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

A Secret New Zealand Paradise: Trekking the Rees-Dart Track

We’ve hiked just thirty minutes from the trailhead when we hit the kind of view that frequently makes you stop and take a deep breath when trekking in New Zealand.

The Rees River Valley sprawls out before us, golden grasslands dissected by a braided, meandering, emerald-green river. In the middle distance, a fat and foaming Lennox Falls plunges over a cliff. Farther off and thousands of feet above us, glaciers pour off a row of sharp peaks in the Forbes Range angling into the sky.

My hiking partner, Gary Kuehn, an American who has lived here on New Zealand’s South Island working as a mountain guide for several years—long enough, apparently, to pick up that semi-intelligible Kiwi accent—looks around, grins, and mutters, “Pritty noice.”

Gary has seen a fair bit of these Southern Alps, where vistas like this are so common that they inspire an odd sort of déjà vu that you have stumbled into paradise for something like the fourth time today. And yet, he jumped at the invitation to join me here on the Rees-Dart Track because he’s actually never done this trek.

That fact affirms my impression of the Rees-Dart, most of which falls within Mt. Aspiring National Park: Although just spitting distance from the world-famous and enormously popular Routeburn Track, with scenery copied and pasted from the same Southern Alps template, the longer and more rugged Rees-Dart remains largely overlooked by the armies of international trekkers that invade New Zealand every austral summer. Other than the expected busy atmosphere at the huts, we will spend most of every day out here seeing no one else.

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

Into the Mystic: Sea kayaking New Zealand’s Doubtful Sound

A light mist falls as our small adventure armada of nine sea kayaks cruises along the shore of Deep Cove, the farthest inland extremity of Doubtful Sound in New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park. Around us, cliffs rise straight up out of the sea to 4,000-foot summits—sheer, Yosemite-like granite walls improbably sprouting a vertical jungle of the podocarp trees and other indigenous vegetation that make these forests look like something from another planet.

The sun makes feeble attempts to break through the soupy overcast. But the clouds, mist, and intermittent rain will persist throughout our trip, as they do most days of the year here. When you head out into a place that receives upwards of 23 feet of rain annually—which is about ten feet more precipitation than falls on Washington’s famously saturated Olympic rainforest—you don’t bother looking at the weather forecast. You just bring good rain gear and think sunny thoughts.

Our guide, Simeon Grig, who goes by “Sim,” leads us to the lee side of tiny Rolla Island, to take a break out of the wind. In a pronounced Kiwi accent that could make him the star of an action movie or a really funny beer commercial, Sim tells us that Rolla, covered with a thick fur of impenetrable rainforest, is a breeding ground for native crested penguins.

I’m sharing a two-person kayak with a young Portuguese named Leonardo, whom I just met this morning. He and I paddle ahead of the others as our group circles the island. On Rolla’s opposite side, we surprise two penguins waddling along the short skirt of rock at the shore. Seeing us, the penguin pair scrabbles quickly up the wet rock and disappears into the jungle.

It’s the first morning of our guided sea kayaking trip run by Fiordland Wilderness Experiences. For two days, we will paddle around the upper reaches of Doubtful Sound, a remote, roughly 30-mile-long fjord in the vast wilderness of Fiordland, which sprawls over nearly three million acres of the southwest corner of New Zealand’s South Island, an area as large as Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks combined. Fiordland is also part of the Southwest New Zealand World Heritage Area, which spans four contiguous national parks (including Mt. Aspiring and the Rees-Dart Track), and covers 6.4 million acres—almost three times the size of Yellowstone, representing roughly 10 percent of New Zealand’s land area.

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

Going Deep–Backcountry Skiing in Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains

We reach a high saddle between two peaks, where the wind has sculpted the snow into stationary, perpetually cresting waves several feet high. Treeless slopes of clean, untracked powder fall away beneath us. Our group of several friends and a few guides have been climbing uphill in this remote corner of northeast Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains for more than two hours, ascending some 3,000 vertical feet under a clear, ice-blue winter sky, amid scenery that looks like a post card from an Alpine resort, but without the ski lifts and quaint villages.

Then we look up at the final grind awaiting us: a ridge of crusty, windblown snow rising another seven hundred feet to the 9,555-foot summit of Red Mountain, one of the highest in the Wallowas. It looks steep.

My companions all strap their skis onto their packs and begin kicking steps in the snow on a long slog that will consume almost another hour. Reluctant to carry skis—maybe reluctant to a fault—I keep mine on my feet and make hundreds of zigzags uphill, like a mechanized duck in a shooting gallery, an effort that one of the guides will later claim earns me the dubious distinction of making Red’s first ascent entirely on skis. She generously makes it sound like a proud accomplishment, but part of me prefers to believe that there must have been at least one person before me who was dumb or stubborn enough to try it.

At the top of Red, where it’s cold and breezy but not intolerably so, we hang out for a little while to soak up the views. The Wallowas sprawl to far horizons, an amazing panorama of jagged ridges capped with scalloped snow and rocky peaks jutting out of the white. Much of the range lies within the Eagle Cap Wilderness, 350,000 acres without any sign of civilization. To the northeast, the snowy and craggy Seven Devils Mountains of Idaho rise across the brown, 8,000-foot-deep trench of Hells Canyon.

It’s probably a safe bet that there aren’t another 20 people in this entire mountain range today, and possibly no one besides us. There certainly isn’t another soul in our corner of them.

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

2011: A Year of Adventure in Pictures

From cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and paddling in the Everglades (the final two trips for my upcoming book) to backcountry skiing from a yurt in Oregon’s Wallowas (watch for a story soon), an ultra-dayhike across Zion National Park, rock climbing at Idaho’s City of Rocks, rafting Oregon’s Grand Ronde River, dayhiking in the Columbia Gorge and New Hampshire’s Franconia Ridge, a six-day mountaineering trip on the Ptarmigan Traverse in Washington’s North Cascades, and backpacking the Teton Crest Trail and in Idaho’s Sawtooths (twice), 2011 was a pretty good year.
I’ve already written about some of those trips at this site, and will write about others in coming months. Check out this photo gallery of highlights from all of those 2011 adventures.

At this time of year, I’m poring over maps, guidebook descriptions, and websites, planning adventures for 2012. I hope you are, too. Looking for ideas or inspiration? Try this gallery of pictures from outdoor adventures I’ve taken in the U.S. and around the world—all of which you can read about (and get advice on planning) at TheBigOutside.com.

Make it a happy new year.

Chasing the Snow: Why ‘Compressed Adventure’ Can Save You

Zooming down the interstate, with my family in the car and our Nordic skis in the roofbox, I’m reminded of a truism that explains not only our motivation today, but many of life’s turns and frustrations: Sometimes the place where we are and the place where we want to be lie far, far apart.

My wife and kids have hunkered down for the long haul with their books and electronics, settled in for a day trip that will involve about seven hours of driving in exchange for less than half that much time skiing. To our left rise the visual evidence for why we must make this pilgrimage: the Boise Foothills above our home, brown and virtually devoid of snow in late autumn. It’s a disheartening sight.

My companions had uttered a few murmurs of skepticism that the payoff will justify the drudgery of so many hours car bound. But we’ve run out of patience waiting for the snow to come to us. So we’re en route to the nearest place with white stuff on the ground and groomed ski trails—Galena Lodge, which sits at the upper end of Idaho’s Wood River Valley, at well over 7,000 feet in the Boulder Mountains.

The phrase for what we’re doing speaks to the desperation implicit in this act: We are chasing the snow. It sounds like both a fool’s mission and divine inspiration—and actually, it has the potential to go either way.

The idea of chasing snow also provides a useful metaphor for a larger, almost constant challenge: fitting the activities that bring us pleasure into lives that can often seem far too overstuffed with responsibilities to accommodate anything more.

The mere thought of making the effort to go after fun when it lies at a distance from you—especially when it involves motivating and moving an entire family—can be the thing that stops us. It’s often not the weather or a lack of enthusiasm about being there once you get there. It’s the organizing and getting-there part that causes inertia. I know; I, too, have on rare occasions suffered from that spirit-killing mental funk. But I prefer to view that attitude in the same way that ancient mariners viewed the unexplored margins of their maps: those areas were labeled with warnings to venture no farther in that direction, “for only dragons dwell here.”

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

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.