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The Best of Alaska: Central Coast
It is wilderness primeval—cold, white, silent—frozen in time. The coast from Icy Strait, south of Glacier Bay, west to Kenai Fjords National Park is a land gift-wrapped in ice. The region is home to Alaska's greatest concentration of tidewater glaciers, including the state's longest and the only one to calve directly into the open ocean. You'll float among the ice fingers that fringe the most glaciated mountains in Alaska, tread the white backs of glaciers, and hike to isolated spots where you can watch the world go by at glacial speed.

THE MASTER PLAN: Tackle the Tat
There is a stretch up and downstream from the confluence of the Tatshenshini and Alsek Rivers where it seems a miracle that you are floating on moving water: The rest of the world has turned to ice. There are the blue-green ice sheets of the Noisy Range, the frozen columns of the Konamoxt Glacier, the snow-shrouded peaks of the Fairweather Range, all swinging in and out of view as the river meanders. A 140-mile (225-km), nine-day float of the Tatshenshini-Alsek from Dalton Post to Dry Bay begins in Canada's Yukon Territory amid the purple blossoms of fireweed and quickly digs into a four-mile stretch of nearly continuous Class III and IV white water known as the Canyon. Pull over near the riverbank camps at Sediments Creek and hike 2,600 vertical feet (792 meters) for a view of the river valley. Every day of your trip, the scenery becomes grander, building "like a symphony," in the words of one guide. You float down through the jagged peaks of the Alsek Range and then reach your crescendo at the Center of the World, as the region where the rivers meet is known. The beauty is said to cause "SOS" (scenery overload syndrome). But by the time you reach your last camp, at Alsek Lake in the northwest corner of Glacier Bay National Park, there is only silence and time, ice and sky, and a beauty that leaves you glad to be alive. Contact: Alaska Discovery Wilderness Adventures (800-586-1911; www.akdiscovery.com). Challenge level: moderate.

A four-day sea kayak trip into Harriman Fiord provides a waterline view of spectacular ice-laden waters. You'll paddle in big, stable, two-person kayaks to Barry Arm, the Coxe Glacier, and a camp at Black Sand Beach. Then move on to explore Harriman, Surprise, and Serpentine Glaciers. Contact: Alaska Sea Kayakers (877-472-2534; www.alaskaseakayakers.com). Challenge level: moderate.

Nearly 99 percent of the 5.5-million-acre (2.2-million-hectare) Chugach National Forest remains roadless, yet not a single acre has been designated as wilderness. That leaves spectacular places such as Prince William Sound, the Copper River Delta, and much of the Kenai Peninsula unprotected. Contact: The Wilderness Society, Alaska regional office (907-272-9453; www.tws.org).

Catch the monthlong midsummer fishing season on the Kenai, one of the best king salmon rivers in the world. Alaska's record king (97 pounds, 4 ounces; 44 kg, 124 g) came out of these waters. Contact: Kenai River Sportfishing Lodge (800-478-4100; www.alaskasportfish.com).

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Notes From the Tundra Ground
Trekking into the Arrigetch Peaks with a few good books and a few good friends, Mark Sundeen discovers that America's remotest range is the ideal place for an underachiever.

If you were to set a lemon on the front steps of the U.S. Capitol, step back 200 paces, and have a look—that's how it felt to catch the first glimpse of our tent. Camp was at the base of the Arrigetch Peaks, in Alaska's Brooks Range, and we'd traveled three days by jet, van, bush plane, and foot to get there. Three days—and when we began the journey we were already in Alaska. Though the peaks are only 6,000 or 7,000 feet (1,829 or 2,134 meters) high, they soar out of the low-elevation valley like the walls of some Arctic Yosemite. The small base camp had been set up by our friends, who had arrived a few days before. We set our sights on the lemon, cinched up the hip belts of our packs, and trudged across the last half mile of boggy tundra to join them. Before us we had 15 days of Arctic autumn, 30 bearproof food barrels, 200 pounds of climbing gear, and three great works of Russian literature.

The five of us had converged at the Fairbanks airport, where we had a dented Ford Econoline van waiting. Most of us were instructors for Outward Bound and had already spent much of the summer teaching courses in the Alaska wilderness. For those who devote their prime years to taking young people into the wilderness for a non-profit, Alaska is a plum. Most people put in five or more years in Utah or Colorado or the Pacific Northwest before they get to work in Outward Bound's base camp in Seward, Alaska. We'd clambered across the cracked ice fields of the Chugach Mountains, paddled kayaks along the calving glaciers of the Kenai coastline, and floated rafts down churning rivers beneath the gaze of bald eagles. On average, we'd already spent 60 days in the Alaska wilderness that summer. This trip was our vacation.

It was late August, and Alaska's never ending summer days were now ending. We'd driven an hour or so on pavement, then hit the gravel of the Dalton Highway, the only year-round road in Alaska that crosses the Arctic Circle. Built to haul construction crews to the Prudhoe Bay oil fields, the road opened to the public in 1994, but everyone still calls it the Haul Road. The route feels somehow postapocalyptic: a barren track through a hinterland dotted by the occasional crooked cross to mark the point where a trucker lost control. On the first night of our journey, we'd camped in a roadside gravel pit within earshot of 18-wheelers jamming gears and spewing up mud. We'd laid out our bags in the mud, slept through the sprinkles of rain, then got up before daylight and kept on driving. All expeditions begin humbly. This one, I think, began more humbly than most.

Our destination was Coldfoot, the northernmost truck stop in the nation, and proud of it. Two hundred and sixty miles north of Fairbanks, it boasts three gas pumps, a diner, a gift shop, and a row of motel rooms. Down the street was the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve visitors center, and across the highway was the airport. A sign for northbound travelers read: "Next services 244 miles."

Despite my supposed expertise in the outdoors—it was my tenth season as a guide—I hadn't known much about the Arrigetch before talking my way onto this trip. The peaks are in the southwest corner of the Gates of the Arctic National Park, 60 miles (97 km) above the Arctic Circle and more than a hundred roadless miles west of Coldfoot. Because it's so hard to reach, the Arrigetch sees fewer than a hundred visitors per year. The major peaks were first climbed in the 1960s and 1970s, and they have seen only about a dozen attempts since then. The serious climbers on our expedition were planning long alpine routes, aid climbs, and multipitch first ascents. Once we'd started poring over topo maps, I realized I was in a bit over my head. The truth is, I can hardly call myself a rock climber these days. But after two months of being a guide and instructor, I was ready to be a passenger. I figured that while my friends went out and tackled the serious summits, I'd just hike around a bit, and maybe scramble unroped up some of the easier peaks.

To get myself oriented, I read Alaska Wilderness: Exploring the Central Brooks Range, by Bob Marshall, who scouted this area in the 1930s. What impressed me most was Marshall's account of long rest days in which he and his companions read War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Judging from the photos of the prospectors and dog mushers Marshall traveled with, I assumed that Tolstoy's were the first books they'd ever read.

Now that sounded like a good time: lying around in a tent in the Arctic, reading the Russians. But I had already read both big Tolstoy novels, so before I left Anchorage I visited a bookstore looking for works that were comparable in scope, humanity, and power. I wanted heavyweights, but since I'd be carrying them on my back for two weeks, they literally had to be lightweight—big books in small packages. I settled on Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Idiot. Thus outfitted with 2,000 pages of Dostoyevsky and no climbing gear, I set out for the northernmost range in America.

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In Search of the Perfect Swimming Hole
Come join Pancho Doll in his happy pursuit of an enduring symbol of summer—the old swimming hole. When he finds a winner—oh, baby, feel the damp excitement!

By Erik Torkells

The perfect swimming hole is a wonderful thing—a bend in the river where local kids strip down to their trunks and splash around on a summer day. Maybe there's a rock ledge to jump off, or maybe there's a rope swing, and there's probably somebody's dog tagging along. (And, later in life, there's skinny-dipping and beer.) But perfection is hard to find. Enter Pancho Doll, America's foremost professional swimming-hole sleuth. He lives out of his truck, canvassing small towns for the best places to cool off on a hot day and pacing the area until he finds them. He takes notes and pictures, then heads back to San Diego—his base, if it can be said he has one—to self-publish his own series of regional swimming-hole guides. Anyone who has felt the roots of his or her own life tug too deeply can admire the independence.

Pancho has allowed me to tag along for a few days as he researches his latest book, this one devoted to the Southeast. Clayton, Georgia, our destination, is an old-fashioned town that has been spruced up by weekending Atlantans. It's home to the Tallulah Ranger District and several white-water rafting outfitters (Deliverance was filmed nearby), but Pancho picked it as an HQ because it has "that rarest thing in Appalachia"—a good café. Indeed, our first stop is Grapes & Beans, where Pancho fills a mug with Dancing Goats coffee and flirts with the women behind the counter, who feed him tips on which local folk he should talk to. "I've been here five or six times," he says when I point out that he seems to know the staff—Susan, Katie, Betsy—by name. "I've made a complete nuisance of myself." Hardly. Pancho, 40, comes across as happy and handsome, a young Gene Kelly. As is the case with most people who depend on the kindness of strangers, he never passes up an opportunity to ask about swimming holes—he's relentlessly friendly.

We leave Grapes & Beans for Raven Rock, a swimming hole previously recommended by one of the women. Pancho is excited. He sets a high bar for his swimming holes, and Raven Rock has the "holy trinity: height, depth, and privacy." (Height refers to the size of adjacent rock walls; the water's depth should be at least six feet. To meet the privacy standard, the hole must be far away enough from parking to discourage what Pancho calls the beer-cooler crowd.) He's already scouted it, but he needs to go back to take photos; he thinks Raven Rock might make a dynamite cover shot. First, however, we have to find it. This should be easy enough, and not just because he's been there before. With a GPS hooked up to the mapping software on his laptop, he can track his progress on even the smallest dirt road. But apparently Pancho considers technology a last resort.

"If I don't find it in an hour," he says, "I'll check the navigation."

First, however, we hit a dead end. As we sit stymied in a cul-de-sac, an old man in a Georgia Bulldogs cap totters out of a house on one side, and a younger man comes out of a house on the other, followed by a golden Lab.

"Do you bite?" Pancho asks the dog.

"Yeah," deadpans the younger man, blowing cigarette smoke out of his nose. "It'll lick you to death."

Pancho chats them up, explaining who he is and how he's looking for Raven Rock—or any other swimming holes they might know of. The old guy asks if he's been to Raven Rock before. "Yep," says Pancho, "but I was dropped on my head when I was young." He waits for the laugh, which he gets. The two men point us in the right direction and also tell us about Sock 'em Dog, a swimming hole just down the road. The old man, his accent so thick it sounds like he's slurring, mutters something about mud that's five feet deep and trees that were knocked down by a tornado.

As we hike through the woods down to Raven Rock, Pancho gets visibly agitated. "We're getting close to the river," he says. "I sense the vibration. I feel the damp excitement." Damp excitement? " 'Get wet!' That's my motto."

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Online Extra
Fifteen Fab Swimming Holes
Get detailed hiking and driving directions to Pancho's favorite pools here >>

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Kidnapped in the Gap
Robert Young Pelton and the two young backpackers made unlikely traveling companions, but they all shared a strange obsession: to cross the lawless Darién Gap between Panama and Colombia. Their idyllic trek was cut short by the sound of gunfire. In a ten-day ordeal that generated international headlines, they found themselves captives of a shadowy military group, caught in the crossfire of Colombia's civil war and face-to-face with random death in the world's most dangerous paradise.

A week into my trek across the Darién Gap, I'm finally starting to enjoy myself. For two days we fought through lowland thickets of flesh-hooking chungas and other spiked, thorned, and angry plants, but now the trail has widened and climbed to cooler elevations. Reaching a clearing, my companions and I drop our packs and relax while Víctor Alcázar, our 54-year-old guide and majordomo, prepares lunch. Singing a cheerful song in Spanish, he takes his machete and hacks some branches into Y-shaped supports, then starts a fire and hangs a pot of water to boil. Into it goes a tin of sardines in tomatoes, chicken bouillon cubes, breadfruit, and wild limes. In little time we're all enjoying a passable "seafood" bisque. As we loll about, even the fire ants leave us alone.

It's a peaceful interlude in the Darién Gap, the hundred-mile (161-km) missing link in the otherwise uninterrupted Pan American Highway, which runs along the western spine of the Americas between Alaska and Patagonia. The Gap is a stubborn jungle draped over the thin waist between the two American continents, the exuberantly green barrier where Panama meets Colombia. It's a place where you can find abandoned Scottish settlements, isolated Indian villages, gun runners and drug gangs, left-wing guerrillas and right-wing death squads. It was a place I was drawn to.

As we eat, three Kuna Indians come up the trail from the village of Paya, moving with an odd but efficient bowlegged gait. They wear rubber boots and carry walking sticks, wicker packs, and plastic bags of odds and ends. We met them two days earlier in Paya; they're on their way to visit Arquía, just over the border in Colombia. We offer them food, and they sit and chat, with Víctor translating. Arquía is about 14 hours of hard walking away—a day hike for them and at least two days for us. We're heading there, too, after which we plan to build a raft and float down the Arquía River to the busy Gulf of Urabá. There, we'll hail a boat bound for Turbo, at the far end of the Gap.

Done eating, our three visitors pick up their packs and wave good-bye. We tell them we'll see them in Arquía. Half an hour later, full of bisque and contentment, we move on, too. A few steps down the trail, the silence of our soft, green world is ripped apart by heavy gunfire. Long bursts of AK-47s thunder in the jungle—the cascading cadence of many gunmen shooting aggressively on full auto. We freeze. I glance at my watch—11:44. The gunfire sounds like an ambush from a fixed position about half a mile up the trail. The three Kuna who stopped for lunch must have stumbled upon a group of armed men. Why are they firing on unarmed Indians? And if three defenseless Kuna have triggered this kind of violence, what will happen to three foreigners?

My mind races. Armed men, ambushes, attacks. What's the right thing to do? Think. I write books on this stuff. Think faster. Then I remember: Stay still, stay calm, gather information, think things through.

I look around. Víctor is sitting on his backpack, staring worriedly at the ground. My two fellow hikers, a Bay Area firefighter named Meg Smaker and a student from Washington State, Mark Wedeven, both 22, are listening with curiosity but, oddly, without much alarm. Our Kuna porters have dropped their packs and are already retreating down the trail back toward Paya. Before I can say anything, they're gone.

This is serious shooting. The gunmen could be members of the FARC, left-wing Colombian Marxists who attack, kidnap, and kill foreigners. Or they could be ACCU, the right-wing Colombian paramilitaries who usually leave foreigners alone but have murdered FARC rebels and their sympathizers and have kidnapped prominent Colombians. One thing is certain: In the lawless Darién, it is not the police.

"Do you want to go back?" I ask Víctor.

"No," he says. "We should stay together."

I ask twice more and get the same answer.

The gunfire finally stops; it's been six minutes. Now we wait to see if the Kuna who passed us on the trail come back. Then we can learn more and make a decision.

As if on cue, one of the Indians comes up to us. He's terrified. Between gulps of our water, he sputters in Kuna to Víctor. Twenty men with guns attacked them. They killed his friend.

Moments later a second Kuna runs up. He has an ugly bruise on the left side of his head; he taps his chest to show where the bullets struck his friend.

"They killed him!" he says, Víctor frantically translating. "They killed him!"

I try to get him to explain.

"We stopped to get water," he says. "They ambushed us. They killed him."

Then they're off, speeding toward Paya. We wait, but we know the third Kuna will never show up. The Darién is suddenly living up to its reputation.

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The Whites Done Right
New England's best and newest hiking trail has everything you'd expect from the White Mountains—except crowds.

By Ben Hewitt

The surprising thing about moose dung is that it actually provides pretty good footing. Those piles of brown balls aren't wet enough to slip in, deep enough to trip in, or hard enough to twist an ankle on. Which is fortunate, because northern New Hampshire's Cohos Trail is practically paved with the stuff. On the rooty track that ascends through the evergreens on Baldhead Mountain, there's a mid-trail mound every few feet, and soon my wife, Penny, and I don't even bother to step over or around them. Which brings me to another surprising thing about moose dung: It doesn't smell. Nature truly is a wondrous thing.

The Cohos Trail, which is named for the state's most northern and least populated county, Coos (yes, they're spelled differently, but both come off the tongue as Cohos), is a brand-new backcountry hiking trail—so new, in fact, that it remains 12 miles (19 km) shy of completion, at which point it will run 162 (260 km) miles from the Saco River to the Canadian border. I've logged hundreds, if not thousands, of miles hiking in New England, and the Cohos is my pick for the best, least-crowded trail in the entire region.

Hiking the whole route takes two weeks, which Penny and I didn't have, so we'd chosen the prime three-day stretch: the remote 28 miles (45 km) between Routes 26 and 110. Our trek would sample the highlights of the Cohos, which tops 30 peaks, wends its way through dense spruce-fir forests, and passes countless waterfalls, ponds, and lakes. Jefferson, the largest town along the route, has only a thousand residents; the 90 miles (145 km) from there to Pittsburg are settlement-free. Eagles, deer, black bear, and moose are the locals.

Think of a hiking trail, almost any hiking trail, and there's a good chance you'll find an obsessive character behind it. Vermont's Long Trail had James P. Taylor, who hatched the idea while waiting out a rainy day in his tent. The Pacific Crest Trail had Clinton Clarke, a tireless advocate for the route who, strangely enough, never hiked it himself. The Cohos has Kim Nilsen.

We met Nilsen atop Baldhead, where he and a group of volunteers were building a hiker's shelter. With long views of the Phillips Brook Valley spread out around us—rolling and green, with no highways or houses in sight—the appeal of the location was obvious. But shouldering loads of lumber, roofing, and tools up the trail had been hard, slow work, made harder and slower by the midsummer heat and humidity that hung over the region. Nilsen, a fit 53, with thick eyebrows that jutted from his forehead like crescent moons, was soaked with sweat; his boots were so trail-battered that it was impossible to determine their brand. "Time for some new shoes, eh?" I said. "I guess so," he replied wearily. "But these are only a year old."

Nilsen was a cub reporter, covering town council meetings and trailer home fires for the Coös County Democrat, when he hatched the idea for the Cohos Trail almost a quarter century ago: "I saw all these old logging roads heading into the woods, so I'd strap on my pack and see where they'd take me." Where they took him was deep into forests that few people had ever seen, and to the tops of unnamed summits. Nilsen started scheming: What if someone could carve a trail that connected those summits, a route that ran straight through the heart of New Hampshire's deepest wilderness? Wouldn't that be something?

It would, or more precisely, it is. Nilsen joined us on our hike, and after switchbacking down Baldhead, the three of us sank into a pool of frigid mountain water, which was fed by a small but boisterous waterfall. I sprawled in the spray zone, toes poking out of the water and hands clasped behind my head. On any other hiking trail, there would have been a path beaten to the edge of the pool; here, there were no signs of human passage.

Funny thing: We weren't in a federal wilderness, or even in a state park, but rather in a patchwork of private and public land, including a 110,000-acre (44,517-hectare) tract owned by the MeadWestvaco timber-products company, manufacturer extraordinaire of binder paper, envelopes, and cardboard six-packs. MeadWestvaco granted Nilsen permission to cut the Cohos. There may come a time when portions of the trail will need to be rerouted due to logging, but Nilsen is a glass-half-full kind of guy. "One of the main reasons to create the trail was so people will get in here and say, 'Gee, this is incredible. We need to preserve it,'" he told me.

Later in our trip, we hiked into Gadwah Notch, where stunted trees allowed long-range views of a distant, gumdrop-shaped summit—Mount Muise, Nilsen said. I was lost in the time vacuum of wilderness travel. Had we been hiking for days or weeks? I couldn't tell. We stopped for lunch in a high meadow, and after a little chatter, conversation died out. "Listen to that," Nilsen said after a few minutes had gone by. I heard absolutely nothing—and it sounded great.

The route I hiked began at Dixville Notch, on Route 26, and finished near Groveton, on Route 110. The trailhead is about 200 miles (321 km) north of Boston. Another prime slice of the Cohos is the 25 miles (45 km) between Jefferson and the South Pond Recreation Area. You'll top two 4,000-foot (1,219-meter) peaks, with 360-degree views into Maine and Canada. For instructions on reaching these or other areas of the Cohos, visit www.cohostrail.org. Camping (no fee) is allowed along the route unless otherwise specified, and there are four shelters (also free and first-come, first-served) that comfortably sleep up to eight.

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June/July 2003

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