of itself into the sea. The native Tlingits, who have lived on this coast for centuries, call that explosive noise “white thunder,” which strikes me as the best possible descriptor for it.

The Hopkins Glacier is the most active remnant of an unimaginably massive river of ice that filled this realm of liquid water in the geologically very recent past. Tomorrow, we will paddle up this inlet for a close-up view of that dynamic glacier. We’re hoping this improved weather will hold out at least until then.

My family, including my wife, Penny, and our nine-year-old son, Nate, are taking a sea kayaking trip run by Alaska Mountain Guides. With our two guides and six other clients, we’ve come to paddle around Glacier Bay’s upper West Arm, probing deep within a national park the size of Connecticut, at the heart of a contiguous protected wilderness area the size of Greece.

Read the entire story and see photos and a video from that trip at thebigoutside.com/Sea_kayaking_Glacier_Bay.html. See other stories about outdoor adventures at TheBigOutside.com.

Skiing Yellowstone: wildlife, scenery, and hot air

The snowcoach rumbles away, leaving us in a wintry silence disturbed only by a slight breeze and the gastrointestinal emissions of a supervolcano that last let out a really big one 640,000 years ago. Back then, it ejected about 240 cubic miles of rock and dust into the sky. Today, as seems always the case with these things, it just sounds a little rude and smells badly.

Skiing at Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone

My wife, Penny, and I, with our son, Nate, and daughter, Alex, have just stepped off the snowcoach with our cross-country skis in Biscuit Basin in Yellowstone National Park. Watching us disembark with our grade-school kids, the other passengers stared solemnly, as if expecting they would be the last to see us alive. Clearly, none of them are Nordic skiers, otherwise they might have realized that we’re setting out on one of the coolest half-day adventures in the entire national park system: ski touring along the Firehole River through Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin.

Skiing two-and-a-half miles up an almost flat valley—with one fun, long downhill that’s not very steep—we’ll pass through an area that’s home to one-fourth of the active geysers in the world and the greatest concentration of them. When we reach Old Faithful after a few leisurely hours and a lot of stopping and gawking, we’ll rendezvous with the snowcoach for the ride back to the town of West Yellowstone, Montana, where we’re staying.

We set out down the Biscuit Basin Trail, following the tracks of previous skiers, though completely alone for now. Across the open valley, white steam clouds billow into the sky from scores of geysers, hot springs, and fumaroles, giving the landscape the look of Hell bursting up through the Earth’s surface. Steam freezes to lodgepole pine trees, sugar coating some of them while long icicles hang in bunches from others. Elk graze the patches of ground kept open by the heat from thermal features. Bald eagles soar overhead.

Nate and Alex throw snowballs—mostly at me—and every few minutes point excitedly to another geyser spitting or erupting scalding water. We gaze into one of Yellowstone’s most famous features, the 23-foot-deep, sky-blue mouth of Morning Glory Pool. A short while later, as we’re watching steam and hot water spurt from the 12-foot-tall mound of Giant Geyser, Nate shouts and points at a plume shooting skyward just a few hundred feet away: Riverside Geyser, named by the 1871 Hayden Expedition, sends a 75-foot-high arc over the Firehole River for as much as 20 minutes.

Read the full story, and see a gallery of photos and a video of skiing in Yellowstone, as well as other outdoor-adventure stories and reviews of new gear, at TheBigOutside.com.

From New Zealand to 10 national parks, 2010 was a good year

We scrabbled up the last hundred feet to the volcano’s rim, the mountainside of loose stones sliding out beneath each footstep. Steam hissed from dark cracks between rocks, holes reaching unfathomably deep into the planet’s crust. Then Kiwi trekking guide Stewart Barclay and I reached the rim of serially active Mt. Ngauruhoe in New Zealand’s Tongariro National Park—which erupted 45 times in the 20th century—and gazed down into a crater filled with the debris from violent upheavals: crumbling walls in a kaleidoscope of colors, heaps of rubble piled up below.

A hiker in Tongariro National Park, New Zealand

That was 10 months ago, the second of 15 trips I took in a busy year of adventuring outdoors for work that took me away from home for a total of just over three months. Looking back over 2010 now, I remember less how hectic it was than specific scenic and emotional highlights—the kind of moments that slowly harden into durable memories. Those are the end product of travel and the motivator that keeps us aching for the next one.

Read the full story and see other stories and photos of outdoor adventures at TheBigOutside.com.