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From the Print Edition, September 2003
The Gabon Experiment
Pristine rain forest? Check. Jungle elephants? Check. Gorillas, hippos, and buffalo? Check again. By showcasing these extraordinary raw materials in 13 new national parks, the central African nation of Gabon is making a bid to become the ecotourism capital of the continent. But will the travelers come? Tom Clynes test-drives one of the world's boldest ventures in wilderness preservation. By Tom Clynes

"The gorilla's charge is impressive. But they are not too dangerous if you don't run. On these trails, it is the forest elephant we are afraid of." French elephant researcher Ludovic Momont led us up a steep hillside along a mucky but well-defined trail. Behind Momont were his Gabonese assistants, Yves Mihindou and Modeste Doukaga; French photographer Nicolas Reynard; and me. We talked little, saving our breath for the climb and keeping our ears tuned to the sounds of elephants moving through the brush.

Our path was, in fact, an elephant trail, one of thousands that form intricate networks through the otherwise impassable forests of eastern Gabon. Smaller than their savanna cousins and notoriously elusive, the forest elephants are agile and effective trail-bashers, and their tracks offer the paths of least resistance for the few human travelers who venture into the jungle.

Until recently, this area had been slated for logging. Then, in August 2000, explorer J. Michael Fay passed through eastern Gabon on his Megatransect, a 15-month, 2,000-mile (3,218-kilometer) walk in the forests of Gabon and the Republic of the Congo. One day, Fay noticed that many of the smaller elephant trails were merging into larger trails, which all seemed to be heading in the same direction.

"Curiosity got the better of me," says Fay, an ecologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), "so we deviated east and followed the elephant trails, thinking they might lead to a bai," a swampy, mineral-rich clearing in the forest where elephants and other animals go to bathe and socialize. And sure enough, the trail—a veritable highway now—spilled Fay and his party into a clearing.

Fay stood in the shadows at the bai's edge for a few minutes. As his eyes got used to the bright light, he took in a spectacular array of forest animals mingling and cavorting in a clearing nearly a mile long, bisected by a small river. There were long-tusked elephants and "naive" gorillas—ones that had never seen humans. Buffalo and wild hogs and sitatungas (large forest antelopes) browsed on the grass, and small crocodiles splashed in the river. Monkeys and parrots wheeled and chattered through the trees.

Fay realized that he had stumbled upon a secret wonderland. "It was unbelievable," he says. "Here was the largest concentration of easily observable elephants and gorillas in Gabon—and one of the greatest concentrations of undisturbed wildlife anywhere in Africa."

Two and a half years later, we were on our way to the clearing Fay had dubbed Langoué Bai (after the river that bisects it), now part of the new Ivindo National Park. The five of us had spent the night and early morning riding the Transgabonais railroad, then bouncing in the back of a pickup truck along misty, abandoned logging roads. By the time we began walking, the mist had cleared, revealing a tangled green abundance that stretched 150 feet (46 meters) toward the nearly hidden sky.

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Online Extra
Journey into the heart of Gabon's greenness with photographer Nicolas Reynard's spectacular outtakes when you click here >>

Learn more about Gabon's newly created park system in the September 2003 issue of Adventure.


Fall's Fast Escapes
Quick getaways. Easy overnights. Wild weekends. Summer may be over, but prime adventure season is just beginning. By Jeff Rennicke

The longest stretch of undeveloped shoreline in California, the Lost Coast is a half-day's drive from most of the northern part of the state. Summer's crowds are gone, so whether you're coming from San Francisco, or flying in from farther afield, these 80 miles (128 kilometers) of black-sand beach, wave-pummeled cliffs, and bluff-side trails serve up real wilderness—on a long-weekend timetable.

Day 1
From the town of Shelter Cove, the Lost Coast Trail stretches 25 miles (40 kilometers) through BLM land north to Mattole Campground. If that three-day hike is too much for your schedule, try a morning of beachcombing at Shelter Cove's Black Sands Beach (look for starfish and sea anemones), then hike a few miles north to watch surfers brave icy swells.

Day 2
Short but sweet, the five-mile (eight-kilometer) (round-trip) Lightning Trail shoots you up the side of 4,088-foot (1,246-meter) Kings Peak. Follow the trail into the cool, green shade of old-growth Douglas firs before switchbacking your way 1,900 feet (579 meters) up the mountainside, then breaking out into a windblown chaparral just below the summit. From the top, the views spread in all directions—Point Arena 90 miles (144 kilometers) to the south, Big Flat and the endless blue of the Pacific to the west, and, to the east, row after row of green mountains, including the towering Trinity Alps and the Yolla Bolla Range.

Day 3
Halibut the size of refrigerator doors, torpedo-like albacore, and spiny-headed rockfish: Board Captain Trent Slate's 27-foot (nine-meter) catamaran at the Shelter Cove launch and he'll get you into what he calls the "hot bite." From the protective arms of the cove, you'll venture out to sea, scanning for harbor porpoises and gray whales, enjoying views of the jagged coastline, and—oh, yeah—reeling in the big ones.

Tackle Shelter Cove's baby curlers in one of Tsunami Surf and Sport's free surf clinics (707-923-1965; www.tsunamisurfandsport.com).

The Beachcomber Inn: fireplace-equipped units with ocean views from the deck ($55 to $95; 800-718-4789).

The Lighthouse Inn: a spectacular renovated lighthouse with a fireplace, a hot tub, and a spiral staircase to the tower and its Pacific views ($175; 707-986-7002).

Black Sands Beach: Choose your site on this three-mile strand. No permits, no fee. (Fire permits and bear canisters are available locally.) King Range National Conservation Area (707-986-5400).

Get the full story in the September issue of Adventure.

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If It's September, It Must Be Gauley-Palooza
Each fall, when the floodgates open on West Virginia's Summersville Dam, the Gauley River instantly becomes the wildest white-water scene in the world. Rafters arrive by the thousands seeking "rapids, more rapids, and beer." And so does an army of professional river guides who show up looking for pretty much the same thing. Plus tips. By Mark Sundeen

It's just past six in the morning, barely light out, and I'm standing beneath the Summersville Dam, waiting for someone to turn on the river. The green hills of Appalachia have been awakened this fine September Saturday by the arrival of the circus. Purple-and-red school buses sputter between aisles of automobiles and rows of Porta Potties. Humans in life vests and bootees and canary-yellow helmets march willy-nilly across the asphalt like columns of ants, colliding, reversing. A fleet of tractor trailers growls beneath stacks of pancaked rafts. Generators whine, and boom boxes boom. Guides climb the stacks and insert the plastic tentacles from air pumps. As soon as each top raft balloons, they topple it and inflate the next.

"Y'all in the blue helmets: You're at the wrong boats," yells someone who seems to know. "Keep walking till you find the yellow boats."

The spectacle before me is either a triumph (a celebration of a peculiar American subculture and a whole lot of good rapids) or an aberration (a victory of crass marketing and fancy toys over helpless Mother Nature). In either case, it's pretty fun. When the dam's floodgates are opened each fall, the Gauley River turns on like a faucet, its steep, rocky bed swells miraculously with white water and rafts, and about 80,000 people float, flip, and flail through its rapids.

Although the dam's original purpose was to prevent flooding, river runners discovered early on that when the gates are open, the Upper Gauley has some of the best white water in the country. The problem was that outfitters never knew when water would be released, so they couldn't book trips in advance. Eventually it took an act of Congress (which in 1985 added recreation to the river's list of official uses) to work out a compromise: Since the lake above the dam needs to be lowered each fall to make room for winter rains, why not drain it on the weekends and confirm the dates in advance? And so was born Gauley Season—six long weekends running from early September through mid-October—the most frenetic and lucrative 22 days of white-water rafting in the world.

More than a dozen outfitters now run trips down the Class V rapids of the Upper Gauley, the more leisurely Lower Gauley, or both. And while most customers come for the white water, what they also get, like it or not, is a brief immersion in the subnation of Appalachia.

Today I'm tagging along on a boat with a guide named Robert Seay, who is something of a local institution. While most guides on the ramp have acquired sleek helmets and slick paddling tops, Robert is barefoot and shirtless, oblivious as always to the high-tech tomfoolery. His helmet is clipped to the boat instead of to his head. "When I started," he says, "not even the guests had to wear helmets." Robert issues a few gruff instructions and we push off. We bounce down the current, and Robert gives his clients a taste of what they came for.

"Payadul, fat boy!" he hollers at a perfectly nice Indiana businessman twice his age. "Don't make me come up there and knock your ass in the river myself!"

The paddler breaks into a giddy grin. Not only does he accept this sort of abuse, he asked for it. He and his three buddies come back each year and specifically request Robert as their guide. In fact, Robert Seay was the most requested guide of the year at the Rivermen, the outfitter that employs him.

This is Robert's home turf. Born and raised in the West Virginia hills, he first guided the Upper Gauley at 17. Robert is 30 now and guesses he's made 500 runs down the Gauley and 1,000 down the nearby New River. Thick in the chest and built like a boxer, he was the state's Golden Gloves champ back in his teens. "But then I discovered women," he tells me.

Along with homegrown guides like Robert, Gauley Season also attracts professional river runners from farther afield. Each year, when the rivers (and money) run dry elsewhere, a migration of river guides heads for West Virginia. Nearly a thousand strong, they come from the canyons of the Green and Colorado Rivers in Utah, from the bony Rio Grande in New Mexico, and from the Arkansas Valley in Colorado. They come from Idaho's Salmon and Snake and Payette, from the Ocoee in Tennessee, the Nantahala in Georgia, the Penobscot in Maine.

Not so long ago, I was one of them. It was 1996, and I'd been working as an instructor at a Utah wilderness school whose mission statement speaks of enhancing character and promoting self-discovery. We made sure the food was mushy and the portions small, and the desert did the rest: heat and rocks, sandstorms and scorpions, springs without water, and a staunch upstream wind. Any fun to be had was purely incidental. But during one of many long days spent prodding teenagers down the windswept flat water of Desolation Canyon for $52 a day, my co-instructor, Heather, began to rhapsodize about the Gauley. She told of nonstop rapids and hundred-dollar tips and beer on the bus.

Enough of this character-building, I decided: I deserved some fun, too. As summer wound down on the Colorado, I packed up my truck and headed east with vague plans to reconvene with my friends on that side of the Ohio River. The skies were clear, the highways smooth, and gas cost 75 cents a gallon. As a voluntary member of a social class that lived in cars and ate mostly peanut butter, I understood that my dirtbag life—debt, dental needs, a mutt leashed to a pickup outside a bar—was in itself not valuable enough to be worth risking. No, to make a go of the high adventure I sought, I'd have to risk the lives of unwitting innocents—my clients. My quest wasn't simply to brave the Gauley's famous Class V rapids; I also wanted a hundred dollars a day plus tips for doing it.

Get the full story in the September 2003 issue of Adventure.

Online Extras
Veteran guide Blaine Honea looks at the good, the bad, and the ugly from his seven years on the Gauley River in an online Q&A >>

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Revenge of the Dammed
Take that, Lake Powell, after 40 years underwater Glen Canyon is coming back. By Gretchen Reynolds

In the lead, Tom Hogan, whose kayak is sandwiched between high, pink walls, shouts back that we need to reverse out. His voice, amplified by the encroaching sandstone, booms, then echoes and plaintively fades. "Turn arroouunnd." I'd happily comply—the canyon, though sinuous and lovely, is claustrophobic—except that I'm an abject novice as a paddler and not at all sure that I can make my boat go backward. For a moment, I panic and begin pushing off with my hands against the close stone, making my kayak carom wildly from wall to wall.

"Whoa," Jim Adkins, our guide, shouts from behind me. "Maybe you should just get out and turn that baby around." Sheepishly, I glance down at the water. It's perhaps a foot deep. With exaggerated dignity, I clamber out of the kayak, then upend and twirl it with as much grace as is possible in these confines. Jim grins. "That was easy, wasn't it? Just so you know, if you'd wanted to do that last year, you would have had to carry scuba gear."

Who'll stop the drain?

Tom, his wife, Grace, and I are taking a long weekend's jaunt on the depleted, though still immense, body of water. This year, the 186-mile-long (299-kilometer-long) reservoir ("Fake" Powell, as an eco-snark friend of mine calls it) that straddles northern Arizona and southern Utah hit its lowest level since Glen Canyon Dam stoppered the Colorado River in 1963. The lake, which inundated what many considered the Grand Canyon's lovelier sibling, has dropped by a hundred feet in the past few years, leaving a bathtub ring high up along the rock towers that emerge from the surface. The reservoir is at just half its capacity—it was full as recently as 1998—and the water is expected to continue falling. (It is typically at its highest in July and its lowest in February.)

This diminution of one of humanity's great endeavors to dominate nature was brought about, of course, by natural forces. The severe drought across the West over the past half decade has starved the lake while increasing the need for water in the parched lower basin of the Colorado River, which includes Las Vegas and its inexhaustible demand for fountains and faux naval battles. The drop in reservoir levels has intensified concerns about water supplies throughout the desert West.

It also has reinvigorated calls to drain the lake altogether. Activists argue that this would actually safeguard water supplies by cutting evaporation and seepage into the underlying rock, which now claim up to a million acre-feet of water each year. Besides, they say, sediment is slowly choking the reservoir. Decades or centuries from now—the time line is hotly disputed—the facility may have to be closed anyway. So, goes the argument, why wait?

Apart from inflaming passionate debates, the drought has revealed an entirely new Lake Powell, with tantalizing glimpses of what Glen Canyon must once have been. At its deepest point, the lake still measures 450 feet (137 meters). Nevertheless, majestic rock formations, submerged for decades, have risen back above the surface. Drowned slot canyons have reopened. Riparian landscapes have reasserted themselves on ground that, as recently as last year, was underwater. Many of these newly exposed areas are accessible only by small, maneuverable craft, and that fact has helped create an outdoor-industry boomlet. A few years ago, there were no kayak outfitters on the lake. Now there are a half dozen, catering to people who desire an atypical Lake Powell experience—one that offers the chance to learn and repeatedly employ reverse-paddling skills.

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September 2003

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