New Writing

I wrote a piece on Native Californians and the environment for KCET’s website. It’s part of their Tending the Wild series. Very pleased about this, and thanks to Chris Clarke for asking me to do it. You can find it here.


The Current State of Environmental Journalism

Someone was asleep at the wheel over at Grist Magazine. (They’ve since changed the offending photo on their site.)

Arctic Penguins
The headline and photo from Grist Magazine as it appeared in Feedly.

Sure, mistakes can happen, and the accompanying report may be well written and accurate. But I take this blooper as a metaphor for what happens when you focus more on humans and technology than on the actual wildlife and habitats environmentalism is supposed to save. (That, combined with people not being willing to pay for their news classified ads anymore.)

Meanwhile, excellent journalists like Chris Clarke are struggling for a living.

Oh well, at least a few dailies are hanging in there, like the Albuquerque Journal with John Fleck and the Sacramento Bee with Matt Weiser. Here in Michigan, not so much.

But maybe I’m wrong. Who are your favorite reporters on the environment?


A New Season on the PCT

Anza Valley view
Looking across the Anza Valley to Mt. San Jacinto

(UPDATE 12/23/14: With the release of the movie version of Wild, this post might get some increased attention, so I thought I’d just post a reminder that it was written last spring, and some of the specific points about conditions at that time don’t apply. The general advice should still hold. Also, I still haven’t gotten around to reading the book, but still plan to. The book got a lot of bashing from PCT elitists, and apparently the movie is too; I liked the PCTA’s response in this Facebook post: “Hike your own hike.” They’re also holding a “ResponsiblyWild” contest in conjunction with the movie.)

On this rainy and snowy spring day in Michigan, I find my thoughts turning to the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s late March, and that’s always the beginning of thru-hiker season, when I used to suddenly find myself with more company than usual on the trail. That was when I was working on a guidebook to the San Diego section of the PCT, and before we moved to the frozen north. I always looked with envy on those vagabonds with four or five months to spend walking.

But also I’m thinking about the PCT because I just read a report of a hiker who became disoriented and dehydrated just a few miles north of the border trailhead. Fellow hikers found him four days later, gave him water, and helped him walk to a nearby dirt road. His pack was so heavy, and thus he had walked so slowly, that he had run out of water before reaching the next source at Hauser Creek (which was dry in any case). And these were not the desert-like conditions that so many thru-hikers describe in their journals – according to Weather Underground, the high at Potrero didn’t break 70 degrees over the four days he was out there.

PCT sign
PCT Sign with Morena Butte in background

Predictably, comment from the hiking community was harsh. The PCTA Facebook page’s posting of the report had many critical comments about the dehydrated hiker’s ineptitude, with just a few people speaking up in sympathy. What kind of fool carries that much weight, or is so unprepared to carry it? (I won’t join them in their derision. I always remember the time my climbing partner and I were caught out on the side of Tahquitz Rock in a torrential rain and thunderstorm. We learned why the route we had chosen was called “The Trough.” It’s easy to feel smug about your superior skills until you’re the person having the emergency.)

Adding to the usual disdainful comments, this year there is a feeling that Cheryl Strayed’s book, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, is contributing to an exceptionally silly season on the PCT. I’ve never read it, an oversight which I mean to correct soon. Judging from the reviews and descriptions by friends who have read it, I can see how it would inspire folks to undertake a similar journey, but also how it would serve as a cautionary tale. (Although one friend pointed out that those who know nothing of wilderness travel might not realize how many times the author came close to dying.)

Horned Lizard
Horned Lizard

If there are more rescues on the PCT in southern California this year, I’m guessing it will be due to the drought more than an increase in unprepared hikers. According to the PCT Water Report, Hauser Creek is dry, and there’s only a half-liter-per-minute flow at one spot in the trail’s first twenty miles (and that’s only four miles in). Nance Creek, where I camped and found a decent flow on a trip in 2010, is described this year as “the death throes of a creek.” Fortunately, there’s a well stocked cache a few miles north of there, but hikers who choose to camp near that artificial water supply will find themselves in the dirt-road ‘burbs of Anza rather than the wilderness they’ve come to experience.

(Hint: tank up on water at Tule Spring, then carry it to one of the nice camping spots at Nance Creek or on the ridge north of it. You’ll be in one of the wildest-feeling spots in southern California, with great views down the Coyote Canyon drainage well into the Anza-Borrego desert. And if you want to know more about that desert you’ll be looking at, and partly in, for a week or so, check out my book, All the Wild and Lonely Places: Journeys in a Desert Landscape.)

Sunset on Whale Peak
Sunset on Whale Peak

If the PCT started out in more gentle country – Michigan, say, with its flat or gently rolling terrain and frequent water – you could start with easy days and ease into the thru-hike. But the PCT hits you right in the face from the very beginning, with twenty miles and around 2,500 feet of gain and loss, in what may seem like an alien environment, with little to no water. According to the Pacific Crest Trail Association, roughly 50% of hikers setting out to do the whole trail succeed in their quests. I’d have to guess that a lot of those who don’t reach that goal see their dreams come crashing down in Sections A and B, with their extremes of elevation, temperature, and terrain. Snow storms, excessive heat, climbs and descents of thousands of feet – and the blisters, dehydration, hypo- and hyperthermia, stress fractures, and cactus punctures that go with such conditions – it’s nothing to be taken lightly.

paintbrush and sunflower
Orange paintbrush and yellow sunflower

With that in mind, here are a few tips from a section hiker who’s familiar with the desert and desert-like conditions:

    • Get tips from fellow hikers on places like the PCT listserv and the PCT Facebook group. In both places you’ll find people who have more recent experience of the trail than I do.

    • Use Halfmile’s maps (and make sure you know how to read them), and follow the PCT Water Reports.

    • Read Yogi’s guidebook, follow the tips on, or use the Wilderness Press guides.

    • Get in shape before your hike – jog, go for long hikes with a loaded backpack, climb stairs or bleachers if you don’t have hills where you live, and exercise at the warmest times of day to prepare for the desert heat as much as you can.

    • Get some experience first. Don’t make a thru-hike your first backpacking experience, Cheryl Strayed notwithstanding.

    • Do a “shakedown cruise” in southern California a few days before you start, so you’ll acclimate to local conditions.

    • Hit the trail sooner. The end of April is the most popular time to begin a thru-hike, based on snow conditions in the Sierra, and the annual kick off at Lake Morena is again being held the weekend of April 26. But this year the snow pack is thin, so there’s no reason to suffer through the hotter temps of May in the desert to avoid the snows of the mountains (although the infamous Fuller Ridge on Mt. San Jacinto could always pose a problem).

    • Carry rain gear. Just because you’re hearing about “drought in California” doesn’t mean you won’t need to be prepared for precipitation. A snowstorm hit the Lagunas and the San Felipe Hills shortly after the kickoff weekend one year. Drought years in southern California are known for rain falling at odd times, such as the middle of spring or early in the fall (and these days, who knows what to expect with the weather?).

    • Canterbury Bells
      Canterbury Bells

      Go light and fast… Usually I feel like thru-hikers should slow down and experience the subtle beauties of San Diego’s backcountry, leaving the 30-mile days for later, when they’re in better shape and the scenery is on a grander scale. In the chaparral, it pays to go slow, enjoy the surprising variety of flowers, breathe in the aroma of sage and California lilac, and really appreciate one of the most threatened habitat types in the world (with its own conservation outfit). But not this year, with the infrequent water sources (and probably a disappointing bloom). If you’re ready for a 20-mile hike with thousands of feet of elevation gain and loss, it’s a good idea to stash your gear at Lake Morena Campground, find a trail angel to take you to the border, and “slack-pack” your way back to the lake in one day. But again, only if you’re ready for it. You don’t want gargantuan blisters, or worse, to end your hike before it begins.

    • …or heavy and slow. If you’re not up for that kind of first day, then you’ll likely need to carry enough water to last you overnight, since Hauser Creek is dry. That means at least six liters on just a warm day, two gallons if the thermometer is expected to go past 90. That’s 16 extra pounds in your pack. Consider dayhiking part-way in and caching  water a day or so before you begin your trip, which will also serve as a tune-up hike. That’s what those hikers were doing when they found the dehydrated fellow.

    • Drink plenty. If you’re from a humid part of the world, you’ll be surprised how quickly your body loses water in the arid west, without you realizing it. You’re losing water just standing around breathing, and your sweat evaporates so fast, you don’t realize you’re sweating.

    • Don’t ration your water. Your body can ration your water better than you can. Drink small amounts frequently. Remember to eat something too, and include an electrolyte replacement mix in your water, to avoid “water intoxication.”

    • If you do run out of water, it’s best just to continue hiking to the nearest known source of water – but don’t go far off the trail to do it, or no one will know where to look for you! If it’s mid-day and brutally hot, consider resting in whatever shade you can find – or create – until the sun is lower in the sky.

    • Don’t eat a prickly pear or other cactus to get its juice. That dehydrated hiker tried it, but the idea is a myth spread by John C. Van Dyke in his classic book, The Desert, when he wrote of cutting the top off a barrel cactus and drinking the juice inside. The truth is, it’s too alkaline for consumption. Prickly pear is edible, but requires a lot of effort to remove the tiny spines, and the flesh of the pads will likely produce an upset stomach if eaten raw. Some recommend digging a solar still, but again, is the water it will produce worth the effort? Is the soil soft enough to dig? (On the PCT, you’ll only rarely be in true desert, with its soft, sandy soil.) And do you have a clear sheet of plastic?

    • Mt. Laguna Store
      Hikers at the Mt. Laguna Store

      Dehydrated food is useless without water, as that dehydrated hiker reportedly learned. If you have to carry your own water anyway, go ahead, carry canned fruit, MREs, or other ready-to-eat, water-dense foods.

    • Hike early and late when it’s hot (even if you’re not in a water emergency), with a break in the shade during the hottest part of the day. You may need to rig a tarp to create your own shade. Moonlight hiking in the desert is great, too, and is best in the days before the moon is full.

    • In the mountains, cotton kills, but in the desert, synthetics wick your life away. Desert hikers know that cotton traps moisture and releases it at just the right rate for evaporative cooling. Get an old long-sleeved button-down cotton shirt at Goodwill and re-donate it when you get to Tehachapi. A shirt is lighter than an ice-axe (which I’ve seen thru-hikers carrying in the desert!), and it’s more useful.

    • Consider wearing long pants. Zip-offs for desert hiking are light and work great. You’ll retain more moisture, and your legs will thank you on those overgrown sections of trail.

    • Wear a broad-brimmed hat – you’ll be amazed how much cooler you’ll feel without the sun beating down on your shoulders. Make sure it has an adjustable chin strap so it doesn’t blow away in the frequent high winds.

    • Follow the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s advice – always carry a towel, or in the case of backpacking, a bandanna. On a hot day, you can soak it in whatever water you come across, even the trickliest of desert seeps, squeeze it over your head, wash your face, or tie it around your neck. All will help to keep you cool. You can also use it to turn a baseball cap into a cheap version of a desert safari hat. If you happen to find a good flow of water, go ahead and soak that cotton shirt in it.

So, that’s a lot of advice. On second thought, maybe sometimes you just have to say, “What the fuck!”, put on a pack, and go. To paraphrase Yvon Chouinard, if you’re not getting sunburnt, rained on, low on water, and shat on by a bird nesting above your bivy site, you’re not having an adventure.


In Praise of Winter

Ullr, God of Snow(?) (Wikimedia Commons photo)

We get a variety of responses when we tell people we meet in Lansing that we moved here from San Diego. Usually stunned looks of disbelief. “But why?” some will ask. “You moved from where!?” others exclaim. Then they give knowing nods when we explain the reason for our move: Diane’s job at Wharton Center for the Performing Arts. Otherwise, it would have been crazy to leave San Diego’s perfect weather, right?

Well, not really. You see, I love snow. We didn’t get much but rain in the Northern California town where I grew up, but I can still remember the glee I felt on those few days each year when a few inches of snow would cover the hills above our house. Then it was time to head up there with a big cardboard box and hope not to get chased off by the rancher who owned the sledding slope.

Two years in Montana didn’t sate my appetite for the white stuff, probably because I was too busy with grad school to really enjoy it. Little snow fell in mid-Michigan our first winter here, and last winter was just all right, with snow followed by thaw, followed by more snow. But this winter, it’s been dumping and mostly staying cold.

I like to take a bit of the credit. I’ve been praying fervently to Ullr and Skadi, Norse gods of winter and skiing. Who says prayer doesn’t work? We’re above normal for snowfall in Lansing, though not nearly at the record. My friends who dislike winter are blaming me. Christian churches have signs out front: “Whoever is praying for snow, please stop.” (I view my success as just a bit of pagan payback.)

Of course snow has its drawbacks. It makes driving difficult, if not dangerous. Biking and walking are sketchy and even downright impossible, given the poorly cleared bike lanes and sidewalks. Then there are the heating bills, the lack of fresh air when you can’t open the windows, and the tedium of having to put on multiple layers every time you step outside.

But the question is, do the positives outweigh the negatives? For me, they do. So here’s my list of things that are great about winter:

Quiet winter scene
A quiet winter scene from the ski trails
in Lake Lansing Park North

Snow sports. Cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, snowboarding, skijoring, snow-shoeing, sledding, ice skating, building snowpeople, snowball tossing, making snow angels, or just post-holing through the woods. Ice fishing. Snowmobiling (though it seems most snowmobilers head north or west). My winter outdoor activity is XC skiing. And if I enjoyed none of these activities? Winter really would suck. I’ve put together a Google map of spots for active winter outdoor activities here.

Colder is drier. I never feel colder than when it’s 35 or 40 degrees F and drizzling. Give me 20 and light snow any day. And remember the ice storm? Blame it on the warm. (Although it was darned beautiful.)

Snow makes everything brighter. Even on the darkest day, a blanket of white reflects more light, which we all need in the depths of winter. Leafless woods are dreary when the ground is bare, but with snow, they’re magical.

Cold keeps the riffraff away. At least that’s what they say in Montana. Don’t know if it really applies in Michigan, where we’re desperate for more people, riffraff or not. (And hey, Riff Raff always was my favorite character in Rocky Horror.)

Water. Unlike residents of my home state, we Michiganders know where our water will come from next year. We don’t have to worry about the entire state burning down. And we can be glad our lakes and reservoirs don’t look like this and our mountainsides don’t look like this. (Okay, we don’t have mountains in Michigan, but never mind that.)

Lake Superior ice cave
An ice cave on the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior. (US Dept. of Interior photo)

Lake ecology. We love our lakes in Michigan, but warmer temperatures and lack of snow in recent years have begun to harm the lakes in a variety of ways. This colder winter is helping to reverse that, with Lake Superior freezing for the first time since 2009. And that not only helps the ecology, it’s also beautiful.

Isle Royale wolves. Related to the previous point, the ice bridge between Canada and Isle Royale has formed for the first time in years. That creates an opportunity for new wolves to join the island’s dwindling pack, giving it a much needed boost in genetic diversity.

Summer recreation. Even those who hate the snow probably enjoy spending time at a Michigan lake or river in the summer. But you can’t have one without the other.

Togetherness. Facebook groups like the Lansing Bike (& Ski!) Party and Meridian Nordic Ski Club promote social winter recreation. The Lansing Area Outdoor Enthusiasts Meetup group has also had at least one XC ski outing this year.

Without winter, there’s no hope. “Ho hum, just another *#$! day in paradise,” or so the saying goes in San Diego. There’s a grim kind of hopelessness when there’s nothing different to look forward to, nothing better to hope for. But spring never feels so nice as after a long winter. After two years in Lansing, I’ll never again take shirt-sleeve weather for granted.

Readers, what are your favorite parts of winter? How do you endure/tolerate/celebrate it?

Nature Mid-Mitten Cycling

Winter Cross-Training: Cross-Country Skiing

The Grand River from Burchfield Park ski trails

It’s not all basement riding in winter in mid-Michigan. When the weather’s nice and there’s snow on the ground, there’s no better way to cross-train for cycling than to head out on the cross-country ski trails. Whether you’re doing classic style or skate-skiing, you’ll be working muscles of the upper body that get overlooked on the bike, strengthening your core, and keeping your legs in condition. In addition to the workout, it’s nice to get some fresh air, take in the winter scenes, and maybe even spot some wildlife.

Abbot Road Park
A trail in Abbot Road Park, East Lansing

If you have your own skis, the Lansing area has an abundance of wooded trails, as well as snow-covered bike paths and golf courses. For instance, today I went for a lunch-time ski at Abbot Rd. Park in East Lansing, partly on the trails and partly on the Northern Tier Trail bike path. Forty-five minutes of skiing, there and back in an hour. The snow was crusty, with plenty of previous tracks to follow. A tree had fallen across the trail since my last time there, but it wasn’t too difficult to get around it. It just added to the adventure!

If you need to rent, Burchfield Park near Holt has gear and groomed trails as well. Farther afield, Huron Meadows Metropark near Brighton has fifteen miles of groomed trails, and is popular with skate skiers.

Cross-country skis
Cross-country skis

If you’re new to cross-country skiing, you may want to take a lesson. In the Lansing area, Jeff Potter of offers lessons. Huron Meadows sometimes has classes, and if you don’t mind driving two hours north, Cross Country Ski Headquarters offers lessons, rentals, a full ski shop, and twelve miles of groomed trails for both skate and classic skiers.

Now let’s hope we keep getting consistent snow and cold temperatures for the rest of the winter, then a nice warmup in April to about 70 degrees for some good riding.

On Writing Nature

Bleak Language

Anza-BorregoI was watching the Amgen Tour of California on TV the other day as the bike racers descended the Palms to Pines Highway into Palm Desert, passing through one of my favorite landscapes. After a year and a half here in inexorably green Michigan, it was refreshing to see the desert again, if only on HDTV.

Then announcer Phil Liggett called the desert “bleak.” Not just once, but at least three times. I bristled, as one might expect from a one-time desert writer. Just as I had bristled the day before, when he called the slopes of Mt. Palomar a desert. “No, Phil,” I yelled at the TV, “that’s chaparral. You should recognize it from the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia!”

But calling the desert bleak? He had gone too far. I took to Facebook, and posted my outrage: “Phil Liggett annoyed me during yesterday’s Tour of California stage into Palm Desert and Palm Springs with his constant bleating about the desert being ‘bleak.’ It’s not bleak, Phil. It’s stark, maybe. Arid. Clean. Pleasantly uncluttered with trees. A bracing reminder that the earth doesn’t exist exclusively for human needs. But not bleak.”

Quite a few of my friends enjoyed the comment, and the photo I posted with it, but one decided that Phil’s word-choice was apt. He posted the first definition from the Oxford dictionary: “Lacking vegetation and exposed to the elements.” He said I owed Phil an apology.

Let’s leave aside connotation vs denotation. And the fact that all the other definitions present negative states or outlooks: dreary, not hopeful, miserable, forbidding. And that the word has its origins in the Old English blāc, which means shining or white, and that its roots go back even further to the Germanic, in which white was the color of death (thank you, Thomas Pynchon).

Instead I want to look at that first, literal definition, because it shows how the idea that the earth is created for human use is so deeply embedded in our language that we’re not even aware of it.

Does the desert really “lack vegetation”? The answer is: No!

But Larry, how can you say that? There’s a lot less vegetation in the desert than in a forest, isn’t there?

True, but the word “lack” doesn’t just mean “less,” it implies something about what should be. (And now, having been prompted to use the dictionary, I feel I have to return to it again: Lack means “the state of being without or not having enough of something.”) To claim that the desert doesn’t have enough vegetation is absurd. Enough for what or whom? For humans, of course! But the desert has exactly the right amount of vegetation for a desert. All of the plants and animals that live there are uniquely adapted to extremes of temperature and infrequent rain.

To say that the desert needs more rain or more vegetation is to say that the desert shouldn’t exist. That the plants and animals that do make their homes there shouldn’t exist. And it’s only one step from that kind of thinking to the idea that vast fields of solar mirrors won’t hurt the desert, but will benefit it by providing all those poor animals some much-needed shade. (These statements come not just from ignorant internet commenters, but even from California’s governor. Take your shade and shove it where the sun don’t shine, Jerry.)

Heather MoorlandAnd it’s not just deserts that are described as lacking in vegetation, when in fact they have plenty. The example Oxford gives for that first definition is “a bleak and barren moor.” Google the term “bleak moor” and you’ll find a bunch of images like this one from Wikimedia, often in black and white, to underscore the, um, bleakness.

Obviously, this landscape is neither lacking in vegetation nor barren. It’s a functioning ecosystem, with lots of grasses and heather. Compared to many deserts, it has plenty of vegetation. (Although, if you said the Yorkshire moors “lack trees,” that could be technically true, because it seems they were tree-covered up until Mesolithic times. But there are moors that have existed for longer, and apparently weren’t created by human influence, in North Scotland and the Hebrides.)

So, if a land as lush with grass and heather as the moors can be described as bleak, maybe the word doesn’t mean “lacking vegetation” in a strict sense, just “lacking particular types of vegetation English-speakers like to see, such as trees.”

My desert nature writer’s license (for which the testing was onerous) requires me to quote Edward Abbey now:

‘This would be good country,’ a tourist says to me, ‘if only you had some water.’

He’s from Cleveland, Ohio.[!]

‘If we had water here,’ I reply, ‘this country would not be what it is. It would be like Ohio, wet and humid and hydrological, all covered with cabbage farms and golf courses. Instead of this lovely barren desert we would have only another blooming garden state, like New Jersey.’

The desert is a bleak wasteland only to those who believe every inch of the earth’s surface should be put to human use. And there are more and more who seem to believe this; some of them even consider themselves environmentalists (or at least “green”). It is truly dismaying that, after a hundred years of eloquent writing about desert landscapes from John Van Dyke and Mary Austin through Joseph Wood Krutch and Edward Abbey to Terry Tempest Williams and a slew of others, much of the public still has this view of deserts as lacking something, as needing human intervention. One guy even has plans to “restore” the desert to grazing land, an idea that Chris Clarke eloquently rips to shreds.

So that’s the context in which Phil Liggett’s use of the term “bleak” landed. It’s just a reminder how careful we need to be with words, how archaic are the notions about the world embedded within them, and how changing our anthropocentric worldview is a whole uphill battle against the English language.

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