Ended Hiatus

Ended Hiatus

13730801_1553661621326584_6611188446585815400_oOK. So I’ve been working in Belize for the last month, which has meant I’ve not been keeping up with my posting duties. Internet access was temperamental, time was limited, etc., etc. But I fly back to the U.S. in a few days (currently hanging out on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world), back to my car (parked just north of Seattle), and figure out whatever is next.

And honestly I don’t have any real idea what is next for me. I had thoughts of staying out west, but over the last month a number of things have been calling me back to New England. Not enough that I know I’m heading directly there, but I’m looking harder at a handful of opportunities near what has long been my home.

It feels good to have that pull. Belize has been amazing—working with American high school kids running a summer camp for Belizean middle and elementary students focused on improving their literacy skills. It was a time out, time off from the road, from climbing and adventure, time for human contact and connection and cultural exchange.

Belize-3503And it was an ecological exploration. Belize is home to the second longest barrier reef in the world, multiple ecosystem zones, caves, jungle, mountains and savannah. Iguanas crouch in the trees, tarantulas roam the forest floor, toucans haunt the air. I saw a manatee, two Harpy Eagles, a jaguar, held a boa constrictor, swam with sea turtles, pondered over leafcutter ants and got bitten by thousands of bugs. It was an awesome amazing trip, one I’ll be writing about more. But before that happens I wanted to share a video. My dance with sea turtles reminded me of it. At 2:25 is the job I think is probably most interesting in the world: sea turtle wrestler. Heck yeah! Lifetime aspirations! 🌊🐋

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Flipping Sharks

Flipping Sharks

IMG_8391The Washington state ferry from the San Juan Islands to the mainland was the end of the trip. It’d been a day of chasing whales—an orca museum combined with Lime Kiln State Park, the best spot in the world to see whales from land. We did not, however, see any whales. Tim, Lev (Tim’s two-year-old son) and I had made a day of it, but now we were on our way back to Mount Vernon, Wash., and Tim’s farm.

Then an announcement came over the loudspeaker: “There will be a presentation on whales at the rear of the boat. Anyone interested is welcome to attend.”

Whales. I’d be there.

The naturalist presented to several rows of kids and families, but the kids quickly lost interest. I stayed, peppering her with questions about orcas. And she told me something peculiar. I was asking if changing ocean temperatures were causing more interactions between local orcas and great white sharks, and if so what was the outcome. “It’s pretty remarkable,” she told me, “they are meeting, and they fight. And when they fight the orcas win.”

“The orcas are pack hunters,” she said. “The sharks are loners. The orcas have learned that if they can flip the sharks upside down they essentially can put them to sleep. Killer whales are smart enough to take advantage of that fact. They’re pairing up and using the technique to put the sharks to sleep. Then they drown them.”

Whale versus shark, the whale wins. Awesome. And what’s this about putting sharks to sleep?

Less than a week later I found myself in Belize, snorkeling “Shark Alley” on the second longest barrier reef in the world. The sharks there are nurse sharks, a tame cousin to the white shark. Our guide Carlos took the opportunity to demonstrate exactly what the naturalist 2,600 miles a way had explained—he swam directly over a 6-foot nurse shark, put one hand on its back, another on its belly, then rolled. Instantly the shark went limp. He carried it in his arms and swam it over to us, let us pet it and touch its skin.

I wanted to try. I could see them swimming just six feet below, brown arcing bodies in the reeds. I dove down several times before I could work up the nerve to touch them. But then I went after one, put my hand about where its shoulder blades would have ben if the man-sized shark were human. Its skin was course as sandpaper. I swam with it, tracing its path, one hand on its back, then kicked myself down close and slid the other hand under its belly. We were tight together then, the shark and I. I rolled.

The shark rolled with me, and as it flipped and its belly rose toward the surface it went limp. I held it close, kicked my way upward, cradling the ancient beast in my arms. It felt about like holding a worn out Rottweiler in my arms—things were fine, but how long would they stay that way? After a few kicks I rolled the shark back over. It flicked its tail and instantly resumed swimming. I released my arms. It carved away.

I did this three times. One of the group members caught it with a camera.

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It was amazing to be so close. I have since learned that what our guide was doing is frowned up, and that I shouldn’t have followed his example. I probably could have guessed that had I thought about it, but I didn’t. I looked to him for direction, and when I saw an opportunity to do something that scared me, something that seemed both amazing and stupid at the same time, I swam at it full steam. Literally. And so I got to carry a shark in my arms. Life is an experience and that was a unique one, even if it was foolish, illicit and perhaps damaging. Now I know. So don’t flip sharks. But it works. Orcas do it, and I have too.

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Seeing Bright Spots in the Sea

Seeing Bright Spots in the Sea

IMG_8135.JPGIt can be tough to read news about the environment. With oil spills and ocean acidification and coral bleaching and mass extinctions and rising temperatures it can seem overwhelming, just easier to just put your head down, worry about yourself and ride the doomed Earth into oblivion.

But that is only half the story. The other half is awesome.

Like this: the California Academy of Sciences announced yesterday they are partnering with coral reef conservation group SECORE to plant millions of concrete, reef-attaching “seeding units” in damaged reefs to “restore dwindling reefs with sexually-produced corals on a meaningful scale,” according to a statement on their website.

The project is part of an $8.5 million investment Cal Academy is making in coral reef research and restoration. “We’re not losing any time in our continued fight to understand, protect, and restore these majestic ecosystems,” Bart Shepherd, director of the Academy’s aquarium said.

That’s in San Fransisco. And there’s more. An article published on the Atlantic Magazine’s website on Wednesday profiles an Australian scientist who has been studying coral reefs and discovered that many of the world’s reefs in better shape than might be expected have frequent human interaction.

Contrary to what you might think, the bright spots weren’t all remote reefs, where humans were absent or fishing was banned. Instead, most were home to lots of people, who rely heavily on the corals and who frequently fished. They weren’t leaving the corals and fish alone; instead, they had developed social norms and institutions that allowed them to manage the reefs responsibly.

The study offers the evidence that it is possible for humans and reefs to coexist without the inevitable destruction of the coral.

At is an unrelated video about a chance discovery that sped up the growth cycle of slow-growing corals in Florida. It may be possible, it seems, to restore not just fast-growing corals but slower-growing species as well. More reason for encouragement.

Screen Shot 2016-06-17 at 1.24.48 PMThen there is the work of Jason DeCaires Taylor, a sculptor who creates stunning installations underwater out of coral-accepting cements. His beautiful creations sit on the sea floor and transform over time. They become an intermixing of human and natural creation. His sculptures turn into otherworldy attractions that highlight the plight of the oceans, while at the same time offering sealife a space to thrive.

Taylor talked about his work on the TED stage:

 

Lastly, there is Norton Point, the Massachusetts-based company tackling the problem of ocean microplastics with capitalism. They are turning trash from the sea into something useful: sunglasses.

For every product we sell, even those not made from ocean plastic, we are committing to you to clean-up one pound of plastic from the ocean. In addition, we have chosen to give back 5% of net profits to global clean-up, education, and mediation practices.

Their Kickstarter campaign has exceeded its $37,000 goal by more than $5,000 this week, and there are still 20 days left until it finishes. An excellent example of how the environment inspires defender/entrepreneurs.

So instead of getting discouraged, instead of losing hope for the future of the planet and the environment, look for the bright spots, the many examples of people and organizations pushing for positive change. Look at the amazing discoveries they are making, the incredible support they are finding. Inspiration builds upon inspiration, success from success. Maybe it’s even time to join.

 

Great Reefs and Little Rats

Great Reefs and Little Rats
Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 10.09.24 PM
Bleaching in the NYTimes.

In Australia things are a mess.

First, the Great Barrier Reef: mass bleaching has left huge tracts of this 1,400-mile wonder dead. It’s the worst such incident scientists have recorded, and the third event of this type in two decades. In some places as much as half of the coral has been left dead.

Bleaching occurs when water temperatures climb too high. The warm water makes the coral release its colorful algae, turning it white. And often once released the coral needs temperatures to come back down if there is to be any shot at recolonization. Corals that do survive such warming events often do not grow as rapidly as they should.

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 10.12.13 PMSo that’s one. The other Australia story is also from the Great Barrier Reef, but this time from land: a small rat known only to live on one island is likely extinct, and the cause is us. Scientists are calling the Bramble Cay melomys likely the first mammal to go extinct as a result of climate change, and they haven’t minced their words:

“Anecdotal information obtained from a professional fisherman who visited Bramble Cay annually for the past ten years suggested that the last known sighting of the Bramble Cay melomys was made in late 2009.

The key factor responsible for the extirpation of this population was almost certainly ocean inundation of the low-lying cay, very likely on multiple occasions, during the last decade, causing dramatic habitat loss and perhaps also direct mortality of individuals. Available information about sea-level rise and the increased frequency and intensity of weather events producing extreme high water levels and damaging storm surges in the Torres Strait region over this period point to human-induced climate change being the root cause of the loss of the Bramble Cay melomys.”

“Human-induced climate change.” There it is. The rats have abandoned ship. Never a good sign.

I head to Belize next month with two missions: one to work on a social service project with American high school kids, and two to check out their reefs, which had their own bleaching event in March, also the third in recent decades. So I’ll get a look firsthand at what warming temperatures do to undersea life. So that’s to come.

Outdoors On Sale

Outdoors On Sale

13116472_1487458877946859_7391871088256538032_oI have an idea.

It’s one I’ve been batting around for weeks, something I’ve been brainstorming with friends and trying to figure out how to bring to fruition. It’s pretty simple, but it has roots: I want to use the outdoor industry to change the world. I want to use the outdoors to sell, but not products. I want to sell things currently struggling to make themselves marketable: to use the cultural cache of rock climbing, skiing, surfing and #vanlife to push a conversation about the environment, about climate change, about the plastics ending up in our oceans, the glaciers melting on mountaintops, rising seas and corals slowly bleaching on reefs. I want to use the culture of outdoor athletes to sell more than just jackets. I want it to make a difference for more than just some corporate bottom line. I want it to save the world.

Tall order, I know. But the outdoors sells. In this era of the Instafamous, of Jeep and Subaru ads, Prana and Patagonia catalogs, Redbull and Rossignol videos, this can work. These brands all count on the cultural hook outdoor sports offer to sell their products, so couldn’t the outdoors also sell itself? Couldn’t we use its cool-factor to remind people the world is changing, that it is itself threatened? Couldn’t the outdoors sell something invaluable for once?

I turned down an actual job in the outdoor industry to try this. I want people to hear the word “Patagonia” and think of a place, not a company, even if the company is a responsible one. It’s a concept I would hope even Patagonia would be on board with.

I have long ties to the outdoor industry. I’ve worked in retail, am a guide and athlete and I’ve done stints working as a sales rep. That last one was the hardest—selling outdoor gear. I remember listening to conversations about how some customer would buy whatever was the nice this winter, that a new set of skis had to go with a new kit. The job was to push people to buy a new jacket so they could get into the mountains, even if they already had a perfectly serviceable jacket already.

I couldn’t do it. That was not why I fell in love with the mountains. The outdoors were a step away from consumer-driven culture, a haven in an economy all about growth. Backpacking, hiking and climbing took me away from the blaring images of marketers, away from the constant stream of advertisements. There was something beautiful in that.

But the outdoor world has been co-opted; now it’s part of the pitch. The allure of #VanLife is the adventure, but it’s mixed up with a trendy lifestyle image used to sell things. A huge part is about the gear, about tricking out your rig. Van aficionados pour over websites and forums discussing how best to achieve their van dream, sinking money into solar panels that match the stove. Keeping up with the Joneses moved to four wheels.

And it’s not just the vans. I know people who revel in the breadth of their climbing rack. Others boast about their gear closets and post pictures to Instagram. The bikes, boards, kites and ropes are called toys, and he who owns the most toys wins, even if you barely have the time to use any of it. There are outdoor magazine articles and Instagram feeds dedicated to this stuff, and people surf the pictures from their office computers.

The dedicated outdoors people I know, meanwhile, don’t care about gear. They use whatever is around. These are guides, pro climbers, the people who make their living in the outdoors; they aren’t fussy about carabiners or climbing ropes because anything will do. Whatever is cheap and will get them outside is what they want. To them climbing is about action, not accessories, and as a result they spend more time and less money on the thing they love.

But that vision for the outdoors isn’t sexy, and it isn’t what dominates the outdoor industry today. The conversation is all about what is newest and latest and lightest. What is the best gear of this year?

Who cares? What piece of gear actually gets you outside? Your feet mostly, something you already own. Maybe you need a bike or a paddleboard, but what about all the knickknacks they sell alongside them? Some basics are usually useful, but most are useless. They are ways to make money off your desire and your passion. Most outdoors people wind up with a closet overflowing with stuff they never use, stuff they bought because they heeded the whisper of consumerism, stuff that could have been turned into time off, time outside, or plane tickets had it never been purchased. But modern American outdoorspeople are caught in the same consumer frenzy as other sectors, and they buy in. We buy in. We let ourselves get pulled back, let the consumerist urges we originally sought to escape return. They never let us stray far. They waited for us to put down our guard, and then they pounce.

That was feeling I had when I was offered the sales job, and it’s why I turned it down. It just didn’t fit. Selling to get outside stands exactly opposite of why I go outside.

That feeling was present this Sunday as well. It was my first real dive in the Pacific: Point Lobos, south of Monterey. A daytrip alongside a handful of other freedivers, all of them more experienced than me. I showed up with a surfing wetsuit, $5 dive fins I bought off Craigslist and a cheap mask and snorkel. It’s the stuff I’ve used since the day I started a year ago, some I accrued, some I sought out, some I borrowed. It is cheap, and it works. Everyone else had $200 freedive fins, top of the line low-volume masks and dedicated 7mm freedive suits. I got suited up, no gloves and no booties, and attached my bright yellow snorkel to my mask. The crew looked at me and laughed. “You did a course with those?” my friend Mika said, pointing to my short little U.S. Diver fins. “They let you do that?”

“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”

“They’re not freedive fins,” he said. “If you can keep up you must be twice the diver of any of us.”

He was right, and I was not. I watched the other three speed beneath the surface with each drop, kick after kick sending gushes of water upwards. Their equipment far outpaced mine, and they got deeper because of it.

But it didn’t matter. I wasn’t there to set records, I was there to explore the Pacific, to see the kelp forests and learn more about freediving. I was there to meet new people and to keep practicing this sport I’d discovered a year before, to get a glimpse of the underworld aquarium we call the ocean, to take a step outside of climate controlled and see the world in its raw state. There was no race. I wanted to be outside, in the water, and $5 fins were fine for that.

“I love the gear,” Mika told me later. “Half the point of any sport is getting the gear.”

Consumerism has found us. Going into the outdoors is no longer an escape.

But the originals, guys like Yvon Chouinard, Ed Hillary, Royal Robbins, they didn’t buy in. They may have made millions from the outdoors, but their own adventures were about making due. They figured out how to survive and adventure with what they had, never bought their way in. There wasn’t even the option in those days. They pressed things not intended for adventure into service, made them fit the fight. The first climbs of Royal Robbins were with a clothesline. The first ascents of Yosemite bigwalls required pitons carved out of stovelegs. Those were the hours of adventure, the moments of invention.

Not that we need to go back to stovelegs though. Without modern ice tools, screws, ropes and gear I would probably quit climbing—the risks those pioneers took were too much for me. Were I to attempt a grade five ice route with the equipment of their first ascent I would cower in fear. I know that. It is part of what makes original ascensionists so inspiring—they did it, and they did it with less. They did it when the oceans of rock above them were still a mystery, when there was no guidebook, no topos. They have shown us what original mettle looks like.I can only chase their accomplishments. There is something beautiful about that, something the advances technology can never equal.

I will eventually get freedive fins, and I will eventually get a dedicated freedive suit. But they will always be secondary, the necessary accessories rather than the point. Consuming is a part of existing—the lion eats, as does the mouse, and we are no different. It is neither good nor bad. But it is a pursuit in itself that remains without a purpose. Consuming for the point of consuming—I strove to escape. I went into the woods so I could live deliberately. And it has followed me here.

So I want to turn it around. I want the world to look at beauty I discovered in mountains, on cliffs, on the ocean and in the woods and see what I see. I want people to see the rawness of it and instead of thinking about buying think about saving. Think about the places so precious and rare, so tenuous and so perfect. I want them to think about those places as places, not brands. I want them to want the places to survive more than they way the goods to explore them.

I believe that is what the outdoors truly sells. I believe there is a market for that too.

#RoadLife

#RoadLife

13458592_1515161745176572_1345580628585994972_oHow do you let go of control?

How do I let time become an ocean, trust its buoyancy, its random eddies, breezes and currents? How do I swim with them rather than against?

On Friday I caught a plane out of Fort Lauderdale at 8 p.m. EST. I landed in San Fransisco at 11 p.m. PST with the salt of the Caribbean Ocean still in my hair. I grabbed my car, which a friend had just driven from San Diego to San Fransisco on her own adventure, and drove to another friend’s house who had sent me a note a month before after 10 years of no connection. Barely a few hours before I’d been on a diveboat with two other friends, one new-ish, one brand new, who welcomed me to join part of their roadtrip from Maine to Colorado by way of the Florida Keys. We rented a houseboat, spent mornings practicing yoga on the roof deck, paddled kayaks and paddleboards into the gulf, shared conversations and splendid silence.

 

Life did that. Life brings magic. It brings connection and friendship and splendid moments. It brings awe and mystery and graceful elegance. This week I got to see it, first in the burning oranges of a sunset, then in the wings of a ray, and again in the smile of old friends.

People ask me about being on the road. “You’re living the dream,” they tell me. That happens a lot.

Whose dream? I often wonder. There is an aloofness, a loneliness to endless travel. There is tremendous emptiness, moments of overwhelming quiet no amount of Facebooking, texting, singing to the radio or laughter can quench. Over miles of stretching blacktop, or waiting at airport gates, or sick in a hostel surrounded by no one you know, the inherent solitude of life comes calling. It’s possible to drown it for a time, maybe with a random conversation, a run, someone else’s warm body for a night, but it comes back. It keeps coming back.

It comes back at home too, but at home it’s possible to pretend you’re building something, that all your running in place is working towards an end, that the empty quiet is outside, has not found its way into your heart.

On the road, however, it’s different. On the road you are bouncing, caught looking for flashes of beauty and moments of connection. There is no keeping out the quiet. It floods in, and you accept the drift of time, the buoyancy of life, trust it to carry you.

And in letting go, the world reveals itself. It reveals both the loneliness, the sadness, and the light. Everything exists in one place. It is overwhelming, painful even. Unsteady. Long.

“Living the dream,” they tell me. I’m not so sure. Their idealized vision of a life unsteady forgets the costs of carefree. It is a practice of accepting constant discomfort, accepting always not knowing. Just like their lives, mine is beset by fears, only different fears. Will the money run out? Will the next opportunity show up? Will I find a place to sleep tonight? If it is all a dream, it is a confused mess of one.

But it is one brightly punctuated, one so full overfull of emotion at times I wish life was a ride I could pause. Nights can be dark and overwhelming, but they can also be stunning, technicolor, so bright it is nearly unbearable. The richness I find over and over again, the connections I make, the fascinating complexity of the world I am lucky enough to bare witness, these are the gifts of living unstrapped, allowing the ocean of the world to carry you, allowing time to sway as it will. Seldom is this existence dull. Life on the road is raw to the quick, and every step is an experience. The only choice is to let go, to release myself into the stream and see where it takes me. Anything else would leave me drowned.

And maybe that is the dream—a life of feeling, even if the feelings run dark at times and always out of control—for all those people leading some different version. I don’t know. I look at my friends homes and growing families and I see the dream there too. A piece of it, at least, an experience punctuated by beauty. The differences between us, between their lives and mine, are few, maybe none. An illusion, perhaps, a dream. The one we are all living.

King of the Reef

King of the Reef

image1I didn’t expect much.

I left on the 1 p.m. boat. The captain had warned me the waves were up, that it would be a bit rough for snorkeling. “Everyone else will be underwater,” he said, “but you might have a hard time.”

But I wanted to go anyway. I’d come to dive, and day one had already been too windy. I figured I could handle a little chop, so I climbed onboard alongside 25 other passengers.

But they were different than me—each one had a wetsuits, rebreather, buoyancy vest, mask, fins, dive computer, camera, seemingly everything. Mountains of gear lined the benches, stacked next to silver airtanks. The hiss of venting tanks filled the air. A teenager struggled into his neoprene. A middle aged women fitted her buoyancy vest.

I took a seat and opened my book.

“Life is a peephole, a single tiny entry onto a vastness—how can I not dwell on this brief, cramped view I have of things?”

– Yann Martel, Life of Pi

The boat roared to life.

“You’re not getting dressed?” the woman next to me asked.

I looked down at my chest and scanned myself all the way to my feet. I was wearing nothing but swim trunks and flip flops. I looked at her. “It doesn’t take much,” I said.

“But aren’t you diving?” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “Or, no. Not scuba diving.” I pointed to my hat, a souvenir from my course in April, Frontline Freediving smeared across my forehead. “I just need a mask, snorkel and fins. I won’t be long.”

She blinked. Paused. “Your snorkeling,” she said matter-of-factly.

“Something like that,” I said. She smiled. I went back to my book.

Something like that.

When the boat slowed everyone started their final fiddling. I didn’t. I grabbed my mask, tucked my fins under my arm and walked to the back of the boat.

“You’re ready,” the captain joked.

“I am,” I said.

“Pool’s open,” he said, smiling.

I jumped.

The water was warm, 82 degrees, felt almost bathwater. Fish hung lazily beneath the boat. Sand sparkled 30-plus feet below. Ridges of coral meandered out like starfish arms. I kicked, letting my fins carry me.

The divers slowly made their way in after me. They descended to the floor, casting of long streams of bubbles. I hovered above, letting the air trickle over me, caress me, the photo negative of a shower. I breathed deep through my snorkel, feeling my pulse slow. Then I flipped, kicked and dove.

The act of freediving is built on the first word: FREE. There is no tether, only what your lungs can handle. It is light and fast and peaceful and silent. The scuba divers cross the ocean floor like SUVs, exhaust spewing skyward with every breath. I float silently. It is beautiful.

Three other divers saw the manta. I had just dove, was aiming for the bottom, when a shadow passed overhead. A big shadow. I turned. A kite the size of a coffee table with a mawing hole for a mouth glided by, beating giant wings as he went. Remoras clung to his underside. I froze. My camera was in my back pocket. I fumbled for it as he arced past me. I beat my legs to get astride him, but the great waves of his body sent him slicing through the water at a pace I couldn’t match. I let go of the idea of capturing him digitally; I wanted only to see him, to behold his magnificence. He looked like a king inspecting his subjects below, attended to by two courtiers. He paid no mind to me, just kept flowing.

 

I returned to the surface. I have no idea how long I was down. But my heart was pounding.

The dive continued. I was up and down, up and down, for two hours, saw a black-tipped shark, a nurse shark, a young sea turtle and several lobster. I saw thousands of beautiful, graceful, brightly streaked fish, and corals of every shade. It was all amazing. And the manta had inspected it all.

I came you at the end, last to climb the ladder back to the boat. I was covered in goosebumps, nearly shivering from diving to the cold waters of the deep. One of the divers looked up at me as I boarded. “Are you the freediver?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“I got a great shot of you.”

I smiled.