May 1, 2013
The classic film Deliverance immortalized the American tradition of canoes, river canyons, guitars and banjos—but less remembered from the film, and the novel that preceded it, is its very premise: Four men were out to see one of Appalachia’s last free-flowing rivers—the fictional Cahulawassee—months before a scheduled dam project forever disrupted its flow. This fate, or something similar, has befallen most major river systems on earth—and though we often lament their loss, we continue to dam, divert or otherwise mar or destroy our last remaining wild rivers. But a few untamed giants remain, like the Amazon, the Arctic-bound Mackenzie, the Yukon of Alaska and Canada and the Lena of Siberia, one of the longest rivers in Asia. Even a dammed river can remain an enduring symbol of its landscape, as do the extensively developed Mississippi and the Nile. But such hydro-developed rivers may face other threats, especially overuse of their waters, which can eliminate a river entirely. Even that soul of the American desert, the Colorado River, is reduced to a pitiful trickle as it enters its own delta, in Mexico. Following are six of the most beautiful but most threatened rivers worth seeing while they still flow.
Length: 1,749 miles.
Discharge: 172,200 cubic feet per second.
Main threat: Planned hydroelectric development.
This Southeast Asian river’s days of unfettered youth and unbridled flow are probably numbered—for big plans are in store for the Salween. This mighty system begins as a Himalayan dribble almost three miles high in Tibet and, eventually, empties as a jungle-brown behemoth into the Andaman Sea in Burma. Though the Salween is currently a free-flowing river from source to sea, that is almost certain to change. China has plans to build 13 dams on the Salween, while Burma has long been discussing installation of several hydro projects. Though construction activity has been stalled for years, it seems probable that the Salween is fated to become a long escalade of concrete walls and reservoirs. In February 2013, the state government approved the construction (PDF) of six planned dams, which have generated huge civilian opposition and are the crux of a brewing eco-socioeconomic battle. Opponents to the projects have dispersed anti-dam petitions and even attacked survey teams scouting the dam sites. If you have plans to visit Burma, float the Salween now, before dams mandate laborious portages and before the villages along its shores are drowned. Boat tours can be arranged through many travel services, while some visitors explore the Salween’s course via bicycle.
Europe’s second-largest river after the Volga, the Danube is remarkable for the many cultures it touches, and the many borders it crosses, en route from the Alps to the Black Sea. The Danube has been characterized as dividing, uniting and defining Central Europe. So said Guy Raz, an NPR reporter who traveled the length of the Danube in 2002, documenting as he went its history, current culture, ecology and future. The river’s source is in the Black Forest of Germany,while it gains much of its volume from the Alps. It’s a fine way for a river to begin—but things get complicated for the Danube the more countries it touches. Government conservation efforts may be hampered by the Danube’s very diversity—for the river, which the World Wildlife Fund has called the “most international river in the world,” literally absorbs the direct runoff of 18 countries—including the war-scarred Balkan nations and the industrial landscapes of parts of Poland, Germany and Hungary. Named in 2007 as one of the ten most threatened rivers in the world, the Danube offers a variety of beautiful trip opportunities. People may cycle tour the length of the river, traveling as they go either through or near Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania and many more nations. Or they may walk the gentle valley of the Danube, among vineyards and orchards, past Transylvanian castles and through great cities like Belgrade, Budapest and Vienna. Or they may explore this great river by boat.
Length: 382 miles.
Discharge: 23,490 cubic feet per second.
Major threat: Overuse of water for agriculture, which threatens salmon and other fish species.
Though hardly more than a stream when compared with recognized river giants, the Sacramento is economically and ecologically one of the most important watersheds in America. It enters the sea as grandly as a river can—past San Francisco and under the Golden Gate—while far upstream, the Sacramento’s waters provide habitat for the most southerly and one of the largest West Coast populations of Chinook salmon, which migrate upstream to spawn each year. The river’s water also feeds much of California’s agriculture industry, which in turn helps feed much of the world. Just one major barrier—the Shasta Dam—blocks the path of the Sacramento, and adventurers wishing to canoe or kayak this stream have at least two options: They may take the arguably wilder and more scenic route and paddle the upper branch, which passes among the beautiful volcano country of Mount Lassen and Mount Shasta. Or they may put in somewhere downstream of Lake Shasta and float the “Lower Sac,” through almond and walnut groves, past expansive rice fields, through California’s capital city of Sacramento, and, finally, into the river’s delta. The Sacramento is already heavily tapped, but controversial plans to build a “peripheral canal” to feed local and distant agriculture could severely impact the already struggling fisheries of the Sacramento, and many conservationists fear the Sacramento and its salmon will not last the century.
Length: 1,476 miles.
Discharge: 27,086 cubic feet per second.
Main threat: Dwindling fish species and overuse of water.
Australia’s longest and most massive river, the Murray flows from the Australian Alps southeastward and into the Southern Ocean near the city of Adelaide. Like nearly any river in a dry and thirsty land, the Murray is a critical life source—both for native fish and wildlife, like the barramundi, dolphin and the man-size Murray cod, and for local agriculture, including southern Australia’s famed wine industry. Though dams and locks cross the river at numerous places, the Murray is nonetheless a popular destination for paddlers—some of whom may float the entire river. The Murray is a gentle waterway, broad and slow for much of its length, and is relatively welcoming to novice river paddlers—though it does have a few whitewater sections. The future of the Murray is in question. The river’s flow is naturally erratic, and in dry years it has failed entirely to reach its end. As demand for the Murray’s water grows, climate change is expected to become a major stressor on this threatened river.
Length: 1,450 miles.
Discharge: 21,700 cubic feet per second.
A classic “exotic stream,” in which a river’s water originates almost entirely in lands far upstream, the Colorado begins in the Rockies but is famed as a symbol of the American desert. The river has famously carved its course deep into the copper-colored earth of Utah and Arizona, creating deep, steep canyons, including the Grand Canyon. The river’s outlet is technically and historically in Mexico, where a vast delta of braided streams once entered the northern reaches of the Sea of Cortez, supporting such species as the spectacular but now severely depleted totuava, a 200-pound ocean fish that once spawned in huge numbers in the Colorado Delta region. However, the Colorado scarcely—if at all—reaches its end anymore, most of its flows being withdrawn for use by some 40 million people. Some of the Colorado’s water is actually pumped out of the river’s drainage boundaries and into California for agricultural use in the desert. Other portions are used to water lawns and fill desert swimming pools. The best ways to experience the Colorado are by canoe or raft—though certain sections of the river feature dangerous rapids. Another option is to hike into the Grand Canyon—and remember: Bringing along stringed instruments is a fine tradition, but picking out “Dueling Banjos” by the riverbank is an exhausted musical cliché. Pick another song.
Length: 2,637 miles to head of Finlay River.
Discharge: 349,968 cubic feet per second.
Main threat: Possible hydroelectric development.
The Mackenzie drainage system receives the precipitation from almost 20 percent of Canada’s land area and abuts that of the Yukon River, the Fraser, the Columbia and the Churchill. Measured from the head of the Finlay River, the Mackenzie is one of the longest rivers in the world. However, many people—and canoeists—discuss the Mackenzie only in terms of its main branch, an un-dammed 1,000-mile run that flows north out of the massive Great Slave Lake. This river’s remote location has made it largely immune to many of the threats that have affected other great rivers—and almost certainly, the Mackenzie is one river system that will never dry up at the doings of people. And while the Mackenzie itself remains un-dammed, several hydroelectric projects have been built on its tributaries and there is growing interest in tapping into the energy of the Mackenzie’s main stem. Still, the Mackenzie drainage offers among the greatest wilderness experiences left on earth. Probably the best option is to let the river do the work and float downstream via canoe, raft or kayak. Where to start is the question. Some adventurers may start on the South Nahanni, while others may tackle the Mackenzie beginning at Great Slave Lake, a roughly month-long trip of probable bear encounters, wild camping and excellent fly fishing. Because it may someday be hydro-developed, the Mackenzie has been named among Canada’s most threatened waterways. For now, though, this Arctic giant remains one of the world’s freest, cleanest, wildest rivers.
April 24, 2013
America is, as we’re told, the land of the free—and for tail-wagging, four-legged travelers that were born to run, road-tripping across our vast country of fields, mountains, forests and campgrounds might seem like a dream vacation.
But visiting America’s most treasured parks and other places of natural heritage is not so easy for people with their dogs in tow. Leash laws and full pet prohibitions are so ubiquitous that for anyone hoping to tour America’s national or state parks, it may be easier to check the pets into a kennel before hitting the road than trying to bring them along on vacation.
This seemingly draconian crackdown on man’s best friend is not without good cause, however. Off-leash dogs may harass, chase and even attack and kill wildlife of all sizes and sorts. Deer, moose, birds and many other animals are regularly hounded by free-running pet dogs. Just a few examples: In 2010, an off-leash German shepherd killed a pair of fox pups just outside the Trout Brook Valley nature reserve in Connecticut. Also that year, a dog that had escaped its home in rural Colorado was seen chasing elk and harrying the animals into the middle of a river until a wildlife officer shot and killed the pet. Last spring, dogs near Talkeetna, Alaska, attacked and injured a newborn moose calf—a common occurrence in the Far North. In Florida, uncontrolled dogs are a frequent cause of death of the protected gopher tortoise, while in the Southwest, desert tortoises have reportedly been chewed on by free-roaming dogs. Uncontrolled pet dogs have also attacked endangered bighorn sheep in the California desert. Domestic dogs—whether fully feral or simply pets off-leash—cause huge losses for the livestock industry, too. In 2009, dogs killed roughly 60,000 sheep in the United States, according to the Department of Agriculture and the American Sheep Industry Association.
Other times, dogs off-leash are injured or killed. In November, a relatively rare Florida black bear attacked and injured a chocolate Lab that had been let into the woods to run by its owners. A similar encounter with a bear almost resulted in the death of a golden retriever in Massachusetts last year. Mountain lions, coyotes and even deer have also attacked free-roaming dogs. In national forests and lands of the Bureau of Land Management, dogs are often allowed to run off-leash—but hunters may also use these areas. In January, a pair of pig hunters in the Los Padres National Forest near Santa Barbara shot and killed a 40-pound mutt named Billy, who was running off-leash. Pet dogs have also stepped into steel-jawed traps, which can be legally placed on national forest lands in some places, like the Gila National Forest in New Mexico.
The problem is global. Off-leash pet dogs attack swans and deer in England. In parts of Australia, dogs on the loose are one of major the predators of koalas. A poodle recently came trotting home with a mortally wounded kangaroo joey in its mouth. In the 1980s, a single off-leash pet dog in New Zealand killed between 600 and 800 kiwis out of a small population of 1,000 in just six weeks. A recent study in Tasmania found dogs to be the second-greatest source of wildlife mortality after cars.
In the United States, the problem is reportedly growing worse every year. Attacks on other dogs and people occur, too, and for these reasons, authorities have been cinching up leash laws. Virtually no state or national park allows dogs to run off leash—not even in backcountry areas. In San Francisco, the vast urban parkland of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), for example, has been ground zero of ongoing bickering between leash law proponents and dog owners bent on letting their pets run and romp. The thing is, the park, while potentially a haven for off-leash dogs, is also a refuge for native wildlife—like the threatened Western snowy plover. Numbers of these birds have long nested in the dunes at San Francisco-area beaches and, as discussed in the Outside blog Adventure Ethics, may be chased off by uncontrolled dogs.
Brent Plater, the executive director of the nonprofit organization Wild Equity Institute in San Francisco, says just last week two goslings were killed by off-leash dogs at Crissy Field, a beach area within the GGNRA. Plater has been working for years with several other groups to help the Park Service develop a leash law plan that seems fair to everyone, and he notes that the GGNRA has “some of the most generous leash laws of all the national parks” in spite of being home to several threatened or endangered species. At this point, Plater feels the best proposal would be to enclose off-leash dog areas with fencing. That, he says, would be “the perfect compromise and solution” to a battle that pits “a handful of dog owners against everyone else.”
The controversy, he adds, is not simply about people and dogs and whether both have equal rights on public lands.
“It’s about whether we want to take a precautionary approach and avoid problems before they happen by fencing off dog areas, or whether we want to take a reactive approach and punish people after the fact, and hopefully fix the damage [their dogs] cause,” he explained.
Julie Young, a federal wildlife biologist and also an assistant professor at Utah State University, has studied the impacts of feral and off-leash dogs in the United States and in Mongolia, where she analyzed the impacts (PDF) of domestic dogs on an antelope called the saiga. Young says the impacts dogs have on wild animals are far greater than most pet owners realize.
“If your dog chases a deer, and it’s near a popular trail, it’s probably not the first time that deer was chased—maybe not even on that day,” Young told Off the Road.
Young says a paper published in 2008 in the Natural Areas Journal reported that off-leash pet dogs in Colorado had driven deer and bobcats away from popular hiking trails where they had once been known to occur. In Utah, Young says, sage grouse and mule deer can be common targets for harassment by dogs. Other times, pet dogs kill livestock—and this, says Young, “can have a secondary effect” of bringing wrongful blame upon coyotes—or wolves—in northern states and Canada.
Maureen Hill-Hauch, the program director of the American Dog Owners Association, takes a surprisingly stern approach to leash laws and believes pet dogs need to be kept on leashes anytime they’re outside of a confined private area.
“We’re all about responsibility, and a responsible dog owner keeps their dog on a leash and collar,” Hill-Hauch said. “If you want to let them run, then let them run in your backyard or at a tennis court, where you can lock the gate.” Very few state parks allow dogs off-leash, Hill-Hauch says—”and rightfully so.” She believes dog attacks on people and the harassment of wildlife are more than enough reason to require that pet dogs be restrained at all times when on public land.
“My dogs have never been off their leashes,” she said.
So, where can travelers go with their dogs? Almost everywhere—for dogs are allowed in most parks, state and national. However, rules here are strict and, if you’ve entertained ideas of boundless romping in the woods with your pet, you may be in for a serious letdown. Consider Yellowstone National Park, which prohibits dogs in the backcountry, on trails and on boardwalks, and requires that they be leashed at all times, if not caged or locked in an attended vehicle. In Yosemite National Park, they are likewise prohibited in the backcountry and most trails. They are permitted on paved trails and paths, and most of the park’s 13 campgrounds allow dogs—though only on a leash six feet long or shorter—and, yes, a person must be holding the leash.
Want to go hiking? Figure you’ll just tie your dog up in camp for the day? Sorry—but that’s generally forbidden. In other words, driving through a park with your dog shouldn’t be a problem. But if you hope to fully enjoy the woods and wilds with your best four-legged friend, a national park may not be for you. Note that Acadia, Shenandoah, Grand Canyon, Cuyahoga and Great Sand Dunes national parks have been named as among the dog-friendliest of America’s national parks, mainly for their relatively lax leash laws.
Want to go backpacking? Dogs generally aren’t allowed in the backcountry of national parks. However, national forest land is often a romping ground for pet dogs. In developed areas and developed campsites, leash laws are the norm, but in the backcountry, your dog can, at last, run free.
Resources on pet-friendly travel destinations provide a rough breakdown of the rules.
April 22, 2013
Americans love Canada. Year after year, Americans polled by Gallup indicate that they have a strong affinity toward Britain, Germany, Japan, France and India. But Canada consistently scores higher than any other place. In 2013, 90 percent of Americans polled said they have a “favorable” impression of our neighbor to the north. Only 6 percent gave an “unfavorable” rating. Americans’ love of Canada may be easy to explain: Canada is friendly, safe, familiar and mostly English-speaking. Its cities are sophisticated and modern—especially Vancouver, at the edge of both mountain and sea, and Montreal, known largely for its 17th-century architecture. Though many travelers are true adventurers with an appetite for the strange and foreign, it may be Canada’s very lack of the exotic that so appeals to the majority of Americans.
But perhaps Canada’s greatest virtue is its wilderness—some of the finest, most unspoiled land anywhere. The wild Canadian Rockies resemble their counterpart peaks to the south, but they are less trammeled, less cut by highways and more extensive, running as far north as the lonesome Yukon. In the rivers of western British Columbia, salmon still teem, as lower-48 Americans can only imagine from black-and-white photos from a century ago. Far to the east, the cod-fishing communities of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia are quaint and cozy, with an irresistible Scandinavian charm. Canada’s wildlife, too, trumps America’s. Between grizzly bears, black bears, cougars and wolves, large predators roam virtually every acre of the nation, whereas the lower 48 states have been hacked into a fragile patchwork of preserved places. There are elk, caribou, bison and moose throughout Canada. Indeed, the nation’s wild creatures and places embody the Wild West that America conquered—and that’s before we consider the polar bears, all 15,000 or more of them living along Canada’s Arctic coast and Hudson Bay. Indeed, Canada’s far north is like no other place. Tundra studded by thousands of lakes and drained by long and wild rivers makes for a canoer’s and fisherman’s paradise.
Here are a few adventure travel ideas to bring you into the best of Canada’s wild country:
Fly Fishing for the Labrador Brook Trout. Many American anglers know the brook trout as a dainty sliver of fish, speckled beautifully with blue-and-red spots and worm-like vermiculations. It’s a fish as pretty as it is little, happy to bite a fly, and often grossly overpopulated in the waters to which it has been introduced throughout America. But in eastern Canada, the brook trout—actually a species of char—is comfortably at home—and big. The species originated in the streams and lakes here, and nowhere else do brookies grow so huge. Brook trout as large as 15 pounds or more have been caught throughout eastern Canada, but Labrador is especially famous for its consistently bulky specimens. The Churchill River system—both above and below the 245-foot Churchill Falls—boasts large brook trout, and lots of them. So does the smaller Eagle River system, among other drainages. Local lodges and guide services offer packaged trips based around river fly fishing, in case you need a soft pillow and someone to cook you dinner each night. More rewarding, if more challenging, can be to go yourself. Other species to expect while pursuing big brooks include northern pike, lake trout, Arctic char and, in some river systems, wild Atlantic salmon. As you hike, watch for bears, moose, eagles and other iconic creatures of the American wilderness. Canadian, that is.
Cycle Touring Newfoundland. Rocky shorelines, small winding roads, villages hundreds of years old, mountains, cliffs, clear waters and fjords: Such features make up the eastern island of Newfoundland, one of Canada’s most beautiful islands. With its international airport, the capital city of St. John’s makes an ideal starting point for a cycling tour of the Avalon Peninsula. Though just a small promontory on Newfoundland’s south side, the Avalon Peninsula features a great deal of shoreline and enough scenery and culture to keep one occupied for weeks. Place names like Chance Cove, Random Island, Come by Chance, Witless Bay and Portugal Cove embody the rugged geography’s happenstance, blown-by-the-wind spirit. However early North American explorers may have felt about landing upon these blustery shores, for travelers of today, the area is a renowned gem. On the main body of the island of Newfoundland, cyclists also find magnificent exploration opportunities along the north-central coast—a land of deep inlets and rocky islands for hundreds of miles. Another touring option takes travelers from Deer Lake, near the western coast, northward through Gros Morne National Park, the Long Range Mountains, and all the way to the north end of the island, at L’Anse aux Meadows, the site of an excavated Viking dwelling. Camping in the wild is easy in Newfoundland’s open, windswept country—and even easier in the wooded interior. But note that distances between grocery stores may be great, so pack food accordingly. Also note that the folks here are reputably friendly, which—in Newfoundland—can translate into moose dinners in the homes of strangers. Pack wine or beer as a gift in return. Not a cyclist? Then get wet. The coast of the island offers a lifetime’s worth of kayak exploration. Want to get really wet? Then don a wetsuit and go snorkeling. The waters are clear and teeming with sea life and shipwrecks.
Hiking in the Canadian Rockies. Though the mountains are rocky, the trout streams clear and the woods populated by elk, wolves and bears—you aren’t in Montana anymore. The Canadian Rockies are much like the same mountain range to the south—but they’re arguably better. Fewer roads mean less noise, less people and more wildlife. A great deal of the Canadian Rockies is preserved within numerous wilderness areas, as well as the famed Jasper and Banff national parks. Cycling is one way to access the vast reaches of wild country here—but no means of motion is so liberating in this rough country as walking. So tie your boot laces at Lake Louise, often considered the queen attraction of the region, or in the town of Banff itself, then fill a pack with all the gear and food of a self-sufficient backpacker and hike upward and outward into some of the most wonderful alpine country of Alberta, and the whole of North America.
Canoeing the South Nahanni River. This tributary of the great Arctic-bound Mackenzie River system is considered the iconic wilderness canoeing experience of Canada and one of the most epic places to paddle on our planet. The South Nahanni runs 336 miles from the Mackenzie Mountains, through the Selwyn Mountains and into the Liard River, which in turn empties into the mighty Mackenzie. The South Nahanni flows for much of its length through the Nahanni National Park Reserve, a Unesco World Heritage site, and has carved some spectacular canyons through the ages, making for cathedral-like scenery as spirit-stirring as Yosemite. The region is practically roadless, and while hikers may find their way through the mountains and tundra of the South Nahanni drainage, the most comfortable and efficient means of exploring the area is probably by canoe. Most paddlers here either begin or end their trips at the enormous Virginia Falls, a spectacular cascade that includes a free-fall of 295 feet and a total vertical plunge of 315 feet—twice the height of Niagara Falls. Others portage around the falls on full-river excursions that can last three weeks. Serious yet navigable whitewater sections can be expected, though most of these rapids occur in the first 60 miles of the river before the South Nahanni lays out en route to the Arctic Ocean. Not a single dam blocks the way, and wilderness enthusiasts have the rare option of continuing down many hundreds of miles of virgin river, all the way to the sea.
Seeing Churchill’s Polar Bears. Americans killed off most of their own big bears—namely the grizzly—as they pushed through the frontier and settled the West. In Churchill, however, locals have learned to live in a remarkably intimate relationship with the greatest bear of all. Polar bears gather along the coast of Hudson Bay in great numbers each autumn as the days shorten and temperatures drop. As long as the sea remains unfrozen, the bears stay around, and sometimes within, the town of 800 people. The animals wrestle, fight, climb over their mothers, roll on their backs and soak in the low-hanging sun, and tourists love it. Thousands come every year to see Churchill’s bears. If you do, don’t go hiking. The bears are wild animals and may be the most dangerous of all bear species. Instead, book in advance and join a tour in one of the bear-proof vehicles called “tundra buggies” that venture from Churchill onto the barren Canadian moors, rolling on monster tires as paying clients lean from the windows with cameras. The bears often approach the vehicles and even stand up against the sides to greet the awed passengers. Long lenses may never leave the camera bag, and wildlife photography rarely gets easier than in the town rightly dubbed the “Polar Bear Capital of the World.”
Taste Wine and Pick Peaches in the Okanagan Valley. Between so much adventuring through field, mountain and stream, wine tasting may be a welcomed diversion—and, yes, they make good wine in Canada. The Okanagan Valley of British Columbia is the chief producing region. A sliver of fertile farm country about 130 miles north to south, the Okanagan Valley lies just west of the Rockies and about a four hours’ drive east of Vancouver. Crisp white wines—like Pinot Blanc, Gewurztraminer and Riesling—are the Okanagan Valley‘s claim to fame, while many wineries produce reds like Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir. The valley is also famous for its roadside fruit stands,where heaps of apples, pears, apricots, peaches and cherries may prove irresistible to those pedaling bicycles. Many farms offer “U-Pick” deals—the best way to get the freshest fruit. But what sets this wine-and-fruit valley apart is how the vineyards are planted smack in the midst of some of the continent’s most tremendous and wild mountains—a juxtaposition of elegant epicurean delights and classic North American wilderness that, perhaps, only Canada could offer.
April 17, 2013
Traveling may be thrilling, exhausting, dangerous, mind-opening and, occasionally, boring. But more than anything else, going to faraway places is easier talked about than done. Thus, we find history riddled with quiet rumors and full-fledged scandals surrounding claims of heroic journeys that turned out to be tales woven with lies. Other adventurers’ claims, while not known hoaxes, have dwelt in the limbo of critical doubt for years or decades. Following is a listing of some of the best and least known of the world’s travel hoaxes.
Donald Crowhurst and the Solo Sailing Race Fraud.
In the late ’60s, Donald Crowhurst had the world believing that he was sailing around the world at a record-smashing pace—but skeptics today believe that Donald Crowhurst fictionalized nearly every mile of his 1968-69 solo voyage. The British amateur was racing against seven others in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, a round-the-world race that began and ended in southern England. Crowhurst was vying for the large cash prize while also hoping to generate publicity for his marine navigational hardware company.
But Crowhurst, an inexperienced sailor, had barely begun when he began to doubt he had any chance of winning—or perhaps even surviving—the global voyage. His boat began to leak, and he was falling far behind the competition. So he gave up—without telling anyone. While his competitors sailed southward to the Southern Ocean and then eastward, Crowhurst never left the Atlantic, all the while sending falsified radio reports to listeners of his progress. Perhaps by accident, Crowhurst put himself far in the lead—and, what’s more, on a course to break the world’s record for the same route. As the competition dropped out of the race one by one for various reasons, more and more eyes turned to the horizon, awaiting the appearance of Crowhurst, the heroic underdog. But Crowhurst never showed. While Robin Knox-Johnston returned to England as the race’s only finisher, Crowhurst seems to have panicked, doubtful he could pull off the fraud and terrified of the shame he would face. His boat was found adrift on July 10, 1969, in the Caribbean. Of Crowhurst himself there was not a sign. Many believe he committed suicide. His boat was towed ashore and today remains a rotting tourist attraction on the beach, on the island of Cayman Brac.
Christian Stangl and K2.
After three summers spent on K2 and not once looking down from the coveted summit, Austrian climber Christian Stangl returned to lower altitudes in August 2010 and told the world he had done it—climbed the world’s second-highest mountain in what would have been a phenomenal time of four days round-trip from the base camp. No one else reached the peak that year, and one climber died trying—but quickly, climbing experts began asking if Stangl had, either. Stangl, after all, was never seen above Camp 3, and he produced no GPS signals from the summit. He also had just one summit photo to prove his achievement—and something was funny about it; Stangl’s photo, it appeared, was taken from lower on the mountain than other existing summit shots.
Eventually, Stangl came clean, admitting his deception but explaining that he had begun to hallucinate on the mountain due to the thin air. He says he descended (after a bizarre face-off with what may have been a snow leopard) truly believing he had stood on K2′s summit. To his genuine credit, Stangl climbed K2 in a confirmed summit attempt in 2012. He sent out his coordinates signal 21 times and took a 360-panorama video sequence to prove his claim, and for this stubborn and accomplished Austrian alpinist, redemption arrived.
Frederick Cook and the Mount McKinley Hoax.
Frederick Cook almost certainly set foot in many places where previously no person had before—but the New York-born explorer is also seen as one of modern exploration’s most notorious fraudsters. He participated in three significant expeditions between 1891 and 1903, two of them into the Arctic and the latter a circumnavigation of Alaska’s Mount McKinley, also known as Denali. In 1906, he set forth on another McKinley outing, this time returning home to report that he had summited the 20,320-foot peak, which had never been climbed before. The claim stood the test of time for only three years, when the true story came spilling out: Cook had taken his summit photo on a tiny mountain 19 miles from McKinley’s peak.
Cook’s claims have since been thoroughly dissected and discredited; the descriptions he made in his journal of the landscape near the summit were found to bear little resemblance to the real mountain, and modern-day climber Bradford Washburn took it upon himself to identify every place on and around the slopes of Denali where Cook took his expedition shots. It has been determined that Cook and his small group of men never approached closer than 12 miles to the summit of Denali. So who first climbed the highest mountain in North America? Hudson Stuck, in June 1913.
Cook and the North Pole Debate. After his Mount McKinley expedition, Frederick Cook ventured farther north, into the Arctic—though just how far he went became the subject of argument, accusation and scandal. In 1909, Cook staggered home from the ice, having almost starved to death en route. He claimed he had been to the North Pole and back, which would now give him claim to two magnificent feats of exploration. Then, doubts arose about his polar voyage—for Cook could not produce evidence that he had reached the North Pole on April 22, 1908, as he had claimed.
Moreover, his two Inuit guides, Ahwelah and Etukishook, who traveled with Cook across the Arctic sea ice, later reported that, all traveling together, they had only gone several days from land across the frozen sea—not far enough to have brought them to 90 degrees north latitude. Eventually Robert Peary, who claimed to have reached the pole on April 6, 1909, was widely credited as the first explorer to reach the North Pole—though some historians today aren’t convinced Peary actually got there. It was while reviewing Cook’s account of reaching the North Pole that skeptics looked back several years, to Cook’s claimed McKinley conquest. It was eventually discredited entirely as rubbish, and Cook’s reputation as an explorer crumbled.
Eric Ryback and the Pacific Crest Trail.
Eric Ryback was just 17 when he first hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1969—and in the next three years he would walk both the Continental Divide and the Pacific Crest trails, making him the first person to complete all three of America’s great long-distance hiking trails. But when rumors emerged that the young trekker had hitchhiked and thereby circumvented parts of the Pacific Crest Trail, his claim to fame began to wilt. Ryback, who by this time had written a book—The High Adventure of Eric Ryback —about his walks, fought back. When the guidebook publisher, Wilderness Press, stated in print that Ryback had used motor transport in places along the PCT, Ryback sued for $3 million—but he withdrew the suit after Wilderness Press revealed statements from the very people who had supposedly picked up the young hiker along highways parallel to the 2,600-mile trail. The claims that Ryback “cheated” are still doubted by some—although the term “yellowblazing,” used to describe hitchhiking near trails that one had intended to be walking, has been reportedly replaced at times by a new verb: rybacking.
Oh Eun-Sun and Her Questioned Climb of Kangchenjunga.
In 2010, South Korean climber Oh Eun-Sun trudged to the top of Annapurna, thereby becoming the first woman to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks—but many wonder if she really did. The question hinges on Oh’s 2009 ascent of the world’s third-highest peak, Kangchenjunga, in the Himalayas. Oh’s photographic documentation of her achievement didn’t prove she had reached the top. One image, initially portrayed as her summit shot, was unconvincing, showing the woman in mountain climbing gear surrounded by a blinding, overexposed and ambiguous landscape. Another supposed summit photo showed Oh standing on a rocky surface, whereas Kangchenjunga’s 28,169-foot summit is known to have been covered in snow at about that time. There is even evidence that some of Oh’s summit shots had been digitally doctored.
Oh’s sponsor, Black Yak mountaineering gear, assures skeptics that Oh rightly reached the summit. One of Oh’s Sherpas said the same thing—though another of the three who climbed with Oh reportedly said that the group stopped climbing more than 400 feet below the mountaintop. The Korean Alpine Federation eventually decided that not enough evidence exists to prove Oh really reached Kangchenjunga’s summit, while Elizabeth Hawley, the most respected keeper and chronicler of Himalayan records, deemed Oh’s 14-peak claim to climber’s fame as “disputed.”
Cesare Maestri and the Summit of Cerro Torre.
The peaks of the world’s mountains are so tangled with lies and controversy that one must wonder if it’s the love of climbing or the lust for glory that lures so many people into the high country. In 1959, an Italian named Cesare Maestri went to Argentina, teamed up with an Austrian named Toni Egger and attempted what had been characterized one year prior as an unclimbable mountain. They supposedly reached the top of the icy 10,262-foot pinnacle on February 3. But Egger died in an avalanche on the way down, and Maestri, upon reaching civilization and making his claim, had no evidence at all to back it up.
Almost immediately, the climb was labeled a hoax. Above a certain point on the mountain, no trace of Maestri or Egger has been found, even though Maestri claimed to have bolted parts of the route, and for decades no other climbers managed to reach the top of Cerro Torre. In 1970, Maestri returned to climb it again and, hopefully, clear the air of doubt. He used a controversial gasoline-powered bolt gun—and still he failed to reach the spire’s peak. Worst of all, perhaps, Maestri let slip a shocking trip of the tongue several years ago, when he angrily told a reporter, “What I did was the most important endeavor in the world. I did it single-handedly. But this doesn’t mean that I . . . that I reached the top, do you understand?” Did he just—? Yes, I think he did.
The Atlantic Swim That Could Not Be. The Associated Press reported in early February 2009 that American Jennifer Figge had just completed a 2,100-mile swim across the Atlantic. The story reported that Figge had begun at Cape Verde, in western Africa—on January 12. It took little time for sharp-eyed readers to flinch, do a double take and read that again: January 12 to early February. Not even 30 days. That would have been 80 miles daily—three miles per hour nonstop for a month—to complete the journey. It would turn out that Figge, who was accompanied by a boat, never even intended to swim across the width of the ocean and that poor reporting had invented the swim that couldn’t possibly be.
Rosie Ruiz, the Champion Cheater of Marathons. She finished the 1979 New York Marathon in two hours 56 minutes, a time to qualify her for an even bigger race—and in 1980, Rosie Ruiz crossed the finish line with the women’s record for the Boston Marathon. But the 23-year-old was barely sweating as she accepted the crowds’ praise. Moreover, no other competitors in the 26.2-mile run could remember seeing her in the past 150 minutes. Nor could Ruiz, when questioned, recall the details of the route. It would turn out in a shocking flood of humiliation that Ruiz had started the race, left the route, taken the subway and jumped back in for the last half-mile. Jacqueline Gareau was recognized belatedly as the real winner. Scrutiny of Ruiz’s running history led investigators to suspect that Ruiz had also used subway support in the New York Marathon.
To learn more about the deceptions of historical adventurers, read Great Exploration Hoaxes, by David Roberts, in which the author discusses the controversial explorations of ten men, including Father Louis Hennepin, who fictionalized his travels on the Mississippi, and Capt. Samuel Adams, whose scramblings in the Colorado River basin appeared later to be made up.
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.