December 30, 2011
Just a few miles south, north and east of San Francisco, where I live, it begins. A vast unbroken range of wild country sprawls north into Canada, east across the desert and the Rockies and south all the way to Patagonia: mountain lion country. Also called the puma, cougar and dozens of backwoods names, the mountain lion, Puma concolor, is one of the most abundant yet elusive large predators in the world. Tens upon tens of thousands of them live in their enormous range, and California alone is home to about 5,000, though most of us would hardly know it if we weren’t told. I’ve hiked and biked throughout the state, covering vast distances of road and trail in mountain lion country. Along the way, I’ve seen a few bobcats, some black bears and many coyotes. I’ll bet that mountain lions have seen me. But in all that time, across all that distance, with so many of the cats tiptoeing through the woods and scrub around me, I have never seen even one mountain lion.
All of which is why it’s so amazing that people can reliably go to India and see a tiger. Just how many individuals of Panthera tigris still live in the wild isn’t entirely clear, but there aren’t many. Estimates place the count as low as 3,200 among all six remaining subspecies. Yet in Bandhavgarh National Park, many or most visitors touring the woods on the back of an elephant will see a Bengal tiger. Ranthambhore and Kanha National Parks are considered the next best places to see the animals, with Jim Corbett, Kaziranga and Panna National Parks all recognized as likely bets, too. (In the forests of Sasan Gir National Park, visitors may even see lions—the last of the nearly extinct Asiatic lions which once ranged from India to Italy but succumbed to human activity where leopards and tigers did not.)
How imperiled is the tiger? Scientists’ premonitions are dire when it comes to the tiger’s odds of going extinct at the hands—well, chainsaws and bullets—of people. In the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, for instance, home to 75 million people, there were 300 tigers in 2006, according to an annual census. In 2011, biologists estimated there were just 257. Meanwhile, organized multi-national groups have recently announced a very ambitious goal of spurring a two-fold increase in tiger numbers throughout Asia. It’s a promising turnaround from the days not so long ago when the Russian government actively and, sadly, successfully advocated for extermination of the now-extinct Caspian tiger. But I wouldn’t take any chances. See this beautiful cat while you can.
Not in the market for a plane ticket to India? Don’t want to deal with the crowds? Already seen your tiger? Then other thrills in big predator viewing are to be had, with almost 100-percent success rates in some places. Here are some good bets:
1) Brown bears of McNeil River Falls, Alaska. From June to September, several dozen of the world’s most powerful bear, Ursus arctos, may gather at once at this famed sprawl of waterfalls to feed on salmon. Visitors have the incredible opportunity to stand as close as several yards from the bears as the animals hunt, lounge, play and fight, seemingly oblivious to their admirers. This rare dynamic between bear and person is due to the tightly regulated arrangement that allows small numbers of people to come, with a guide, and do little else but stand in a designated perimeter on the river bank and watch bears. Want to go? Apply in advance. Note: the bears, which local biologists and guides know by name and appearance, have declined in number, possibly due to bear hunting being allowed near the viewing site.
2) Polar bears of Churchill, Manitoba. The bears are just as big as the browns of southern Alaska, but they’re white, almost 100-percent carnivorous and not opposed to stalking humans. In other words, don’t leave the the tank-like safari vehicles that roll through the frozen scrub here as autumn visitors plaster their faces to the glass. Outside, bears roam the tundra, waiting for the waters to freeze and seal hunting to resume. Polar bears aren’t just a tourist attraction here; Ursus maritimus is an accepted part of life for locals, whose town is dubbed the “Polar Bear Capital of the World.” In Churchill, there is even a temporary holding cell for trouble-maker polar bears, and residents reportedly keep all doors unlocked at all times in case anyone should need to dodge bears wandering the streets.
3) Great white sharks. On the set of Jaws, a very large—and real—great white shark unexpectedly destroyed a miniature diving cage. The footage of the shark, entangled in cables as it thrashed and tore the film prop to pieces before breaking away, was so thrilling to the film crew that they rewrote the script to make a place for the footage in the 1975 blockbuster, a movie that so impacted people’s fear of sharks that Jaws author Peter Benchley said later that he wished he hadn’t written the novel. Anyway, in the real world of modern great white shark tourism, the most feared inhabitants of the oceans don’t destroy cages. Rather, at the Farallon Islands, at Guadalupe Island, off Cape Town and in South Australia, the sharks swim gracefully around the cages, nosing out hunks of tuna and mammal flesh thrown from the boat while paying customers ogle through the bars.
4) Wolves of Yellowstone. In 1995, gray wolves from Canada were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park. Canis lupus, known as livestock-killers, somewhat fictionalized as man-eaters, had been exterminated viciously from most of the lower 48 states. Though wolf opponents, many of them big-game hunters or ranchers, decried the effort, the predators are back now, numbering 1,600 or more throughout the Rockies and Cascades. In Yellowstone National Park, about 100 wolves are consistently observed, especially in the winter months. To see the wolves of Yellowstone, visitors can drive through the park and watch out the windows as they go, or hope to see wolves while hiking in the backcountry. Anyone stands the chance of seeing a wolf or even a pack, but the likelihood is improved by hiring a guide.
5) Crocodiles of Northern Australia. One of the nastiest creatures on earth, the estuarine crocodile is the sort of animal one should want to see from a distance, a large boat or a vehicle. The animals kill and eat people with some regularity in Australia. The huge reptiles, which may reach more than 20 feet in length, were once hunted almost to extinction for their skins, but restrictions on the trade and a crocodile ranching business have allowed the wild population to grow. Today, crocodile viewing is a tourist attraction, with the region to see them being the tropical north of the nation. And while not every excursion will be a success, other encounters can happen when you least want them to. Use caution in croc country—and stay out of murky sloughs and swamps.
December 27, 2011
In 1955, Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary became the first people to summit Mount Everest. This year, another mountaineer became one of the first people to tweet from the top.
Kenton Cool, a 38-year-old alpinist and professional climbing guide from England, had already summited the mountain eight times when, on May 6, he did it again. This time, though, Cool stepped onto the familiar 29,035-foot peak, took out his smart phone and texted a message to the world via Twitter: “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” Wait. Sorry. Wrong guy. Here it is:
“Everest summit no 9! 1st tweet from the top of the world thanks to a weak 3G signal & the awesome Samsung Galaxy S2 handset!”
Bravo. And, so help us, the Internet had conquered the highest point of land on Earth. (Wired.co.uk reports that American explorer Eric Larsen beat him by six months.)
But what’s even more alarming is how keyed up people were—whether climbers or incorrigible nerds—in anticipation of the feat. Cool himself, who was sponsored by Samsung, had tweeted messages to Charlie Sheen and Aston Kutcher prior to his reaching the summit, announcing his ambitions and offering to personally tweet to each of the movie stars. And even two years prior, the climbing and tech worlds were astir with excitement as Irish mountain climber Gavin Bate, who had a laptop with him, seemed fated to be the first person to tweet from the top of the world. A Tech Crunch article describing Bate’s ascent that May was followed by numerous comments indicating that not all were thrilled that tweets might soon ping from the holiest of mountaintops. One man named “Kyle” wrote, “i remember the days when those amazing people came home with just a story. that’s how i’d do it. twitter is getting really annoying.”
(Bates himself would later tell the BBC that the entire concept of climbing a mountain at all, no matter how high, is rather trivial. “The important thing to remember,” Bates said, “is that climbing Everest is a pretty selfish, pointless thing to do.”)
Anyway, on his 2009 attempt, Bate, an experienced mountaineer who had already unsuccessfully attempted the mountain four times, failed yet again to reach the peak—and for the time, Everest’s summit would remain a Twitter-free zone. But the powers that be seemed aligned with the collective desire to forge Internet access from the high slopes and summit, and in the fall of 2010, Nepal established a 3G antenna near the mountain, enhancing Internet connections and paving the way for the glory that would become Kenton Cool’s eight months later.
I spoke with Gordon Janow, director of programs of the Seattle-based guiding outfit Alpine Ascents International about the changes that have come to Everest with the advent of the information age. He feels there are pros and cons to having Internet access on the mountain. The mystique of Everest, certainly, has been smeared slightly, Janow says. “But we have real-time weather reports now that are updated daily, whereas we used to have to rely on four- or five-day forecasts,” he said, before adding, “The mountain has definitely changed, but, really, the whole world has changed.”
The internet isn’t the only newsworthy thing to find its way to Mount Everest recently. Teenagers, elders and amputees have attempted the mountain in the past two years. When 13-year-old Jordan Romero scaled Everest in 2010 (and called his mom via satellite phone from the top) as he toured the world on a mission to climb the highest peak on each continent, an outcry followed that Everest was being disrespected for the sake of vanity and trophies and that age limits must be imposed. In May 2011, 82-year-old Shailendra Kumar Upadhya, formerly the foreign minister of Nepal, attempted to become the oldest person on the summit. He died at about 6,400 meters altitude without reaching his goal. (Upadhya, though, received more praise than criticism for his effort.) Two weeks later, a 30-year-old Nepalese guru climbed the mountain, then spent 27 hours meditating on the peak. We can only wonder what magnitude of brain damage he suffered. People who have lost limbs are climbing Everest. One man recently stomped on the summit for the 21st time. Others have climbed to the top and paraglided down.
Today, after thousands of men, women and children have climbed Everest, countless others have failed, and more than 200 have died, I wonder: Are people playing games while climbing the world’s tallest mountain? That’s hard to say, but they’re definitely texting.
December 22, 2011
Planning a vacation for next year? Consider these remote island getaways. They could really use a visit.
1) Pitcairn Island. The history of this island is one of the most compelling stories in nonfiction, recounted in the book trilogy of Mutiny on the Bounty, Men Against the Sea and Pitcairn’s Island. The two-square-mile subtropical crag was unoccupied until a boatload of mutinous Englishmen showed up in 1790, sank their ship off the island’s coast and piled ashore, along with a number of ladyfriends picked up in Fiji and other islands along the way. The mutineers had sent Lieutenant William Bligh and 18 loyal sailors adrift in a flimsy lifeboat after taking control of Bligh’s ship, HMS Bounty. They brought to life a true Lord-of-the-Flies scenario to the island as they learned to survive, descended into drunken infighting and began killing each other. By 1800 the only sailor left was John Adams, whose life assumed a peaceful pace with his Polynesian companions. Today, Pitcairn Island is populated by 50 people, has administrative headquarters in New Zealand, markets honey, stamps and coins as its chief products, has a handful of hostels, a general store and a café, and frankly, it could use some company.
2) Nunivak Island. I probably don’t need to warn anyone to stay away from this desolate island patch of Alaskan tundra until May or June. It’s then that the sun comes out and stays out over Nunivak Island, located in the Bering Sea at 60 degrees latitude north. About 200 people, almost all residents of the Cup’ik Eskimo town of Mekoryuk, live here, hunting seals and fishing for a living. Musk ox and reindeer also occupy the island, introduced after the native caribou were exterminated, and the streams teem with salmon. Don’t expect much in the way of accommodations here, and bring a waterproof tent if you go. Flights come regularly from Bethel, Alaska. The virtues of this island are its isolation, its wilderness, its bounties of wild fish, blueberries and game and, in the absence of tourist infrastructure, the prospects for true adventures and interactions with local people and culture.
3) Isla Angel de la Guarda. If there is an island in the ocean but no one there to enjoy it, does it really exist? Sure. Consider Isla Angel de la Guarda, in the Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. At any given time, almost nobody is there—but satellite photos show that the island itself always remains. This 40-by-10-mile wilderness, with the stoic silence of the desert, is surrounded by sapphire-blue water. Without hotels, villages or tourist attractions of any sort where one might spend money, it doesn’t really need visitors—and that’s the best reason to go. If you should find yourself there somehow (you’ll have to hitchhike out via fishing boat), stand on the beach at night and gaze at the night skies bejeweled with stars, and by day soak in the clear ocean waters. Bring plenty of water (or a desalinator), and take along a fishing rod. Leave only footprints.
4) Tokelau. Poverty, idleness, the despondency of being marooned—these aspects of life on Tokelau are nothing compared to what’s coming for this triangle of islands. Lying smack on a straight line between Auckland and Honolulu, the islands of Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo, made of sand and crumbled coral, stand no more than two meters above sea level. With sea level rising already, the Tokelauan archipelago may not see another century of life above water. For the time being, this territory of New Zealand is home to 1500 people and, reportedly, three cars. (I have not learned where people go in them.) There is no landing strip, and the fastest way to Tokelau is a two-day boat ride from Samoa. Representatives of Tokelau recently made a stir in Durban, at the November-December climate change summit, where they announced an ambitious plan to switch entirely to renewable energy within a year. Their idea is to challenge the rest of us to take similar action. If you go to Tokelau, expect to eat breadfruit, tuna, taro root and kaleva, a local alcohol made from coconut.
5) Frank Sinatra preferred New York City. I prefer places like Tristan da Cunha, famed as the most remote inhabited island group in the world. This Atlantic cluster of volcanoes lies 1,750 miles from the nearest port, Cape Town, South Africa. The six islands take up 52 square miles of the Earth’s surface and provide a home to just under 300 people. Tristan da Cunha Island itself sports a dramatic summit that rises 6,762 feet from the sea—a perfect conical peak with a heck of a hike to the top. In other words, sea level won’t swamp this island group and you’ve got all the time in the world to go see it—but how does one get there? Like Tokelau, “Tristan” has no airport, and the only way here is by boat, whether fishing vessel, freighter or private sailing yacht. Camping, meanwhile, is reportedly not illegal but is considered unusual. The other islands in the group are uninhabited, though, and presumably you can sleep any place you want. One of these islands is actually called Inaccessible Island—which sounds to me like a challenge. Note: Tristan is not tropical. It lies at almost 40 degrees south latitude. Better bring a coat.
6) Lemnos. This Greek Aegean island is a personal favorite of mine—a lesser-known expanse of low hills and untrammeled beaches that I visited in 2006 and which I remember most for its abandoned villages, desolate plains, beehives everywhere and a mind-blowing abundance of fig and mulberry trees. Homer praised Lemnos in the Iliad for its wine, and today its scrubby 186 square miles still produce a variety of acclaimed wines. Myrina is the main western port, served by multiple ferry lines and with all the hotels and services a tourist might want. But Lemnos’s east side, relatively deserted, is where the magic happens. Camp where you like. Savor the stars at night. Eat figs by day. Revel in the rare solitude. While you’re in the area, Samothraki to the north is a beautiful mile-high volcanic island populated by camps of Central European hippies known for their trance parties and well worth a visit, while Chios, just a ferry ride to the south, is another mountainous beauty of the Aegean.
7) Caroline Atoll. Want a real party this New Year’s Eve? Then go to New York City. But at the eastern edge of the Kiribati island group you’ll find the Caroline Atoll, whose proximity to the international dateline makes it among the first places in the world to see each new day on Earth. Go here in a week and enjoy the distinguishing thrill of being the first person to enter 2012. In fact, Caroline Atoll’s name unofficially became “Millennium Island” prior to the “Y2K” New Year’s celebration. But in the realm of more relevant and real tourist attractions, visitors here will find virtually no people, as the Caroline Atoll is uninhabited. Sleep where you will—and bring a mask and snorkel, for the coral reefs here are considered among the most spectacular in the world. Watch for giant clams underwater, grab a lobster for dinner and good luck keeping the coconut crabs out of your tent at night.
Last Note: If you plan to be marooned somewhere for some time, that’s great. I’m glad for you. I wish I was going, too. Just be sure to bring along a copy of David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions, in which the author-naturalist discusses, through fascinating examples and cases studies, just why the creatures that inhabit islands—from the largest lizard on Earth to flightless birds that have no fear of predators to grotesquely oversized tortoises—can be, well, such freaks.
December 20, 2011
The Turks were so patient for putting up with me this fall as I cycled around the western half of the country. I cringe now when I recall the many times, while in conversation with strangers, that I lifted my feet and showed them the mucky gobs of fig seeds mashed into the underside of my shoes, accumulated through day after day of standing under fig trees and foraging off the branches. And, when shop keepers asked if I would like anything else with my groceries before paying, I often shook my head and touched my middle finger to my thumb – that gesture which to many Westerners means, “Everything’s just fine.”
Turns out, showing a person the sole of your shoe and making the “it’s-all-good” sign (which was originally coined as sign language by SCUBA divers) are both grave insults in Turkey. It’s a miracle I wasn’t thrown to the bears. It was only weeks later that I learned what a klutz I’d been. I was gleaning a website on faux pas commonly made by travelers, and idle amusement quickly turned to mortification as I recognized descriptions of my own misdeeds. There is nothing to do now but laugh at how many blunders I’ve unknowingly committed through years of visiting strange lands. Anyway, as global travel increasingly links cultures around the world, people everywhere may be growing more accepting of know-nothing travelers like me—and perhaps today the idea of the clueless foreigner is more charmingly comic than it is gravely offensive.
Nonetheless, there are a few things best not to do when traveling—and this list is a start:
1) In Japan, accepting a business card from a Japanese person without using two hands or acting like you are sublimely honored. Because a Japanese person isn’t fooling when he or she hands you a business card. In addition to receiving it with two hands, one is supposed to bow deferentially. Forbes.com addressed precisely this matter, with no intention of parody, in a 2005 article on etiquette pointers for the traveling businessperson. It makes that scene from American Psycho seem not so ludicrous after all.
2) In Georgia, drinking at the table while another is making a toast. Toasts in this former Soviet nation come many times per meal and may last as long as five or 10 minutes. They are sometimes almost hilariously theatrical until one realizes that Georgians are totally serious when they raise their wine glasses and begin speaking. If a guest is present, especially, the melodrama gets thick as the speaker praises the two represented nations, the honor of playing host to a foreigner, the guest’s good fortune as he or she continues their journey, ancestors, God and so on and so forth—though not always in a single toast. I spent some time in Georgia in 2010. Even at such informal sites as the side of the road, men drinking wine sometimes called me over, filled me a glass and embarked on lengthy verbal voyages. It’s a wonder, looking back, that we ever managed to squeeze in a drink.
3) In most of the Middle and Far East, walking into a home with one’s shoes on. Been there, done that—and with gunky fig jam caked to the soles of my cycling shoes, to boot. Yes, I was a walking disaster in Turkey, day after day committing insults so dreadful it’s fortunate I didn’t make the old ladies faint—or the young men call for their weapons.
4) In the Hindu and Muslim world, greeting a person or eating with your left hand. I cannot begin to imagine how many times I have absentmindedly done this in Turkey. Locals, it turns out, traditionally wipe themselves with the left hand. A tad bit presumptuous, isn’t it, for them to assume that I do, too?
5) Also in the Muslim world, eating during daylight hours during the holy month of Ramadan. Being the old hand at social blunders that I am, I’ve committed this crime many times. I was in Turkey during Ramadan in August 2010, and when I caught myself and sheepishly apologized, the folks around me said I had done nothing wrong. I have never known if they were simply being polite. Because in Dubai, anyway, foreigners seen eating during the Ramadan fasting hours can face jail time.
6) In Hawaii, refusing a lei. Don’t feel like wearing a rosary of tropical blossoms round your neck? Tough luck. Put the lei over your head, offer a generous hug in return and consider yourself formally welcomed to the islands. If you really can’t stand the thing, Hawaiian culture considers it acceptable for one to re-gift the lei to one’s spouse—but not, heaven forbid, if she’s a pregnant woman! Tread carefully. Stay vigilant.
7) In Russia, refusing vodka when offered, and sipping it once your glass is filled. Instead, you must gregariously chug your shot glass of Eurasia’s favorite booze. What’s more, having three drinks is sometimes obligatory at an event for one to demonstrate a baseline level of friendliness and social prowess. Meanwhile, women in Russia might do wisely, as custom sometimes demands, to leave the vodka to the men and drink wine instead.
8) And this one may come as a surprise: In Germany, discussing sports. So I read in this Vagabondish post from Amy Baker, who says German people may think someone “uneducated” if he or she is heard discussing a sporting match.
9) In the United Kingdom, holding up your index and middle finger with the back of your hand facing outward. Britons: Please don’t laugh. Because in America, most people are unaware that this is the equivalent of giving someone the middle finger—and please understand that it’s a mistake if someone makes this sign while ordering two beers across a noisy pub.
10) Finally, in the United States, relieving oneself in public. That’s right, all you gentlemen from France, Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic: Turning your back on a person or a crowd and emptying your bladder may be business as usual where you come from, but in my culture, many people consider it dirty and disrespectful. Why, I have friends and relatives who would keel over dead if they saw such an act in public.
Me? I’ll forgive you.
Anyone want to offer travel faux pas number 11? Or do you have any embarrassing or comical miscommunications worth sharing? Tell us about them below.
December 16, 2011
1. Seawater desalinator. The planet may be your playground – except for those places lacking freshwater. Indeed, some of the finest desert wildernesses in Australia, Mexico, Egypt and elsewhere are simply off-limits to the self-sufficient foot or bicycle traveler because of their lack of one of life’s most essential molecules. A water desalinator changes everything. That desert coastline along the Sea of Cortez, the wild shores of Australia’s west coast, the undeveloped beaches along the Red Sea: All become fair game for the journeys of your dreams when you’re packing along any of the reliable and lightweight desalinating devices now available on the market. Our recently featured Baja wanderer, Graham Mackintosh, has used various homemade contraptions in his desert journeys but recently invested in a Katadyn Survivor 35, a reverse osmosis hand pump capable of rendering drinkable 4.5 liters of seawater per hour.
2. Portable Miniature Chess Set. You step from the freezing, blustery darkness of a late-night blizzard into the toasty warmth of a mountain chalet – and as you drop your backpack and kick the snow from your boots, you see it’s going to be an awkward evening: A half dozen gruff Romanian mountaineers occupy the premises, staring at you wordlessly over their glasses. They’ll share their wine, you can bet, and the venison stew – but they don’t speak your language, or you theirs. How will you break the ice?! Chess, of course – assuming you’ve packed along your portable chess set – a miniature, fold-in-half system, often with magnetic pieces that cling to their squares even on the bumpiest of train rides. This makes an excellent gift for wayfarers with an affinity for sacrificing pawns, battling knights, dismounting horsemen, destroying queens and stomping on kings – and communicating across borders in the global language of the world’s greatest board game.
3. Bear Spray. Bear attacks are very rare, and even the most avid hikers may experience the terror of a bluff charge just once in their lives or never – but occasionally bears mean tooth-and-claw business. So blast ‘em with bear spray. Charging bruins – usually grizzlies – have been stopped in their tracks with a smartly placed shot of this nasty if not-permanently-damaging stuff. Some experts have warned, though, that bear spray might only make angry bears angrier. Others, meanwhile, discourage the carrying of guns for self-defense against bears, arguing that that firearms can instill overconfidence in those who carry them and indirectly increase the likelihood of a violent encounter with a bear. Whichever way goes the debate, the fact is that bear spray has been used in emergency situations, and it works.
4. Wild Edibles Foraging Guide. The world is for eating – but, beyond such no-brainers as blackberries and trout, where does one start snacking? I recall years ago, on a three-week backpacking trip in the Marble Mountains Wilderness area in northern California, while we walked the lake’s shore, my dad, with a few swipes of his hand, produced a brace of familiarly-scented greens which we would dice and sprinkle as garnish over our grilled trout: wild chives. The occasion opened my eyes to the fine foods that grow under our hiking boots and usually go unrecognized. If there’s a food-savvy wilderness traveler on your shopping list, start browsing now through the many available pocketbook guides to foraging wild edibles.
5. Soccer Ball. Friends in far-off places come easily for those who pack in their bag the simplest, most universally loved piece of sporting equipment on the planet: a soccer ball. Know someone headed for Latin America in 2012? Africa? Central Asia? Then see that they have a deflatable ball and a pump in their backpack when their plane leaves – and remind them at the security gate that where they’re going it’s called futbol.
6. Laminated Map. The most valuable item of travel is often the most disposable: the map. Unless, that is, it’s been laminated. Many stationary and office supplies shops offer this service; for a few bucks, they’ll seal a flimsy sheet of paper within a durable coat of heavy plastic, making it impervious to rain, rough handling and the wear and tear that will turn most road or trail maps into a shredded rag by a journey’s end. A map protected by lamination can be passed around and reused for years – or displayed on the wall as a poster.
7. Emergency Rations to Save a Life. What would it take to get you to chow down on dog food? A real emergency, right? Well, we’ll hope so, anyway – and that’s why a can of sloppy, wet dog food makes among the best emergency ration foods available – a source of calories that, no matter how many glasses of wine you had with your camp dinner, no matter how many miles you trekked that day, no matter how much you would like to have another bite to eat before bed, you will never plunder in a moment’s weakness unless you are absolutely starving. In the bottom of your pack it will stay – hopefully for many, many safe and happy years of traveling – and only in the darkest hour will this 20-ounce life-saver even begin to look like food. Warning: Most options are not suitable for vegetarians or vegans, though at least one all-natural product is: V-Dog.
8. To the Top of Denali: Climbing Adventures on North America’s Highest Peak, by Bill Sherwonit. Trying to talk someone out of plans to climb America’s most massive mountain this year? Trying to convince a friend to come along? Either way, this dramatic page-turner about the history of Man’s relationship with Mount Denali might do the trick. A quintessential must-read in the collection of any adventure traveler, especially those with a love for Alaska, To the Top of Denali has it all: tales of the frostbite, the hunger, the snowstorms and blizzards and whiteouts, the heroic winter solo assaults, the disastrous group ascents, the tragedy, the romance, the comedy and the heroism that have unfurled on the slopes of North America’s most massive mountain. A 1990 release, To the Top of Denali remains as relevant today as the mountain itself – and, more than ever, a maturing classic in armchair adventuring.
9. Weather-proof Fire-starter. Few minor disasters in the bush will sink one’s heart quite like a cold morning without tea or coffee or a post-hike evening without dinner – and it will happen if you can’t produce a flame. Antarctic adventuress Felicity Aston (who should now be at or darn near the South Pole) recently experienced a fright when her three lighters failed to work. Fortunately, she had backup matches to light her stove, and so should anyone else who walks into the wild. So stuff a stocking this Christmas with waterproof matches (which you can make at home) – or a windproof, refillable lighter.
10. Internet Anywhere Plan. Bring that stodgy, wool-wearing, stick-carving Luddite on your gift list up to pace with the modern world with one of the many “internet anywhere” access plans now available. The concept is almost miraculous: access to email, search engines, music and all the other services and comforts of the Internet from some of the remotest places in the world. Though some will argue that such technology interferes with the very experience of travel, the advantages are hard to argue with: From afield, one may identify unknown plants, scout the terrain ahead, learn the local language or just tell Mom everything’s okay. Oh yeah – and that Luddite will also need a mini laptop computer.