March 4, 2013
Ecuador has done a tremendous job of preserving its wild places. More than 20 percent of the country is protected within more than 30 parks and reserves, some of them quite vast. In a nation as compact as Ecuador, what this translates into for travelers is beautiful national parks, one after another, like stepping stones through some of the world’s most astounding scenery.
In the Andes, many of the giant volcanoes have their own namesake national park, and from south to north one finds Sangay, Chimborazo, Llanganates, Iliniza, Cotopaxi, Antisana and Cayambe-Coca, to name several. These protected areas essentially demarcate what is known as the Avenue of the Volcanoes, or Volcano Alley—and it’s this route that I followed on my final march northward, toward Quito and the finish line of the international airport.
Here, my adventure finally came alive. I had spent weeks floundering—either resting my injured Achilles tendon or, later, undergoing anti-rabies treatment at a hospital following an unpleasant dog encounter. During this time, I often lay in bed, read books, iced my heel and wished for the freedom of the hills. But I finally fell into the familiar rhythm of bicycle touring as I pedaled uphill from Puyo to Baños, a 3,500-foot climb that leads from the Amazon basin to one of the most esteemed tourist towns in Ecuador—and, even better, to the foot of Tungurahua, the three-mile-high mountain that has been spewing smoke and ash for several months. Like most of the peaks along Volcano Alley at this time of year, Tungurahua hid within a ceiling of clouds, and I only caught a glimpse of the triangular peak one night in the light of the half moon when I peeked out my tent.
Though the Panamerican Highway bisects the Avenue of the Volcanoes, contriving routes to avoid this congested, smoggy artery brings one, as a matter of course, into some of the finest hiking, cycling and adventuring country anywhere. The land is hilly and green, and in places rugged and dangerous. I spent one afternoon ascending from the town of Pillaro into Llanganates National Park, home to the 10,792-foot Cerro Hermoso and, at the end of the long and difficult road, Laguna Pisayambo. The asphalt turns to dirt as the road steepens near the park entrance. The wind wails here, across treeless slopes, and cyclists and backpackers will find a cozy surprise—a refuge free for public use at the park entrance, at nearly 13,000 feet. I arrived at dusk, and two employees welcomed me, fed me and offered me the use of the hot water, the stove and a bed. But I chose to camp outside, and as the cold night came on, the lights of the city of Ambato 4,000 feet below flickered and shined like a million stars. Hidden in the darkness across the valley was Chimborazo’s 20,564-foot summit—often advertised as “the closest point to the Sun”—but I couldn’t see it, and never did, for it remained buried in clouds.
The next day I crossed the Panamerican Highway and headed west, for the much-loved but little-known Quilotoa-Sigchos basin, where I would spend a week exploring what might be the best cycling region in Ecuador. Right out of the town of Latacunga, the road goes up. To non-cyclists, this may sound like the worst of possibilities, but for me and many of my fellow cyclists, climbing is the reason we own bicycles at all. It’s on those uphill grades that we feel the heat of our own blood and the pace of our hearts. Climbing, perhaps, reminds us we’re alive, while million-dollar views take shape behind us. The road out of Latacunga ascends to some 13,000 feet before leveling off on a broad plateau of Andean tundra, then descends into a beautiful valley peppered with farmhouses and tiny villages, and a camping site called Posada de La Tigua. Here, the owners may try and talk you into taking a room for $35. Just camp. It’s $3.50, and you can watch the stars of the southern sky.
Onward, and the dramatic ups and downs, the friendly people, and the green hills make smiling out here as natural as breathing. In Zumbahua, a pair of video-journalists with a Quito-based cycling club, BiciEcuador, interviewed me and asked how I liked this area.
“The best of Ecuador,” I said.
The pride and joy of this region is Lake Quilotoa. There is an adjacent town of the same name—a little community of indigenous people fortunate enough to be located on the edge of a dramatic crater. Here, travelers find a vista that makes the jaw drop and clunk against the sternum. Lake Quilotoa lies almost 2,000 feet below, and from these heights one can see the wind ripping the jade-green surface. Hikers popularly walk around the crater’s rim and may follow a trail down to the water’s edge. Here, some people camp, and I saw tents pitched on a beach straight below me. The quiet, dusty village of Quilotoa will probably become either one of the hottest, or one of the most underrated, tourist destinations in Ecuador. But in February it is a strange place. It is the slow season, and there are more hostels than tourists. Nearly every building, in fact, is a hostel—perhaps 15 of them—and more are being built. The town is clearly still developing its tourist infrastructure, for among all the hostels, and even in the large visitor’s center, there is no internet—no WiFi, and no plug-in connections. Several other establishments in Quilotoa, meanwhile, sell artisanal crafts and woven items of alpaca wool. Chilly gusts of wind sweep through the quiet streets and remind one that the elevation here is almost 13,000 feet. A pair of locally made alpaca gloves for $5 are a worthy buy.
Travelers who continue north from Quilotoa will find a downhill run to the friendly little village of Chugchilan, set on the slope of a steep and forested canyon. I took note of several hostels here, then continued through the village and took a side road uphill, following signs to a nearby cheese factory about 2,000 feet straight up, on a foggy mountaintop. The sign at the gate advertises the fact that this little operation uses Swiss technology. What? Flavorless Andean queso fresco isn’t good enough? (I actually quite enjoy the local mountain cheese.) I took away a pound of mozzarella and continued on a scenic loop that would bring me back to the village. “Did you manage to find the cheese factory?” a rusty red-faced man with a wide smile and a huge machete asked me. I had never seen him before, but he knew why I was here. He spoke with a strange accent, for he was among many folks here whose native language is the indigenous Quechua.
The people in these mountains were some of the politest I’ve ever met. Turkish hospitality is famous but can be overwhelming with insistent offers of tea and food. In the Andes, it’s all smiles and hellos and respectful distances. The children, especially, are marvels of manners and courtesy. They almost never fail to call out a friendly greeting, and they have several times proven incredibly articulate and thoughtful in helping me find my way through a complicated road network to my destination.
“It is 40 kilometers to Isinlivi,” a boy said to me one afternoon on a dirt road circling through the high hills. “On a bicycle, that means you’ll be arriving after dark. You must find a place to camp before then.” He was no more than 8 years old.
I stayed in Chugchilan at the Cloud Forest Hostel (reviewed here by Globe Trotter). They offered dinner of fried plantains, chicken and rice, but I cooked quinoa and eggs in my room and studied my map, mesmerized by its language of dots, lines and triangles. There were so many route options, so many villages, so many valleys—so much to see. I was only 60 kilometers from Quito as the condor flies, but I saw that I could have spent weeks traveling the dirt roads that crisscrossed this tiny region. I had only a week left, however. Where would I go? Was there time?
Ecuador may seem little, but it’s bigger even than the imagination.
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February 12, 2013
A crisp, clear stream flows out of Cajas National Park on a 20-mile circuitous route down to the town of Cuenca—but few fish live in these wild waters. Yet the Quinuas River Valley it forms is a hot destination for sport fishermen. They come by the hundreds each weekend, mostly from Cuenca, seeking the most popular game fish in the world: the rainbow trout.
“What kind of trout live in here?” I ask a young man who serves me coffee at Cabana del Pescador, the campground where I have stayed the night. I am only curious how locals refer to the species Oncorhynchus mykiss, which is native to North American and Siberian streams that enter the Pacific but has been introduced to virtually all suitable habitat on earth. In Ecuador, the species first arrived in the 1960s.
“Normal trout,” he says.
I aim to catch a few fish today and have them for dinner, but I move on, up the road, looking for a happier place to fish. The pond here is muddy, surrounded by concrete and a chain-link fence. Trouble is, I won’t find much better. This valley, though populated by a few wild trout in the streams and lakes of Cajas National Park, is a busy center of aquaculture. Trout farming is generally considered a clean and sustainable industry, though it isn’t always pretty. For a stretch of seven or eight miles downstream of the park, nearly every roadside farm has a handful of concrete-banked pools on the premises, fed by stream water and swarming with trout about 12 inches long.
Up the road, after passing a half dozen possible fishing sites, I pull in to one called Reina del Cisne, at kilometer 21. It is a restaurant and sport fishing “club,” as the sign tells visitors. I have coffee—Nescafé, as always—inside. When I am finished, I ask if there is an opportunity to fish here, and the teenage waiter beckons me to follow. “It’s 50 cents to rent a pole,” he says. “Then, we weigh the trout, and you pay $2.25 per pound.” The biggest fish in the ponds out back are more than ten pounds, he tells me.
He pulls one rod from a heap of several dozen—a broomstick-like pole with a stout line tied to the end and a silver barbed hook at the tip. He quickly mixes up a bucket of bread dough to use as bait, drops a hunk into a shopping-style woven basket and hands me my tackle.
“What kind of trout are these?” I ask, still fishing for local lingo.
“Salmon trout. They have red meat,” he says. He adds, “Good luck,” and returns to the restaurant.
For an angler who has fished in the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada and Alaska and New Zealand, this is a sad comparison, and I feel a strange desire to either cry or laugh hysterically. This would make a perfect opportunity for kids, but I know what real fishing, in real waters, is. Here, I have three ponds to choose from—two of them rectangular, concrete basins, the other a muddy, oval-shaped pool 30 feet across with grassy banks. I flick a piece of dough into this most natural-appearing of the options. Several trout dart from the murk as the white ball vanishes in an instant. I bait my hook and fling it into the middle of the pond, slightly embarrassed that I am participating in what locals advertise as pesca deportiva—or “sport fishing.” A similar flurry of fish attack and strip the hook. I re-bait and try again and this time hook instantly into a feisty rainbow. I drag it in and onto the bank, whack it cold with a stick and drop it in my basket. One down, and in another five minutes I have a second fish. I could take more but, frankly, this isn’t fun or engaging. A year ago exactly I was cycling around New Zealand, casting flies at wild trout six times this size and immeasurably more thrilling to catch—wary, elusive, picky and beautiful. The challenge of enticing one to strike made success an accomplishment. Best of all was the experience of being there, fish or none, standing in crystal clear waters surrounded by green meadows and the tall peaks of the Southern Alps. Indeed, fishing is largely about interacting with the environment, and if one catches no trout on an expedition into the mountains, something else is still gained.
But no matter how big a fish one may pull from a concrete-lined pond, using dough balls for bait, the experience feels as hollow as shopping in a supermarket. While I’m here, I hope I might tangle with an eight-pounder, but no such beast shows itself. I wonder if perhaps they tell all guests that giant trout live in these ponds to encourage business. But back inside the restaurant, my hosts show me the de-boned meat of a 14-pounder caught the day before. The meat is thick and heavy and a delicious-looking salmon red. I ask what the trout eat. “Natural food,” owner Maria Herrera tells me.
Down the road, at kilometer 18, I visit a government-run fish hatchery. I roll down the dirt drive, across the stream on a wooden bridge and up a short rise to the facility. I introduce myself to two men in yellow slickers, ankle deep in a muddy concrete basin full of thrashing foot-long trout. The station director, Lenin Moreno, tells me that more than 8,000 adult fish live here. He and his colleague, Ricardo Mercado, are currently trying to get an exact head count in a tank swarming with, they guess, about 300 fish. They take a break and show me to the laboratoria—the hatchery. In the trays and tanks of this covered, concrete-walled facility, 1.3 million juveniles are produced each year and sold to aquaculture operations in four provinces, Moreno tells me.
Outside, they show me a rectangular basin teeming with huge rainbows, green-backed, red-sided beauties that remind me of the two-foot-long giants of New Zealand. Visitors may come here to buy these trout, Moreno tells me. The fish go for $1.50 per pound.
I ask if the meat is red like salmon. “No—it’s white,” Moreno tells me. “But at the fish farms they feed the trout pigment.”
This doesn’t surprise me. The rainbow trout I grew up on were generally white-fleshed fish. Only occasionally on family camping trips as we cleaned our catch would we discover with excitement that the trout had natural pink meat, which tends to be richer and fattier than paler flesh. But in Ecuador’s many fish markets, I have not yet seen a trout fillet that wasn’t colored like salmon, and I’ve suspected all along that this attractive color (which I’ll admit has drawn my wallet from my pocket more than once) was artificially induced. I recall seeing the fillet of a trout caught in New Zealand just outside the outflow of a Chinook salmon farm that was clearly affected by such pigment—probably either synthetic astaxanthin or canthaxanthin, both used in most commercial salmon farming operations (and the latter of which may cause retinal damage). The trout had presumably been eating pellet feed that escaped from the salmon pens, and the meat was partially colored, patchy red and white like a tie-dyed shirt. Yuck.
I poached my farm-caught trout in cheap Chilean Sauvignon Blanc at my hostel in Cuenca, just off the main street of Calle Larga. The meal was fine and exactly what I had been aiming for when I plunked that ball of dough into the pond at Reina del Cisne. But the fish didn’t quite taste up to par. Because although pink-fleshed trout are a sure catch in the mountain fishing ponds of Ecuador, something else, less easy to describe, native to places like Montana and British Columbia, may evade you with every fish landed.
January 3, 2013
For those who grow dreamy-eyed at thoughts of high mountains, vacant wilderness, quinoa on the camp stove and the ever-present chance of seeing a puma, Peru is gold country. The nation encompasses a substantial portion of the low-lying Amazon rainforest as well as a balmy coastline 1,400 miles long—the destinations of jungle explorers, bird watchers, river adventurers and surfers. But it’s the Andes that constitute the nation’s heart. This longest of the world’s mountain ranges runs thousands of miles north to south and largely defines the landscape and the spirit of Peru. In these high Peruvian elevations are sites like Machu Picchu and Cusco, almost endless wilderness, wild cats, guanacos (the wild relatives of alpacas and llamas) and a species of unusual bear and dozens of peaks higher than 18,000 feet. But—good news for travelers—these mountains are not inaccessible. Navigable roads crisscross the spine of the Andes, providing access to some of the planet’s most tremendous and inspiring scenery.
One of the very highest paved passes in the world is just 80 miles from Lima—Ticlio, or Anticona. Now, as I make final arrangements for a trip to Peru with my bicycle, the temptation to ride directly to Anticona is strong—but my brother Andrew, also on this trip, and I have thought better of the idea. The overall climb and the final altitude of almost 16,000 feet on day one just might kill us. Altitude sickness is a very real concern in places like Peru for people like us, who have spent our lives mostly at sea level. To treat this ailment we are packing pills. “Take 1 tablet orally 2 times a day starting 1 day before reaching high altitude, then continue for at least 3 days,” the bottle of Acetazolamide directs us. Yet the best cure may be preventative—becoming acclimated over time. For we would prefer not to subsist on a diverse diet of pills—we also have pills to treat our water, pills to fight stomach bugs, pills for typhoid, anti-inflammatory pills and malaria pills. By remaining high enough—5,000 feet up seems to be the magic number—we can avoid disease-bearing mosquitoes, but that brings us back to those altitude pills. We may just have to take our medicine.
Andrew returns to the States from Quito, Ecuador, three weeks from now, which gives us something of an objective—a 1,100-mile trip to this lofty city (altitude 9,350 feet), arriving by no later than January 19. En route, we’ll have many opportunities to climb two-mile-high passes—and we may try and grab a glance of Mount Huascarán. If we were climbers, this might be our target conquest. Huascarán is the highest mountain in Peru, the highest in the tropics and the fifth highest in all the Andes. It stands 22,205 feet (6,768 meters) above sea level and is preserved within a national park of the same name. The energy costs of cycling on loaded bikes across this sort of terrain may amount to about 4,000 calories per day (we will probably consume about 60 calories per mile of pedaling), which has us already thinking about food. Peru is tropical, and we anticipate a fantastic selection of fruits at outdoor markets. We hope to go especially heavy on cherimoyas, an Andean native that is too costly (often $6 per fruit or so) to buy more than a few times per year in the States. But food, especially fresh produce and the stuff of street vendors, must be treated with caution in Peru. It’s a tall order for travelers fighting a constant calorie deficit—but it is, in fact, our doctors’ orders. Anything with a thick peel should be safe, they have advised us, but raw vegetable salads will wait until we’re home again. We’re not to drink the water, either, and have been advised by experienced travelers to only drink purified water from sealed plastic bottles.
In Turkey about 15 months ago, I had the pleasure of a meeting a brown bear at midnight just outside my tent and then enjoyed a rousing slapstick time of ducking under the bullets of poachers who began firing at the animal. But bears are abundant in Eurasia, while in South American they are not. The spectacled bear lives in much of the northern Andes, but its population consists of just several thousand animals between Bolivia and Venezuela. The spectacled bear is the last living descendant of the enormous short-faced bear, which vanished from North America 12,500 years ago. The odds of seeing a wild bear in Peru are tiny, but the fact that it’s possible elevates this land into a realm of wildness that places like England, Holland, Kansas and Portugal lost long ago, sacrificed for agriculture and towns. Bears, like no other creatures, embody the spirit of wildness (never mind the trash-fat black bears of America’s suburbs and national parks). The world is a richer place just for having these big-muscled carnivores at large—even if we may never see them. Other Peruvian wildlife viewing possibilities include tapirs, anacondas, caimans, jaguars and an incredible wealth of river fishes—including the giant arapaima—in the Amazon basin. In the highlands live guanacos. Tiptoeing through the mountains are also pumas (same species as the cougar or mountain lion), and condors fly overhead. I once read somewhere that hikers in the Andes can be tipped off to the presence of a puma by the sudden appearance of one or more condors ascending into the sky—presumably chased off a half-eaten kill by the returning cat. I’ll be bird watching if it may help me see a cat.
We’ve kept our gear as basic as can be without unnecessarily sacrificing simple comforts. We are packing a bug-proof and waterproof two-person tent, powerful sunscreen, a camping stove, sleeping bags, books, basic bike repair gear and our decadent pill rations. We’re rolling on essentially flat-proof Armadillo tires—and I’ll be writing about our travels from cozy mountain campsites. I’m a Luddite in many ways, but 3G Internet access is a modern miracle I welcome, from the fringes of the civilized world.
November 28, 2012
What would you want to eat if you were starving on a dinghy lost at sea? In the 2001 novel Life of Pi, adapted as a movie now in theaters, the castaway protagonist, a 16-year-old Indian boy nicknamed Pi, spends the better part of a year on a lifeboat—and one day as he reaches a near-death pinnacle of hunger, suffering and delirium, he envisions a tree full of ripe figs. “‘The branches…are bent over, they are so weighed down with figs,’” Pi drones to himself in reverie. “‘There must be over three hundred figs in that tree.’” Readers are convinced: Perhaps nothing beats a fig for a starving man.
Life of Pi is fiction, but daydreaming of food is a real-life tradition as old as the saga of man against the elements. If we scour the pages of the many books about grueling expeditions across land and sea, we find an impassioned menu of sweet and savory delights to make the mouth water. In his 1986 memoir Adrift, author Steve Callahan—a sailor who was lost at sea for 76 days in 1982—sets a lavish table of dreams on page 108: “I spend an increasing amount of time thinking about food. Fantasies about an inn-restaurant [I dream of opening] become very detailed. I know how the chairs will be arranged and what the menu will offer. Steaming sherried crab overflows flaky pie shells bedded on rice pilaf and toasted almonds. Fresh muffins puff out of pans. Melted butter drools down the sides of warm, broken bread. The aroma of baking pies and brownies wafts through the air. Chilly mounds of ice cream stand firm in my mind’s eye. I try to make the visions melt away, but hunger keeps me awake for hours at night. I am angry with the pain of hunger, but even as I eat [the fish I caught] it will not stop.” (Film director Ang Lee consulted Callahan during the making of Life of Pi for accuracy in portraying the hardships of being lost at sea.)
Men Against the Sea, the historical fiction account of the sailors cast away on a lifeboat by the mutineers of HMS Bounty, is a novella steeped in stomach-scraping hunger. At one point, a man named Lawrence Lebogue exclaims after a failed skirmish with a huge sea turtle he had nearly pulled into the boat, “‘A monster…all of two hundredweight! … To think of the grub we’ve lost! Did ‘ee ever taste a bit of calipee?’” (Calipee is a main ingredient in turtle soup.) Moments later, Capt. William Bligh tells the crew’s botanist, David Nelson, of the feasts he sat in on in the West Indies. Bligh describes “‘their stuffing and swilling of wine. Sangaree and rum punch and Madeira till one marveled they could hold it all. And the food! Pepper pot, turtle soup, turtle steaks, grilled calipee; on my word, I’ve seen enough, at a dinner for six, to feed us from here to Timor!’”
Bligh and the loyal men of the Bounty lived like princes compared with those of the Essex, the Nantucket whaling ship rammed and sunk by an angry bull sperm whale in 1820. In Owen Chase’s autobiographical account of the ordeal, part of the book The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale, the first mate holds a mostly dry and colorless course: He tells of how the 20 men journeyed for weeks in their small open boats, racing time, dehydration and starvation. They attempt in vain to kill sharks and porpoises, they land on an island and quickly exhaust its thin resources of bird eggs, and they continue across the open Pacific, hoping always to see a sail while growing ever weaker and emaciated. Through it all, the New Englanders essentially never eat or drink. Finally, Chase pauses in his chronology of dates and coordinates to tell of a moment in which he dozed off: “I dreamt of being placed near a splendid and rich repast, where there was every thing that the most dainty appetite could desire; and of contemplating the moment in which we were to commence to eat with enraptured feelings of delight; and just as I was about to partake of it, I suddenly awoke….” Chase leaves us with our eager forks aloft—and we never learn just what it was that he hoped to eat. Turtle soup, likely. In the following days as the anguished men expired one by one, Chase and his companions resorted to cannibalism. Just eight of the lot were rescued.
While stranded for the austral winter of 1916 on the barren Elephant Island, one of the South Shetland Islands, after escaping from Antarctica in three tiny lifeboats, the crew of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition passed the time reading through a Penny Cookbook that one of the men had kept dry through many months of dire tribulations. And how that book made them dream! The men had been living for months on seal (and sled dog) meat, and Thomas Ordes-Lee, the expedition’s ski expert and storekeeper, wrote in his journal, “[W]e want to be overfed, grossly overfed, yes, very grossly overfed on nothing but porridge and sugar, black currant and apple pudding and cream, cake, milk, eggs, jam, honey and bread and butter till we burst, and we’ll shoot the man who offers us meat. We don’t want to see or hear of any more meat as long as we live.” Their carb cravings were more apparent when one man—the surgeon James McIlroy—conducted a poll to see what each sailor would have to eat if he could choose anything. Their answers included apple pudding, Devonshire dumpling, porridge, Christmas dumpling, dough and syrup and a fruit tart—with most of these dolloped with cream. Just two men wished for meat (pork was their choice), while one with a bleaker imagination said he just wanted bread and butter. For three more months until their rescue, they ate seal and rehydrated milk.
Author Jon Krakauer tells us in his 1990 Eiger Dreams of the time 15 years before that he and a climber friend named Nate Zinsser were holed up during a storm while ascending a new route up the 10,335-foot peak Moose’s Tooth, in Alaska. Dreaming of food, Zinsser said, “If we had some ham, we could make ham and eggs, if we had some eggs.” In The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, an expedition member on Robert Scott’s doomed Antarctic voyage of 1901-1903 on the Discovery, recalls one frigid winter’s day, saying, “And I wanted peaches and syrup—badly.” And Felicity Aston, a modern explorer from Britain whom I interviewed last January about her solo ski trip across Antarctica, recalled as a highlight of her journey receiving a gift of a nectarine and an apple upon reaching the South Pole research station.
There was no food shortage on the Norwegian research vessel Fram, which Fridtjof Nansen captained into the Arctic Ocean in 1893. His sturdy boat was built with a fortified hull under the plan that she would become frozen in the sea ice and thereby allow Nansen to track the drift of the ice layer by watching the stars—classic, rock solid science in the golden age of discovery. It was a planned “disaster” voyage—and the men went prepared. Nansen, who finally stumbled home again in 1896 caked in campfire soot and seal grease, wrote in his 1897 memoir Farthest North that the expedition carried at the outset several years’ worth of canned and dried foods of numerous sorts. Only during foot or skiff expeditions away from the boat—such as Nansen’s long hike home—did the team members experience great monotony of diet. On one outing, they forgot butter to slab on their biscuits and so named the nearest land “Cape Butterless.” They lived during longer forays on seal, walrus and polar bear—pinniped and bear for breakfast, lunch and dinner; so much pinniped and bear that the reader feels an itch to floss his teeth and scrub down with dish detergent. Meanwhile, Nansen stops to take depth soundings, sketch fossils, study rock strata and express interest in every piece of possible data—and though the pragmatic scientist never does slip into a shameless food fantasy, we know he had them.
If you’d been in Nansen’s boots, what would you have piled on your plate?
September 20, 2012
The conversation of climate change and its possible effects on our world and our future often hinges on millimeters of sea level rise and half degrees of temperature increase—little enough, perhaps, to make it all sound irrelevant if you’re already a skeptic, or by no means an emergency, anyway. Yet, little by little, ice is melting, storms are getting worse, deserts are expanding and islands are going under. In 2005, a hundred residents of Tegua, an island in the Torres group, turned off the lights, closed their doors and sailed away for good. It was reported as the first known instance when a modern community was abandoned to rising sea levels—though people have questioned what role global warming really had in the abandonment. Now, more islands, coastal cities, low-lying farmlands and wild wetlands are looking at a future growing grimmer by the year. Here are a few ideas of things to do and places to see before climate change swamps the party.
Walk on the beaches of Tuvalu. While standing on the sand and staring across the world of water that surrounds this Polynesian island group with roughly 10,000 people, climate change suddenly seems a force far beyond reckoning with—for predictions that the seas will rise by a full meter or more by 2100 plainly spell doom for a place like this, whose highest point stands no more than 15 feet above sea level. The island is already famous for its very inadequacy as a sustainable nation. There is not enough freshwater to drink, and there is virtually no economy. Now, sea level rise seems to be gnawing at Tuvalu’s wispy, sandy figure—and at its future. Although climate change doubters have accused islanders in Tuvalu of seeking economic gain by exploiting their predicament—and maybe even exaggerating it (islanders have threatened to sue nations of the developed world for reckless carbon emissions)—some scientists say that Tuvalu, and other islands like it, can count their days. Take a walk on this beach while you can. Other islands to visit while they’re above water might include Vanikoro, Kiribati and the Florida Keys.
Snorkel on a coral reef. Throughout the world’s tropical oceans, coral reefs are dying. Bleaching and diseases are destroying these rich sites of micro- and mega-organisms. Ocean acidification—caused by CO2 absorption into the sea and characterized by dropping pH levels—is also having severely deleterious effects on coral and could render some marine regions downright corrosive to certain materials by 2050. As of 2011, according to the environmental news source Grist, 75 percent of the earth’s coral reef environments were deemed to be threatened, while 20 percent were reported already dead—their busy, subsurface communities, occupying just 1 percent of the seafloor but home to 25 percent of marine species, gone silent. The timely correlation to rising global temperatures, plus the rapidity of the phenomenon, leaves little doubt that humans are at fault. Put on your masks and fins and jump in—soon.
Taste the fine wines of the Napa Valley before they turn to plonk. While midocean islanders might have to take to lifeboats as climate change unfurls, winemakers may also have consequences pending. In the Napa Valley, some bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon sell for more than $1,000—but a report in 2006 by Southern Oregon University climatologist Gregory Jones predicted that by the year 2050, this most esteemed of American winemaking areas could be too hot to grow premium wine grapes. Jones has said that just a 2 degree Celsius increase by 2050 could place the Napa Valley at the “upper limit of its capability.” But Jones recently told this reporter during a phone interview that the distinction between a fine wine and a mediocre wine is a nuance only detectable by, perhaps, 25 percent of wine drinkers.
See a polar bear. The intrigue and mystique of the polar bear, to say nothing of its camouflaging properties, are so embedded in a world of floating ice that we may wonder just how this greatest of carnivores could live anywhere else. In fact, it may not be able to. While the polar bear is no stranger to munching berries and shoreline grasses, such bruins always take to the ice again at first freeze to resume the blubber hunt. But the ocean’s northerly ice cap, year by year and acre by acre, is disappearing. This summer, for instance, the Arctic sea ice shrank to less than half of its what it was 40 years ago. For the polar bear, extinction is the worst possible, and perhaps likely, outcome—while speciation is another. This could leave the earth without the polar bear but create a new one—a hybrid between Ursus maritimus and its close cousin, U. arctos, the brown bear. Already, the two have been observed mating and producing fertile offspring in the wild. This may be great news. Nonetheless, you may want to go see a wild polar bear while you can—before the great white bear turns brown.
Hike through the woods in the Everglades. The Everglades is among the world’s wild areas most threatened by climate change. A three-foot increase in sea level will flood much of this forested wetland, stealing precious habitat from the indigenous cougar subspecies, the Florida panther, and the local black bear. What’s more, millions of Floridians are looking at serious consequences of climate change. The entire coast is considered extremely vulnerable to the expected sea level rise, which may be accompanied by inundating storm surges during hurricanes. Florida’s highest point is only 345 feet above sea level, and about 10 percent of its coastal zone could be swamped by seawater by 2100.
Kayak the streets of Venice. The future of Venice is nothing but a watery one—though it’s unclear whether the city will prosper or just go under. In 2009, residents held a mass mock funeral for their town when the declining population hit a benchmark low of 60,000. And while an expensive sea wall could save this city, already a gray urban swamp teeming with gondolas and aquatic taxis, some people—call them curmudgeons or realists—are talking about abandoning it. Exacerbating matters is the fact that Venice is sinking and has been for centuries. Four hundred years ago, occasional high tides washed into the streets. By 1900, high waters were washing over St. Mark’s Square at least a half dozen times annually. In 1996, the city flooded 99 times. Today, monuments and buildings are considered threatened by saltwater intrusion, many first floors have been vacated and thriving tourism on the order of 20 million visitors per year seems to be replacing the resident community itself. But it all spells good times for kayak rental companies—and this is at least one vacation you have plenty of time to take. Other cities that could be swallowed by the sea include New York City, Houston, Bangkok and New Orleans.