Our featured photo today comes from Gadling Flickr Pool member Bo Li. Entitled “Namaste,” the shot of a Nepal mountain is certainly evocative. Will your weekend be this peaceful?
A 16 year old named Hannah Anderson was abducted by a family friend last week in a series of events that left both her mother and brother dead. Her saga began in Southern California and ended far away, in the wilderness of Idaho, when she was rescued by FBI agents over the weekend. Anderson’s abductor, James Lee DiMaggio, had fled to one of the most remote areas in the United States, the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. The protected area is a beautiful place, but few people know much about it. In an effort to give you a clearer picture of this northern area that is relished by outdoors enthusiasts, here are some facts about the Frank Church River Of No Return Wilderness.
- It’s the second largest protected wilderness in the contiguous United States.
- It’s the largest area without any roads in the contiguous United States.
- The wilderness stretches across six different national forests.
- The wilderness was renamed after Senator Frank Church after he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer because of his efforts to protect the environment while in Congress. President Reagan signed the act less than four weeks before Church’s death.
- The diverse mix of wildlife found within the area includes wolverines, grey wolves, mountain lions, mountain goats, elk and lynx.
- It is the home of the Salmon River, a popular whitewater rafting spot.
- Despite the myriad bodies of water within the area, only 10 inches or so of precipitation fall annually near the rivers while as much as 50 inches accumulate near the mountaintops, usually in the form of snow.
- There are 296 trails throughout the area.
- There are 114 bridges within the area.
- There are 1.5 million acres of trail-free land within the wilderness.
I was 12 years old when I discovered the jungle wasn’t for me, and I hadn’t even been to one yet.
It was “Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World” that did it for me. Enthralled though I was by the idea of a Professor Challenger-esque expeditionary jaunt into unchartered territory, I was quite perturbed by some scenes in the movie. Even when you took away the dinosaurs, the tropical landscape seemed treacherous and thick with danger.
For instance, even the ground was unreliable. More than one character in the movie slipped on the unpredictable muddy jungle floor, often accompanied by a onomatopoeic schlippp and was promptly eaten. The hippie paleontologist lost his footing on wet rock. Crunch. “That’s not for me,” I thought. I don’t care for the wet.
Then the “moveable feast” fled through a break in the woods and into the long grass. “Don’t go into the long grass!” one of the characters urgently and repeatedly screamed as they did, and I nodded yes, listen to that man – for the long grass hid dozens of velociraptors. And, I thought, thousands of leeches. Sound advice either way.
Several years later I went on a jungle trek in Costa Rica, which I anticipated with a certain amount of dread. The real thing was stickier, itchier, sweatier and wetter. In short, it was much worse. The real world, as I discovered was far more sinister than “The Lost World.”
But I’m nothing if not forgiving. I gave jungles repeated chances throughout my travels via a certain amount of self-inflicted amnesia and a masochistic determination to enjoy the ecosystem. I like the idea of the jungle in principle – full of life, and so on. So I hiked in India, Malaysia and other tropical places, each time with the same itchy, sticky, anxiety-inducing result.
Then I heard about Khao Yai National Park, supposedly one of Thailand’s unsung treasures, and I knew it was time to test myself again.It’s Thailand’s most popular park, but the vast majority of tourists are Thai. Some 74,000 foreigners visited in 2011, which sounds like a lot. But compare that to Phuket, Koh Samui or Chiang Mai, which each receive over 2 million foreign visitors a year. Around 240,000 foreigners visit out-of-the-way Sukhothai, a six- or seven-hour bus ride from Bangkok. Khao Yai, as far as Thailand goes, remains “undiscovered.”
With a quixotic resolve I decided to check it out, and I made the 125-mile drive in good time, paying my $16 entrance fee and $1 camping fee as I rolled in during the early afternoon. I had seen an elephant by the side of the road on the way in. “This is promising,” I thought.
My second wildlife experience came soon after, as I rounded a bend and almost ran over an entire troop of pig-tailed macaques. They ambled up onto a guardrail and watched me blankly as I drove by. I have had some particularly poor experiences with macaques, who I consider to be the jerks of the jungle. Yet these simply stared at me placidly. The jungle was increasing in esteem in my mind.
To be fair, I hadn’t left my car, nor had I been in the jungle, really. But that such simple things would improve my opinion of this place should indicate how much of a nightmare I had come to consider it to be. I stopped at the small park canteen and ate a notably average late lunch, and my opinion of the jungle soared yet again.
My campsite was located in a pleasant clearing, and I was one of only four other campers there. We were outnumbered almost 10-1 by a herd of sambar deer, the most bovine representatives of the family cervidae. A small pond broke melodically into a wide and short waterfall just beyond my tent, the soft music of which was joined by the near-ceaseless chomping of the campsite’s immobile platoon of ruminants. I counted this as another point for the jungle. Just as I was thinking this, a Great Hornbill soared overhead and planted itself on a tree at the edge of the forest. “Wow,” I thought. “Maybe I have the jungle all wrong.”
As the sun went down, I met an old German couple that told me they were going on a night safari, and would I like to join? Of course I did. We hopped in the back of a pick-up and with the aid of a massive spotlight were able to spot several porcupines, some muntjacs, civet cats and even an Asian narrow-headed soft-shelled turtle. “This is going swimmingly,” I thought, and congratulated myself on my own perseverance.
I went to bed early in a positive frame of mind. As I fell asleep to the sound of pattering rain on the tent roof and the incessant mastication of the vigilant deer, I noted to myself with a certain amount of foreboding that I had yet to actually go into the jungle proper.
In the morning I awoke with a start to the sound of car tires on gravel right next to my tent and checked the time: 4:45 a.m. “I wonder who would be leaving now,” I thought. It’s still dark. I listened more closely. The car appeared to be rolling back and forth just next to my head, tires crunching gravel. But I heard no engine. It stopped unexpectedly and I fell asleep but awoke minutes later to the same noise. I rolled over and unzipped the flap ready to deliver an inquisition. Bursting forth from the flap a terrified group of sambar deer bounded away. They had been ripping up the grass on all sides of my tent. I grabbed a handful and yanked, and it sounded like the crunch of a car tire on gravel. What I thought was a car was just a herd of insatiable deer.
I fell back asleep and awoke again 30 minutes later when the deer returned. I yelled and heard them stop. They resumed moments later. I tried to sleep, tossing and turning for another hour, dreaming of eating venison. Eventually I admitted defeat and tore down my campsite. “Oh well,” I thought, “I’ll get a good start on the day.”
Clothed and fed, I arrived at the trailhead for what was to be a five-hour walk, passing through long grass, a salt lick where I hoped to see elephants and, finally, the heavily treed forest where if I was lucky I might spot some gibbons.
The rain from the night before had made the path through the grassland extremely slick. I stopped and read a sign that had been covered by long pointy grass. Cogon grass, it said, is “… a favorite food for sambar deer and guar. Once mature, however, the leaves become hard and develop sharp, serrated edges that deter foraging animals and can cut curious humans.” Don’t go into the long grass.
On the way to the forest I passed the salt lick. The only evidence of elephants was a giant pile of dung. One can’t fault the elephants for not being around, I thought, and went on into the forest.
No sooner had I passed the treeline than my head became the focal point for the errant orbit of several large biting insects. They seemed impervious to the bug-spray shower I had taken that morning.
I pressed on, slipping along the muddy path and sweating heavily inside my jacket. It was only 9 in the morning and the sky was overcast, but the humidity was intolerable. I had a choice between exposing my skin to all manner of itchy things or mentally working through my portable sweat lodge. I went with the sweat lodge.
It’s extremely difficult to actually see anything interesting in the jungle. For one, the dense canopy makes it much darker at ground level. Since the jungle can be so thick even at eye level, you’re depth of field is limited as well. Add to this the fact that most animals don’t want to be seen or live in the canopy a hundred feet up and you don’t see much fauna of any note. Mostly, you see fungi and bugs – bugs that seem bent on using your body as a ladder, ambulatory transport or food.
It had occurred to me as I was swatting things off and looking despairingly for any sign of quadrupedic or avian life that I had seen numerous paths diverge from what I judged was the main route. It had also occurred to me I had seen no signs on which to base this judgment. And then as the cloud of flying things around my head thickened and the clamor of the jungle swelled to a dull roar, I walked into a small clearing in which there were no signs but some four or five distinctive paths leading out.
At a loss and trying to wrest my sanity back from the little buzzing satellites around my ears, I plowed on down my best guess. Some 30 minutes later, the jungle was thicker and the path was winding down a steep muddy slope. I had the sense I was heading the wrong way, but there was no way to tell. Then, schlippp. Airborne and horizontal above a muddy hill. I thought, “Jungle, you got me again.”
Three hours into my walk and covered in mud, sweat and insect bits, I emerged into a field – the same field I had entered from. Notably, this wasn’t supposed to be an out-and-back hike. I had been turned around completely at some point, but I didn’t care. I was in the long grass, which at this point was much preferable to the jungle.
I stomped out of the forest, past the salt lick, across the field of grass that wanted to watch me bleed and into the parking lot. I went to take a photo of the lethal grass for posterity and noticed my lens cap had gone missing. The jungle had truly taken its pound of flesh.
As I approached my car, the old German couple was standing under an umbrella gazing up at a tree and making quiet exclamations. I paused to greet them, and they looked at me slightly unnerved, taking a step back. I realized I must look out of sorts. They recomposed themselves and the husband, cleared his throat. “Look,” he motioned to the tree, “gibbons!”
I looked up at the gibbons and sighed. Then I looked down at my feet. Grinning to myself, I pointed at my legs. “Look,” I said to the Germans, “leeches!” I had acquired some five or six now-bloated passengers on my expedition. They looked at me smiling at them enthusiastically, which in retrospect I realize doesn’t make me seem all that sane, and they took another step back. I flicked off the leeches and waved the Germans goodbye.
I changed out of my filthy, sweaty clothes and drove off through the park, cursing the jungle. “This is the last time,” I thought. Then I passed a lookout, with a stunning view of a deep-green valley suffused with low-lying cloud. During the pause, I reflected on everything pre-trek. I realized that I like the jungle in theory, but I prefer to see it through a pane of glass or an elevated position.
But with time comes reflection. And due to my more-than-tolerable experience at Khao Yai the night prior to my own personal “Jurassic Park” sequel, my jungle rating had been raised from mild hatred to general disdain. I don’t think there’s a much higher recommendation I could give to Khao Yai.
The Gondogoro La trekking route, located in a remote region of Pakistan, is considered one of the most demanding and beautiful hikes in the entire world. The path often draws adventure travelers from across the globe, most of whom come for its legendary mountain views that are amongst the most spectacular on the planet. But in May the route was suddenly shutdown by the Pakistani government without explanation, preventing travelers from visiting the region and putting the fragile local economy in a bind.
The trek traditionally begins in the village of Askole and winds its way up the Baltoro Glacier before crossing over the Gondogoro La Pass into the almost completely uninhabited Hushe Valley in northern Pakistan. The route rises to a height of 19,488 feet and offers stunning views of the Karakoram Range that at one point includes four peaks of more than 8000 meters in height. Those mountains include Broad Peak, Gasherbrum I and II, and the second tallest mountain in the world – K2.
While not as crowded or well known as the trek to Everest Base Camp or a climb up Kilimanjaro, the Gondogoro La route is nonetheless quite popular with hikers and climbers visiting Pakistan. The trail is well known for being technically challenging and can require more than three weeks to complete, depending on pace, weather conditions and the experience levels of the hikers.
It is not unusual for the route to be closed as avalanches have sealed off the path in the past. But this time the Pakistani government has simply stopped issuing permits for the trek on May 23 and hasn’t been particularly forthcoming as to why. The route does wander close to the border with both India and China, although the mountains make it nearly impossible for someone to cross into one of those countries from Gondogoro La. There is some speculation that the move was made for security purposes, although there have not been any indications of what security threat may exist in the area.
Many adventure tour companies in Pakistan rely on regular hikes along the Gondogoro La trail for steady income, as do the small villages that fall upon the route. With the path closed off there is very little income, even now at the height of the tourism season in Pakistan. Tour operators are increasingly frustrated by the lack of information about why the trail was closed and how long it will remain that way. Many of the guides and porters that traditionally work the route are now unemployed, while small inns and teahouses remain empty.
The closing of this route predates the shutdown of Nanga Parbat, the mountain where militants killed 10 foreign climbers recently. Whether or not a similar faction is operating in the Gondogoro La region is unknown, but it is possible that the government has ceased to issue permits in an effort to keep travelers safe. This part of Pakistan has a history of being peaceful and receptive to visitors, so hopefully this closure is only temporary and adventurous trekkers can return soon.
If you’re the outdoorsy type, it’s hard not to enjoy car camping, as long as you find a destination and campground that are compatible with your interests and needs. Not that I’m speaking from experience, but … let’s just say the romantic, roughing-it weekend my ex and I had planned in southwestern Colorado a few years ago turned into pitching a tent in a trailer park populated by elderly snowbirds.
If you’re carless, or want something more adventurous/rigorous/off-beat, or safe for your bad back, I’ve got a few alternatives for your consideration. The good news is, the price points for these adventures ensure there’s at least one that will fit your budget. Depending upon where your travel plans are taking you, some regions even specialize in these types of camping trips. So get online, do some research and don’t forget the sunscreen. Happy Trails.
There are hut systems located all over North America (as well as in other alpine terrain worldwide); perhaps the most famous are Colorado’s 10th Mountain Division Huts. Whether you’re a novice hiker or a backpacking machine, there’s a hut hike suited for you. Tip: book well in advance. You can sometimes find last-minute beds, but this type of trip really requires advance planning.
If mountains are your thing, get on a horse or mule and take a pack trip. The Sierras, Rocky Mountains, and Cascades in particular are known for their alpine scenery and well-regarded pack trains. Tip: there’s no reason you can’t do a pack trip if you’re a novice rider, but you need to choose the right outfitter and destination; many trips are for experienced riders (you can even bring your own horse sometimes).
I love sea kayaking, but I’m too novice to attempt a big paddle on my own. When I was living in Seattle a couple of years ago, I found an outfitter who, for a reasonable price, took me on a private paddle out to one of the many deserted islets off of Puget Sound’s Whidbey Island. We camped, watched bald eagles, gorged on a Marionberry pie picked up en route, and what do you know? He taught me how to read a tide chart well enough to give me the confidence to try this type of mini-excursion by myself.
Some coastal, riverfront, or lakeside destinations offer water taxis to get you to and from your campsite. Although Kauai no longer offers this service for return hikers coming off the famous Kalalau Trail, there are plenty of other exotic options. I once took a water taxi from Picton on the South Island of New Zealand, in order to embark on a two-day hike of the gorgeous Queen Charlotte Track. Bonus: a pod of dolphins kept pace with us the entire ride out.
Sometimes, it’s just not practical or possible to do a backpacking or camping trip with a car. In a couple of weeks, for example, I’m going to do Colorado’s West Maroon Pass, which is a roughly 11-mile hike over the Elk Mountains, from Crested Butte to Aspen. Since I’m going it alone, I’m arranging for Dolly’s Mountain Shuttle to bring me back. This Gunnison Valley-based airport shuttle addition also offers summertime returns for hikers coming off the Pass. At $60 a seat (as long as they have more than one passenger), it’s worth the price to not have to sort out the logistics of a car swap or transport. Best of all, you can take a nap after all that walking.