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The story, as I first heard it, had the zing of a Hollywood pitch: Led by a soft-spoken doctor, a band of American conservationists had persuaded the president of the Central African Republic to let them raise a militia and take over the eastern third of the Texas-size country. Their mission was to drive out the marauding gangs of Sudanese poachers who were rapidly wiping out the region's elephants and other animals. Their authority: Shoot on sight.
No one had been killed yet when I arrived in Bangui in early March. Throughout the dilapidated capital, signs of a November coup attempt were still fresh: Bullet divots scored the bricks of the Tropicana Club, and a curfew remained in effect. A detachment of Libyan paratroopers hulked in front of the mansion of President Ange-Félix Patassé, who had been bailed out, again, by his friend Muammar Qaddafi.
Most of the fighting had taken place in the northern reaches of town, where the American group, Africa Rainforest and River Conservation (ARRC), had rented a gated compound. As I approached the large whitewashed porch, it struck me that ARRC was well prepared for another flare-up. Scattered among the wicker furniture were several men in fatigues, a couple of AK-47s, a grenade launcher, and a very excited chimpanzee.
Dave Bryant, a 49-year-old South African who had been hired in August to lead the militia, extended his hand. "Welcome to bloody paradise," he said. He introduced a slight, 26-year-old Iowan named Michelle Wieland, who was in charge of ARRC's community-development component, and a thin 35-year-old named Richard Hagen, who had flown up from South Africa to help with security.
"And the little fellow jumping up and down is Commando," said Bryant. "We rescued him from a Sudanese trader, and to show his appreciation he's been crapping all over our floors."
Bryant's face seemed custom-assembled for bad-ass impact. Beneath a clean-shaven scalp, a towering forehead descended into a deep ravine of a scowl line, bridged by wraparound sunglasses. An expansive Fu Manchu mustache arched around a loaded cigarette holder, which dangled expertly from one side of his mouth.
"I guess you've heard that we're in a bit of a cock-up," he said. "We've been stuck in this shit-hole for five months now, trying to get out into the bush to do a reccy [reconnaissance] before the rains hit. We're waiting for gear, we're waiting for money, and we're waiting for vehicles. And we're waiting for people in this zoo they call a government to do something other than put their bloody hands out."
The three were eager to hear about my meeting that day with the American ambassador, Mattie Sharpless. Sharpless had recently arrived in Bangui, and I had asked her what she knew about ARRC.
"The rumor is that they're hiring South African mercenaries and diverting funds into diamond ventures," Sharpless had answered.
Wieland winced when I relayed the quote, but Bryant smiled and leaned back in his chair. "Yes, well. We South Africans don't usually like to use the term 'mercenary.' We prefer to say 'playing at soldiers on a privately employed basis.'"
Get the full story in the October 2002 issue of Adventure.
Adventure Online Extras
Writer Tom Clynes on This Assignment
Tom Clynes shares more stories and behind-the-scenes happenings from his Central African Republic assignment.
FORUM: When Conservationists Attack
Is hiring a private army to kill people who kill the animals a viable solution?
Smoky Mountain High
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles North Carolina and Tennessee, is the country's most popular, drawing more than nine million visitors annually. But on my two trips to the area, the mountains seemed virtually empty. This was only partly because I came off season, in the early spring and then in the fall.
My base for four days of exploration was the famous Nantahala Outdoor Center, where Lecky Haller works as a guide. The NOC launched its first small fleet of military-issue rafts on the Nantahala River in 1972. White-water sports were a novelty then, and locals weren't thrilled with the interlopers in rubber boats.
"They talked about the 'hippies from Atlanta' coming in," co-founder Payson Kennedy says, grinning. "There were a few trees cut and dropped across the river." But the timing was ideal. The Olympics introduced paddling events that year, just as audiences flocked to Deliverance, which was filmed on the Chattooga. (Kennedy served as a stunt double for Ned Beatty.) Though that movie might seem a vivid argument for avoiding southern rivers, many budding rafters of the time insisted they had been inspired by the film.
Despite the appeal of the mountains, the Nantahala River is the true center of the region's adventure scene. Anglers stalk brook, rainbow, and brown trout year-round; the river's eight miles [13 kilometers] of Class II and III rapids draw such crowds that one entrepreneur recently opened a pizza joint literally on the riverwith a sign dangling over an eddy. But I found only a few rodeo kayakers playing in Quarry Rapid when I paddled a canoe with Haller.
Just downstream from the put-in, we guided the boat into Patton's Run, named for a postman who mastered its tricky dogleg right in the 1950s, despite a significant handicap. (He had either one arm or one leg, depending on who's telling the story.)
Haller greased the turn; I stroked just for effect up in the bow, imagining that this was a bit like sharing a tandem Schwinn with Lance Armstrong. We steered into an eddy to bail the water from the boat, and Haller pointed out a belted kingfisher swooping for food.
We surged downstream, paddling to stay warm in the afternoon chill, Haller assiduously hitting big water in every set of rapids. Later, we skirted Delebar's Rock, namesake of a paddler who wrapped two canoes around a piece of jutting granite.
As afternoon faded, we stood on an embankment to scout the largest rapid, Class III Nantahala Falls, just upstream of NOC. "The key is to try to keep a dry boat so I can put us in the right spot," Haller said. Unfortunately, I wasn't much help, and Haller couldn't see very well around my six-foot-six [two-meter] frame.
We approached too close to the drop and flipped sidelong. "I haven't dumped in that spot in probably a decade," Haller said, shaking his head, after we pulled ourselves out.
We vowed to run it again. But when I settled down, I realized that I hadn't yet made it to the Joyce Kilmer wilderness, and I'd visited only a corner of the national park, where reintroduced elk would soon be bugling. "Unless you move here," one hiker had advised me, "I wouldn't bother doing anything twice. There's just too much out there."
In a month, the leaves would fall, once again revealing the bones of the Smokiesand long before that, I would return to New York. The river could wait.
I headed off toward the metamorphic spires and old-growth stands of Tennessee's Chimney Tops, knowing I wouldn't cover a fraction of this wilderness. What remained unknown I would hold in reserve for emergencies, as my personal wilderness escape valve.
Read the full storyand get an Adventure Guide to the Smoky Mountainsin the October 2002 issue of Adventure.
Washburn's Great Escape
From the new book Escape from Lucania: An Epic Story of Survival, by David Roberts
Just before noon on June 18, 1937, the skies cleared over Valdez, a small Alaskan town tucked into a crook along Prince William Sound. For a week, Bradford Washburn, Robert Bates, Russell Dow, and Norman Bright had waited glumly as one day of rain succeeded another.
A few days earlier, a raging southeaster had swept in off the Gulf of Alaska. With the storm came an unseasonable warmth. But now the clouds had peeled away, baring a startling expanse of blue stretching from the hills behind the town to the steely waters of the fjord before it.
Bob Reeve hurried down to the wharf where the four young men were getting ready to eat lunch. The bush pilottall, profane, with a prospector's squint and a cigarette habitually dangling from his lipstold them to forget food and load up the plane.
Washburn, 27, and Bates, 26, both veterans of northern climbing expeditions, had sought out Reeve after hearing about his ski- equipped landings at high altitudesan aeronautical feat that few other Alaska pilots could claim. In January 1937, Washburn had written to the pilot and outlined his plan for ascending Mount Lucania, a pyramidal summit deep in the glaciated wilderness of Canada's Yukon Territory.
At 17,146 feet [5,230 meters], Lucania was the highest unclimbed mountain in North America. It had been attempted only once, in 1935, by a party that had declared it "virtually impregnable." To avoid a grueling approach march, Washburn wanted Reeve to land his team on the Walsh Glacier, just south of the sprawling massif.
Reeve had wired back: "Anywhere you'll ride, I'll fly."
In the years ahead, Dow and Bright would drift away from mountaineering, but Washburn and Bates would go on to become two of America's greatest climbers. From 1930 to 1951, Washburn racked up a dazzling record of first ascents in Alaska and the Yukon. In the process, he turned his hobbymaking large-format black-and-white aerial photographs to help him plot future routesinto magisterial works of art that now hang in galleries and museums.
As for Bates, he continued serious climbing well into his fifties, co-led two American expeditions to K2, and co-authored, with Charles Houston, the mountaineering classic about the world's second highest summit, K2, The Savage Mountain.
Yet Washburn and Bates's 1937 Lucania assault and the subsequent life-and-death march out were perhaps the greatest exploits of their careers. The expedition also remains one of the least known adventures in the annals of the northern ranges.
Read more in the October 2002 issue of Adventure.
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