December 6, 2012
The start of the northern meteorological winter on December 1 will bring with it short days of darkness, blistering cold and frigid blizzards. For many people, this is the dreariest time of the year. But for a small niche of water-happy athletes, winter is a time to play, as ferocious storms send rippling rings of energy outward through the ocean. By the time they reach distant shores, these swells have matured into clean, polished waves that barrel in with a cold and ceaseless military rhythm; they touch bottom, slow, build and, finally, collapse in spectacular curls and thundering white water. These are the things of dreams for surfers, many of whom travel the planet, pursuing giant breakers. And surfers aren’t the only ones with their eyes on the water—for surfing has become a popular spectator sport. At many famed breaks, bluffs on the shore provide fans with thrilling views of the action. The waves alone are awesome—so powerful they may seem to shake the earth. But when a tiny human figure on a board as flimsy as a matchstick appears on the face of that incoming giant, zigzagging forward as the wave curls overhead and threatens to crush him, spines tingle, hands come together in prayer, and jaws drop. Whether you like the water or not, big-wave surfing is one of the most thrilling shows on the planet.
The birth of big-wave surfing was an incremental process that began in the 1930s and ’40s in Hawaii, especially along the north-facing shores of the islands. Here, 15-foot waves were once considered giants, and anything much bigger just eye candy. But wave at a time, surfers stoked up their courage and ambition. They surfed on bigger days, used lighter and lighter boards that allowed swifter paddling and hunted for breaks that consistently produced monsters. One by one, big-wave spots were cataloged, named and ranked, and wave at a time, records were set. In November 1957, big-wave pioneer Greg Noll rode an estimated 25-footer in Waimea Bay, Oahu. In 1969, Noll surfed what was probably a 30-plus-footer, but no verified photos exist of the wave, and thus no means of determining its height. Fast-forwarding a few decades, Mike Parsons caught a 66-foot breaker in 2001 at Cortes Bank, 115 miles off San Diego, where a seamount rises to within three feet of the surface. In 2008, Parsons was back at the same place and caught a 77-footer. But Garrett McNamara outdid Parsons and set the current record in November 2011, when he rode a 78-foot wave off the coast of Portugal, at the town of Nazare.
But these later records may not have been possible without the assistance of jet skis, which have become a common and controversial element in the pursuit of giant waves. The vehicles first began appearing in the surf during big-wave events in the early 1990s, and for all their noise and stench, their appeal was undeniable: Jet skis made it possible to access waves 40 feet and bigger, and whose scale had previously been too grand for most unassisted surfers to reach by paddling. Though tow-in surfing has given a boost to the record books, it has also heightened the danger of surfing, and many surfers have died in big waves they might never have attempted without jet-ski assistance. Not surprisingly, many surfers have rejected tow-in surfing as an affront to the purity of their relationship with waves—and they still manage to catch monsters. In March 2011, Shane Dorian rode a 57-foot breaker at the famed Jaws break in Maui, unassisted by a belching two-stroke engine. But many big-wave riders fully endorse tow-in surfing as a natural evolution of the sport. Surfing supertstar Laird Hamilton has even blown off purists who continue to paddle after big waves without jet skis as “moving backward.” Anyway, in a sport that relies heavily on satellite imagery, Internet swell forecasts and red-eye flights to Honolulu, are we really complaining about a little high-tech assistance?
For those wishing merely to watch big waves and the competitors that gather to ride them, all that is needed is a picnic blanket and binoculars—and perhaps some help from this swell forecast website. Following are some superb sites to watch surfers catch the biggest breakers in the world this winter.
Waimea Bay, North Shore of Oahu. Big-wave surfing was born here, largely fueled by the fearless vision of Greg Noll in the 1950s. The definition of “big” for extreme surfers has grown since the early days, yet Waimea still holds its own. Fifty-foot waves can occur here—events that chase all but the best wave riders from the water. When conditions allow, elite surfers participate in the recurring Quicksilver Eddie Aikau Invitational. Spectators teem on the shore during big-swell periods, and while surfers may fight for their ride, you may have to fight for your view. Get there early.
Jaws, North Shore of Maui. Also known as Peahi, Jaws produces some of the most feared and attractive waves on earth. The break—where 50-footers and bigger appear almost every year—is almost strictly a tow-in site, but rebel paddle-by-hand surfers do business here, too. Twenty-one pros have been invited to convene at Jaws this winter for a paddle-in competition sometime between December 7 and March 15. Spectators are afforded a great view of the action on a high nearby bluff. But go early, as hundreds will be in line for the best viewing points. Also, bring binoculars, as the breakers crash almost a mile offshore.
Mavericks, Half Moon Bay, California. Mavericks gained its reputation in the 1980s and ’90s, during the revival of big-wave surfing, which lost some popularity in the 1970s. Named for a German Shepherd named Maverick who took a surgy swim here in 1961, the site (which gained an “s” but never an official apostrophe) generates some of the biggest surfable waves in the world. Today, surfing competitions, like the Mavericks Big Wave Contest and the Mavericks Invitational, are held each year. The waves of Mavericks crash on a vicious reef, making them predictable (sandy bottoms will shift and change the wave form) but nonetheless hazardous. One of the best surfers of his time, Mark Foo died here in 1994 when his ankle leash is believed to have snagged on the bottom. Later, the waves claimed the life of Hawaiian surfing star Sion Milosky. A high bluff above the beach offers a view of the action. As at Jaws, bring binoculars.
Ghost Trees, Monterey Peninsula, California. This break hits peak form under the same swell conditions that get things roaring at Mavericks, just a three-hour drive north. Ghost Trees is a relatively new attraction for big-wave riders. Veteran surfer Don Curry says he first saw it surfed in 1974. Decades would pass before it became famous, and before it killed pro surfer (and a pioneer of nearby Mavericks) Peter Davi in 2007. For surfing spectators, there are few places quite like Ghost Trees. The waves, which can hit 50 feet and more, break just a football field’s length from shore.
Mullaghmore Head, Ireland. Far from the classic Pacific shores of big-wave legend and history, Mullaghmore Head comes alive during winter storms in the North Atlantic. The location produces waves big enough that surfing here has become primarily a jet ski-assisted game. In fact, the event period for the Billabong Tow-In Session at Mullaghmore began on November 1 and will run through February 2013. Just how big is Mullaghmore Head? On March 8, 2012, the waves here reached 50 feet, as determined by satellite measurements. A grassy headland provides an elevated platform from which to see the show. Bundle up if you go, and expect cold, blustery conditions.
Other big wave breaks:
Teahupoo, Tahiti. This coveted break blooms with big swells from the Southern Ocean—usually during the southern winter. Teahupoo is famed for its classic tube breakers.
Shipsterns Bluff, Tasmania. Watch for this point’s giants to break from June through September.
Punta de Lobos, Chile. Channeling the energy of the Southern Ocean into huge but glassy curlers, Punta de Lobos breaks at its best in March and April.
Todos Santos Island, Baja California, Mexico. Todos Santos Island features several well-known breaks, but “Killers” is the biggest and baddest. The surf usually peaks in the northern winter.
There is another sort of wave that thrills tourists and spectators: the tidal bore. These moon-induced phenomena occur with regularity at particular locations around the world. The most spectacular to see include the tidal bores of Hangzhou Bay, China, and Araguari, Brazil—each of which has become a popular surfing event.
October 19, 2012
The seemingly slow-motion ash plume of a distant and erupting volcano; the petrified rivers of lava on the slopes of a mountain; the stories of towns caught by surprise by descending volcanic avalanches: Such are the elements of vulcanism that amaze and terrify us—though not necessarily enough to keep people at bay, and volcanic landscapes, both dormant and active, draw countless tourists to rumbling mountains, rivers of lava and boiling geysers every year. Following are several of the most inspiring volcanic destinations.
Pompeii. Porous rocks, cinder cones, geysers and lava beds may be fascinating for anyone with a geological conscience, but not much volcanic scenery can quite compare with the Roman ruins of Pompeii, in southern Italy, where archaeologists have uncovered human terror frozen in stone. Body casts have been made of partially preserved figures lying curled in fetal position, seated with arms shielding their heads and in other desperate poses. One family of four was even discovered hiding under a staircase, where they succumbed to the fatal blast of heat that engulfed the city on August 24, in A.D. 79. In all, an estimated 16,000 people died that day. Along with human remains, the ruins of Pompeii include artifacts of the era—like various household items and petrified loaves of bread. And looming over it all is the culprit, Mount Vesuvius. Or, not looming exactly—because Vesuvius is only a shade over 4,000 feet tall (various sources give their own exact figures). Yet the little mountain is considered a real hazard and is among Europe’s handful of active volcanoes. It erupted most recently in 1944. The mountain, along with its relatives Campi Flegrei, Vulcano, Stromboli and the often-rumbling Mount Etna of Sicily, marks the interface between the African and Eurasian tectonic plates, where the former dives under the latter, melts in the heat of the earth’s interior and sends plumes of magma upward to create cone-shaped volcanoes. Hikers can ascend Vesuvius without a great deal of effort. The trail skirts the rim of the crater, where rising steam reminds us—and certainly residents of nearby Naples–that Vesuvius hasn’t yet had its last words.
Krakatoa. On August 26, 1883, the entire 2,667-foot-tall Indonesian island of Krakatoa vaporized in one of the most powerful volcanic explosions in history. More than 36,000 people died in the blast and from the resulting 130-foot tsunami, which swamped the Southeast Asian coastline. The explosion was heard 4,500 miles across the Indian Ocean in Sri Lanka and veiled the earth in an airborne ash layer that lowered global temperatures and affected weather patterns for years. Quite literally, Krakatoa’s was an eruption that rocked the world. For decades, the mountain was gone. Then, in 1927, the sea above Krakatoa’s craggy stump began to boil—and in years following a new mountain emerged. Today, Anak Krakatoa—the “child of Krakatoa”—stands more than 1,300 feet high and is growing an average of 16 feet per year. It’s a little mountain still, but plainly one of the most dramatic. At times, cloud systems above the peak glow with the colors of fire—though scientists are dubious whether the new volcano has the potential to explode with anything like the power of its predecessor. The mountain is an object of great intrigue, and tourists who visit the island may even hike to the summit.
Mount Lassen Volcanic National Park. The southernmost peak of the Cascades, Mount Lassen in Northern California rises dramatically from an otherwise nondescript landscape of farm country and rolling hills. Cone-shaped like its volcanic cousins to the north—including Mount Shasta, Mount Hood, Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens (which exploded in 1980, killing 57 people)—Lassen last blew its lid in a series of eruptions between 1914 and 1917. This activity left its northeast side a ruin of volcanic rubble and desolation. Travelers through the mountain, which is bisected by a highway that cuts up and over and right past the summit, will see steaming pools high on the mountain, as well as a devastated area. Lower on the slopes is a craggy landscape of black volcanic rock and hardened lava flows that appear like a turbulent, frozen river. Hikers can walk 700 feet up to the nearby peak the Cinder Cone (that’s the 360-year-old volcano’s name), atop which is an ominous-looking crater. Wish to climb Lassen itself? The summit stands 10,463 feet above sea level, about 5,500 feet above the hill country at its base and 2,000 feet above the trailhead, where hikers park their cars to make the four-hour round-trip trek.
Mauna Loa. Sometimes regarded as the biggest mountain on the planet (and the tenth-largest in the solar system) when measured from its base at the seafloor, Mauna Loa rises more than 31,000 feet and measures 19,000 cubic miles in volume. (The neighboring Mauna Kea is slightly higher and part of the same massif, but Mauna Loa is generally regarded as the central peak of the Big Island.) While Everest climbers may smirk at the suggestion that a gentle shield volcano in the tropics is anything but a molehill, Mauna Loa ranks as one of the earth’s most active and exciting volcanoes. Mauna Loa has erupted 33 times since 1843 and has long been an attraction for locals and tourists seeking photo-friendly volcano-viewing opportunities. Its eruptions have been relatively benign events—though in 1935, the U.S. Air Force was called upon to drop bombs in the path of a lava flow headed for Hilo to try to divert it. The city wound up untouched, and no people have been killed by Mauna Loa’s historical volcanic activity. The most recent eruption was in 1984—a three-week-long outburst that had the Big Island on high alert, threatened to destroy a prison and provided lava lovers with the photo ops of a lifetime.
Yellowstone National Park. The North America Plate is slowly sliding across the surface of the earth—and lying beneath this moving slab of crust is a volcanic hotspot, a vent fuming with heat. This process has left a linear series of scars on the land, including the nearby Snake River Plain. Today, the place we call Yellowstone National Park sits on top of the gurgling hotspot, and as a result the park features hot springs, geysers and rock formations in addition to its fantastic assembly of bison, elk and other megafauna. In fact, wildlife may attract the majority of Yellowstone’s visitors, who have good chances of seeing grizzly bears and wolves from the highway, yet the sheer thrills of vulcanism are a sure draw. At the Old Faithful geyser, which erupts reliably every one to two hours, crowds gather in timely waves to witness the show as water spews 100 feet and more into the air. And sapphire pools of clear, scalding water bring tourists to the rail along paths that wind through a number of dramatic hydrothermal sites. But the gentle volcanic activity of Yellowstone is a bit misleading—for this region is just one of the earth’s supervolcanoes. The Yellowstone supervolcano has erupted three times, scientists believe. The first event was the biggest—a blast about 2.1 million years ago that released 25,000 times the energy of the famed Mount St. Helens eruptions–itself 400 times more powerful than the Hiroshima atomic bomb. The two subsequent eruptions of the Yellowstone supervolcano occurred about 800,000 years apart—and by this pattern geologists speculate that we’re due for another. Such a huge eruption in Yellowstone today would kill an estimated 87,000 people. So enjoy the placid activity of Old Faithful—and cross your fingers.
We’ve named a handful of volcanic sightseeing spots. What others are worth a journey?
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.
August 7, 2012
No lake is more lake than Lake Baikal. Set deep within the Russian subcontinent, Baikal is the deepest, oldest and most voluminous of all lakes, a superstar of superlatives in hydrology, geology, ecology and history. The lake is more than 5,300 feet deep (exact figures vary) at its most profound point, which lies about 4,000 feet below sea level. With 12,248 square miles of surface area, Baikal averages 2,442 feet deep—its crescent moon-shaped figure a vast rift valley that first appeared about 25 million years ago through the divergence of the planet’s crust. Today, Lake Baikal contains some 20 percent of the earth’s lake and river water, making this Russian giant comparable in volume to the entire Amazon basin. So huge is Baikal that it reportedly takes an average of 330 years for a single water molecule to flow through it, from inlet to outlet. Lake Baikal features 27 islands, including one 45 miles in length called Olkhon, while in and around Baikal live more than 1,500 animal species, about 80 percent of which live nowhere else on the planet.
The most famous of these animals may be the nerpa, the only exclusively freshwater seal on the planet. The nerpa numbers an estimated 100,000—a comfortable and well-adapted population of animals whose presence in interior Russia has stumped evolutionary biologists, who aren’t certain when or just how the animals came to be so far from the open ocean. Guided tourist outfits can provide visitors with views of the animals, though the seals are generally skittish around people, who have long hunted them for pelts, fat and flesh. Brown bears and wolves dwell near the lake, too, occupying the top tiers of the Siberian food chain, as do a variety of deer, birds, rodents and smaller predators.
The first European to visit Lake Baikal may have been Russian Kurbat Ivanov, in 1643, though local lore claims that Jesus took a short walk to Lake Baikal and back during his days of desert wandering. Today, a wilderness of forest, plains and semidesert surrounds Baikal in the grand landscape of Siberia, though development along the shores of the lake occurred last century with the building of several urban and resort communities. Ugliest, perhaps, among the defilements of Baikal’s coastline is a paper mill that discharged pollutants into Baikal for years before being closed in 2008 on grounds of ecological protection. But the mill reopened in 2010, supposedly using cleaner and safer practices than previously. Meanwhile, local conservationists have other causes of concern. They have, for example, resisted plans to build a uranium plant in the nearby city of Angarsk. And they raised a stink when a petroleum development company called Transneft nearly built an oil pipeline that would have passed within 3,000 feet of Lake Baikal, threatening its waters with leaks and spills. The planned pipeline route was eventually changed. Tourism development is a minor itch in comparison, though it may produce eyesores like the hotels and vacation communities of Listvyanka, a popular winter and summer tourist town.
If you visit Lake Baikal, remember that winters here are frigid and icebound, with continental cold snaps bringing temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit and producing a layer of surface ice as thick as two meters. Summertime is friendlier, offering long, long days and superb opportunities for hiking, biking, camping and fishing. Along the lake’s northern shore, the Frolikha Adventure Coastline Track leads 65 miles through the wilderness. How to reach Lake Baikal? Try the legendary Trans-Siberian Railway.
Other Weird Waters
Dead Sea. Almost nine times as salty as the ocean, with a salinity level of about 30 parts per hundred, the Dead Sea—the lowest point on earth—is inhospitable to nearly all living things, but it’s a blast to bathe in. The water’s salt-boosted density is so great that people endowed with a generous layer of body fat can hardly swim and may merely flail over the surface as if they were crawling across a sandy dune. Better not to try and, instead, just turn over on your back and enjoy the bizarre wonder of a lake in which it may be almost impossible to drown. The Dead Sea’s surface lies 1,378 feet below sea level, and it is 1,083 feet deep. This just in: Life-forms have been found associated with freshwater springs at the bottom of the Dead Sea. Time for a name change?
Lake Titicaca. At 12,500 feet above sea level in a high valley in the Andes Mountains, the giant Lake Titicaca is the loftiest lake commercially navigable by large boats and contains more water than any other lake in South America. Its two main ports are Puno, Peru—a beautiful old town steeped in Incan history—and Challapampa, Bolivia. Isla del Sol is an island on Titicaca’s Bolivian side. Strewn with ruins but without a single paved road, this large island is an adventurer’s playground. Get yourself a fishing rod and a canoe, and go.
Melissani Cave Lake. Locals allegedly knew about the Melissani Cave Lake in Greece all along, but if they did, the world never heard about it until 1953, when an earthquake caused a collapse of rock, exposed the crystal-clear lake and brought sunlight and color to its waters for the first time. The lake has since gained fame—and it happens to be located on the island that Homer named as the home country of Odysseus.
Wuhua Hai Lake. Widely lauded as one of the most beautiful lakes on earth, Wuhua Hai is located in Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve, in the high mountains of Sichuan, China. The waters are emerald blue and clear as air, and over the shallow lake bed lie scores of sunken logs visible from above the surface. Forested mountain slopes rise from the lake’s shore, and wild pandas dwell in the woods.
Plitvice Lakes. A chain of 16 lakes connected by streams, caves and waterfalls, the Plitvice Lakes of Croatia gleam in a spectrum of blue to azure colors and demonstrate beautifully what water, nature’s finest sculptor, may make of a soft basin of limestone. The dense green woods surrounding the lakes are home to bears, wolves, eagles and numerous other creatures protected in this national park and Unesco World Heritage site.
Aral Sea. A reminder of the devastating effects of agriculture gone haywire, the Aral Sea in Uzbekistan has just about dried up since 1960. The two rivers that fed this once-giant inland sea (330 rivers feed Baikal, for comparison) no longer get there, diverted to fields instead. And while the Aral’s blue ovoid shape still appears on most world maps, cartographers must surely soon realize that the sea, once one of the largest and most productive inland waterways and fisheries, has all but dried up, sacrificed over a mere 50 years for the sake of local cotton and rice.
Salton Sea. This lake in southern California’s Imperial Valley is another testament to sloppily conducted water projects—but unlike the diminishing Aral, the Salton Sea was born in the wake of a breach in a diversion canal in 1905. For years the Salton Sea was a productive fishery, but today its increasingly saline waters are so polluted that huge fish die-offs keep the shores littered with decay and rot, and fishermen are advised not to eat the corvina and tilapia they catch.
Lake Karachay. Don’t visit this lake—ever. Just read: Set in the Ural Mountains of western Russia, Karachay has been called the most polluted place on the planet, teeming with radioactive waste and particulates that you want nothing to do with. What a wonder that before the age of modern progress, one could drink from this poisonous cesspool.
So, which ones did we miss? Tell us about more watery wonders in the comment box below.
January 17, 2012
“I am haunted by waters.”
Many fly fishermen spend their spare moments wishing they had been the first to say that, but Norman Maclean beat them to it, hammering home his trout fishing classic A River Runs Through It with that final thundering line. But it doesn’t matter who said it first, because we fishermen are haunted by waters: Precisely, I am haunted by the vision of a glassy emerald pool just below a fast run of rapids, back-dropped by pines and birch. Here, a feathery mayfly pattern falls and settles on the surface—a perfect cast—floats for two or three tense seconds, and finally vanishes in a forceful explosion of water, fins and the spotted green back of a rainbow trout.
That is the magic moment that has kept fishermen shuffling through waist-deep waters, rain or shine, dawn to dusk, for centuries. I can imagine the helpless longing that some early settler in New Zealand must have felt when he looked over a prime stretch of riffles bottoming out in a wide slow pool and grieved for the trout that could not be caught here—the trout he had left at home in the slow waters of England. When enough ex-anglers felt this same heartache, a decision, I suppose, was made: They called home, put in an order for some buckets of brown trout eggs on the next boat and so sealed history. The eggs were hatched in Tasmania, the fry sent to New Zealand and released in the Styx River. By the 1880s, New Zealand had become a trout fisherman’s paradise.
Somewhere in this glistening history, the first ring of a rising brown trout expanded across the glassy morning waters of Lake Wanaka, under the looming local peaks and, away in the northwest, the austere presence of Mount Aspiring. About a century after the trout, another nonnative species arrived in these quiet waters: the ski boat, so help us. Today, at almost any moment, dozens of these obscenities careen in perilous arcs through the bays and inlets of Wanaka’s lanky, long-armed figure. They send waves and screaming voices into the Zen-zone of the odd fisherman wading the shoreline, and the awful din of motors never ends. It drowns out the birds, the breeze, the sheep and the splashing of feeding trout, and these watercraft, in sum, have committed a serious offense in this would-be-sacred mountain hideaway: They have stolen the silence from Lake Wanaka.
But lakes and mountains have a patience that will transcend the human race, not to mention some festering little resort town and some clusters of RVs. So for now, Wanaka endures the boats wordlessly while Aspiring looks down in his expressionless way, a perfect geologic yogi. He does not frown upon us, for he knows that silence will return to his kingdom. We people may be a temporary mosquito bite on the Earth’s hide, while Mount Aspiring will keep on aspiring for ages. It’s true: Geologists say New Zealand’s Southern Alps—the most jagged range of summits I’ve ever seen—are still growing, and exceptionally quickly.
Over the past week, we went from Lake Wanaka south, past the Mavora Lakes and as far as Te Anau. We fished Lake Manapouri, Lake Te Anau, Gunn Lake, the Eglinton River and the Waiau River, the main drainage of Lake Te Anau. The Waiau is credited as hosting more trout per mile—about 400, according to a local man we met on the bank—than any river in the Southland. We were entirely alone there, standing waist-deep and throwing flies over the backs of dozens of monsters. Occasionally, one would lift off the bottom, grab an insect off the surface and drop back to its chosen holding spot. Our task was to determine what these fish were in the mood for, and we changed flies every five minutes. They ignored everything—our fluffy floating dry flies, our leach-like streamers and our sinking nymphs.
This stye of fishing is called “sight-casting”—the pursuit of fish plainly visible in the slow, still water. Andrew calls sight-casting “like walking through a petting zoo.” Big fish hold like sunken logs all across the stream, their noses aimed upstream, and we work on them one at a time. They rarely bat an eyelid at our offerings. Meanwhile, yin to the yang of sight-casting is “blind-casting,” in which the fisherman throws a fly into fast-moving or murky waters. As the fly line sweeps down-current, the tension is high, prone to being broken at any second by the explosion of a striking fish.
From New Zealand’s mountain country run fast-moving, blind-casting streams, but we’ve mostly been working the sluggish, clear streams of the lowlands, where we’ve spent day after day sight-casting at uninterested fish as large as pike. But we catch them sometimes. The other morning, Andrew caught and released a 24-inch brown that he had been working on since sunup. We had gotten to know it well over the hours, had named it Captain Cook, and didn’t have the heart to bonk our friend over the head. Cook still swims. But later that day, we were hungrier, and Andrew caught another big brown by the name of Captain Bligh. Bligh got braised that night with herbs de Provence and white wine. The next day, another monster the size of a poodle in the Waiau River would not bite. Andrew worked on him for a while with a streamer before waving me in to try with a dry fly. No luck—sight-casting at its most frustrating. “Oh, hell—let’s shoot him,” Andrew joked, both of us just 10 feet from that tedious old brown. That was Captain Tasman. Just to make sure he was alive we threw a cobblestone at him; he dashed downstream.
We’re back at Lake Wanaka now, on our way north. Andrew just came stomping in with wet feet—sullen, silent and soaked to the skin after spending eight hours in the rain standing in a river waving a stick. It’s been coming down all day, the first precipitation in two months here. Our socks, shoes, pants and rain gear are all soaked, our room smells like a swamp and we aren’t getting any drier. We’re headed next for the West Coast rainforest, and the forecast says rain for days. If this is what it means to be haunted by waters, then Norman Maclean can have his line back. We want sun.