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.
March 8, 2013
I had only $40 in my wallet, but cash doesn’t help a person much on the freezing Andean tundra. Instead, my most valuable assets at the moment were two beers, some quinoa and two avocados for dinner—plus a riveting book about the hunt for a man-eating Siberian tiger by John Vaillant. Tent-bound life was good here in the high country. My hands were numb, but I was camped under the roof of a sheltered barbecue hut, and I dared the volcano to give me all the weather it could muster. The mountain seemed to answer. Wind and clouds swirled off the white, freshly dusted slopes, and rain began to fall as darkness crept on, but I stayed dry and cozy. It seemed very strange that millions of people dwelt just a few miles away in Quito, Ecuador, yet I was the only person on earth camped that night in Cotopaxi National Park.
The next morning was foggy and bit with such cold that I couldn’t get moving until past 9. When blue patches of sky gleamed with the promise of a warm day, I started cycling, and by the time I had reached the foot of the mountain, the sun was out in force, though the wind ripping across this barren plateau remained bitterly cold.
A group of Germans stepped off a tour bus at a roadside trailhead, aiming to spend the morning hiking around Laguna Limpiopungu, a shallow lake on the high plains just under the summit. When they learned I had biked to this remote spot, they gave me a round of applause. I was a bit confused and embarrassed, and I deflected the gesture with a wave of my hands.
“I met a Mexican man in Quito who had spent a year on his bike,” I told them. “And I met a British couple in Cuenca who were halfway into an 18-month trip. And I met a Colombian man in the Amazon who was walking to Argentina. I have been here two months, and my trip is about over. This is nothing.”
Cotopaxi National Park is barren and wildly beautiful but not very extensive. Sadly, I was out of the park by 1 p.m.—but more volcanic giants and frigid high country remained ahead. There were the massive peaks of Antisana, Cayambe and Pichincha, lands where camping was free and money good for only the barest joys of life—coffee, food and wine. I rolled north via a dirt road, which shortly turned to cobblestone, and as I came slowly over a rise, I abruptly saw my final destination in the distance: Quito, that beautiful but monstrous city encased in a basin by classic cone-shaped volcanoes. After weeks of traveling through rural, mountainous country of similar stature and poise, I had to wonder how and why the village that once was Quito had ballooned into such a behemoth.
With permission from the owner—plus a payment of five bucks—I camped that night in a soccer field in the Quito suburb of Sangolqui. I had $35 left—then $20 after buying food and wine the next morning. I set my sights on Antisana National Reserve and I started again uphill, against the rush-hour traffic flowing toward the capital. The scent of the city faded, and quietude returned as I ascended into the high, windswept valleys and plains that sprawled beneath the landscape’s centerpiece, the three-mile-high Volcán Antisana. At the park entrance, an employee assured me, after I asked, that I could camp at the end of the road. When I arrived, however, a group of bundled up men at the Ministry of the Environment refuge said the opposite—that there was no camping here.
“Why did that man tell me there was?” I asked, frustrated beyond my ability to explain in Spanish. I was 20 kilometers from the nearest designated campsite (Hosteria Guaytara, outside the park) with the sun slipping behind the peaks and my hands already numb within my alpaca gloves. The men recognized my dilemma. “It is not permitted but we can let you stay,” one said. He offered me a cabin of my own—but I chose to camp under a thatched roofed shelter in back. I was half frozen by the time I slipped into my sleeping bag and put my quinoa on the stove. I uncorked a bottle of Malbec from Argentina, and sweet, sweet coziness set in. I was camped for the first time in my life above 13,000 feet—13,041, exactly—and it was the coldest night of the trip.
At just past dawn, I was pedaling along the gravel road again. Like some wretched tramp in a Charles Dickens story, I jumped off my bike and pounced on a 10-dollar bill in the road, jammed against a rock and ready to sail away with the next gust. What a miracle! I was back to $30. I descended to the main highway, turned right and started uphill toward Cayambe-Coca Ecological Reserve, which would be my last dance with the high country. At sundown, still below the 13,000-foot pass and fearful that I might be sleeping in the rain behind a roadside gravel heap, I stopped in at a restaurant at kilometer 20, in Peñas Blancas, and asked if I could camp. The landlady took me to the balcony and spread her arms across the property below. “Wherever you like,” she said. “Can I pay you?” I asked. She waved the back of her hand at my offer. I went down and scouted for a spot amid the mud, gravel, dog poop and broken machinery, and, when it was dark, slipped into a relatively clean shed. A large animal was busy at some task in the attic, rattling the corrugated metal roof and a pile of lumber, and I zipped myself into my tent. For breakfast, I bought coffee and carrot juice, thanked the woman again and headed onward up the grade—with $23 in cash and no ATM for miles.
At the blustery pass was a sign reminding travelers to beware of a local imperiled species—the spectacled bear. The animals are rare throughout their Andean range, from Venezuela to Argentina, and their numbers may be dropping. Yet they are the pride of many locals, who wear hats or shirts bearing the animal’s image—distinctive with its panda-like face.
In Pampallacta, a thermal hot springs resort town, I spent $2 on fruit, $2 on cheese, $1 on a small bag of oats and—I couldn’t resist—$8 on a liter of wine. That gave me $10 left. I would have to camp somewhere, and I returned up the highway, toward Quito, to a resort on the north side of the road. Here, in the woods, I found a Swiss Family Robinson-style compound with $5 campsites. The owner said that for $6 I could stay in a cabin. He pointed to a wooden shack in the nearby canopy—the sort of treehouse that little boys dream of. I took it. I handed him a ten, and he handed back $4. This would have to carry me back to Quito over two days—but wait! I recalled some loose change in my panniers, and later, in my cabin, I unpacked my gear and liberated 67 cents. Such money can buy days’ worth of bananas in Ecuador. I felt renewed and secure. I lay on the floor, set up the cook stove and started dinner. I spread out my map and, from Cotopaxi to Quilotoa to Baños to the Amazon, I remembered the journey. After all, there was little left to look forward to. I had two days left until my airplane took off.
Dawn arrived in a grim shawl of fog and rain. I hurried through the dripping trees to the restaurant and spent $2, and three hours, drinking coffee. $2.67 cents until Quito. If I camped in Cayambe-Coca that night, I would have to pay nothing—but I had heard from a ranger that the campsite, at roughly 13,600 feet, had no shelter or refuge. “Aire libre,” he told me. Open air. It would be freezing—and wet. I rode uphill and stopped at the same summit I’d crossed the day before. The rain showed no sign of relenting. The turnoff to the park campground was a road of mud and rock, and it disappeared uphill into the freezing mist. I said goodbye to the mountains and pushed ahead. The highway tilted forward, and away I went, downhill at 30 miles per hour.
There was no satisfaction in replenishing my wallet at an ATM in the suburban town of El Quinche. As that machine sputtered and spat out a wad of crisp twenties, the sweetness of the past two weeks seemed to melt away like ice cream dropped in the gutter. I had spent those days searching for food and places to sleep amid incredible scenery. It had been a frugal–but pure and gratifying–way to spend a vacation. Now, with money again, there was no effort, no hardship and no reward in my activity. With an acute sense of disgust, I paid $13 for a hotel room. I would not shiver at night here, and no animals would tromp about in the darkness. I would soon forget this hotel and this lazy town, and I would think nothing of them 24 hours later while I gazed out the window of the airplane upon the wilderness areas of the Andes, at the cold and rocky high country where money is often worthless, and every day and night priceless.
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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