About

Tim Sohn is a freelance journalist based in New York and a Correspondent for Outside Magazine.

Stories

"All Will Be Revealed. Maybe," a review essay of Carl Hoffman's Savage Harvest, about the Michael Rockefeller mystery, incorporating my own reporting on the story.

"Powder for the Purists," on snowcat-assisted backcountry skiing in the southern Cascades at Oregon's Mt. Bailey.

"What a Catch," a look at the family of salmon fishermen bringing their products to Brooklyn and Portland via an innovative CSA-style distribution model.

"Operation Hollywood," a behind-the-scenes look at action film Act of Valor and the active-duty Navy SEALs who star in it.

"The Novelist," an interview with octogenarian writer James Salter, unrivaled prose stylist and all around legend, in Outside Magazine

"Artists in the Convent," a New York Times piece about a struggling Brooklyn parish that's opened its doors to artists.

"Shattered Idyll," in which I visited a soon-to-be-demolished ghost town on the Connecticut coast. Read it in the New York Observer or on Yahoo News.

"Graveyard Shift," a look at midwestern skiing at Paoli Peaks, Indiana, Skiing Magazine; read it here.

"The Life and Death of Shane McConkey," Outside Magazine; read it here.

"Gold Fish," a feature on the salmon fishermen of Bristol Bay and their fight against the proposed Pebble Mine, Outside; read it here.

"Everyman's Everest", a first-person account of my climb of Aconcagua (22,834 feet), Men's Journal; read it here.

 

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Tuesday
Dec182012

Online: Big Rock Candy Mountains

My piece from December's Skiing Magazine, on the remote Tushar Mountains in southern Utah, is now available online. Read it here

The Mystery Machine: preferred transport at southern Utah's Eagle Point resort.

Tuesday
Dec112012

Your Fishmonger is Lying to You (Maybe)

The real thing: Wild King/Chinook Salmon, Bristol Bay, AK (2010)Maybe not intentionally, but the end result is the same: no matter how conscientious a consumer you try to be, you're often not getting the fish you think you are. Seafood supply chains are notoriously opaque and alarmingly difficult to trace; always have been. Which means that buying seafood, even at reputable vendors, is a potential minefield, and since well-meaning merchants and restaurants are often duped by their suppliers, it's hard to know exactly where in that chain to assign blame. But at least now the problem is being brought to light, with a piece in today's NY Times highlighting a new study (PDF) in NYC by marine conservation group Oceana that used DNA tests to determine whether fish were actually what vendors claimed. The results, as summarized by the Times:

The researchers, from the conservation group Oceana, said that genetic analyses showed that 39 percent of nearly 150 samples of fresh seafood collected from 81 establishments in the city this summer were mislabeled. ... In some cases, cheaper types of fish were substituted for expensive species. In others, fish that consumers have been urged to avoid because stocks are depleted, putting the species or a fishery at risk, was identified as a type of fish that is not threatened. ... Some of the findings present public health concerns. Thirteen types of fish, including tilapia and tilefish, were falsely identified as red snapper. Tilefish contains such high mercury levels that the federal Food and Drug Administration advises women who are pregnant or nursing and young children not to eat it.

Additional results of note: all 16 of the sushi venues surveyed sold at least one mislabeled fish, and 94 percent of fish sold as white tuna was in fact "snake mackerel, or escolar, which contains a toxin that can cause severe diarrhea if more than a few ounces of meat are ingested."

To me, the results are not shocking at all--anyone who knows a bit about seafood supply chains probably suspected this was the case--but what is pleasantly surprising is seeing a group finally go to the trouble and expense of doing a DNA-based study to prove just how little we know about the fish we eat.

One result of particular interest to me, but which was not mentioned in the Times piece: the prevalence of misrepresenting farmed salmon as wild caught. There are few things I would say I'm an expert in, but salmon is one of them, and over the years, I've found myself in more than a few arguments with waiters and fishmongers regarding the salmon they're selling, with fish labeled as wild Pacific Salmon looking/tasting suspiciously like farmed Atlantic salmon. So it comes as something of a vindication to read this, from the original report (emphasis added):

Fraudulent salmon was most often Atlantic salmon being substituted for wild salmon. Wild Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar, is all but commercially extinct, but Pacific salmon is almost entirely wild- caught.... In a few cases, one type of wild salmon was substituted for another (Coho for sockeye and vice versa). However, fish substituted for king salmon (the most expensive salmon species) were all farmed Atlantic salmon.

With consumers getting more and more curious about where their food comes from, and with studies like this one coming out more frequently, the seafood industry is going to need to find a way to address their supply chain problem. It won't be easy.

Friday
Dec072012

Newsstand Alert: Eagle Point Story in December issue of Skiing Mag

"In the Big Rock Candy Mountains," my story chronicling my March trip to southern Utah's Tushar Mountains, is out now, in the December issue of Skiing Magazine. The purpose of the trip was twofold: to investigate the re-opening of the long-shuttered Elk Meadows ski area, now reincarnated as  Eagle Point; and to tour some blissfully uncrowded backcountry with Tushar Mountain Tours.

The story hasn't made its way online yet, but I urge you to pick up a copy at a newstand or Barnes and Noble--I know, hopelessly retrograde. To entice you, above is the opening spread, with photo by Kevin Winzeler, and here's the lede:

“Nothing left to ski.” It was St. Patrick’s Day, my second day at Eagle Point, a small ski resort in southwestern Utah’s in- frequently visited Tushar Mountains. The lean snow year meant bad spring conditions and thin cover on what was already lim- ited terrain—1,500 vertical feet, with 40 runs and five lifts spread over 600 acres. So I’d taken to the journalistic equivalent of talking to myself: scribbling my dejection in my notebook. “Today is fine, but what am I going to do with two more days here?”


The hill, formerly known as Elk Meadows, is tucked away in the Fishlake National Forest, occupying a high meadow and plunging canyon 18 miles east of the town of Beaver, a waypoint roughly halfway between Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, three and a half hours from each. It opened in 1971, catering mostly to a regional clientele, and though it seemed like a place with big potential, it always struggled. Over its first 30 years, it ran through a succession of six owners and a few bankruptcies. Then, from 2002 to 2010, it was shuttered while a rotating cast of investors attempted to turn it into a private resort on the model of the Yellowstone Club. One investor in that scheme, known as the Mount Holly Club, was a New York hedge fund called Xe Capital. When the club plan imploded in 2008, several of Xe’s principals, led by a Michigander named Shane Gadbaw, bought the resort at auction and hustled to reopen it for the 2010–2011 season as Eagle Point.

The Elk Meadows saga is a classic tale of the American West, full of hucksters and charlatans, entrepreneurs and escapists, big dreams and big mountains and big failures, with the possibility of redemption at the end of it all. I’d come to investigate the resort’s reopening and answer a pretty basic question: Was Gadbaw, now 37, just another dreamer lured West with visions of grandeur, or did this place really have a shot?

The answer (spoiler alert!): I think so, but my opinion was certainly influenced by the blizzard that blew in during my stay there and and yielded endless fresh tracks for my final two days there. (For shots of the powder bonanza, check out my Tushars flickr set here.)

 

Thursday
Dec062012

Alaska: Future Swing State?

Blue Alaska?

Regular readers will know that I've been spending a lot of time in Alaska the past five years, and I've often had discussions with born-and-bred Alaskan friends about the political future of the state and about whether an influx of "new Alaskans" coupled with generational shifts in attitudes might change the state's political calculus. In particular, on resource issues like the one I've been researching, the Pebble Mine, it seemed to me that Alaskan attitudes were changing rapidly, especially in the urban population centers where the majority of Alaskans live (half of Alaska's population lives in the Anchorage area alone).

Consider the hunch verified: writing yesterday on his 538 blog over at the New York Times, pundit wizard-king Nate Silver noted that the Democratic nominee has been losing by gradually slimmer margins in the Presidential elections, from Gore losing by 31 percentage points in 2000 to Obama losing by 22 points in 2008--in spite of running against Alaska Governor Sarah Palin--and then by just 14 points this year. (The 2004 election, though not mentioned by Silver, conforms to the trend, with Kerry losing to Bush by 26 points.) And Silver's research seems to bear out my anecdotal observations on population: 

Alaska’s population is also changing; between 2010 and 2011, Alaska had the third-highest population growth rate in the country, trailing only Texas and Utah.

Where are those new Alaskans coming from? Many are from liberal states on the West Coast. Between 2005 and 2009, about 4,300 Californians moved to Alaska per year, making it the top state for domestic emigration to Alaska. So did 4,200 residents per year from Washington and 2,200 from Oregon.

But because of the state's dependence on the oil and gas industries, Alaska, Silver says, is likely to remain conservative on economic and resource issues, and vote conservative because of them, at least for the time being.  

But a Democrat who was perceived as being of the center-left or the libertarian left, especially one from a western state like Colorado’s governor, John W. Hickenlooper, could conceivably be competitive in Alaska. And if Alaska continues to add population from states like California and Washington, it could be competitive on a more regular basis in 2020 and going forward.

Stranger things have happened, and I'm certainly not going to argue with Nate Silver. 

Sunday
Dec022012

Video: Sailboat Days in Bristol Bay

This is six minutes that will make you rethink toughness and what it means to work hard. It's a compilation of some astoundingly high-quality footage of some of my predecessors in the Bristol Bay fishing fleet, which was entirely sail- and oar-powered until the 1950s. From the video's description: "In this excerpt from John Sabella's 1994 documentary The Great Age of Salmon, seafood industry pioneer Stan Tarrant describes the era when fishermen left the cannery dock at 6 o'clock Monday morning and lived in the open boats until they returned with their catches at 6 o'clock Saturday night."

Tuesday
Nov202012

Blog Hiatus: Mexican Thanksgiving

Monday
Nov052012

Post-Sandy: Picking up the Pieces in Breezy Point

Looking southeast across the remains of the 110 houses destroyed in the fire at Breezy Point.It's been an incredibly surreal, trying, and tragic week in and around New York City, and even as many of us work back towards normalcy, there are large swathes of the city and New Jersey where "normal" is a remote, and in some cases unreachable, possibility. Up and down the Jersey shore and across Staten Island, communities have been destroyed wholesale, as you've no doubt seen, and many others remain without power or heat, without access to food or drinking water.  

One of the hardest hit areas in the five boroughs of New York City was the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, where the scope of the damage is almost beyond words. This haunting video from Poppy de Villaneuve is a somber summary. 

Yesterday I went out to Breezy Point, at the western end of the Peninsula, to try to lend a hand in my cousin's effort to clean out his own flooded house. The scene, sadly, made all the newscaster cliches about "war zones" and places looking "like a bomb went off" seem horribly apt. An electrical fire sparked during the hurricane's high winds burned 110 homes down to their foundations (visible in photos above and left, with better photos from WaPo here), and nearly every home that wasn't incinerated was flooded and damaged badly when, in the words of one resident, "the ocean came up from one side and the bay from the other and they met in the middle."

A former summer bunagolw community, Breezy Point consisted, pre-Sandy, of a tight-knit community built on a bedrock of about two-thirds full-time residents, many of them multigenerational families of New York City policemen and firefighters. There are few streets; the community is organized mostly around "Walks", narrow pedestrian thoroughfares slicing through the acres of tightly packed bungalows towards the dunes and the Atlantic beyond. The closeness of the houses means that everyone there knows their neighbors; it also meant that the fire spread rapidly. 

Looking across the burnt out zone, one resident shook his head. "I never thought I'd be able to look straight through here, where all my friends' houses were, and see Sandy Hook." My cousin's house, a few blocks east of where the fire was finally contained, still had a basement full of water. Like most of his neighbors, he'd had to trash all his appliances and much of his furniture and cut the soaked drywall out of his living room, which had flooded with a few feet of water. We'd thrown out books and kids toys and beach chairs. Everywhere you looked there were piles of appliances and furniture, the contents of entire houses, the remnants of whole lives, piled up next to pools of standing water contaminated with sewage. Still, my cousin said, he felt lucky, comparatively.

And while there was a building National Guard presence on the Rockaway Peninsula yesterday, and the Department of Sanitation was hard at work hauling away tons of trash, residents reported that they'd been largely left to fend for themselves before that. Indeed, throughout the Rockaways, there had been persistent complaints about how slowly help had arrived from official channels--if it had even arrived at all.  

And amid the area's urgent needs, there were urgent questions and building frustrations over the city's response. This NY1 video from Saturday shows frustrated residents of Rockaway Beach angrily confronting Mayor Bloomberg after he dropped in for a quick presser in their neighborhood. Coming on the heels of his boneheaded attempt to keep the NY Marathon on-schedule, Sandy will not likely be remembered as Bloomberg's finest hour. Questions about the recovery breaking down along class lines--the Manhattan vs. the "outer boroughs" dynamic--have already come up in things like this Times piece yesterday, and that will no doubt be a recurring theme as these areas continue to struggle towards some semblance of recovery.

As I mentioned in my previous post, there will be a lot of questions asked in the storm's aftermath, and hopefully it will be an opportunity to think seriously about the systems and infrastructure that keep this city humming, about how to prepare them for the future, and about how to make sure that those plans include all New Yorkers.

But for now, with a Nor'easter headed for the city on Wednesday, and with all the Sandy-related complications for voting in the election tomorrow, such questions will need to take a momentary backseat.  

Appliances, furniture, and trash were piled everywhere in Breezy Point.

(I've posted some more pics from my travels around the city during this post-Sandy week on my flickr page here.)  

Sunday
Nov042012

Post-Sandy: Gas Shortages and Transit Problems

 

The specter of long lines at filling stations and widespread gasoline shortages continues to haunt the city. I took the photo at left this morning, at a Shell station near my apartment. Early this afternoon, the station received a gas delivery, and within a half hour, the lineup of cars stretched blocks, snarling traffic and leading to shouting matches and honking as the cars jostled in line and others tried to cut in. There was a slightly more orderly line running the other way of people with red jerry cans. And trying to control the chaos: one NYPD officer who held her ground admirably throughout the day.

It should come as no surprise then that, as nymag.com is reporting, a lively black market for gas has sprung up on craigslist and on the streets. 

Further aggravating the transit picture: tunnels that remain closed and a subway system that, while back online in admirably rapid fashion, is still running slowly, with fewer trains, and with a few crucial lines for Brooklynites (A, C, L, G) still out of service. This MTA photoset should help explain why: flooded tunnels take time to pump out. 

There is someting in all of this that lays bare the fragility of these systems and this infrastructure we've come to rely on--things we never bother to think about until their absence reduces our city to near-chaos. One hopes that this wakeup call will lead to a more thorough discussion about the way we build, the way we think of our cities, the way we prepare for such crises.  

 

Saturday
Nov032012

Post-Sandy: Red Hook Winery's Lost Vintage

Trying to salvage some of the barrels, at the Red Hook Winery (11/3/12)Christopher Nicolson, head winemaker at the Red Hook Winery, is a fellow Bristol Bay fisherman and a good friend. Unfortunately, his winery, housed on Pier 41, jutting out into the water off the southern tip of Red Hook, sat directly in the path of Sandy's storm surge. Water flooded the space to near shoulder-height, ruining machinery, toppling barrels, and leaving in its wake a floor matted with crushed grapes and barrels strewn everywhere. And while Nicolson tried to put on a good face for us, the group of friends and volunteers helping him clean out, he was more candid in an interview with the website Nona Brooklyn:  

In short, I guess we have to assume total devastation. Surely for the vintage – for all of the wine. We have to assume a total loss until we see where everything is at because the water level rose so significantly. Just about all of our barrels were submerged in the water that came through. The barrels were stacked three high in some places and higher than that in others, and the water just rushed in and floated and toppled everything.

In terms of the equipment, we lost all temperature control. We keep the barrel room here at a very steady temperature and humidity level at all times to hold the wines as they age, and that temperature control is completely gone. So even if some of the barrels themselves weren’t compromised, the loss of temperature and humidity control is devastating. Temperature and humidity control is critical when you’re making wine, and we’ve completely lost that. ...

And it’s not just the wines. The forklift, the pumps, everything was submerged, all the machinery, which means that in all likelihood those are all lost as well. The office, the computers, the files…everything.

Just awful. But knowing what an unstoppable, upbeat force Christopher is, I have to believe that they can come back from this, though it certainly won't be easy. 

Friday
Nov022012

Post-Sandy: Dancing in the Streets

Lining up for food, E 10th St and Ave. D, 11/2/12This morning, with all of lower Manhattan still without power, I got a text from a friend about a distribution center handing out food and water to the badly Sandy-affected residents of the far East Village and the Lower East Side. I biked over to find a schoolyard full of activity, with volunteers from several different groups distributing hot food, non-perishable food, water, blankets, and all sorts of other supplies to residents of the nearby buildings, who had been without power, heat, or water for the whole week. The desperation could be seen in the length of the line, which was never shorter than several blocks the entire day and often quite a bit longer, as people streamed in from all over. But as the day went on and the operation got better organized, teams were sent out into the surrounding towers to deliver meals and supplies to shut-in seniors. (I managed to make myself useful by helping unload National Guard trucks full of MRE's and a Humane Society truck full of pet food, and then by collecting trash and breaking down cardboard boxes for the rest of the day.)

Even amid all the sadness and suffering, though, there was real gratitude for all the volunteers, many of whom were from the surrounding neighborhood. And then, just after 5pm, there was a truly magical moment: the street lights flickered back on, and a few people noticed and began cheering. Soon others noticed and were cheering and clapping and hugging and high-fiving. Before long, people were literally dancing in the streets and on the balconies of the high-rises surrounding the schoolyard we were working in. It was unreal, a spontaneous celebration and a tremendous relief. (We didn't know at the time that electricity was back on, at that point, only east of Broadway, from 14th to Canal). More of my photos from that day and the rest of the post-Sandy week on my flickr page here

View back to Manhattan from Brooklyn Bridge with a few lights that just came back on. (11/2/12)