Be careful what you wish for, the saying goes. I wanted a caving adventure, one that would deliver the underground physical challenges my previous caving excursions hadn’t. I had seen colorful and impressive stalactites and stalagmites in a couple caves in Missouri, but I hadn’t found the scenery intriguing enough to cause me to make plans to go spelunking again. Then I heard about Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park and the subterranean excursions it offers, and I understood that if the world’s largest known cave couldn’t hook me on caving, nowhere would.
I signed on for the Wild Cave Tour, and the recommendation that I bring gloves and the requirement that I wear over-the-ankle boots with aggressive soles indicated that I’d find my adventure. On the drive south on I-65 from Louisville my only concern was whether I’d arrive at the Visitor Center in time for the 9:30 a.m. check-in. At 9:20, I parked the car, then read the sign that described what I was getting myself into. I didn’t quite panic (I prefer the phrase “my concern became more pronounced”) when I read that the Wild Cave Tour was restricted to people with chests no larger than 42 inches. I know I wear a 44 jacket, but does that mean anything? I’m not a giant, but I carry 200 pounds on my 6’2” frame, so I walked into the Visitor Center and asked an official-looking, tall, thin man in a forest-green jumpsuit if he thought I’d be able to squeeze my way through the tight spots I’d encounter on the tour. He looked me up and down, then said, “You should be okay.” He emphasized “should,” meaning “maybe not,” which wasn’t entirely comforting.
Moments later, the guide, Taylor, examined the boots on the feet of the 14 visitors about to descend, deeming our footwear acceptable, then proceeding to explain what we would soon experience. He said the number one response he receives from people who have completed the tour is astonishment that the government allows average folks to take such a tour at all, let alone without signing a liability waiver. My pulse quickened.
Taylor said we would be crawling through tight, restrictive spaces and that at one point we would have to choose whether we wanted to turn our heads left or right before we attempted to scoot our way through a passage with a total clearance of nine inches from floor to ceiling—the opening in the rock would be too small to allow us to change the direction we looked. I heard Taylor’s words, but my mind wouldn’t let me visualize the picture he was painting, so, after being outfitted with bandanas, kneepads, helmets and headlamps, I found myself aboard the bus heading to the Carmichael Entrance, studying the others, wondering who would be the first to crack.
We secured our kneepads, flipped on our headlamps, then entered the cave, walking down a flight of cement stairs. So far, so good, I thought, then made a bet with myself that I wouldn’t quit until after the small older guy did. We soon stopped to pick someone to go last, a sweeper who would make sure no one was left behind. Taylor told us that Kevin, another guide, would appear time and again in various spots along the route, acting as an omnipresent overseer of this underworld. One of our group made what I considered to be an arrogant comment about not having to wait for her, since she was an avid hiker. Taylor directed us to the first tricky passage we would negotiate, called the Bryce Crawl, and the arrogant woman quit the tour then and there. Kevin led her back out of the cave, as our adventure truly began.
One after the other, we maneuvered through the Bryce Crawl, our right knees taking the brunt of our weight as we scooted forward through the tilted slot. “This is intense,” I thought, reminding myself to stay calm, reminding myself that the old guy hadn’t quit yet. I was breathing hard, and I suddenly understood why we hadn’t been advised to wear a sweatshirt or jacket, since the cave is a constant 54 degrees year round. I was sweating, and we’d gone about eight yards, a fact that didn’t bode well, particularly since we would cover five and a half miles and spend five and a half hours underground on that first Sunday in May.
When we plopped out into the room that seemed relatively cavernous (though we were still squatting), my nerves had settled, and I let myself admit that I was having a blast. Soon we were doing a belly crawl, propelling ourselves single file any way we could, through what seemed like a worm hole called Red Rock, a constricting tunnel through the limestone that appeared to dead end. When we reached the section that seemed to be impassable, we pushed and pulled our torsos upward through a gap with only 10 inches of clearance, dragging our legs behind us as we did backbends, then slithering over the rock.
Over the next five hours we negotiated many kinds of terrain in the world’s largest labyrinth (the second and the third largest caves combined fall more than a hundred miles short of the 367 miles of navigable passages in Mammoth Cave). We climbed down rock walls by finding hand- and toeholds, straddled dramatic drops, hoisted ourselves up through holes in the rock, scrambled hand over hand and descended headfirst through a passage called the Birth Canal. I walked like a monkey, snailed my way through the Hell Hole, slithered when necessary, grunted often, pulled with my fingers, employed a one-legged frog kick, banged up my elbow, got drunk on adrenaline, got wet and muddy—and smiled most of the time.
Mammoth Cave offers 15 tours that can accommodate all tastes. But I found my adventure on the Wild Cave Tour. And for the record, when I got to the nine-inch clearance, I looked left.
Winter, snow-laden adventures don’t develop organically in Los Angeles. People seeking cold climes and sledding opportunities, for example, must make plans, then travel to distant slippery slopes. Writing winter adventure columns while living in an L.A. apartment, therefore, presents difficulties and requires foresight.
At a used bookstore I purchased a copy of Allen & Mike’s Really Cool Telemark Tips, then added it, unread, to my overstuffed bookshelf. When I saw a set of Nordic (cross-country) skis, boots and poles on sale at REI, I purchased it, intending to experience the challenges and thrills that cross-country skiing presents at the soonest opportunity.
Five years later, I chased a dropped AAA battery under my bed and felt the elongated form of my Alpina skis. In Norway, I would likely have been jailed for such neglect. I felt compelled to make amends to all of Scandinavia, so I headed to the one place I knew would have snow in March and also had a cross-country skiing center, Mammoth Lakes, California, about 300 miles from L.A.
Technically, I had tried cross-country skiing before: As a teenager I had pushed through roadside slush in a straight line for a few minutes, and, once in Yellowstone during a night bright with moonlight yet colder than I thought legally possible, I clumsily click-clacked around Old Faithful, displaying the grace of a man falling down stairs, then hoping I would someday be able to feel all 20 digits again.
Yet I considered this upcoming Nordic excursion to be my maiden voyage, my first true participation in the sport, so I didn’t want to try it flailing around in some unfamiliar field, where multiple dangers might lurk. Instead, Mammoth Mountain’s Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center—with its 20 miles of groomed trails, where other skiers would be able to pull me from streams or administer CPR—would be my destination.
Over the years I had heard various cross-country skiers (XC skiers in frosty-breathed lingo) extol the virtues of the sport: XC utilizes every muscle group in the body, granting a low-impact, total-body workout unmatched by any other sport, including swimming; performing the sport at the most vigorous level (aggressive mountaineering) burns an unprecedented number of calories per hour, 1,122, yet practitioners of the sport with no Olympic aspirations still burn calories and tone muscles at a healthy clip, as well as doing right by their hearts.
Yet none of these claims made the sport sound like fun. Carrying bags of cement up mountain peaks likely has aerobic and strength benefits, too, but I have no plans to visit Home Depot anytime soon. I was determined, however, to give XC an honest chance to win me over, especially since the sport is not nearly so expensive as downhill skiing, and RVers can easily tuck the gear into their rigs, then pull it out when snowy opportunities present themselves. I wasn’t expecting, however, to do much more than endure my XC experience, the way I endure treadmills.
As I’ve made clear in numerous previous columns, I am often an idiot. Or at least a guy who is regularly surprised, since his original assessment of experiences was suspect, or entirely ding-dong wrong.
Although my plan was to get the hang of being on the thin XC skies by slowly, carefully negotiating the trail that skirts Mammoth Mountain RV Park, the trail had not been plowed. Since I excel at improvisation (a skill that to others looks a lot like seat-of-the-pants winging it), I headed up the road to the Tamarack Cross Country Ski Center.
By the time I pulled on my sleek boots in the parking lot, the sky quickly darkened, wind roared through the pines and snow came at me sideways. Before I had introduced myself to Ueli Luthi, the manager of the ski center, I had watched five skiers, hunkering against the snowflake projectiles, click out of their skis at the end of the trail and head to their cars. As Ueli discussed fish-scale patterns on the bottoms of skis and explained the purpose of double-cambers and the pros and cons of waxing skis, I wondered whether I would be giving cross-country skiing a fair shake by heading out in such miserable conditions.
I was prepared, however, having stuffed food, water, bandages, a lighter, tinder and dry clothes in my waist pack, so I decided to give it a shot, fully expecting to make one lap around the beginning Twin Lakes Loop, then call it a day. When I had to ask another skier how to click into my bindings, I figured even my modest plan was too ambitious.
I set out very cautiously, pushing right-left-right-left through the two grooves cut in the trail that led through the trees. So far, so good, I thought as I made the right turn towards the Twin Lakes Loop. The forest opened, and I crossed a bridge. Fellow skiers negotiated the loop, and I quickly overtook them, saying hello as I passed. The cold proved not to be a factor, since the heat I was generating more than made up for the wind-chill. I could feel myself start to understand the movements required to propel myself efficiently, and I understood Ueli’s phrase “hiking on skis.”
Certainly, accomplished practitioners of the sport glide farther and more efficiently than I was managing, but no gliding exists while hiking or while riding a mountain bike uphill, yet I enjoy those activities. As I continued to progress, I headed up Lake Mary Road, huffing and puffing but feeling as invigorated as I remember feeling. I’m loving this, I thought while negotiating the three-kilometer Lake Mary Loop. My confidence increased with every stride, and I soon tested myself on the intermediate Sidewinder Trail, without mishap, unless unbridled ecstasy can be considered misfortune.
I had negotiated many miles of trails without a single fall, justified the purchase of the XC equipment, pleasantly surprised myself and discovered another sport I loved. Perhaps I’m not such an idiot after all.
Twice I’d been thwarted, my efforts rendered moot, my hopes dashed. Twice I’d traveled to Alaska to pursue creatures that proved to be more elusive than advertised. On two previous trips I had spent upwards of 30 hours plying the water in and around Prince William Sound, trying to catch a salmon shark, with nothing more than frustration to show for my efforts. And my attempt two days before to boat this elusive, toothy quarry on my third trip proved only slightly more successful, with an angler aboard the six-pack sportfishing boat I was on managing to haul one of the brutes from the depths. I never touched a rod that day, and I was beginning to wonder whether I was jinxed.
Yet there I stood at the edge of Valdez’s small boat harbor—only steps from the RV parks that practically define that small town in summer months—waiting under gun-metal gray skies to give salmon sharking another try. A small-craft advisory had been issued that morning, so I expected a choppy ride to the fishing grounds 60 miles out to sea. I soon learned that the word “choppy” was an understatement, as Otto Kulm, captain of the 34-foot Bold Eagle and owner of Pacific Mountain Guides, negotiated the four- and five-foot swells. By the time the boat settled on the leeward side of Hinchinbrook Island and Otto dropped anchor, I felt as though I’d been through the spin cycle, for nearly three hours.
The Bold Eagle was one of only two sportfishing boats from Port Valdez to brave the conditions that day. The grayness of the sky was nearly indistinguishable from the grayness of the water and the grayness of my mood. It was cold, desolate and unrelentingly miserable in a way that seemed quintessentially Alaskan.
Then deckhand Zach Farmer, however, stepped onto the deck in the driving rain to bait the enormous hooks. He looked across the vast monochromatic emptiness and said, “Hey, we have the place to ourselves.” I laughed, then adjusted my attitude. Adventures, after all, should encompass the unknown. And they may require discomfort, even hardship. And, at least in my case, they often end in frustrating disappointment. Or disappointing frustration.
Almost instantly, one of the three lines in the water began zinging seaward. I lifted the heavy rod from its holder as Otto strapped a fighting belt around my waist. On Otto’s command, I was to lock the drag, then lift the rod violently, as if trying to snap it. After about 20 seconds of letting the fish run, Otto shouted, “Now,” and I almost came out of my boots trying to bury the hooks somewhere permanent. I pumped and reeled, pumped and reeled, pumped … and realized that the fish was gone.
The ominous teeth marks on the 10-pound pink salmon at the end of my line revealed that the bait had been clamped between powerful jaws, but the hooks obviously never found purchase. For the next two hours, I sulked, conceded that salmon sharks would forever elude me, then mulled over the facts I knew about salmon sharks.
These first cousins to makos can grow to 10 feet in length and weigh more than 1,000 pounds. Zach told me that he has seen salmon sharks render six grown men limp before being subdued. Though the typical salmon sharks caught by the five charter-boat operators that hunt these creatures from Port Valdez “only” weigh between 300 and 500 pounds, they have perfected their defenses for millions of years, and any angler who tangles with a salmon shark will cherish the battle. Joe White, one of the Bold Eagle’s clients that day who had caught a salmon shark in the past, recalled his memorable battle this way: “It’s like having a bull on a string.”
July is the best time to catch salmon sharks, though the sharks also chase pinks in June and silvers in August, so anglers can hook into salmon sharks during these months, too. The limits for salmon sharks are one per day and two per year, though Otto thinks the limit should be one per angler per year, so that the fishery will be safely sustained. And since the average salmon shark yields far more than 100 pounds of succulent steaks, harvesting one shark is more than plenty for most people.
On the Bold Eagle that afternoon, the line suddenly tore off the reel, so Chad Workman violently set the hook. Chad gained line quickly, reeling hard and trying to remain upright on the slick deck. The initial fight lasted about 25 minutes, then, once the fish saw the boat, the excitement escalated.
The shark arced repeatedly around the boat, but Otto eventually plunged a harpoon into the gray beast. The harpoon was affixed by rope to a large, orange buoy, and the buoy instantly disappeared under the boat. The rod tip bowed into the water, but Chad managed to haul the shark away from the props and close enough to the boat for Otto to fire a bang-stick loaded with a .44 into the shark’s head. The shark seemed unfazed by the blast, and as Otto maneuvered the bang-stick for another shot, the line on a second rod started moving seaward.
John Gunther grabbed that rod, waited for the shark to make its dash, then tried to break the rod. Zach stood on the swim step with gaff in hand, ready for the first shark. But the beast was a battler, so Otto delivered a second shot to its head. John pumped his rod aggressively and, after a half-hour fight, managed to pull the second fish boatside. Just after Otto delivered a third shot to the first shark—a fish that would measure eight-feet-two-inches long and weigh nearly 400 pounds—line from the third rod started zinging seaward. Pandemonium ruled around me, and I felt disappointed, since I knew I was not meant to catch a shark that day. But as the saying goes, “the fourth time’s a charm.”