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In the beginning, all my journeys feel at best ludicrous, at worst insane. This one is no exception. The idea is to paddle nearly 600 miles [966 kilometers] on the Niger River in a kayak, alone, from the town of Old Ségou to Timbuktu.
And now, at the very hour I have decided to leave, a thunderstorm bursts open the skies, sending down apocalyptic rain, washing away the ground beneath my feet. It is the rainy season in Mali, for which there can be no comparison in the world.
Lightning pierces trees, slices across houses. Thunder wracks the skies and pounds the Earth like mortar fire, and every living thing huddles in its tenuous shelter, expecting the world to end. Which it doesn't. At least not this time.
So we all give a collective sigh to the salvation from the passing storm as it rumbles east, and I survey the river I'm to depart on this morning. Rain or no rain, today is the day for the journey to begin.
"Let's do it," I say, leaving the shelter of an adobe hut. My guide from town, Modibo, points to the north, to further storms. He says he will pray for me. It's the best he can do. To his knowledge, no man has ever completed such a trip, though a few have tried. And certainly no woman has done such a thing.
Earlier this morning he took me aside and told me he thinks I'm crazy, which I understood as concern, and so I thanked him. He told me that the people of Old Ségou think I'm crazy, too, and that only uncanny good luck will keep me safe.
What he doesn't know is that the worst thing a person can do is to tell me I can't do something, because then I'll want to do it all the more. It may be a failing of mine.
I carry my inflatable kayak through the labyrinthine alleys of Old Ségou, past the huts melting in the rain, past the huddling goats and the smoke of cooking fires, past people peering out at me from dark entranceways.
Old Ségou must have looked much the same to Scottish explorer Mungo Park, who left here on the first of his two river journeys 206 years ago to the day. It is no coincidence that I've picked this date, July 22, and this spot to begin my journey.
Park is my guarantee of sorts. If he could travel down the Niger, then so can I. Of course, Park also died on the river, but so far I've managed to overlook that.
Thunder again. Hobbled donkeys cower under a new onslaught of rain, ears back, necks craned. Naked children dare one another to touch me, and I make it easy for them, stopping and holding out my arm. They stroke my white skin as if it were velvet, using only the pads of their fingers, then stare at their hands, looking for wet paint.
I stop on the banks of the river near a centuries-old kapok tree, under which I imagine Park once took shade. I open my bag, spread out my little red kayak, and start to pump it up. A photographer, who will check in on me from time to time in his motorized boat, feverishly snaps pictures.
A couple of women nearby, with colorful cloth wraps called pagnes tied tightly about their breasts, gaze at me as if to ask: Who are you, and what do you think you're doing? The Niger, in a surly mood, churns and slaps the shore.
I don't pretend to know what I'm doing. Just one thing at a time now: kayak inflated, kayak loaded, paddles fitted together. Modibo watches me.
"I'll pray for you," he reminds me.
I balance my gear and get in. Finally, irrevocably, I paddle away.
Get the full storyand an Adventure Guide to Maliin the December 2002/January 2003 issue of Adventure.
Photos From the River to Timbuktu
Racing down Africa's surly Niger River, our photographer captures timeless visions from Kira Salak's epic kayak expedition.
Buried Alive and Loving It
Usually he brings along a shovel and a half dozen colleagues from the Department of Civil Engineering at Montana State University, where Adams gets paid to think about snow and ice all day long. The team typically sets out at dawn after a big snowfall and heads into the shimmering backcountry behind Bridger Bowl Ski Area, near Bozeman.
As they go, they slip past yellow out-of-bounds ropes and a thicket of bright orange signs: CLOSED! DANGER! THIS IS STEEP HAZARDOUS TERRAIN! STAY TOGETHER! AVALANCHE AREA!
At 8,000 feet [2,438 meters], halfway up a shadowy bowl called Revolving Door, they excavate the small wooden shed that is their research station. Supplies are unloaded and instrumentation is set, and at last, Adams and two or three fellow snow junkies seal themselves inside the cramped shack, giving their blinking avalanche transceivers a final check.
Another member of the team then hikes uphill, lights the fuse on a two-pound [0.75-kilogram] cast-primer bomb, and watches as hundreds of tons of snow are unleashed on the hill. If all goes well, the shed survives yet another hit, and Professor Adams, emerging like Lazarus, has another frostbitten tale to tell his students over pitchers of Moose Drool beer.
After more than 20 years of research, Adams knows that the best way to comprehend the power and majesty of avalanches is to be run over by them.
Since 1994, when he and his colleagues Scott Schmidt and Jim Dent first bolted plywood beams onto a Volkswagen-size boulder in Revolving Door, Adams, a 52-year-old ex-New Yorker with a gentle manner and a Grizzly Adams beard, has withstood dozens of controlled avalanches, from wispy little drifts to massive slides that rage like freight trains over the shed's pitched roof.
"It does seem a little silly, doesn't it?" Adams said inside the bunker as another slide was about to be triggered last March. A few days earlier, he had called me in Los Angeles to see if I wanted to experience an avalanche from the inside out.
Now he and graduate student Dan Miller, an Air Force major with little round spectacles, were standing at their laptops, ready to monitor the flow's velocity, depth, and temperature changes.
With their mittens and neck gaiters, they looked like giddy schoolkids on the first snow day of winter. "There is a science to all this," Adams said, biting into a frozen egg salad sandwich. "I swear."
* * * *Thirty-five lives were taken by avalanches in the United States last winter, the most since such numbers started being tracked in 1951. Until the 1970s about five people a year died in avalanches in the U.S.
As more people began exploring the backcountry, that number grew steadily, reaching 20 deaths a year by the 1990s. In 2000-01, 33 people died across the country, more than in any other nation. It was the first time the U.S. claimed that grim distinction.
But while enormous resources are devoted to avalanche research and prevention in Europe and Japan, the U.S. government has all but eliminated funding in the last decade. Researchers pretty much have been left, well, out in the cold.
* * * *On that March morning, though, all Adams wanted to do was to get buried. Inside the shed, the "Fire in the hole!" warning crackled through the walkie-talkies, giving us 90 seconds to batten down.
First would come the explosive concussion. Then, as Miller said, perhaps as a joke, "It's in God's hands."
Get the full story in the December 2002/January 2003 issue of Adventure.
The Leading Edge:
The State of the Outdoor Arts
Canoe and Kayak: The Original Adventure Sport Gets a High-Tech Overhaul• Grand Tours: Travel Guide
• What to Paddle: Gear Guide
Sea kayaks and canoes have conveyed paddlers into some of the remotest and most awe-inspiring wildernesses on Earthand they've done it for eons. Kayaking is thousands of years old, with roots in the use of Inuit hunting qajaaqs made of sealskin and driftwood or whalebone.
Today, traditional Greenlandic kayaking is resurgent, and the back-to-basics movement is spilling over onto North American shores: Narrow Greenland paddles are becoming more common in the United States, and avid paddlers are experimenting with ancient variations on the Eskimo roll.
Sea kayaks are increasingly used on freshwater lakes, though open canoes, which have their own rich history, remain the classic mode of inland exploration. The outdoor world's obsession with cutting weight extends to both kinds of boats.
When it comes to pure athleticism, long-haul paddling is more akin to an endurance-based vision quest than it is to pulling a McTwist in a skateboarding halfpipe. Yet it does have its extremes: Kayakers are taking on ever longer trips and ever wilder ocean conditions.
PRINCE WILLIAM SOUND, ALASKA
Where to start? Whales, sea lions, otters, glaciers, snow-covered peaks, eagles … Prince William Sound is a life-list destination for beginners and experts alike. The Columbia Glacier, Alaska's largest, has retreated 8.7 miles [14 kilometers] since 1982, but that hasn't diminished its rep as a must-visit chunk of ice.
Where Insiders Go: Lying between Whittier and Valdez, little (by ice-river standards) Meares Glacier is the only advancing glacier in the sound. Connect it with the Columbia in a weeklong trip.
Info: Anadyr Adventures (800 865 2925, U.S. and Canada only; www.anadyradventures.com).
SEA OF CORTEZ, BAJA CALIFORNIA, MEXICO
Seven hundred miles [1,123 kilometers] long and sheltered from Pacific swells, the Sea of Cortez may have the best warm-water paddling on Earth. If anything, its turquoise water, endless sunshine, and remote desert islands are underrated.
Isla Espíritu Santo's western side is lined with horseshoe coves and white beaches, the eastern side is guarded by cliffs, and the northern end is home to sea lions.
Where Insiders Go: Four miles [6.4 kilometers] offshore from Bahía de Los Angeles are 15 small islands; look for whales and dolphins on your way to deserted campsites.
Info: Baja Expeditions (800 843 6967, U.S. and Canada only; www.bajaex.com).
BOUNDARY WATERS, MINNESOTA
Thank the glaciers of the last ice age for the thousand-odd lakes of the Boundary Waters. Encompassing a million acres [404,686 hectares] of wilderness and 1,500 miles [2,414 kilometers] of paddling routes, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is archetypal canoe country.
Where Insiders Go: Adams, Beaver, and Boulder Lakes. Each has its own character, all are connected by portagesand they're three days from the closest put-ins.
Info: Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (877 550 6777, U.S. and Canada only; www.bwcaw.org).
DOWN EAST ISLANDS, MAINE
The East's wildest sea kayaking lies northeast of Acadia National Park, where 80-some miles [about 129 kilometers] as the petrel flies conceal 920 miles [1,481 kilometers] of shoreline and 1,300 islands. At the heart of it all lie the 200-plus islands of the Jonesport archipelago.
But these harshly beautiful waters are not for unguided beginners: Fog is frequent, tides are huge, and currents are swift.
Where Insiders Go: The Petit Manan peninsula, whose challenging waters demand local knowledge.
Info: Maine Island Kayak (800 796 2373, U.S. and Canada only; www.maineislandkayak.com).
WHAT TO PADDLE
All prices in U.S. dollars
Sit-on-tops eliminate the most intimidating part of kayakinglearning to roll. They've been known as beginner boats, but so what? The performance gap between sit-on-tops and cockpit kayaks has narrowed. If you paddle in warm water, where you don't need weather protection, they're ideal.
Why a Sit-on-Top: Easy on, easy offthey make a great fishing and snorkeling platform.
Our Pick: The Cobra Expedition ($1,354; www.cobrakayaks.com). This 18-foot [5.5-meter] boat gets up to speed quickly, tracks well, and has enough storage for a week's worth of Baja touring. Spend the extra green (about $95) for the more comfortable high-back seat.
Canoes are roomy and comfortable and can carry big loadssuch as your kids and dog. White-water models range from 14 to 16 feet [4 to 5 meters], but touring canoes can be as long as 18 feet [5.5 meters]. Kevlar and other composites are breaking weight barriers, though Royalex, a laminated foam-core material, remains more cost effective and durable.
Why a Touring Canoe: They haul lots of stuff with ease.
Our Pick: The 65-pound [24 kilogram] Old Town Penobscot 17 ($1,100; www.oldtowncanoe.com) is a classic Royalex touring model (17 feet [5 meters] long, 35 inches [89 centimeters] wide, 1,100-pound [411-kilogram] capacity) ready for the longest lake or river trip.
Sleek and swift, with lots of storage, touring kayaks fuel the dreams of weekend warriors and expedition paddlers alike. Look for boats 16 to 18 feet [5 to 5.5 meters] long, 22 to 24 inches [56 to 61 centimeters] wide. Plastic models are durable and cheap but heavy; fiberglass and Kevlar are worth the added bucks if you tour a lot.
Why a Touring Kayak: Go anywhere, do anythingthis is the water version of an SUV.
Our Pick: The Wilderness Systems Cape Horn Pro ($2,600; www.wildernesssystems.com). This 15-foot-9-inch [4.5-meter-23-centimeter] fiberglass boat's primary lust-inducing feature is the innovative Phase 3 adjustable seat. Designed for comfort and performance, it's like a La-Z-Boy merged with a Recaro racing car seat.
Get the full "Leading Edge" special report on the state of the outdoor arts in the December 2002/January 2003 issue of Adventure.
Links to Leading-Edge Gear
Click to the gotta-have goods profiled in the December 2002/January 2003 issue.
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