I recently visited the Accord Speedway, a quarter-mile, dirt racetrack in New York's Catskills region, for a piece for the Aesthete, an online journal of arts and culture. Of course, I fell in love with the place and ended up writing something that was about four times the length they wanted. The cut-down version, titled "Start Your Engines," is up on their site now, along with a short film and photos from filmmaker Poppy de Villeneuve. For those who have never been to a track like Accord, a little background, from the piece:
Grassroots racing is a low margins business, but short, dirt racetracks like Accord, which opened in 1962, are the bedrock of American car racing. They emerged as dirt track racing grew in popularity during the 1920s and 1930s, and there are over a thousand of them across the country, mostly in small, rural communities. The drivers who ply these tracks, for the most part, do not have NASCAR dreams. They are hobbyists and enthusiasts, and this is less a farm system than league night at the bowling alley. They are the local bar band that plays rocking covers with a few soulful originals mixed in. Most of these drivers will spend their entire racing careers on the short tracks, in the dirt, at places like Accord.
Read the rest of it here, and check out my flickr set for a little more on what it looks like. And watch this space for more updates, as I'm sure I'll be heading back up to Accord and writing more about it.
On Friday, the EPA released a draft of its long-awaited study of the potential effects of large-scale mining on Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed and its famed salmon run. I participated in a conference call Friday with the Administrator for the EPA's Region 10, Dennis McLerran, and wrote up a brief summary of it for Outside Online:
The report was initiated in February of 2011 as a response to requests from Bristol Bay residents and communities concerned about the proposed Pebble Mine, a massive copper, gold, and molybdenum deposit worth potentially hundreds of billions of dollars that happens to sit near the headwaters of two river systems—the Nushagak and the Kvichak—that together account for nearly half of Bristol Bay’s annual run of roughly 37 million salmon. And though the study’s target is pretty clear, the EPA was careful to paint the assessment in more general terms.
“This assessment is not about a single mine,” said Dennis McLerran, regional administrator for EPA Region 10, which encompasses the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, during a conference call with reporters. “Our primary intent is to understand the salmon and other ecological resources and how large-scale mining activity might impact them.”
Read the rest at Outside Online here, and expect more follow-ups this week as groups on both sides of the Pebble debate begin to digest and respond to the EPA report. (To read the report and learn more, head to the EPA's Bristol Bay page here.)
Another climbing season is well underway on Mt. Everest, and if you haven't been following the latest news from the Khumbu Valley, you've been missing out on what's already proven an eventful, accident-prone, and contentious season, full of avalanches, rockfall, helicopter evacuations, two deaths, and what one veteran outfitter called the most dangerous conditions he'd ever seen on the mountain.
But if these people were easily dissuaded, they wouldn't be climbing Everest, and so preparations continue, teams are making rotations up the mountain, and pretty soon they'll be looking for a weather window for a summit push. Two groups I'm watching closely are the Eddie Bauer-sponsored teams aiming to commemorate the Bauer-sponsored first American ascent of Everest in 1963.
One team features guides Dave Hahn and Melissa Arnot attempting the South Col route with Leif Whittaker, son of Jim Whittaker, who was the first American man to stand on the summit. Additional trivia: Hahn, who holds the non-Sherpa record for Everest ascents, will be aiming to stand on top of the world for the 14th (fourteenth!) time; and Arnot will be going for her 4th summit, which would give her the record for most summits by a non-Sherpani. The second Eddit Bauer team, consisting of Jake Norton, Brent Bishop, Charley Mace, and David Morton, will be attempting to follow in the crampon-steps of Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld's legendary ascent of the treacherous West Ridge, which also happened on the Bauer-sponsored 1963 expedition. (It should be noted that I have a slight bias here: Arnot, Hahn, and Norton were all also partly responsible for getting me up Aconcagua in 2009--see the Men's Journal article here.)
And for the best and most up-to-date reporting coming out of basecamp, you really should be checking in on what Outside's Grayson Schaffer has to say. Grayson's been embedded with the Bauer teams from the start, but his reporting covers all aspects of basecamp's mixture of the tragic and the comic. In the latter category, see his excellent mini-profile of Aydin Irmak, "a 46-year-old Turkish New Yorker" who has been "pushing a 33-pound, steel-frame single speed around Base Camp." Writes Schaffer:
The short version of Irmak’s story is that he plans to carry his bike to the summit. He's not trying to raise awareness for any cause, not trying to beam images of himself to schoolchildren back home, not trying to find fame and, in fact, is trying very hard to keep a low profile in Base Camp. Too many people have already let him know that his quest is foolish, dangerous, irresponsible, or worse. But like most New Yorkers, he doesn't care what you think.
The long version...
Well, for the long version, click over to Outside. Well worth the read.
I was recently interviewed by another Tim Sohn--What's the word for this? Doppelnamer? Nameganger?--who happens to be a freelance writer and editor for the website ebyline.com and their blog at ebyline.biz, interesting sites dedicated to helping freelancers and promoting entrepreneurial journalism. I was flattered to be asked to contribute some lessons learned along the rocky and meandering path of my own freelance life, along with some very dubious advice. Overall, I found it to be a fun and useful exercise. Here's how it starts:
Ebyline: When and why did you start freelancing? Who was your first client or your first assignment?
I remember writing a few freelance articles for a local newspaper when I was in middle school or maybe a freshman in high school, which helped plant the seed—that first realization that people would pay me to write things was a powerful one. The fact that the payment was a pittance—more honorarium than anything—is something I should have perhaps paid more attention to at the time. I think my first piece was about the local Boy Scout troop, of which I was a member. I believe I disclosed the conflict of interest, but I didn’t know much about journalistic ethics then.
The freelance gig that set me on my current path was the summer after my junior year in college when I went to Central America to write the El Salvador and Honduras chapters of the “Let’s Go: Central America” travel guidebook. The Let’s Go books are all published by Harvard Student Agencies and researched, written and edited by undergraduates. It was a fantastic opportunity, and one I enjoyed so much that the next year I went to Australia to work on the Victoria and South Australia chapters of that book. And while the vast majority of students who work on Let’s Go move on to other careers, it’s been a great starting point for many future journalists—it’s very much a “sink or swim” kind of thing, being in a strange place, alone and on a shoestring budget, and you figure out pretty quickly whether you’re suited to that kind of work.
Check out the full interview here.
A friend recently intoduced me to the work of South African photographer Pieter Hugo, and after a few hours of poking around his site, I am a fan. I found the series The Hyena & Other Men, which the image above comes from, particularly arresting. Its subjects are wild animals--the hyenas of the title as well as baboons--and their handlers, who are, in Hugo's words,
...a group of itinerant minstrels, performers who used the animals to entertain crowds and sell traditional medicines. The animal handlers were all related to each other and were practising a tradition passed down from generation to generation.
It's worth a look, and be sure to read Hugo's explanation while you're there--tales of little girls riding hyenas like small ponies don't come along everyday. As amazing as the hyena images are, I somehow found the baboons, many dressed up in children's clothes or tracksuits, almost more remarkable. The hyenas may be marginally domesticated, but they're still menacing, as evidenced by their being aggressively muzzled and led at the end of thick chains. But the baboons, like the one above, dressed up and posed in casual familiarity with his handler, his hand draped across the handler's thigh, seem almost more like friends than pets. Which is, of course, reading too much into a handful of photos, but that's the beauty of Hugo's work: it invites you to try to imagine the reality of unimaginable lives.
Miles Daisher, all around parachuting badass and leading candidate for the "most stoked human" award, has a new video up of him wingsuit-flying off a natural diving board at Hellhole Bend near Flagstaff, AZ. As the video shows, Miles's energy and enthusiasm for flying are contagious--so much so that when I profiled him for Outside a few years ago, I ended up learning to BASE-jump myself.
The clip, which features Daisher throwing a gainer as he jumps and executing some barrel rolls while buzzing the canyon's walls, was sponsored by deodorant company Degree for Men. It seems Degree's marketing team is taking a page out of the Red Bull playbook, right down to the logo-bedecked helicopter, by sponsoring athletes to actually go do things rather than stand in front of a camera pitching product. Having already signed up Bear Grylls as the campaign spokesman, they recently launched a website called The Adrenalist to showcase the new strategy. The mission statement is cringe-inducing:
For too long adrenaline junkies and adventurers haven’t had a central place to be inspired, share and learn about our lifestyle online. So, Degree Men created one – dedicated to bringing your next adrenaline-fueled quest to life.
Yes, really groundbreaking stuff, here, guys, what with the videos of familiar action sports headliners--and Red Bull sponsored athletes--like Daisher, snowboarder Travis Rice, and mountain biker Darren Berrecloth. Still, if they're willing to fund adventures and produce quality videos like the ones above, we just might be able to get past the lame advertising copy that accompanies it.
Probably not, but we can forgive skiing legend Chris Davenport for going along with it, because his reward for doing so was perhaps the most high-class skiing roadtrip ever, and some pretty great skiing shots in the resulting video, "In Search of Snow."
The annual Oxford-Cambridge boat race, known in England simply as "the Boat Race," has been a rite of spring on the Thames since 1829. (Current tally: Cambridge has 81 wins, Oxford 76.) It's a massive spectacle steeped in Olde England-style pageantry and, as such, has come to be seen by some as an intolerable vestige of elitism and colonial oppression, or at least an opportunity to shout and protest about such things. But when I wrote a piece about the 2005 boat race for Rowing News (which I cannot seem to find online), I found the event to be less about class divides than about a subject that unites young people of all backgrounds: partying. The boat race, it turns out, is a gigantic spring "piss up" on the banks of the Thames.
So it certainly killed everyone's buzz when, at the 158th running of the race on April 7th, the argument boiled over with an unprecedented breach of decorum. As the New York Times reported:
A bit more than halfway down the four-mile course, a bearded Australian in a wetsuit who had posted a 2,000-word essay on the Internet beforehand titled “Elitism Leads to Tyranny” jumped into the river and swam directly into the path of the two boats, which were racing neck and neck. The churning oars of the Oxford boat narrowly missed hitting him, but his presence caused sufficient alarm that the race umpire waved a red flag to halt the contest.
The protestor was hauled out and handcuffed, and the race was re-started after a half-hour delay (Cambridge eventually won), but all the drama left it a tainted race, and more so when one of the Oxford oarsmen collapsed at the finish and had to be taken to the hospital. The cumulative effect for the spectators was dire. As the Times reported, "The usual postrace celebrations were abandoned, with no trophy presentation, no speeches and no Champagne."
And, this being England, the press immediately launched into questions about London's preparedness for this summer's Olympic games, as in this report in the Telegraph, which quoted the Chairman of British Olympic Association allowing that it's hard to prepare for the actions of "a lone idiot". Ah, England.
Early Saturday, an avalanche swept over a remote Pakistani military outpost in the disputed Kashmir border region with India. The slide, which occurred in an area near the Siachen Glacier, buried more than 100 soldiers who were stationed at an outpost at over 20,000 feet above sea level. India and Pakistan have been facing off in a high-altitude, low-intensity fighting in the border region for decades, though by most accounts, the dangers posed by the altitude and treacherous mountain conditions have claimed far more lives than bullets. According to a Reuters report, there were still no signs of survivors twelve hours after the avalanche.
To understand the convoluted history and bizarre present of the high-altitude standoff between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, I'd recommend The Coldest War" by Kevin Fedarko. Not only is it a brilliant piece of first-person reportage, supplemented by amazing photos by Teru Kuwayama; it also happens to be one of the first pieces I fact-checked as a lowly intern at Outside Magazine back in 2003.