April 8, 2013
The concept is alluringly simple: Leave your home, your television, your laptop, your job, put on a backpack and walk from Mexico to Canada.
That, in a sentence, describes the experience of walking the Pacific Crest Trail. Usually called the PCT, this epic foot trail meanders 2,650 miles through three states, from Campo, California, to E.C. Manning Provincial Park, in British Columbia. Many thousands of people walk some portion of the trail each year, whether in California, Oregon or Washington, while several hundred attempt to go the full distance. Hikers intending to do so must be fit, brave, ambitious and—at least for a while—unemployed. They must also undertake some serious planning as they begin what will likely be the greatest outdoors adventure of their lives. The PCT is one of America’s three great long-distance north-south hiking trails, along with the Continental Divide and the Appalachian trails. The PCT passes among the world’s largest trees, some of the most fantastic rock formations and one of the driest deserts. It crosses one of North America’s largest rivers, and traverses a wide range of climates and landscapes, from low-lying to deserts to craggy high country to well-watered, mossy forests.
Most people who hike the PCT walk south to north, and for them, the adventure is about to start. Most will depart before May. This allows them to begin when the desert temperatures are still mild and progress northward rather in sync with the warming weather. The April-May start time also works out especially nicely by putting northbounders at the south end of the Sierra Nevada just as the high country snowpack really begins to melt, and if they stay on schedule they should pass through the Pacific Northwest before the first autumn snows.
Jack Haskel, a staff member with the Pacific Crest Trail Association, told Off the Road that several thru-hikers are already a few hundred miles into their walk.
“It’s been a low-snow year, which makes it a decent year to get an early start,” he said.
Hikers must handle some paperwork before they begin—but, happily, bureaucratic obstacles are quite minimal. The PCT Association will grant a PCT Long Distance Permit to anyone planning to walk at least 500 miles of the trail. This document is free, takes two to three weeks to process and paves the way for a hiker to walk every inch of the PCT.
Logistically speaking, now comes the fun stuff—bears, food supplies, dangerous terrain and running out of water. Haskel says there are, in particular, two waterless distances of about 30 miles in the Southern California desert where hikers must tote gallons at a time.
Once hikers reach the Sierra Nevada, a simple water filtering pump can be used at any of hundreds of lakes and streams along the way—but rations now become the biggest priority. North of Kennedy Meadows, hikers cross not a single road for about 200 miles and, unless they trek off-trail to a town, may need to carry with them some 60,000 calories of food a person. Such deliciously laden hikers are gold mines of goodies for black bears, which don’t pose much of a physical threat to people but may easily rob hikers of their supplies if they leave them unguarded—even for just a few moments, whether day or night. Bears, Haskel warns, can be especially problematic near the Rae Lakes in Kings Canyon National Park and in Yosemite National Park’s Lyell Canyon. In places, a plastic bear canister is required—and hikers would be wise to carry one of these bear-proof food containers throughout their journey.
About 1,000 people apply for thru-permits each year. Between 500 and 800 individuals attempt the journey. Fewer than half of them finish each year. The average thru-hiker will take about five months to walk the entire trail, averaging 20-plus miles a day after factoring in rest days. Haskel says many hikers begin at a pace of 16 or 17 miles per day but, by the time they reach Oregon, “are basically doing a marathon every day.” He says the PCT is “an amazing workout” and that thru-hikers can expect to arrive at the finish line “skinny” and, perhaps, fitter than they’ve ever been. Thru-hikers, by virtue of their lifestyle, become voracious eaters, burning 5,000 calories or more per day and, when they’re able, regaining this energy through glorious, face-stuffing feasts. Fortunately, hikers will encounter towns with quality stores and restaurants every few days for most of the PCT’s length. The PCT Association’s website offers guidelines and strategy suggestions for resupplying along the trail.
One need not be starving—just bored of couscous and curry—to stop and eat one of the most famous meals along the entire PCT, the Pancake Challenge at Seiad Valley Store and Cafe, on the Klamath River in Northern California. The Challenge consists of putting down five one-pound pancakes—a feat that perhaps only a thru-hiker (or a black bear) could ever manage. Walking Man Brewing Company, in Stevenson, Washington, is a popular watering hole for PCT hikers. Haskel also recommends Paradise Valley Cafe, near the San Jacinto Mountains in Southern California, popular among hikers for its burgers.
A small fraction of PCT hikers—perhaps just several dozen people—hike the trail north to south, starting at the Canadian border and walking to Mexico. Such southbounders often opt for this route plan due to their calendar schedule; if they cannot break away from school or work until June, they simply can’t begin the journey in the desert, where June temperatures can be crushing. They will also have a poor chance of reaching the Canadian border before winter if they depart from Campo in late June. But hiking in this direction introduces some unique challenges. Most southbounders start after June 15—but even then, much of the trail will still be covered with snow. Southbound hikers can expect not to see the trail itself for snowy sections as long as one mile or more. Thus, getting lost is likely, and many southbounders carry GPS devices for this reason. By July and August, the high country snows will have mostly melted—but October will be just around the corner, and the highest passes of the entire journey lie very much toward the end of the trail, in the Sierra Nevada. Forester Pass—at 13,153 feet—is the giant of them all. It stands 780 miles from the finish line, and southbounders generally aim to cross this beautiful but potentially perilous obstacle before October.
From here, much of the remaining country is desert, which by autumn is mild, dry and beautiful. Many southbounders slow to an easy pace here, Haskel says, as the race against winter is over. Fifteen to 20 miles a day—child’s play for hikers who have come all the way from Canada—brings them in a month or two to the Mexican border at Campo, where a taco—plus a dozen more and a few beers—may never taste so good.
The trail runs 2,650 miles.
The trail leads through 26 national forests, seven national parks, five state parks and three national monuments.
The trail’s midpoint is at Chester, California, near Mount Lassen.
The highest point along the way is Forester Pass in the Sierra Nevada, at 13,153 feet.
Fewer than 200 hikers finish the PCT each year.
About 5 percent of thru hikers walk north to south, considered the more challenging direction.
The first person to thru-hike the entire trail was Richard Watson, in 1972.
The fastest time was set in 2011 by Scott Williamson, who hiked north to south in 64 days 11 hours, averaging 41 miles per day.
A few speed hikers have finished so-called “yo yo” hikes, reaching the end, then turning around and walking the entire PCT again in the opposite direction.
Cyclists may attempt a bike-friendly, 2,500-mile parallel route called the Pacific Crest Bicycle Trail.
April 3, 2013
They may be at work pursuing the greatest mysteries of the physical world—yet the men and women who operate the world’s most prestigious physics and astronomy laboratories aren’t necessarily too busy to host guests. Throughout the world, physics and astronomy labs—many of them shimmering like stars in the wake of tremendous discoveries and achievements, some on mountaintops, others underground—welcome visitors to tour the premises, see the equipment, look through the telescopes and ponder just why they almost always make you wear a hardhat.
CERN. It’s the little things in life that really matter to the researchers at CERN, or the European Organization for Nuclear Research. This facility—located near Geneva, Switzerland—has gained superstardom over the last year, after announcing the discovery of what had been a holy grail of physics for decades—sometimes called the “God particle.” First predicted by physicist Peter Higgs in 1964, the then-theoretical particle, which pops from a field that is believed to give other particles their mass—became known as the Higgs boson before more recently assuming its grandiose nickname. CERN’s $10 billion atom smasher, called the Large Hadron Collider, had been at work for several years in its subterranean home in the Alps, beneath the French-Swiss border, colliding protons at high speeds before rendering what seemed to be evidence for the God particle in 2012. After a year of analyzing data, CERN researchers officially announced in March that it was all but certain: They’d captured a handful of real, honest-to-God Higgs bosons (visible only via a peak on a graph of data). Should you be in the charming Swiss countryside this summer, consider taking a guided tour of this most distinguished of the world’s great physics laboratories.
Did you know? CERN’s researchers helped develop the World Wide Web as a way to share data among scientists.
Gran Sasso National Laboratory. Bundle up, say goodbye to the Italian sun and take a tour of the austere bowels of one of the largest underground laboratories in the world. The Gran Sasso National Laboratory welcomes visitors, who get to see some of the world’s finest physicists in action as they work on a variety of experiments. The laboratory is located thousands of feet below ground, beside a freeway tunnel within Gran Sasso e Monti della Laga National Park, and as wolves, deer and foxes in the wild country above chase and gobble each other up in their timeless ways, scientists in the Gran Sasso lab are busy pursuing the puzzles of neutrino physics, supernovas and dark matter. As part of an ongoing joint project, the Gran Sasso lab receives neutrino beams fired from the CERN lab, some 500 miles away. By observing a pattern of oscillations in such beams, protected from interfering particles by rock and water, scientists have been able to prove that neutrinos do have mass. (Still wearing that hardhat, I hope?)
W. M. Keck Observatory. Some of the largest telescopes on Earth stand on the summit of Mauna Kea, the 13,800-foot volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii. These instruments—about eight stories tall and weighing 300 tons each—have allowed researchers to pursue the most vexing of the universe’s questions: How do solar systems form? How fast is the universe expanding? What is its fate? Visitors age 16 and older can tour the site at a fee of $192. The tours last a marathon eight hours and include transportation, dinner, hot drinks and hooded parkas—which few tourists ever even think of packing along to Hawaii. WARNING: The high altitude of the site can pose pressure-related health hazards, and SCUBA divers should not visit the Keck Observatory shortly after any significant time spent underwater.
Sanford Underground Research Facility. A century and a half ago, who could have known that beneath the lawless land of the Black Hills would one day be one of the world’s most sophisticated physics labs? The Sanford Underground Research Facility is located in the old Homestake Gold Mine in South Dakota, reaching 4,850 feet below ground. Like other subterranean particle observation labs, Sanford’s Homestake facility relies on the Earth itself to eliminate radiation and associated nuisances from the environment and allow scientists to conduct their experiments free of cosmic noise and interference. The Sanford laboratory’s focal points include the origin of matter, the properties of neutrinos and the ubiquitous pursuit of dark matter, which makes up a majority of the mass in the universe but which physicists have yet to positively identify. Tours of the Homestake site are available. Visitors must first stop at the reception center on Summit Street in the adjacent town of Lead, open weekdays from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Once on the Sanford premises, they can neither smoke nor drive more than 10 miles per hour.
Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. Even the world’s brainiest thinkers won’t think you’re lazy if you call it “LIGO.” This project consists of two sites roughly 2,000 miles apart—the distance being an essential component of LIGO’s research. The facilities are designed to detect gravitational waves, ripples in the very fabric of spacetime that are generated by cataclysmic events. Albert Einstein predicted their existence as part of his theory of general relativity in 1916. LIGO’s technology could detect these vibrations. To be certain that the sensors—contained in 2.5-mile-long vacuum tunnels—aren’t simply picking up the tremblings of local earthquakes, LIGO uses two locations distant from each other. One is in Hanford, Washington, the other in Livingston, Louisiana. Public tours of the Livingston LIGO site are scheduled about once per month and custom tours can be requested. To visit the Hanford site, call ahead.
SETI Institute. It was founded in Mountain View, California, in 1984, and since then, well, this alien-hunting institute hasn’t really discovered what it has been looking for. Not that scientists with the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute aren’t trying. The SETI Institute uses the Allen Telescope Array, near Mount Lassen, to listen closely to the sounds of the stars, hoping to receive signals that might indicate the presence of other intelligent beings in the universe. Let’s just hope they’re a little less intelligent than we are. After all, some scientists have voiced concerns about what will happen if humans actually succeed in making contact with an alien species. In 2011, researchers at Penn State and NASA jointly released a report in which scientists warned that aliens might enslave, kill or eat us. Undaunted by what fate may befall us—and in spite of recent budget constraints—the SETI Institute continues its search for extraterrestrial intelligence. The Allen Telescope Array is located at the Hat Creek Radio Observatory. Here, the heavily forested location makes for a quiet and scenic getaway. The riffles of Hat Creek are famed for their wild trout, while frequently clear night skies make for fine tent-free summertime camping in the nearby Lassen Volcanic National Park. Visitors to the Hat Creek Observatory can take self-guided tours.
Lick Observatory. Perched upon the 4,200-foot Mount Hamilton, near San Jose, California, the Lick Observatory is where astronomer Geoff Marcy of UC Berkeley, along with several colleagues, has helped identify hundreds of planets outside our own solar system since 1995, when scientists discovered the first such planet orbiting a sun-like star.* It was a pair of Europeans—Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz, using the Haute-Provence Observatory—who first looked closely at the sun-like 51 Pegasi, located about 50 light-years away in the Pegasus constellation. In this star they observed an oscillating wobble—a telltale sign of an orbiting planet. They published their discovery in October 1995. A week later, Marcy took a second look at 51 Pegasi and confirmed the planet’s discovery. The planet became known as 51 Pegasi b. Marcy and his colleagues went on to discover hundreds more planets. For visitors, Lick Observatory is almost as friendly as a public museum. The site—at which James Lick lies buried beneath one of the telescopes—is open most days of the year and includes a bed and breakfast. Musical performances, weddings and other events are held on the summit. Check out Lick Observatory’s website for more information about visits.
* In 1992, astronomers Aleksander Wolszczan and Dale Frail discovered the very first extrasolar planets—though these were orbiting PSR B1257+12, believed to be the stellar corpse of a supernova. Thus, the planets are considered extremely unlikely to bear evidence of alien life.
March 26, 2013
“Faces From Afar” is an ongoing series in which Off the Road profiles adventurous travelers exploring unique places or pursuing exotic passions. Know a globetrotter we should hear about? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The desert is simple, honest and frank. It is sparse and stoic, both patient and demanding, and something about this unforgiving environment continually draws people from comfortable, well-watered places into its dangerous heart. Compelled by this old attraction, two young Americans departed in early February on one of the most ambitious walks they will probably ever take, through some of the most barren, the most beautiful and—lately—the most misunderstood land south of the Mexico-U.S. border: Baja California.
Justin DeShields, 26, and Bryan Morales, 25, departed San Diego on February 2. They crossed the border and immediately entered Tijuana, where the two travelers, who had been thinking logistically about desert survival for months, found themselves in a landscape blistered by traffic, freeways and urban shantytowns. They walked parallel to the border westward to the beach, where they officially began their walk. Their plan: to journey unassisted by motor vehicles all the way to the peninsula’s southernmost tip before June. DeShields, a documentary filmmaker who has worked with National Geographic, brought along several cameras. With an arrangement to blog for National Geographic, he and Morales—who works as an outdoor educator with urban youth—would document the ecological wonders and crises, the cultural colors and the raw beauty of the Baja peninsula, top to bottom.
Tijuana was simply an obstacle. Not known as Baja California’s proudest asset, it made for a discouraging beginning. Wearing 50-pound backpacks, it took the adventurers several hours to escape the city’s grimy, gritty influence. Concrete scribbled with graffiti, homes built of cardboard and sheets, and the din of urban traffic all faded into the distance at last, replaced by the softness of the sand and the drone of the breaking waves. But they hadn’t exactly escaped civilization. On the shore, the suburbs continued for many miles—and still ahead was the equally imposing city of Ensenada, located about 80 miles south of the border. On the beach, the pair encountered the obstacles of urban development—sometimes nearly to the waterline.
“There were so many private properties that in order to follow the coast, we had to hop fences and walls, and duck through barbed wire,” says Morales, with whom I spoke by phone last week. “There were places where we couldn’t get around rocky points and had to go back up to the highway, but there was no access.” So the two hurried through yards, alleyways and vacant lots, not always sure if they were trespassing or not, but certain of at least one thing: that they needed to move southward if they hoped to ever escape the northern peninsula’s development and reach the unspoiled desert for which Baja is famous.
For Morales and DeShields, the privatization of the public coastline became one of the most disturbing and frustrating aspects of their journey.
“The thing that worries me is that the coastline is being bought up by Americans or other foreigners, and as a result Mexicans are losing their land,” Morales says. “If they don’t have land or access to the water, how can they come to cherish it and enjoy it as we have? They certainly won’t be able to afford to buy it back.”
Though void of cacti and shrubs and open hillsides, this urban region was something of a desert, for most of the residences in places were entirely abandoned, Morales says. They passed vacant hotels and condos and the shells of empty buildings. The beach town of Rosarito—a thriving and popular destination for tourists as recently as six or seven years ago—has died. “It’s literally a ghost town now,” Morales says. He attributes the emptiness of this once-peopled land to “fear of violence, rape, robbery and even the police.” Parts of Mexico have experienced high crime rates in recent years, covered widely by the media. Morales believes such violence, civilian deaths and tourist holdups have unfairly impacted Baja, which has remained, to a large extent, off the path of criminals.
But the hospitality of Baja’s people defied every stereotype about the dangers of traveling today in Mexico. The two encountered kindness and generosity at every bend in the beach, in each town and in each remote fishing camp where they stopped to ask for water. The commercial lobster season had just ended, on February 16, and so these camps were often all but uninhabited. Usually, one man—maybe two—would come out to greet the Americans, along with his barking dogs. Many strangers invited them into their homes for food, coffee and beds.
“Down here you find an experience that, in the States, is hard to come by,” Morales says. “There is a low standard of living, and people have almost nothing. They literally make houses out of our garbage—old garage doors, trailers, billboards—and yet these people are incredibly generous. They invite us into their homes, feed us, share what they have.”
The two camped most nights on the beach, often tucked up against the cliffs in their tent to keep out of sight of passersby, and by day they walked, often on concrete and asphalt, other times along the beach, each carrying 50-pound backpacks loaded with camping equipment, cameras, a water desalinator and—for the odd hour of recreation—a surfboard. Finally, after 200 miles and three weeks of struggling through the development of northern Baja, Morales and DeShields found the solitude and silence of the desert. Here began the joys and hazards of classic wilderness exploration. Many times, the pair journeyed inland to avoid treacherous cliffs and waves. Once or twice they almost ran out of water. They showed up half starved and delirious in a fishing camp one hot day. In a land of sand, sun and solitude, they ate what they could. Peanut butter and jelly on tortillas were a staple—though strangers who greeted them in the road spiced up their diets with tortillas and bowls of beans. Often, the desert didn’t even look like one. The rains of December had had their lingering effect, turning what is known to be one of the most dry and bitter landscapes into scenery as green as Teletubby Land. Locals even told them that the desert flower blooms of the moment had not been seen in nearly a decade.
On March 19, they arrived in Guerrero Negro, a dusty desert city mostly unremarkable except as a chief destination for tourists hoping to watch gray whales, which enter the nearby Ojo de Liebre and San Ignacio lagoons to give birth. From here, the pair walks south. They will remain on foot as they pass San Ignacio Lagoon and walk inland around its shoreline. The plan is to then cut east, across the mountainous peninsula, and descend back to sea level at the date palm-studded oasis town of Mulege. Morales and DeShields intend to finish their journey on stand-up paddleboards, moving smoothly along the tranquil shoreline of the Sea of Cortez, all the way to San Jose del Cabo. Their journey can be followed via their blog “What is West?”
March 22, 2013
In late February, I attempted to photograph a group of schoolchildren hiking home along the road, through green and beautiful mountain scenery in the Ecuadorian Andes. I did so furtively from behind, hoping to get a candid shot of the five, who were holding hands as they walked. To my alarm and embarrassment, one of them glanced back and called out an abrupt alarm. All five of the kids screeched, hunched their shoulders, ducked their heads and hurried their step. I aborted my effort and offered a friendly wave as I passed them on my bicycle. I had discovered that the rumors of some cultures being leery of cameras are true—especially so, perhaps, for the Quechua people of the Andes.
I also began to think more concertedly about the greater subject of photography ethics. Is it fair, for instance, to photograph a person—any person—without asking permission? Is it legal? But can’t asking for permission also ruin the spontaneity of the photo? Meanwhile, is it appropriate to take a photo of another’s home, or their dog, or their property—or to take photos that exhibit one’s poverty or misery? To gain a clearer understanding of what’s right and wrong, accepted or shunned in travel photography, I spoke recently with Matt Kadey, a Canadian photographer, journalist and frequent cycle tourist.
Must you ask permission to take a stranger’s photo?
Landscape and human photography are two really different things. When you’re taking photos of people, you should get permission. I always try to ask, and if they don’t speak English, you can maybe just show them the camera and see if they say yes. But, at a street market, for example, you can’t always ask, “Hey, you mind if I get a quick shot of you handing over the money to that guy for that fruit?” You just have to take the picture. If you know you might want to publish it, and you think you’ll need permission, you have to do it right away. Once you get home, you have no idea where that person lives or how to contact them.
Can requesting permission compromise the nature of a photo?
Definitely. That’s the problem. You might want to take a shot of a guy wearing some huge hat, and if you ask him if you can take his photo, he might take off the hat and pose because he thinks you shouldn’t be wearing a hat in a photo, and then you’ve lost the shot you wanted. What I’d rather do is spend some time with them, like eating lunch with them, and get to know them a little, and then they probably won’t mind if you start taking some photos. Or, you can ask them afterward. People usually like it when you show them the photo you took. But I’m definitely guilty of not asking at times. Sometimes you have 150 kilometers to go, and you see a great shot, take the picture and just keep moving. But my girlfriend has pointed out to me how it must feel. Imagine if you’re on your porch and some guy from China walks up with a camera, sticks it in your face and takes a picture and walks off.
Must a tip be offered to a subject?
I don’t always feel right paying money for photos, but if I’ve spent some time with someone, like a farmer at the side of the road, and I’ve taken a bunch of photos, I might offer him a couple of dollars. It sort of depends, but I definitely am wary if someone wants money right away. It feels like dirty money, and I’ll usually just put the camera away.
I’ve read recently about so-called starvation photography, and it makes me wonder: Do you have any personal limits on what photos of human suffering you will and will not take?
We came across traffic accidents in Burma recently [while cycling], and I saw no reason why I’d want a photo of a person on the ground.
Do you feel self-conscious taking photos of people?
I definitely have. You worry about offending someone, but it’s something you need to get over if you’re a serious photographer. Most people are too shy to take good human photos, but I’m not going to take a long trip somewhere and not take those photos. But I’ve definitely felt awkward at times. I have this camera with a giant lens and I’m up in their face with it. The key is how you deal with it afterward. You might stay around for a while and show them the picture. I’ve been in Southeast Asia by the road with a group of women, showing them a photo of themselves and everyone’s laughing about it.
Does photography tend to distance you from the locals? Or can it effectively serve to bridge a gap?
I think as long as I interact with the locals before and after taking the photos that it can be a great way to interact with them. For example, when they don’t speak English and I don’t speak the native tongue, I can show them the photos on the camera screen and sometimes that is enough to put everyone at ease. The key is not to take a million photos of someone and seem like a greedy photographer. It’s important that I demonstrate that I am actually interested in them and not just grabbing a great photo of them.
Is it easy to be a photographer and ride a bicycle?
Being on a bicycle definitely lets you get better shots. You can get out to areas where people have never interacted with tourists before, and those people aren’t going to ask you for money if you start taking photos. And with cycle touring, you can easily be the only photographer in a certain place, whereas at a location where the tour buses come, there might be 40 people taking a shot of the same temple at the same time. In places, you might look around and say, “Oh my God, there are a million photos being taken here.” If you’re on a bike, you don’t encounter that kind of situation very often. You might even go to the tourist attractions but, since you’re on a bike, just get there before the buses get there.
Has digital technology made photography easier?
I think you actually have more work to do now after you get home, and you definitely have more photos to look through when they’re digital. With film, each shot counted more, and there were less of them. Another problem for a photographer now is that there are so many images out there, often for free, and people are less willing to pay for photos.
Say you get home and you have a photo that’s almost perfect. Is it ever OK to digitally finish an image?
I have no problem with doing that as long as it isn’t majorly changing the photograph. If the photo has a dark spot on the sky because of some spec on the lens, it’s fine to remove it. You’re just touching it up, and it’s still the exact same photo. What I wouldn’t ever do is cut and paste something into the image that wasn’t there before.
When was the last time you used film?
We were in Ireland in 2003 or 2004, and that was the first time I only had a digital camera with me.
Can photography ever distract you from experiencing people or places?
Yes, and my girlfriend reminds me of that all the time. It’s true. You just need to put down the camera sometimes. Say you’re walking through a market. Every tourist is taking photos, and a whole experience can get diluted if you’re looking through a camera lens the whole time. There are definitely days when you just have to say, “OK, today I’m not taking any pictures.” You might occasionally have to break that resolution if you see an incredible shot, but if you miss it and you have four more weeks of traveling, you can be pretty sure you’re going to make up for it.
Editor’s Note: Vote for your favorite travel photograph from the finalists of our 10th Annual Photo Contest!
March 20, 2013
If you think flying is stressful, just imagine how the experience must impact an innocent, unknowing dog or cat when packed away in the cargo hold of a commercial jet. Air travel, in fact, is not just stressful for animals. It can be dangerous, no matter how smooth the landing, timely the departure or friendly the flight attendants. Conditions in the cargo hold of commercial jets are not always friendly; temperatures can fluctuate wildly, noise can be tremendous and air pressure can drop significantly, and pets that are checked into this dark space beneath the passenger cabin sometimes die. In 2011, thirty-five pets died while (or shortly before or after) traveling on commercial flights with U.S. airline companies. Nine animals were injured and two lost entirely. And in 2012, 29 pets died, 26 were injured and one was lost. These numbers should be considered in context; the U.S. Department of Transportation says that two million animals travel on commercial flights each year.
More pets have died in recent years on Delta Airlines flights than on any other airline, according to mandatory incident reports provided by U.S.-based airlines to the Department of Transportation. In 2010, 2011 (PDF) and 2012, Delta Airlines was responsible for 41 of the 97 reported animal deaths. Multiple publications have reported that Delta carries more pets than competing companies, which could explain the seemingly high rate of incidents reported by the airline. A media relations official with Delta Airlines declined to comment for this story.
United Airlines reported 12 animal deaths in 2012 among six airlines that reported incidents.
Almost never is corrective action taken following these incidents. Indeed, fault may often lie with the passenger—such as when animals with pre-existing health problems are checked as baggage.
Kirsten Theisen, director of pet care issues for the Humane Society of the United States, believes air travel is simply too stressful for most animals, especially when they are placed in an aircraft’s cargo hold.
“Flying is frightening for animals,” says Theisen. “They can sense the pressure changing and they can tell that something is happening, and that’s scary. Flying is frightening if you don’t know what’s happening.”
Theisen recognizes that many people today wish to include their pets in family vacations, but she strongly suggests leaving animals at home, in trusted hands, if at all possible. Theisen says reports of pets being lost, injured or killed in transit are increasing, if only because human travelers are increasingly taking their animals along for the ride.
“More and more now, families consider their pets to be members of the family and want to include them on trips,” Theisen says. “Unfortunately, airlines don’t consider animals a member of your family. They consider them cargo.”
Theisen recommends that travelers with pets “do their homework” before flying. She points to Delta’s website, which provides lengthy and detailed information on the possible hazards for pets traveling by plane. Delta, like many airlines now, prohibits pets as checked baggage between May 15 and September 15, when high temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere produce extreme dangers for pets stashed below the passenger cabin. Delta also says it will not carry pets in the cargo hold during periods of extreme weather, whatever the season. The company’s website also states that it will not accept animals as checked baggage if the high temperature at any location on a flight’s itinerary is forecast to be below 10 degrees or above 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
In other words, just that an airline accepts your animal as checked baggage does not mean that conditions will be comfortable or safe for an animal checked as baggage.
Unforeseen hazards can arise once a plane is loaded and prepped for takeoff. On airplanes that have been delayed after leaving the terminal and parked on the blazing tarmac, temperatures can escalate dangerously. Pets have also died due to low temperatures. In 2010, two dogs and a cat perished due to extreme cold in transit, according to the Huffington Post. One of these animals was a hairless kitten named Snickers. The cat’s owner had paid a $70 fee to ensure her pet’s swift removal from the plane. However, it reportedly took baggage handlers 50 minutes to remove the kitten’s kennel from the cargo hold. Snickers died shortly thereafter.
Nearly all animal incidents reported to the Department of Transportation involve pets in the cargo hold. But in 2012, a pug died inside the passenger cabin on a flight from New York City to Salt Lake City that was delayed before takeoff. KSL NewsRadio of Utah reported that a flight attendant told the dog’s owner to keep the pug’s carrying case under the seat throughout the 45-minute delay. The dog reportedly began panting in its confined space and, later during the flight, was discovered to be dead.
Pugs, in fact, are one of several breeds now prohibited on many airlines because of their natural vulnerability to respiratory stresses. They are among the brachycephalic dogs and cats, commonly called snub-nosed, or pug-nosed. Brachycephaly is considered a disorder in humans and many other species, while for a number of dog breeds, the condition is a natural variation. In addition to pugs, boxers, English bulldogs, American pitbull terriers, chow chows and about a dozen other breeds are brachycephalic. At least four cat breeds—Burmese, Persian, Himalayan and exotic short-hair—may also be defined as “snub-nosed.” These animals, more frequently than others, may have breathing problems or difficulties when placed in the stressful conditions of an airplane’s cargo hold and face a relatively high risk of in-flight suffocation as a result. Of 189 flight-related animal deaths reported by the Department of Agriculture between June 2005 and June 2011, ninety-eight were brachycephalic breeds, according to The New York Times.
Delta, American, United and many other companies have strict regulations regarding brachycephalic cats and dogs on their flights. A company called Pet Airways launched in 2009 to cater to pet owners, and about a quarter of the airline’s animal passengers were snub-nosed breeds. Pet Airways did not last long, however. The company, which received some poor customer reviews on Yelp, was showing signs of financial distress by early 2012, according to the New York Times. The company has since ceased operations.
Owners of non-pug-nosed breeds should not be caught off guard. In February 2011, a 3-year-old Labrador retriever reportedly arrived safe and sound an hour past midnight in Singapore on Delta Flight 281. The dog was placed in a baggage storage area, was reported to be in good condition at 5:35 a.m. but was found motionless in its cage at 6:20 a.m. In late July of 2011, a 6-year-old yellow Lab died while in the cargo hold of a Delta flight from Pensacola to Baltimore, with a stop in Atlanta. On the second leg of the journey, the aircraft was delayed for hours in Atlanta and was eventually cancelled entirely. The dog was later found dead in its kennel. A year later, in September 2012, a 2-year-old golden retriever named Beatrice died of heatstroke on a United Airlines flight from New York City to San Francisco. The dog’s owner, supermodel Maggie Rizer, wrote on a blog that the airline acted with dishonesty and callousness after the dog’s death—though the airline reportedly refunded the $1,800 that Rizer paid for Beatrice’s travel. Still other animals bite or chew themselves bloody, presumably unnerved by the stresses of travel. Still others have been lost entirely—like two cats in 2011 whose kennels were discovered open and vacated upon arrival at their destinations. Neither has been reported found.
Current regulations require that airlines—those based in America, anyway—report all incidents involving animals. But Theisen explains that a troubling loophole excludes from this requirement any animals traveling for commercial purposes. Thus, animals that are injured, lost or killed while in the hands of an airline need not be reported if they were being shipped from a breeder to a retailer, or to a new owner, or to a dog show.
“If your dog is at that moment technically not a pet, then it doesn’t need to be reported if something happens to it,” Theisen explains. She adds that the deaths, injuries and animals missing numbers reported by the Department of Transportation are certainly not comprehensive and that many incidents slip quietly, and legally, under the radar.
Suggestions to Keep Your Pet Safe When Flying
- Visit your veterinarian to be sure your pet is fit to fly.
- Don’t fly your pet during the hot summer months.
- Arrange for direct flights. Transfers increase the chances of delays, which can cause stress to animals contained in the cargo hold, and other mishaps, like a pet being sent to the wrong destination.
- If possible (it depends on the animal’s size), purchase your pet a space in the passenger cabin.
- If you must check your pet into the baggage hold, remind airline staff and baggage handlers that there is a live animal on board to ensure gentle handling. Also ask baggage handlers during your check-in that your pet’s cage be placed in a well-ventilated space, and be sure your pet has water.
- Don’t fly snub-nosed cats or dogs. These animals die on airlines, often of respiratory problems, more frequently than other breeds.
- Leave your pet at home if you will be returning soon, and look forward to a happy reunion of wagging tails and hearty purrs.