Tag Archives: Escape the Urban

Escape the Urban Book Review: Robert Kull’s “Solitude”

20 Nov

In February 2001, Robert Kull took the concept of “escaping the urban” to its logical extreme: he moved to an uninhabited island in the glaciated fjordlands of southern Chile and lived alone for a year. On purpose. The only companion he packed in was a cat named Cat – all other kinship he discovered while there. 

The non-fiction shelf of your local bookstore is full of what my agent calls “stunt books.” Authors place themselves in gimmicky and often preposterous scenarios to create a new frame for an old story: reading the entire encyclopedia, living a year according to a strict interpretation of the Bible, walking or biking or kayaking across a continent. Kull is less stuntman than hermit. His quest was the oldest: spiritual, not contrived drama, more Coptic guru than Bear Grylls.

Robert Kull, according to his own description, is an ex-woodsman, part time scuba instructor, Buddhist/New Age fusion acolyte and (now) successful PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia. In 2000 he managed to convince his dissertation committee to allow him to spend a year alone in the wilderness to research the affect of prolonged isolation on the human psyche. He would be both observer and subject, and kept daily journals to study and record his activities, mood, and ramblings. Because Kull is missing a leg and likes to sit and meditate, those diary entries contain more stream of consciousness than action narrative. The intimate (but fortunately edited, though a more forceful slashing would have been welcome) daily log forms the bulk of this book, broken by various interludes to explore themes of technology, scientific inquiry, and the Big Mind of creation.

I was initially entranced by Kull’s concept, and my own longing for remote Patagonia. The book’s front half moves right along as logistical concerns dominate: choosing the right remote island, procuring gear and supplies, planning a year’s worth of meals, building a cabin in the raging wind and rain, finding and stacking firewood for the coming cold, exploring inlets and isolated pebble beaches to discover ducks, dolphins, seals and limpets.  

But as he settles in to a long winter of isolation, as anxiety gives way to comfortable introspection, Kull loses all readers except the most devoted (trite?) spiritual explorers. I stubbornly stuck around waiting for the moment he would snap, smear gratuitous psychological carnage across the page, a sign of solitary induced dementia finally evident. Instead, Kull forms friendships with Butter Belly Diving Ducks, sees reassuring spirit faces in the rock formations on the mountain sides, and only seems to dread the expected depression that will come with reintegration into human society. He finds pleasant Solitude, not Loneliness, and his self-indulgent self-criticism aside, seems more content counting shellfish on the shore than facing bustling Vancouver again.

Most disappointing, however, was that despite his constant introspection, Kull could never see the irony of his entire endeavor: the human society he shunned produced the technology that made his mission possible. Kull did not paddle out to an island and build himself a cabin out of the materials he found there. The Chilean Navy shipped in pallets of gear for him: lumber and nails and screws and plastic sheeting to build his cabin, solar panels and a wind turbine to make electricity for incandescent light and his computer and sat-phone, a rigid inflatable raft with two outboard motors. While Kull asks himself whether he is really alone if he can email his pseudo-partner any time he wants, he never contemplates whether he could have traveled to his island in the first place without two tons of stuff.

Self-help junkies, rapt meditators and quasi-spiritual investigators will enjoy Kull’s quest into the self and the occasionally interesting insights into life it provides. Wilderness enthusiasts will ask themselves if they could pull of a year near Tierra del Fuego, may experience a momentary twinge of jealousy, but ultimately will only wonder how this book ended up in the outdoor section of Barnes and Noble.

Escape the Urban Travelogue: An Unlovable Land

13 Nov

I spent the last week alternating between freezing and cooking on a table of high desert in a corner of New Mexico, just north of El Paso and the big bend of the Rio Grande. The northernmost finger of the expansive Chihuahuan Desert, this is a land of yuccas and scrubs, crusted-over mud that devolves into baby powder at the least disturbance, a tableau painted almost entirely from a palette of various browns and tans. There are only three exceptions to this uniform dirty smear: the deep sky above, two weeks of wet spring that brings the desert to bloom, and the mountains shimmering in the distance, blue during the blinding sunny days, purple when backlit from a dusty blown orange sunset.

This mile high landscape is beautiful like the bleached skeletons that litter the dessicated wadis. Beautiful like a chiseled slab of granite split from the relentless wind alone. Beautiful like a coyote howl heard from a mesa miles away, not a single obstruction to attenuate the sound between.

If this land is lovely, it is also unlovable. Not even the most hardened denizen can love a home that is constantly trying to kill. Tolkien’s elves and hobbits fell in love with whispering trees, rolling grassy hills and well-tilled earth, not spiny ground cactus, parched ridgelines and caliche dust flowing through your fingers like a powdery hourglass. Here your cheeks aren’t rosy from a nip in the air, but from a competition between the sun and wind to see which can deliver the more lasting burn. In New York, our “in-between places” naturally fill in with forest and vine and horsetails. Out in the high desert, the same places gather drifts of dirt in the open, and plastic trash in the cities.

If this land is not loved, that does not mean it is not respected, or admired, or pined for even. Having lived in eastern New Mexico for several years, I can confidently say that residents who bore their home any affection loved not their land but what it represented. Loved what the open landscape stood for. Freedom. Opportunity. Self-sufficiency. A pride in having been toughened by the clime, still standing tall like a dried yucca stalk, unbroken though etched and scarred by the wind and sun. The signs of past hardships are everywhere; the road I drove everyday between draws and low gullies appeared on our map as an old stagecoach tract, the squared and cut paving stones, now cracked, still lining the wheel ruts.

Back home now on grey wet Grand Island, my boots are still impregnated with dust, my neck is looks like parched beef jerky, and my wide horizons are shrunk again by the enveloping canopy.

Escape the Urban: Soak Up Fall

5 Nov

I’ve said it before: autumn is my favorite time of year. This season is proving it true again, with enviable temperatures, brilliant deep blue skies, and fully hued trees that seemingly refuse to give up their leaves. Three months in and it hasn’t let up yet.

Day after day, my wife stands in front of the large picture window at our house and soaks up the sun like a dog following warming beams to slumber in. She just stares into our forested back yard, watching waves of orange leaves flutter to the ground like paper snowflakes. I cast a questioning look at her.

“I’m forming a mental picture picture in my head. I’m absorbing as much sun and color and life as possible while I can. It’ll sustain me through grey February.”

Not a bad solution to survive our overcast and monochrome winters.

I’ve posted this article a day early to help you plan your weekend (the last nice weekend, finally?), to absorb as much fall as you can. But where to go? Let me make the following suggestions, from my Escape the Urban archives, in case you missed any key installments:

Go paddle to Strawberry and Motor Islands

Take the apple picking tour of the Lake Ontario shoreline in Niagara County

Hike Zoar Valley

Hike the east rim of Letchworth

Bike the Chatauqua Rail Trail (BTW, shameless plug, pick up a copy of this months Buffalo Spree for a guide to the Pat McGee Trail too)

Rediscover the Buffalo Lighthouse

Bike from Delaware Park to the Inner Harbor

Drop down into Devil’s Hole

Hike to the Eternal Flame at Chestnut Ridge

Escape the Urban: A Last Season’s Run

30 Oct

Last Sunday I guided two rafting trips down the Genesee River in Letchworth, from the Lower Falls to St. Helena, hitting Lee’s Landing, New Wave Beach, and Wolf Creek in transit. In the morning in my raft I had a father/son pair, the dad a firefighter from Rochester. In the afternoon I had two brothers and their young wives/girlfriends, mid-twenty something’s helping their greying father celebrate a birthday. I took my own father and brother-in-law on the morning run as well. Such an abundance of family is not coincidental; the river tends to draw people in such clumps, and even among the river guides ourselves are several husband/wife, father/son, and father/daughter combinations.

Wolf Creek (photo by Chuck Evingham)

The sun was a brilliant on a mid-autumn day, warming our black wetsuits by its mid-day crest. The foliage colors were at a peak, and blanketed the ridge tops, gorge rim, and isolated gullies in a ruddy gild. Even the water was high, a product of recent rain and a scheduled release of the Rushford Lake dam upstream. Score and combine each factor, and it may have been the best day on the Genesee all year, the best way possible to end an incredible season.

I remember the start of my rafting season distinctly, a mid-February evening trip to Batavia to meet with my future employer for the first time, my application having already been accepted and approved via email. The 2011 rookie class met for hot chocolate and soup at Coffee Culture, listened to the training manager discuss the driest boater safety and gear management study material imaginable, and then split up for another six weeks, waiting for the ice to break. I left Coffee Culture in a whiteout, and mentally lost in my own thoughts, wondering if rafting wasn’t going to be quite as exciting as I thought, I got physically lost trying to get on the thruway. In the blinding snowstorm I went east and not west, and after nearly twenty minutes of slowly plodding through the slush, made an illegal u-turn through the median to get back home. An inauspicious start to my year.

The days got much better from there. Early season runs on the high-water Cattaraugus, tiny icebergs floating by our rafts and frozen waterfalls tightly clinched along the Zoar Valley gorge walls. Fast runs down the swollen Genesee in mid spring, a chocolate milk runoff mix that roller-coastered us down the 5.5 mile course in less than an hour. And then, as the Catt season wrapped up in early June, and water ebbed on the Genny in July, big water returned on the Salmon River, draining the reservoirs of the Tug Hill Plateau, rapids with names like Titanic, Lusitania and Black Hole, the size of which we hadn’t seen since April. Only now the trees were lush and green, the water was warm tannin-stained tea, and bikinis and swim trunks replaced neoprene and dry-suits. Still, the season was only half over, and we ran the Genny through til October, the water rising as the drought broke, the season climaxing in last weekend’s top run.

Eight months on, four months off. Time to clean and repair the gear, carefully store it for next year. As I stood over my stationary tub in my basement, rinsing out my NRS Titanium gloves for the final time, I noted how far I had come. When I started eight months ago, I didn’t even know the name of most of the equipment now stowed in my rafting bag. I wore a borrowed lifevest, flimsy shooting gloves, horrid cotton socks. Laughable now, how ill prepared I was for working on a river. Now I have a new Astral Greenjacket rescue vest, multiple sets of neoprene layers of all descriptions, my own rope and throw bag, water shoes and wool EMS mountaineering socks. I bet every dollar I made on the river I spent on gas and gear. But then again, the money had little to do with it.

Genesee Gorge (photo by Chuck Evingham)

Beyond the thrill, beyond the undeniable fun of throwing a raft through the whirlpool eye of swirling froth, the point was to undertake and meet a new challenge. In March I couldn’t you the difference between a guide stick and a yard stick. I didn’t know how to teach a boat full of rookies how to paddle while already in their first rapid, only seconds from launching. I didn’t know how to fill and toss and repair and hump and stack and spin and ride 150 pound rubber rafts. I didn’t know how to hand a woman a size extra-large wetsuit without insulting her (still tricky). I didn’t know how to kick the nose around at Mystery Rock, to let the buffering pillow wave lull you to the hole, spinning your raft and surprising your passengers in a last second flip, standing the raft on its side. I didn’t know how to guide. I just knew I liked the thrill – the deeper pleasures came later.

I still have plenty to learn. I have a guide certification test to take this winter, and an in-depth water rescue course to complete next spring. But that doesn’t detract from the solemn satisfaction in having met a major goal. A year ago, when I put in my application, I was just hoping for a call back. Now I can say I’ve been guiding rivers all season, teaching first timers how to paddle and kids about geology, helping the timid face a challenge they didn’t think they had the guts for, introducing the wonders of the natural world to the city-bound and outdoor-adverse. Next March can’t come soon enough.

Escape the Urban: Preservation Edition

23 Oct

This week I’ll bend my own self-imposed “rules” on profiling urban venues to let you in on a preservation-related little known fact of the outdoor variety: you can walk out to the Buffalo Lighthouse again.

This is a secret few are seeking to keep; the opening was timed with the arrival of this week’s historic preservation conference, and stories ran in local news outlets. But based purely on my own experience, the word doesn’t seem to have g0tten out yet. I and my out-of-school sons were the only visitors over the lunch hour on Friday, and when I posted pictures on Twitter, several responded back in surprise that I was granted access. No special VIP pass here – just an open gate and a newly laid brick path.

Much works remains to transform public access into public destination. Grass seed covers chewed up mud fields, a consequence of the construction of new old tyme lamp posts and wrought iron-esque fences that separate the Coast Guard Station from the waterside right of way. Interpretive signage that hasn’t been scrutinized by curious eyes in a decade requires a bit of polish and repair. But these are garnishes that don’t distract from the main course: a view of Buffalo and Lake Erie that we’ve missed for a long time.

The term “windswept” barely begins to describe this spit of land and its 179 year old crown jutting out into the lake. The breeze makes itself known far up the mouth of the Inner Harbor, while pedestrians are still sheltered by ancient maples and a hardscrabble cluster of low coast guard structures. The wind builds along the narrow walkway out to the lighthouse landing, white crests forming on wave tops only a couple feet away.

A full gale is in effect by the time you arrive at the limestone spire, a howl that cuts through clutched clothing even on a relatively mild autumn day. The combined wind and water of all of Lake Erie is funneled and blown horizontally onto the very spot you stand, a low mound of dirt and rock reinforced with sheet metal retaining walls, a flimsy bulwark against the ceaseless assault. We didn’t stay long admiring the view, and I can only imagine life for those of the former lighthouse service, spending years or decades in such conditions, tending the lamp that separated storm from shelter.

Escape the Urban: Eternal Flame Falls at Chestnut Ridge

16 Oct

Am I the last person in Western New York to visit the Eternal Flame?

One would assume so based upon the foot traffic last Monday, a bright and warm Columbus Day that saw plenty of exasperated parents looking for an active outlet for their energetic children. The trailhead along Seufert Road was packed with cars when we arrived, and overflowed onto adjoining streets by the time we left. On the path itself families and day care groups stood nearly elbow to elbow, a continuous string from roadside trail launch to slate bottom terminus. Most were friendly, a few of the children obnoxious, and only one overweight man hadn’t gotten the memo and smoked cigarettes the entire time. I literally have never seen a trail in Western New York so busy; you can escape the urban here, but not humanity, on a pleasant fall day.

I feel a little silly posting a map to the trailhead, if I am really the only one in town not in the know, but the truth is I had to look up the hike in a trail guide myself, and the Erie County Parks website does little to advertise or direct you to the right location. Once on scene, the attraction of the place is evident: the total distance to hike must be less than two miles, and very little of it is vertically challenging. There are plenty of terrain features to draw the eye the length of the trek. You get to walk along and in the stream bed on the slate bottom itself for the last third. And let’s face it – a perpetually lit flame from a natural gas pocket behind a veil of falling water is just cool. 

But if my description of crowded popularity is too off-putting (there are outdoor hipsters, I’m just not sure what the proper term is), I still recommend you give Eternal Flame Falls a try, especially at the potentially least-busy time. Very early morning. Drenching rain. I want to go back in early spring, when the rushing thaw should produce a torrent over the falls sure to soak the unprepared hiker to the icy miserable bone.  Because the trail is remarkably clean, the narrow water-carved ravine is intimate in its proportions and exquisite in its chiseled detail, and even without the flame-behind-water-curtain effect, the final grotto is genuinely inspiring. Like a setting from an Indian Jones movie transplanted to Western New York, the water drips and cascades around you on three sides, the shark-toothed slate wall rises above, and set in its sanctum, the ethereal flame endures.  

Escape the Urban: Greenway Project Update

9 Oct

The latest in a series on the Niagara River Greenway Commission – here are the previous entries on the history of the group, an analysis of their systemic challenges, delays in spending money, last October’s project tracker and the update from this spring.

For my regular lonely update on the Niagara River Greenway Commission, the quasi-government entity with great potential, significant funding and nebulous power, epitomizing Western New York’s challenge in getting out of its own way, I was hoping to write up a throw away post, closing out coverage of the three projects I had been tracking and asking for readers to submit recommendations for new work to follow. Instead, two projects are incomplete and another is behind schedule.

First, the best (and only good) news. Fisherman’s Landing ($400,000), a reclamation project to convert a former wastewater treatment site and general eyesore into a convenient spot to throw in a bobber and a worm, is nearing completion.

Yes, the project was submitted for consideration three years ago, and at least two construction seasons were missed while the standing committee in charge of funding figured out how to open a bank account. Yes, it’s not the largest project, the sexiest project, or the most transformative project. But it allows anglers quality public access, and a prime goal of the commission was to find ways to get people to the water and enjoy it. After the trials and tribulations, it’s good to see the project 90% complete, down to a little asphalt work and installation of railings.

Images courtesy Mary Cooke (R-GI Town Council)

Unfortunately, the same can not be said for the installation of signage along the trail ($205,000) and the construction of a key connecting bike trail between Lewiston and Devil’s Hole State Park ($2M total, $210,000 of greenway funds). The bike trail has been delayed for some time, and I did not expect to find progress. The signage, however, was supposed to be installed by now (August/September completion per the Erie County Planning Department in June). I was so confident the new product would be there that I didn’t call my program contacts before going out this weekend to take pictures along the trail. But lo and behold, as I scoured the Scajaqueda/Riverwalk conjunction, I found the battered oldtyme bicycle signs, not the new sleek guide posts I had expected.

More to come as I track down the reason for delays, though the original offer still stands: if there is a Greenway Project you’d like more info on, please comment below.

Escape the Urban: Return to Zoar Valley

2 Oct

The rain and color have both arrived, hand in hand, sweet autumn sisters that somehow both soothe and tempt. The trees are flushing into the heart of their fall brilliance. The rain is re-swelling creeks and streams. Yesterday I river guided in Letchworth, back in rafts again as the dry summer passes and the Genny fills with runoff, rapids reforming in chutes and rock bars where only bare longing existed two weeks before.

The Catt is filling again in Zoar as well. Commercial rafting has long since ended for the year, but if you have your own whitewater kayak now is the time to grab some late season action while you can. If not, there are still trails enough to enjoy, as the chill-induced leaf change comes to some of the oldest and tallest trees in New York State. Julie Broyles, who runs zoarvalley.org, has told me many times that the Zoar is special because it is a place you keep wanting to go back to. Those who enjoy it at the peak fullness of summer have a way of finding themselves returning for autumn color and winter’s icy fastness.

May I recommend the following articles to help you plan your own Zoar visit. The first I wrote for WNYMedia this summer, and describes the many trails and sights at The Nature Conservancy’s Deer Lick Preserve.

The second is my article for the September issue of Buffalo Spree, recently available on their website. Besides covering the trails in the New York State Zoar Valley Multiple Use Area, it details the serendipitous history of this odd pocket of WNY, and includes an interview with Mr. Herb Darling Jr, the most remarkable Western New Yorker you’ve never heard off.

Mr. Darling’s father donated the land that we know as Zoar Valley today. Following in his father’s philanthropic footsteps, the son is the past President of the Buffalo Science Museum and current President of the NY Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation. Hidden in Zoar is a plantation of experimental chestnut trees where Mr. Darling is leading the effort to save the species. Learn more in my interview, and enjoy your fall retreat to Zoar.

Escape the Urban: Royalton Ravine

25 Sep

What do we do with Royalton Ravine?

Don’t let any writer tell you they don’t have an agenda. Stringing words together isn’t so lucrative or stress free that one takes up the profession for purely superficial reasons. Storytellers, bloggers, traditional journalists and sports beat writers all have their motivations, from love of the game to a drive to shine light on political corruption. If you write restaurant reviews and don’t love food, your readers will notice and you don’t last long.

The outdoor writer’s agendas are similarly layered: get people out into nature, build a constituency for environmental protection, help promote related businesses, brag about your own exploits, expose the curious to something you love. I get great satisfaction from readers telling me they tried a trail, a paddle, a spot I recommended, and were changed for it. What better feedback could a writer receive in a craft that often involves many lonely hours in front of a computer at home.

Such motivations, unconscious as they might be, lead to some subtle topical choices. Should I overlook a flaw in this park so people will still want to visit? Do I gloss it over? Leave it unmentioned, like it doesn’t exist? Can I be honest and still accomplish my agenda, left unspoken and unstated as it often is? The reader must trust the writer – blow sunshine and your integrity, reputation and livelihood are simultaneously lost. At the same time, I had a local food writer tell me once that the key to writing a good review is picking the right restaurant in the first place. There are four hundred red sauce houses in Western New York; if you don’t want to write a negative article, don’t go to them.

Which brings us back to Royalton Ravine. On a recent weekend I took my family on a hike in this out-of-the-way park located east of Lockport. I enjoy hiking, and I need to collect data for articles, and the two purposes usually nicely coincide. So let me be clear: when I pull into the parking lot and unload my sons for our mini-adventure, I am predisposed to positivity. I’m not looking for trouble. I want to like the trail.  But I did not, and now I don’t know what to do.

Can a trek be virtually unknown and still be over-hyped? While certainly popular among the local residents of the town of Royalton, for the rest of us this Niagara County Park is a bit off the beaten path and not prominent on most radar. It appears in only two lesser known guidebooks (Rich and Sue Freedman’s local waterfall guide and Randi Minetor’s Falcon guide) which is how I found it on Trails.com. The route descriptions talked up a cable stayed bridge over the creek and old settlement ruins, good hooks to lure the curious. Western New York is gorge country – Niagara, Letchworth, and Zoar Valley being only the most prominent, as every little creek and waterway eventually cuts a path in our receptive geology – and I was hoping this spot would be a nice hidden gem to add.

Instead, I found real potential marred by abuse and neglect. The path itself is a mud pit, made the worse by ruts and gashes, the product of obviously frequent churning of wheeled vehicles, be they town maintenance trucks or unauthorized ATVs. Littering the path is every sort of refuse, from alcohol and energy drink cans to discarded panties. Roughly a third of the trees along the trail bear the permanent graffiti of knife carvings. One online guide I found later recommended calling ahead to ensure the cable bridge is in place, as it is often the target of vandalism and destruction. Never mind that the bridge itself is three feet above the creek and perfectly ordinary, not the marvel described in an over-excited guidebook.

Most frustrating was the state of the old homestead crumbling near the top of the obscured falls. A pile of forgotten stones, tagged by spray paint and now home to a fire pit and assorted beer cans, this modest ruin has a place in history. If a number of local guides are to be believed, is the birthplace and early childhood home of Belva Ann Lockwood, leader of the women’s suffrage movement. She was the first woman to argue a case before the Supreme Court, and the first woman to run for President, doing so in 1884 and 1888. One would not know that from looking; the disrepair of this site indicates worthlessness, and there is no sign or marker to convince you otherwise.

Maybe I should go back in the spring, where less view-blocking foliage and more water would great a dramatic enough falls to make me forget the other issues. Maybe I should be happy there is a county park “protecting” the watershed at all. Maybe I should call Royalton Ravine a red sauce restaurant, ignore it and move on.

But we don’t have four hundred parks in WNY, and red sauce houses don’t get managed with public tax dollars. At a minimum the trail should be maintained, the graffiti eliminated, the trash picked up, and the area patrolled (if necessary) to keep it from coming back. If the homestead ruins are what local guides say, they should be cleaned, stabilized, marked, and (in a perfect world) restored.

There is potential at Royalton Ravine, not for a national park-like masterpiece, but for a quality combination of natural and social history. An ice age remnant gorge, a shale bottom creek, stands of old timber, a sixty foot waterfall, and intertwined a story of our region’s first settlers and political pioneers. It is a potential currently masked and neglected. What do we do about it?

Escape the Urban: Fall Favorites

18 Sep

Does everyone’s favorite time of year coincide with their birthday? That Fall is mine may have something to do with my October birth month, or it may be more closely related to the spectacular Autumns we enjoy in Western New York. Not only is the weather perfect – no bugs, warm days, cool breeze – but the scenery puts on its best show, and the activities abound. Go on your bike ride, kayak outing, or hike. Or pick apples, sit on the back porch with a warm cup of cider, or (my favorite) fall asleep on the couch watching an afternoon football game.

Have you figured out yet that I didn’t write a column this week? Enjoy Fall. I’ll be back next Sunday.

Akron Falls - go try it today