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The Call of Alaska
By Geoffrey Norman

Jack London transformed his real-life experiences in the frigid far north into some of the world's best-known adventure tales.

Hiking the Chilkoot Trail into Canada and paddling the Yukon River in London's footsteps, the author wondered: Would the landscape still have the power to inspire?

…It was early evening and raining hard when we reached Sheep Camp, some 12 miles [19 kilometers] up the trail. It was already crowded. Not, however, to the extent that it had been during the gold rush, when hundreds of weary men and starving horses were packed into something resembling a town.

There had been a hotel, anyway, and according to Tappan Adney, who reported on the stampede for Harper's Weekly, it was "crowded by a wild, dirty, wet, unkempt crew of men from Chilkoot, who advance in relays to a long table, where the beans, tea, and bacon are thrown into them at 75 cents each, payable strictly in advance. . . . When supper is over, the floor is thrown open for guests. All who have blankets unroll them and spread them on the floor, take off their socks and shoes and hang them on the rafters, place a coat under their heads and turn in."

No mention of the smell.

These days, there is no hotel serving beans, but there is a warming hut, and when we arrived, it was full of Germans who were cooking, drying clothes, smoking, and socializing. I asked one of them what had moved him to come so far to take this particular hike.

"It was," he said almost reverently, "the books of Jack London."

"So he is still read in Germany?" I said.

"Oh, yes. He is very popular. Much more so than in America."

Jack London admired strength and celebrated it in his writing. His outlook was part social Darwinism and part Nietzsche; it reflected London's own nature as a brawler. What fascinated him was the idea of man stripped of civilization and culture and reduced to his primitive essence.

The Yukon, then, was the country to match his vision, a bleak and hostile environment where a man lacking either competence or will would not last. London's great tales of the north—Call of the Wild, "To Build a Fire," and "In a Far Country"—were built on the themes of strength, conflict, and survival.

He is not what you would call a politically correct writer, which may partly explain why he is no longer read quite so widely in the United States. But he transformed the real Yukon into a country of the imagination, a landscape that resonates still. Especially in Germany. Today, there are direct flights from Frankfurt to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory; the airlines ought to pay London's heirs a royalty.

* * *

We drank coffee and ate oatmeal in the sooty first light of the next morning, then set off. We planned to climb the famous Golden Stairs—the steep section of the trail leading to the top of the Chilkoot Pass—before lunch.

An hour or so out of Sheep Camp, we left the evergreens and came into open country. We were climbing now, gaining in elevation and nearing the tree line. For a mile or so, the trail meandered through dense alders and, then, blueberries. I came around a bend and saw [traveling companion] Sean [Farrell], who had stopped.

"Look at this," he said. "Bear scat, right in the middle of the trail."

"Looks fairly fresh," I said. "Boy enjoys his blueberries, don't he?"

"Yeah," Sean said, "and . . . jeez, there he is."

I looked up and, yes, indeed, about 25 steps away, just off the trail, standing in the thick blueberry bushes, was a grizzly.

You won't know Jack till you read the full story in the May/June 2001 issue of Adventure. (Subscribe today!)

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Related Web Sites

Alaska: The Great Land
Alaska gets the full National Geographic treatment: photos, maps, travel tips, history, interviews, and more.

Hiking the Chilkoot Trail
Maps, photos, camping info, equipment list, and more from the U.S. National Park Service.

Skagway Float Tours
Slide show and info on the "Scenic Float Tour," "Hike and Float Tour," and more.

White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad
Take the scenic-rail route to gold country.


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Dangerous Medicine
By Tom Clynes

No one knows what causes Ebola to infect humans. And no one knows how to cure it. But the doctors and scientists who gathered in Uganda last fall to battle the enigmatic killer did know that the latest outbreak could spread across East Africa and, from there, to the rest of the world. And they would risk their lives to stop it.

…Dr. Anthony Sanchez got the news on a Sunday afternoon in mid-October when he stopped by his lab at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in Atlanta. Sanchez was surprised to find his boss, Pierre Rollin, in the office.

Rollin began by telling Sanchez that he could decline the assignment. After all, Sanchez had a four-month-old daughter at home.

"Feel free to say no, Tony," Rollin said. "But I'm putting together a team to go over and set up a lab; we could use you." This was the first Sanchez had heard that Ebola, after a four-year respite, had resurfaced, this time in northern Uganda.

Sanchez, 47, had spent much of his career researching the Ebola virus, often in the CDC's maximum-containment lab, protected by a space suit. But he had never seen it operate in a human epidemic. Once, a few years ago, he wondered if he had missed his chance, if it would ever come again.

Now the agency was spread thin, with a team in Saudi Arabia trying to contain an epidemic of Rift Valley fever. And an on-site laboratory could give the Ebola containment operation a tremendous advantage.

Sanchez walked to his office and picked up the phone. He dialed his home number and told his wife that there was something he needed to talk about when he got home, something important. The line was silent for several long seconds, and then:

"I'm not going to be happy about this, am I?"

* * *

The old Czech prop plane lurches to a halt at the side of the military airstrip; the doctors unfurl their stiff legs, disembark, and begin unloading. They shift 47 boxes—a metric ton of laboratory gear—onto a truck and drive toward town, trailing a spiral of orange dust as they pass army checkpoints and outsize churches, roadside vendors, and crowds of people listening to radios, talking, and singing.

The most surprising thing is how ordinary it all looks, at first. Set in the middle of a fertile, if unrelieved, savanna, the town of Gulu, Uganda, could be any other East African provincial center.

Everywhere, people are on the move, some pedaling bikes, others riding on the fringed rear seats of bicycle taxis, most just walking. They walk upright, with stone-straight posture, some carrying babies on their backs, some balancing loads on their heads, some barefoot, others in sandals. They walk—and the doctors drive—past the field where the pope once spoke; past the turnoff that leads to the witch doctor's house; past another road that leads to a small village near the forest, where, maybe, it all started.

It takes a few minutes, as if their eyes were getting used to a new light, before hints begin to emerge that life here is far from normal: There are none of the usual swarms of schoolchildren in uniform. White trucks drive through town, emblazoned with the red crosses and acronyms—UN, WHO, MSF—that portend crisis.

The hospital building, where the doctors pull up, is wrapped in white plastic sheeting; a hand-lettered sign warns "No entrance without permission." The sign is illustrated with a crude human figure with an X drawn over it.

Get the full story of medicine's most dangerous frontier in the May/June 2001 issue of Adventure. (Subscribe today!)

Adventure Online Extra
Photo Gallery: Outbreak—Ebola
"Exposure" took on a harrowing new meaning as photographer Seamus Murphy covered a recent plague in Uganda.

image: ebola story spread

Subscribe now! Get the full story of medicine's most dangerous frontier in the May/June 2001 issue of Adventure.
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Related Web Sites

Flags and Facts: Uganda
Get the basics from the National Geographic Map Machine.

National Geographic Magazine: "The Green Abyss"
On a 15-month trek through the Congo, conservationist Michael Fay confronts an eerie—and possibly Ebola-induced—silence.


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Breaking the Barriers
By T. Edward Nickens

Set out for America's wildest sea isles—Core Banks, North Carolina; Capers Island, South Carolina; and Cumberland Island, Georgia—where you can prowl gator-haunted jungles, paddle to a lost outpost, or chase a porpoise in the moonlight. And where, sometimes, you must paddle like mad.

For five hours, Kevin Bellamy and I paddled like galley slaves, heading south into northbound 30-knot winds. Core Sound was a slop bucket. Three- and four-foot [one-meter] swells built into breaking rollers that buried the kayaks for long, testy moments until the whitecaps rushed past and the bows burst free.

With daylight and deltoids failing, we scuttled plans to camp in the high dunes six miles [ten kilometers] farther down the sound and started looking for a dry place to spend the night that didn't require using our kayaks as makeshift mattresses.

Spotting a duck blind, we paddled ashore and lashed the boats to the structure's barnacle-covered posts, then scaled a tall wooden ladder, peeled open the blind door, and stepped inside. Terrific winds rushed into the plywood box and raced around its corners, creating a vortex of dried pelican and cormorant dung around us.

I fought the door shut with eyes and mouth clamped tight, then peered over the blind. From north to south, a ribbon of sand unfurled between sound and sea, rarely wider than a few hundred yards. Salt marsh, tan as an African savanna, ran along the sound side of the island in an unbroken sweep. Behind the marsh the occasional dune humped into view. Terns, dowitchers, and a pair of oystercatchers skimmed by.

Leaving the blind, we dragged the kayaks to a nearby hummock we had sighted above the tide line, an island of sand surrounded by a sea of grass. It was scarcely large enough for our dome tent. As Kevin stacked the boats to create a windbreak, I boiled a pot of pasta. For miles around, buff-colored cordgrass marsh bowed steeply before the wind; the sun perched on the rim of the mainland horizon.

It had hardly been a typical day at the North Carolina shore, but we hadn't come here for striped-umbrella, wish-you-were-here beaches.

Some 290 barrier islands like these form sandy chains along the country's Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and a few of them, thankfully, have escaped the asphalt truck. Seeking the choicest of these remnants of America's wild edge, I carved a few weeks out of the calendar last spring, snagged a couple of buddies, and planned a series of trips—to Core Banks, North Carolina; Capers Island, South Carolina; and Cumberland Island, Georgia.

These were places, I had heard, where you could sea kayak for hours without seeing another human. Where you could camp on palmetto-shaded dunes that look more like the shores of Costa Rica than those of the Carolinas. Where you could trail alligators through trackless forests, hobnob with codgers, and chase after porpoises in an inky black, new moon night.

And where, sometimes, as I had learned, you must paddle like mad to get anywhere.

Get the full story and an Adventure Guide to barrier islands in the May/June 2001 issue of Adventure. (Subscribe today!)
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Related Web Sites

Cape Lookout National Seashore Visitor Center
Print the National Park Service's travel guide to this Core Banks classic—the laminating's up to you.

National Geographic Magazine: "The Green Abyss"
Maps, photos, camping info, equipment list, and more from the U.S. National Park Service.

Outer Banks Travel Guide
National Geographic driving tours and more.




 
The Backyard Expedition
By Bill Donahue

A log-strewn creek, a leaky kayak, and a hungry five-year-old—for the author, it was a true adventure in parenting.

It was just after our kayak floated past the irrigation pump sucking water up onto the golf course that we discovered there was a man overboard. Or, more accurately (and more horrifically), there was a polyester rabbit, a stuffed animal, at large in the tranquil, suburban basin of Oregon's Tualatin River.

"Bunny!" shrieked Allie, my daughter. Allie is in kindergarten and is missing one front tooth, which she yanked out herself. Bunny is her most constant companion, the one thing that travels with her between her mother's house and my own. "Bunny is not in the boat!"

I saw something fluffy and brown floating upstream, and I began paddling desperately toward it. I had already lost Bunny once on this river, when she sank to the bottom on an earlier reconnaissance, and I'd saved myself only by lying. "The fish lifted her up," I told Allie days later as I bestowed upon her a new mail-order rabbit. "The Easter Bunny washed her." Allie courteously bought this fiction, but now her patience was thinning—and so, actually, was the brown fluff on the water.

"Allie," I said, "that isn't Bunny—it's foam."

"Bunny!" she screamed. I paddled ashore, pushing as rapidly as one can in a $129 inflatable kayak that is leaking and laden with cook pots, cans of propane, and waterlogged coloring books. Bunny, it turned out, was in the bilge water right beneath my canvas seat. I wrung her out, flicked the twigs off her back, and gave her to Allie.

Allie hugged Bunny. "Can I have a marshmallow?" she said. "Because that was really scary."

I gave her two marshmallows, and then I collapsed, exhausted, onto the bank. We were ten hours (and six river miles [ten kilometers]) into a mission that was both serious and absurd. Allie and I were attempting to blaze a new trail through the wilds surrounding our Portland home.

Our aim was to travel 72 miles [116 kilometers] solely by public transit and boat. We would eschew the automobile; we would discover anew the splendor of our own bioregion. We would spend a night camping under the stars. We would wrap our deflated kayak in clothesline and take the number 14 bus from our doorstep to the MAX train to the 57 bus to narrow Rock Creek, and then we would paddle a mile to the Tualatin, which would carry us, over two days, to the 38 bus, which would finally deliver us back to the familiar 14.

We had, of course, trained for this voyage (rigorously, and in more than one swimming pool), and I'd brought a first-aid kit and all; I'd expected a family-vacation sort of calamity. What we were getting, though, was real adventure, a whiff of peril, a form of discomfort that one could not purchase at Disneyland.

Follow Allie and Bunny's big adventure in the May/June 2001 issue of Adventure. (Subscribe today!)

Adventure Online Extra
Forum: Family Secrets
Post your favorite family adventures and advice.

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Follow Allie and Bunny's big adventure in the May/June 2001 issue of Adventure.
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Related Web Sites

Outdoor Family Travel Tips
Hints and links from National Geographic Traveler.


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