Episode 46: The Hitchhiker's Guide to WWOOFing

Looking for a relatively cheap way to spend a few weeks abroad? You might want to consider World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF. Have an aversion to mud, farm animals, and learning on the job? Maybe reconsider that first suggestion. But for those of you who are looking for an adventure, on a budget, Sam and Molly have composed a “guide” for would-be WWOOFers to think about before taking off–from how to make sure your visa is in order, to embracing the awkwardness of close quarters with strangers, while still maintaining your dignity. 

VISAS ARE COMPLICATED

 Sam and Aubrey in a place where they WWOOFed without a visa, because they are a couple of rule breakers.

Sam and Aubrey in a place where they WWOOFed without a visa, because they are a couple of rule breakers.

When you WWOOF, you don't get "paid" in the traditional sense, but what you are doing is working in exchange for room and board. And in some countries, you're not allowed to WWOOF unless you get a visa issued by that country. That needs to be done in advance. You can't just fly to the country where you plan to WWOOF and say, "I'd like a visa, please!"

Claire WWOOFed in Sweden and Spain for two months with no problems, but when she went to Ireland, she and her girlfriend were stopped in customs. Ireland, as it turns out, is one of a handful of countries that require a special visa just for WWOOFers and other work exchange programs, called a working holiday visa. Claire and her girlfriend were detained, their mugshots were taken, and they were kicked out of the country. Not ideal.

Other countries consider WWOOFers to be just like any other tourist, like in Europe where you can stay for just three months. Sam and Aubrey tested the limits of that rule when they WWOOFed. They stayed in Europe for ten months, moving from farm to farm. When they were heading back to the US, a customs official in Iceland called them out on it. After a tense moment, they were eventually allowed to return to the US but were told they wouldn't be allowed back to Europe for three months. Crisis averted, but the lesson here is one all travelers should heed: make sure your papers are in order before you leave the country.


YOU'VE GOT TO BE GAME

 Ian West holding one of the turkeys.

Ian West holding one of the turkeys.

Killing and cleaning chickens, hard physical labor, chickpeas upon chickpeas, fertilizing with your host's stored urine, all of these scenarios and so many more can be part of the WWOOFing experience. You need to be ready to roll with the punches, which could mean slaughtering poultry or adapting to a new diet. 

When Ian arrived on a farm in Oregon, within minutes he was helping kill and prep chickens for eating. What started out as a way to fill a few weeks in between finishing up a backpacking trip and starting a trip with a National Outdoor Leadership School wound up being a crash course in learning where your food comes from.

For Andy, who WWOOFed in New Zealand, most days were filled with hard physical labor, building a long fence, digging post holes for hours in the hot sun. After a full day he was famished, only to find that his meal would be chickpea burgers with hummus on top. Chickpeas on top of chickpeas is not the most satisfying meal. Another woman Sam spoke to worked on a farm where her meals were toast. Three times a day. Just slices of toast.

WWOOFing can be challenging and it's important to try new things you might not have otherwise tried, but it's equally important to know your own limits.


WWOOFING IS HARDER AS A WOMAN

 Shea and her friend at one of their WWOOF homes.

Shea and her friend at one of their WWOOF homes.

To be fair, a whole lot of things are harder as a woman, and WWOOFing is no different. Shea had a couple of really uncomfortable moments WWOOFing. One of her hosts, a single male, would have her and her friend fertilize the crops using a mixture of water and urine that he had stockpiled. To be clear, it was his urine. On another occasion, a male host at one of the farms would take all of his baths in the stream, and then walk the property naked, with no warning. 

Aubrey struggled at one WWOOF location when one of her hosts would ask Sam to go prune trees and chop wood and then ask Aubrey to clean the kitchen. At first, she felt like it was a chore like the others, but after a while it became clear to her that her host thought she was useless.  

When you are choosing a WWOOFing opportunity, do your research before you choose a farm to work on, but also, don't be afraid to speak up or leave if you feel you're being treated unfairly. Man or woman, if you're in a situation where you, or someone you're with is not being treated with respect, stick up for yourself and for others!


YOU ARE ALL UP IN PEOPLE'S BUSINESS

 Jacob heading to the fields with his WWOOF host's child in tow.

Jacob heading to the fields with his WWOOF host's child in tow.

Molly was fortunate to have a WWOOFing experience that included a big, beautiful farm house, with a private bath. Sam had a variety of experiences, good and bad, large and small. But quarters, in general, can be tight. It can start to feel claustrophobic when you're sharing space with relative strangers. 

For Jacob, the experience was particularly intimate and uncomfortable. The family at one of the farms where he worked was having marital problems. Serious marital problems. In the mornings he would hear the couple shouting at each other, and he was left tending to two toddlers who were clearly upset that their parents were fighting. On top of that, the patriarch of the family began asking Jacob for advice. Jacob was 24 years old, so imagine his confusion  when a forty-year-old father of two was asking him for parenting and marital advice. 

Your experience will definitely vary, but living in close quarters can be tricky and you may find that you are privy to very personal and, ahem, challenging conversations and situations.


BE OUR (GOOD) GUEST

 A breakfast Molly ate while WWOOFing in Ireland. 

A breakfast Molly ate while WWOOFing in Ireland. 

WWOOFing is a two-way street. You're counting on the host to be gracious and fun, but they're counting on YOU to be a good guest. Sam's favorite WWOOF host was Maria Jesus who ran a cheese farm in Spain. Her experiences with WWOOFers run the gamut of great to just plain bad. One guest showed up, ate dinner, did laundry, showered, and the sneaked off in the morning without doing a speck of work.

At Maria Jesus' farm WWOOFers were given a place to cook for themselves and then she would go grocery shopping to stock the kitchen. On one occasion she had a pair of WWOOFers who didn't know the first thing about cooking and she had to teach them the basics, like how to cut a tomato. 

Molly's host in Ireland, Anne, was an amazing cook and incredibly accommodating. But just like WWOOFers, hosts have their limits. An Italian couple came to work on the farm and she found them delightful, but on the evening of their arrival the woman announced that she was vegetarian. Anne explained that ham was on the menu for dinner and the woman replied with: "Oh that's alright, I eat ham." This seemed odd to Anne, but her guest did in fact eat the ham and then ate the other meatless options. Eventually, the woman discovered that the ham had come from the pigs on Anne's farm, and became terribly upset and refused to eat any more ham. Farm to table was a little too close for her comfort, apparently.

Anne also has a few repeat WWOOFers that come to help out on the farm including Bob who despite having no background in farming, became a vital helper on the farm. The first time he arrived he stayed with Anne for 3 months and did everything that needed to be done. Bob puts his head down and works hard, something any WWOOF host can appreciate. So remember, you want to have a good experience, and your host has probably invited you into their home hoping to provide a good experience, but sometimes you have to meet in the middle. When in doubt, do your best, and treat people how you'd like to be treated!


YOU'LL PROBABLY LOVE IT...AT LEAST THESE PEOPLE DID

 Jeremy enjoying some of the fruits of his labor.

Jeremy enjoying some of the fruits of his labor.

Everyone we spoke to about their experience loved it, would do it again, and recommended it to others. Even Shea who dealt with a naked host AND a host who stored his own urine to use for fertilizer. Even Jacob who became a defacto au pair and a reluctant marriage counselor. 

One more person who had perhaps the most unbelievable WWOOFing stories is Jeremy. He went to Spain, Italy, Israel, and Wales during a gap year between high school and college. In Italy he stayed in a castle on the outskirts of a little village with what sounds like the descendant of the feudal lord who used to rule the village. He ate wild boar, drank home-made wine, did shots of whiskey in the morning; he provided a slew of coming of age stories set in an idyllic Italian location. 

Soon after his Italian adventures, he traveled to Israel and worked on an herb farm next to the border with the Gaza strip. This was in 2009 when a new round of hostilities had kicked off and he said he could see rockets flying overhead from Gaza at night. An experience he will not soon forget.

These are likely not the experiences that a tourist gets while riding a bus though the historic district of old European cities. WWOOFing is a strange, difficult, and often times wonderful way to explore other countries, meet new people, and build up a stockpile of amazing stories to share with family and friends. 

Correction: Jeremy misspoke, he was in Israel in 2009, not 2007. This post has been changed to reflect that correction.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Outside/In was produced this week by Molly Donahue and Sam Evans-Brown with help from: Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Hannah McCarthy, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Logan Shannon

Special thanks to everyone who responded and shared their sometimes shocking, always entertaining WWOOFing stories.

Music from this week’s episode came from Gillicuddy.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837). Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Episode 41: S.O.S.

Global Rescue is a business that, should you get yourself into trouble, will drop everything to come and save you, anywhere in the world. They employ former Navy Seals, helicopters, airplanes, and even yaks to get the job done. But this service comes at a price, and when disaster strikes, is it fair that a service that won’t save everyone can rush in pull out those who can afford it?

Say you’re going on an adventure somewhere you’ve never been before, you don’t speak the language, and you don’t feel 100 percent safe. You’re nervous about getting stranded on a glacier, or getting bitten by a poisonous snake, or maybe you just really want to avoid traveler’s diarrhea. You’re worried that if you’re not even sure how to ask for a hospital, you won’t know where you would turn for help. Hmm. This could go badly.  

Cancel the trip? 

Well, wait. A little company called Global Rescue might be able to give you a hand.

Running Out of Time on Top of the World

 Mount Everest | Photo: Gunther Hageitner

Mount Everest | Photo: Gunther Hageitner

Robert Kay summited Everest on May 19th, 2016. The skies were clear and sunny and there wasn’t much wind. Stepping foot onto the summit was something Kay had been dreaming of since he was 15 years old. He was so elated, he barely felt the cold. Kay reached the top, along with two days worth of climbers, because bad weather the day before had caused a backup. At points the hiker traffic was so thick that Kay and his team were stalled for ten or fifteen minutes at a time.

But he made it. Fulfilled his dream. And then started down the mountain

The going was slow. Too slow. Coming down from the summit to the south summit is about a 15 or 20 minute trip normally, but it took Kay and his Sherpas two hours because of crowding on the trail. And, to make matters worse, Kay began to have trouble breathing.

“Imagine putting a plastic bag over your face and tightening it up,” he says. “That’s how it feels. It’s like breathing through a garden hose. You’ve got 50 feet of garden hose and you’re underwater and you’re trying to suck air through this thing and you just can’t get enough air.”

Kay was developing a severe case of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, or “HAPE.” It’s the lungs’ response to getting too little air for too long: ;they start filling up with fluid and eventually you drown.  

 Image Credit: Robert and Talbot Trudeau

Image Credit: Robert and Talbot Trudeau

He spent the night in Camp 4, at about 26,000 feet, where his friends kept him awake, so he wouldn’t go into shock,  and gave him medications to get him alive  through to morning. The next day, the team made the long, nearly vertical climb from Camp 4 to Camp 2, with Kay’s Sherpas and teammates unclipping and clipping Kay from every anchor point on the mountain and carrying his pack. At one point they had to switch out his oxygen tank for a new one and taking away that last bit of oxygen nearly did him in.

“I started convulsing and spasming on the ground and I couldn’t even sit up,” he remembers. He says he thought to himself: “I’m going to die in the next few seconds.” 

But he didn’t die. Because someone was there to intervene.

In the Business of Saving Lives

Before Kay left for Everest, he bought a membership with a company called Global Rescue. It’s a New Hampshire-based company, with offices around the world, that provides medical evacuations, security extractions, information and intelligence, and virtual health care systems in the U.S. and abroad.  

It’s like breathing through a garden hose. You’ve got 50 feet of garden hose and you’re underwater and you’re trying to suck air through this thing and you just can’t get enough air.
— Robert Kay

CEO Dan Richards founded the company  in 2004 and he explains that a membership is structured, “a little bit like AAA, but not for your car, for your body.” If something goes wrong, you can call them. They will direct you to local hospitals and provide all the consultation you need to get properly treated. They’ve partnered with doctors at Johns Hopkins, so they are ready to dish out top-notch advice to their clients over the phone or via Skype if needed, and if something goes seriously wrong, Global Rescue will come and get you out of the field, stabilize you, and bring you all the way back home.

All that for $329 a year.

Although a membership with Global Rescue doesn’t cover the cost of treatment (it’s not medical insurance), it’s a good deal if you want to avoid the hefty cost of a private helicopter rescue, which could add up to $15-20,000. The company also provides security services for an additional fee, in case you’re traveling somewhere that erupts into war or civil unrest. Their employees rescued clients trapped in Alexandria, Cairo, and parts of Tunisia during the uprisings there in 2011, as well as after the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.  

CEO of Global Rescue, Dan Richards, participating in the Global Rescue Readiness Test | Photo courtesy of Global Rescue

Last year Global Rescue had about one million clients, ranging from individuals, to NASA, the U.S. Government, and National Geographic.

And who are the super humans rescuing all these people? 

Many of their employees come from a military background, and they go through some intense training to make sure they’re up for the task. They even have a biennial office-wide fitness test, just in case anyone has been slacking since they got hired. 

Besides the manpower they have to get things done, they also have the resources. Between helicopters and fixed-wing airplanes, Global Rescue has thousands of aircraft around the world under contract. Additionally, they use all sorts of ground transportation, ambulances, vans—you name it. And Dan Richards says if the weather is too bad, or if motorized vehicles can’t reach the patient, “we’ll put them on a yak or a horse, sometimes accompanied by one of our personnel, as soon as possible.”

Global Rescue will come get you anywhere in the world…except North Korea.

Not all their clients need rescues, which is the reason they make any money at all. Most people go on their trips, it goes smoothly, and they never need the backup. But occasionally, something does go very wrong. Which brings us back to Robert Kay, who is near the top of Mount Everest.

Here Comes the Cavalry

As Kay’s lungs began filling with fluid, he realized he didn’t have much time left.

“At that point,” he remembers, “it just became an interesting fact. It was like, ‘huh, I get to know where and when I die, that’s interesting; the pain’s going to stop—that’s good.’ I didn’t even care that I was about to die.”

But fortunately he never had to face that fate. At 21,000 feet, Global Rescue sent a helicopter to pick up Robert Kay.

Kay says it was like seeing the cavalry coming. “You don’t know for sure if you’re going to live or die for 48 hours, and all of a sudden, you know, guaranteed, you’re going to make it.”

[Global Rescue Plans are] a little bit like AAA, but not for your car, for your body.
— Dan Richards

They flew Kay to a small clinic in Luklah, a town at the base of Everest. From there he was transferred to a bigger hospital in Kathmandu, where he rested and recovered before he caught a flight back to the United States.

And the remarkable thing is that Global Rescue’s work with Kay didn’t stop there. Although Kay expected them to drop him off and say, “we’ll pay the bills, good luck,” they didn’t. “They came to visit me in the hospital everyday,” Kay says, “just to check on me and see how I was doing. They were an amazing group of people. It wasn’t simply ‘pay the claim and move on,’ it was how were you doing as a person.”

And that seems to be the story from the majority of their clients—that Global Rescue really cares.

But parts of this story get tricky, too. Hundreds of people climb Everest each year. Some of those people are signed up to get saved if something happens, and some of them are not—like the Sherpas—because they can’t pay for a service like Global Rescue. Out of about 280 people that have died on Everest, an estimated 114 of them have been Sherpas.  

So is Global Rescue really making the mountain safer?

Ben Ayers, the Country Director for the dZi Foundation in Nepal, says maybe, but not across the board. “It’s making extreme adventure easier and safer for the privileged,” he says, “and it’s not making it easier and safer for everybody else.” 

Ayers has been helping improve working conditions for mountain porters and their communities for the past 18 years. Ben says companies like Global Rescue might be contributing to a culture of mountaineers taking greater risks than they would if they had to rescue themselves—risks that could endanger lives besides their own.

This leads us to our second rescue story, where the ethical implications of getting rescued become much hazier.

A Fundamental Inequality

Courtney Christman, Emily Schlegel, a Haitian teen, and Sara Trupp build a fence. | Credit: Megan Trupp

In 2010, Courtney Christman was in her senior year of college in Pennsylvania. She’d been going to the Christ Mertz Lutheran Church in Fleetwood, PA since she was little, and had gone on a few mission trips when she was younger. She liked them so much that she decided to lead her own week-long mission trip to Haiti her senior year. Her group of 12 people from the church flew down to Croix-des-Bouquets, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. There they volunteered for a nonprofit that provides rural people educational opportunities and basic health care called “Village of Hope.”

Courtney’s group helped paint the church and spent time with children in the Village of Hope school. “You couldn’t walk somewhere without somebody giving you a hug,” she says. And although hugs might not be a measure of real impact, Courtney says she felt good about being there.  

“You get there and you start building relationships and you realize: this is where God wants me to be.”

And then, disaster.  

At 4:53 pm on January 12th, 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck just south of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. Courtney remembers this moment perfectly.

“The ground started shaking, and I remember looking at my friend Megan, thinking, ‘What is happening?’ And I heard her yell out, almost in slow-motion, ‘It’s an earthquake!’ The ground was moving and it looked like waves. It looked like ocean waves. The ground rose two or three feet in the air and then dropped.” 

Courtney and her group were back at their living accommodations after a day of work.They were staying in a complex of one-story buildings that had bunks and a kitchen. Fortunately, most of them were sitting outside.  

No one in Courtney’s group was hurt.

But many other people were. The death count is highly disputed, but ranges from 200,000 to 300,000. One million people were left homeless and an estimated 3 million people were affected. Today, 2.5 million Haitians are still in need of humanitarian aid.

Following the earthquake, Courtney and her group tried to help. But after a few days they started to get worried about their supply of food and water, and their safety. Trying to secure a ride home, Courtney took the group to the U.S. Embassy, where they were told 200 people stood ahead of them in line to get out of the country; it would take weeks for them to get out. So Courtney called her insurance company, which informed her that they had bought them a subscription to Global Rescue.  

The ground started shaking, and I remember looking at my friend Megan, thinking, ‘What is happening?’ And I heard her yell out, almost in slow-motion, ‘It’s an earthquake!’
— Courtney Christman

The earthquake was on Tuesday. On Saturday, two Global Rescue employees arrived in Haiti, and whisked the group to the airport at 5 am the next morning. In front of several hundred people waiting in Embassy lines and several thousand more who would never be able to afford to leave their ruined country, Courtney’s group boarded one of the first chartered flights out of Haiti.  

The moment she boarded the plane, Courtney says she wanted to tell the pilot, “turn around, let me out! Our work is not done.” She says she felt guilty leaving, especially because they had come to Haiti to make an impact. “It just felt like we had so much more work to do,” she says, “and we got to go home.”

Courtney and her group had come to Haiti to help spread their privilege—to give back. But when the time came, they used that same privilege to get out. 

Nealin Parker, the former Deputy Director of the Office of Transition Initiatives at the U.S. Agency for International Development, thinks this is more about the pre-existing systems of inequality than any kind of individual choice. “My experience in aid in general,” she says, “is that there is just a fundamental inequality and injustice in place. In the moments when you are getting on a plane and somebody else isn’t getting on a plane are those moments where there is the least amount you can do to fix that inequality and it is the most morally troubling.”

A Moral Question

As long as it doesn’t risk their own clients’ survival, Global Rescue does help non-members as much as they can—they’ll bring in medical supplies for free and evacuate non-members. But in the end they are not the Red Cross; they’re a business, with clients who are willing to pay for the services they offer.  

Dan Richards, the CEO of Global Rescue, thinks the choice not to insure your life raises its own moral questions. “You could argue that that is one of the most selfish things you could do, going to a place like Haiti. You could leave your family and the people who love you in the lurch.”

Still, there are people who prefer to travel without a fire escape. Mark Jenkins is the Writer in Residence for University of Wyoming, as well as contributing writer for National Geographic Magazine. He’s been on all sorts of dangerous adventures and often goes without any kind of backup.  

We’re always faced with this. This is the human condition. What do we really owe our fellow man?
— Mark Jenkins

Jenkins says, “the difficulty obviously arises when affluence gives one person a better chance of survival than another person—a person of lesser means. But this is precisely how the world works. If you get cancer in Holland your chances of survival are much higher than if you get cancer in the Congo. We are living not in the world of our choosing but in the world we have, which is packed full of the haves and the have-nots.” 

So maybe paying to insure your life is just a proxy for the greater inequities of the world? Mark Jenkins thinks so.

“We’re always faced with this. This is the human condition. What do we really owe our fellow man?”

And when it comes to saving your own life and the lives of the people you love, that question can get pretty hard to answer.

As for Dan Richards, he thinks it doesn’t need to be a question at all. “You’re talking to the wrong guy if you want an in-depth, microscopic examination of the moral implications. l’ll never be able to understand why there might be a moral question about rescuing somebody. Particularly at the risk of your own life. That’s just not a moral question in my mind.”


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Outside/In was produced this week by Cordelia Zars with help from: Sam Evans-Brown, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Logan Shannon, Molly Donahue, and Jimmy Gutierrez.

Special thanks to Frank Mauceri, Ben Ayers, Ann Shannon, and Megan Trupp for their help making this story come together. Thanks also to Robert Kay and Courtney Cristman for sharing their stories with us. A post-script: Robert has adopted two girls from Nepal. One of them is applying to med school this year. And Courtney is hoping to set up a physical therapy clinic in Haiti as soon as she can.

Music from this week’s episode was composed by Cordelia Zars.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-844-GO-OTTER (844-466-8837). Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Episode 33: "Gnar Pow"

Is skiing a sport reserved for rich people? It’s a question that has come up among the Outside/In crew a bunch this winter. Producers Maureen and Jimmy think so. They’ve never been skiing, and always associated it with exclusive resorts and tricked-out gear. Sam wants to prove them wrong. 

In this episode, Sam takes his skeptical colleagues skiing for the very first time to prove that it doesn’t have to be a fancy endeavor. Will he succeed? Will it be wicked expensive? Will they enjoy it? Listen to find out.

“When did skiing get fancy?”

This was the question that set this all off. It came from Maureen McMurray, executive producer over here at Outside/In. Or at least that’s how I remember it.

“What makes you think skiing is fancy?” I probably didn’t say this in response, but I likely thought it. I started snowboarding because every Friday during the month of February my entire public school would go skiing. The mountain offered discounted tickets, and after a few years of being one of just a handful of kids to stay behind and choose between activities like calligraphy or cribbage, I scrounged together my odd-jobs money until I could get equipment. I’m reflexively defensive of skiing.

Both Maureen and our newest producer Jimmy Gutierrez had never been skiing, and so for me this kicked off a quest to convince them that skiing is not just a sport for “fancy people.”

But the truth is that today, I hardly do any alpine skiing. I essentially refuse to go unless there has been fresh snow in the past 48 hours. Even then, I tend to rely heavily on the “daily deals” that many resorts offer. The lift-tickets are simply too expensive, and I find the dollars-to-fun ratio to be much higher in cross-country skiing.

Nonetheless, I took them both to Loon Mountain, one of New Hampshire’s biggest and most expensive ski areas, where Jimmy revealed himself to be a quick study. “Too much rigmarole,” he said, “Price-wise, value-wise, would I ever do this again? I don’t think I would.” In one day he had reached the conclusion that I seem to have landed on after a decade on the slopes.

Maureen, on the other hand, was determined to try again, despite having had a rough day. “I was genuinely part angry and part humiliated,” she said, after getting down off the trails.

As a new skier, it’s hard to justify spending a small fortune for the privilege of falling down over and over while doing laps on the bunny hill. And in retrospect, going to one of the biggest and most expensive ski resorts for their first day on snow was simply silly. If all you need is a gradual incline, there’s no reason to shell out for big-mountain lift tickets.

So I recalibrated. Our second stop was the Veteran’s Memorial Recreation Area in Franklin, New Hampshire. This is a volunteer-operated community ski area that has a 100-year lease from the city, which cost it $1 back in 1961. Lift-tickets are only $20 for the day and it comes stocked with a basement full of donated equipment, free to use at your own risk.

This is not a hill that will keep experts enthralled for a full day: it has a rope-tow and a T-bar and only 230 feet of vertical drop. But as long as the snow is good, (a big if, given that the hill doesn’t have snowmaking) it’s perfect for beginners.

Little backyard ski hills like this used to be in virtually every town that had any kind of significant incline in New England. The “golden era” of skiing began in the 1930s, according to Jeremy Davis, founder of the New England and Northeast Lost Ski Areas Project. He says at the peak of the craze there were five or six hundred rope tows all across the region.

“That’s what’s really incredible about the whole thing, is you look at the sheer volume of these places, and they were pretty much everywhere,” said Davis, “I think it’s really hard for people to realize how many of these places there were.”

These ski areas were done in by a number of factors that lead to consolidation of the ski industry: rationing and travel bans during World War II took the first bite, increasing competition from mountains that were able to invest in new lodges and better grooming, not to mention higher costs for insurance and snowmaking today. In the end, smaller ski areas have all but ceased to exist.

But for new skiers like Maureen who find the big mountains intimidating, places like the hill in Franklin are hard to beat. “I love this,” Maureen said upon walking into the lodge and seeing the families seated next to a hot wood stove, outfitting their tiny children with second-hand boots and skis.

But, the truth is, the future doesn’t look great for these community ski areas. Last year, Franklin was unable to open at all, because the conditions were terrible all winter long and the outing club that runs the hill can’t afford snowmaking. “We rely on natural snow,” said Kathy Fuller, matriarch of the Franklin Outing Club, “and that’s an issue.”

In other words, these inexpensive, truly accessible ski areas are an endangered species. A 2012 analysis by an economist based in Canada forecast that in the 2020s, ski areas in New Hampshire would experience a 25-40% increase in the need for snowmaking. As these snowmaking expenses start to increase, this analysis forecast that even major ski areas in New England would start to go out of business. Of the 103 resorts the study modeled, it predicted only 30 would be economically viable in the 2070 to 2099 timeframe.

And that’s ski areas that make artificial snow. Those that don’t... how long can they last?

Skiing is not an inexpensive sport, but at least when I was growing up it was one that most kids in my public school class were able to afford. I think the question in my mind is, given the way things are going, will that be the case when my kids are ready to try skiing?

Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown with help from Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Logan Shannon.

Special thanks this week go out to Veteran's Memorial Recreational Ski Area, Loon Mountainand New England Lost Ski Areas Project

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-603-223-2448. Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

Episode 32: Fantastic Mr. Phillips

In the late sixties, a soap factory in suburban Illinois discovered one of its outflow pipes had been intentionally clogged by an industrial saboteur. Does environmental damage ever demand radical action? And when does environmental protest cross the line and become eco-terrorism?

In a suburb of Chicago, there is a Dial soap factory.

One day in 1969, a pipe that carried industrial waste out of the plant got clogged and started to back up, causing the factory to shut down. When the employees located the problem they realized the pipe was full of debris that had been mixed with concrete.

By one account, it was as much as seven tons of junk clogging up the works.

Article detailing a second attempt by the Fox at clogging the pipe. | The Aurora Beacon News | march 24th, 1971 | Page 1

Next to the pipe was a sign, which said something along the lines of: “Armour-Dial pollutes our water.” (Back then, Dial was still a subsidiary of the meat-packing company Armour.) The sign was autographed with: “the Fox.” The signature might have been referencing the river that this sludge was polluting—the Fox River—but it came to be known as a pseudonym; a calling card for a mysterious environmental vigilante.

Seven years earlier, the state of Illinois passed a law that was supposed to limit the chemicals that factories like this could dump into rivers and lakes, but Armour-Dial had largely ignored it. Now, somebody was calling them out on it; under the cover of darkness, somebody had come to teach these companies a lesson.

This protest didn’t bankrupt Armour-Dial, but it was just the beginning of a years-long campaign that this anonymous crusader waged against the company. In 1975, six years later, the state of Illinois brought them to court, and told them to clean up their act; the Fox had beaten an industrial giant.

Today, we know who waged that secret campaign. When this all started, he was a high school biology teacher named Jim Phillips.

“He didn’t make a plan to be ‘the Fox’. He didn’t come out and say: 'Here’s what I’m going to do, I’m going to be a crime-fighter, I’m going to be an environmental sage!' or whatever,” says Rob Phillips, one of the Fox’s nephews.

“This is a guy who’s upset,” adds Jim Spring, another nephew. “This is an average American who saw an injustice and went, wait a minute, that’s ridiculous.”

The Fox is Born

Jim Phillips, according to his nieces and nephews, was the fun uncle. He never got married, never had kids, but kids loved him.

“It was such a treat to go spend the night out there on the weekends, and part of that was rambling around at night actually, just looking at stars, looking at nature,” says Nancy Spring-Epley, one of Phillips’ nieces. “We would wander up to probably a couple of miles from the house; we’d go out for hours at a time after dinner.”

This was a time when the waste products of the industrial revolution were starting to get totally out of hand. The year the Fox carried out his first caper was the same year that—being absolutely covered in oil slicks—the Cuyahoga river in Ohio caught on fire. This was the same time that Maine’s Androscoggin River was so polluted that vapors coming off it, supposedly caused the paint to peel off the sides of houses that faced it, inspiring Senator Ed Muskie to champion the Clean Water Act. It was the apex of industrial pollution in America.

A few states started to try to clean things up, but in Jim Phillips’ eyes, progress was too slow.

“Nobody seemed to care, well, he cared. And then he started demonstrating just how much he cared,” says Rob, “It cost people a lot of money when they found out just how much he cared.”

The stunts began to capture the attention of the media, starting with one stunt in particular. A few years after the first clogged drain at the Armour-Dial plant, the Fox took aim at the biggest steel producer in the country, which at the time had around 200,000 employees, US Steel.

“He collected together a big jar of the kind of stuff that they were dumping in the river. Just waste!” recalls Sandy Benhart, another niece. The Fox told newspaper reporters that he collected it from a drain that came directly from a US Steel plant in Gary, Indiana, and that he added some clams and fish for good measure. He also crafted a tiny coffin and laid three dead creatures inside: a perch, a crayfish, and a frog.

The Aurora Beacon News | December 23, 1970 | Page 1

Sandy actually accompanied her uncle on this raid. She says she, her mother, and sister Ginny all went into town on the train. “He preferred to operate legally, but nobody came and paid any attention, so he was absolutely a nervous wreck,” she remembers, “So Ginny and I were his cover.”

While they waited in the lobby, Jim went up to office of the company’s vice president, and declared “I am from the Fox Foundation for Conservation Education, and we have an award for US Steel for their outstanding contributions to our environment.” He then opened up the top of the bottle and dumped its contents on the lobby’s white shag carpet.

The stunt grabbed headlines all across the country, and the Fox had cemented his place in history.

A Widely Held Secret

The stunts kept coming. He took to hanging big signs in public spaces, shaming polluters: one was on a famous Picasso statue in downtown Chicago, another was a banner on a big railroad bridge. He put caps on industrial chimneys. He would hang dead skunks in the offices of CEOs.

After these raids, Jim Phillips would call the press. He would talk to them using a harmonizer to disguise his voice. He even spoke with television journalists.

These reporters kept his confidence. His campaign was covered by a nationally syndicated columnist, Mike Royko, who was very sympathetic to the cause. Royko wrote that he would receive angry phone calls from executives at the affected companies who would quote: “sputter and threaten lawsuits and demand to know who this dangerous character was.”

Later, Phillips got a job with the local branch of the EPA, which then meant he would sometimes be called as an official source by the same reporters who he had called to notify about a raid. You can still find articles where he is quoted twice, once as the Fox, and then later as a “Kane County environmental officer.” It’s unclear if some of these reporters knew what they were doing, or if this was simply serendipity.

But Royko never told. Nor did anybody for that matter.

There were sometimes where he had to break windows on companies to put a sign in, or throw a skunk juice in there, and he would leave a money order to repair the window.
— Jim Spring

For the nieces and nephews, when they were small, they were kept in the dark, but as they got older—usually around age 13—they each found out. “When we were little, I remember I was told it was Dick Young, who was his boss at the EPA in Kane county,” says nephew Jim Spring, “He just lied right to me.”

Jim Spring learned the truth by accident, after his junior high science teacher said they would get to talk to the Fox over a phone link-up, and Spring recognized his uncle’s voice. (As a side note, just think about this for a moment: Phillips was committing criminal acts, and high school teachers were asking him to speak to their classes.)

Article about the Fox in which Jim Phillips, a.k.a. the Fox is quoted. | The Aurora Beacon News | July 27th, 1984 | Page B4

It was in some ways, an open secret: kept widely, but still, somehow, closely. Phillips used to say that if he ever crossed the line, he’d be arrested the next day, because so many people knew who he was. This group included members of the local police department, who would occasionally help him on his raids by leaving notes in a bottle in a certain tree stump, notifying him of where and when security patrols would pass by his targets.

The Fox was not universally adored—you can find letters to the editor in the newspaper on both sides of the issue—but for three whole decades, his secret never found its way into the hands of people who would prosecute him. He was even caught by the police twice, read his rights, but never charged.

“There were sometimes where he had to break windows on companies to put a sign in, or throw a skunk juice in there, and he would leave a money order to repair the window,” says Jim Spring.

After his famous raid on the offices of US Steel, he heard that the odor of the effluent he poured on the carpet had made the secretary feel nauseous, so he sent her flowers.

Over time, the Fox’s raids became lower profile, and he dropped out of the limelight. But Jim Spring and Nancy Spring-Epley still remember the last raid they helped their uncle with, in 1988. They crossed a river, broke a window, and squirted a syringe-full of a chemical used in stink bombs into the headquarters of some small-time polluter.

Once he got back home from the caper, Jim Spring says he was shaking, couldn’t sleep and had to get himself a glass of scotch. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m married, I have a mortgage. There’s no way I can deny any of this.’” He recalls. “This is no longer a fun thing a teenager does with Uncle Jim; this is what adults do to fight corruption.”

But even as the Fox was winding down, others were picking up the baton of radical environmental activism. And some of them had very different ideas about how to get their message across.

Eco-radicals Rising

One night in October of 1998, eight fires erupted all across the ridges and peaks of Vail Mountain Resort. The fires went up one after another: snack-bars, chairlifts, and the largest building—the one that the news helicopters would circle around for hours as it went from a small blaze, to a structure fire, to eventually a smoldering pile of cinders—the Two Elks Lodge.

Immediately, investigators suspected arson, and found a trail of footprints from someone who ran down the mountain, following the path of where each fire was set. They found evidence that the fire had been set using five-gallon buckets full of diesel and gasoline. A few days after the fire, they learned they were right. An anonymous email, sent to a local radio station, said the fire had been set by a group called the Earth Liberation Front. They said the fires were set to protest the ski area’s expansion into an area they claimed was lynx habitat.

But after that, the trail went cold. For years, no arrests were made.

By some accounts the Fox was the first environmentalist who was willing to go outside of the law to try to make his point, but he certainly wasn’t the last. Not long after came Greenpeace, filming their confrontations with whaling ships and nuclear weapons testers. And then there was Edward Abbey’s Novel the Monkey Wrench Gang, in which a team of misfit eco-saboteurs traveled around the west, destroying billboards, disabling bulldozers, and destroying bridges. The book inspired groups like Earth First! (which is always written with an exclamation point, by the way) to start doing things like hammering clandestine metal spikes into trees that would damage loggers’ chainsaws if they tried to cut them down. And if you follow this lineage all the way to the end, or at least what so far has effectively been the end, you find the group that set fire to the lodges in Vail: the Earth Liberation Front.

The ELF had a things in common with terrorist organizations: they operated in cells, which were organized individually, not directed by some top-down central office. They didn’t know who the members of other cells even were. The most active groups were in the Pacific Northwest, and they targeted companies who they believed were doing environmental harm, including meat-packers, timber companies, SUV dealerships, and biotech research labs. They made sure that these buildings were unoccupied, so no one was ever injured, but they caused massive property damage. They watched as timber companies harvested stands of old-growth forest with 500 years old trees, and felt that the action happening through official channels wasn’t working.

“To them, they say this as if somebody were knocking down Notre Dame, just destroying something that’s completely irreplaceable and sacred,” explains Marshall Curry, director of the Oscar-nominated documentary, If A Tree Falls: The Story of the Earth Liberation Front.

The Earth Liberation front succeeded in one way. They got headlines. Those headlines, though might not have been the ones they were hoping for. While the Fox was seen as a vigilante, the ELF were branded Eco-terrorists and virtually every story about them led with this term.

“My understanding is that that was actually a term that was coined by Ron Arnold, who was kind of a spokesman for the extraction industries, and was famously quoted as saying he wanted to destroy the environmental movement,” says Curry. “It’s an incredibly clever term because it rolls off your tongue and it sticks in your ear just like the best marketing campaigns.”

This term may also have stuck because visually, their actions looked a lot like terrorism. Images of multi-million dollar ski lodges in Vail being turned into smoldering holes in the ground, or of Hummers exploding as fires reached the gas tanks, attracted news camera crews like moths around a campfire. Despite the careful avoidance of casualties, the group was perceived as violent extremists.

And this perception undermined their success.

It’s an incredibly clever term because it rolls off your tongue and it sticks in your ear just like the best marketing campaigns.
— Marshall Curry

“I spoke to people in Vail who were part of the protest movement against the expansion of the ski resort in Vail. And they told me they had built a really great coalition there of old lady bird watchers and yuppies who wanted to ride their mountain bikes and crunchy old hippies and scientist environmentalists... and that when the fire happened there, suddenly everybody said, ‘oh jeez, I don’t want anything to do with these crazies,’” Curry explains. “Suddenly the coalition completely splintered, the ski resort completely won the PR battle, and it completely undercut their support with the mainstream.”

Compared to the 1960s, when protesters of all kinds were taking to the streets and demanding changes of all sorts, the ELF was operating in the post-9/11 era: the time of the USA PATRIOT Act, and the War on Terror.

The FBI launched "Operation Backfire", where they managed to convince one member of the ELF to turn on his co-conspirators, and then travel the country wearing a wire, and getting them to incriminate themselves on tape. Thirteen men and women were arrested. Many turned state’s witness in exchange for avoiding jail time, but a few did not and were eventually convicted on a charge that included a “terrorism enhancement.”

So, Is this "Terrorism"?

Marshall Curry says the activists he spoke to maintain that their activities are closer to something like the Boston Tea Party, and call it “symbolic property destruction.” But at the same time, the victims of the arson felt differently.

“In their minds, the essence of terrorism is: are you trying to inflict fear on somebody,” says Curry, “They get a call in the middle of the night that suddenly their office or their factory or their life’s work has been burned up, and I have to say that if somebody lit my office on fire, and destroyed the only files of movies that I had been working on and sent a threatening communique, I would say that yes, that I would consider that to be terrorism.”

Terrorism has a legal definition, but it also has an emotional definition. Whenever I’ve told people about the Earth Liberation Fronts actions—arson, spray painting slogans on walls, using splashy media stories to try to get their message out—I watch their faces, and what I see is horror.

We can imagine our homes being burnt to the ground and our way of life being vilified, and that is terrifying. But is it terrorism?

Marshall Curry says the sister of one of the convicted ELF arsonists, who is not at all sympathetic with her brother’s cause, told him something that he will never forget. She says she grew up in Rockaway, in a neighborhood full of cops and firefighters, which was devastated with families that lost their fathers in 9/11.

“She said, ‘I know what terrorism feels like,’” says Curry. She says that to use the same word to describe what Al Qaeda did to those families to describe burning down an empty building, “is just a twisting of that word.”

But a judge disagreed. Based on the law, using ignition devices to light property on fire to convey an ideological message, that’s terrorism.

Both the Fox and the members of ELF were engaging in illegal activity. But these two stories feel very different. Somewhere between the Fox pouring caustic chemicals on the carpet of the corporate offices of a major manufacturer, or breaking a window to squirt smelly chemicals into a polluter’s building—somewhere between that and burning down a building, it seems that a line is crossed.

After this line society says: “That’s not a reasonable way of making your point.”

We can ask ourselves, if the Fox were to come back today, what would his community think? The same low-level law-breaking that was accepted in the era of the anti-Vietnam protests and the Civil Rights movement, might have been seen very differently in the early 2000s, right after 9/11. Maybe in post 9/11 America, his acts of small-scale industrial sabotage and vandalism would be seen as unpatriotic.

The beacon News | May 4th, 2006 | D2

Jim Phillips’ had diabetes, and died in 2001 at age 70. It was only after his death that it became public that he was the Fox. Big newspapers all around the country, including the Chicago Tribune, but also the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times ran an obituary, laying out his whole story. Once the secret was out, far from repudiating him, the community thanked him. They put a plaque with his symbol in a local riverside park.

There’s a question that we’ve been kind of dancing around, here.

Dumping waste into a river has an immediate, visible effect that can inspire outrage in a community. Meanwhile, the impacts of something like global warming are slow and harder to see. But on the other hand, for the first time those impacts are now on our doorstep.

Given the events of recent weeks—references to climate change getting scrubbed from the EPA’s website, government employees creating alternate twitter handles to broadcast facts about climate change, and the new administration stepping aside to clear the way for the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines—it seems fairly clear that the US government isn’t about to do anything about climate change. So, what will environmentalists do about it?

As the possibility for action through official channels is beginning to close, we might be on the verge of seeing a whole new wave of copycats, or copy-foxes, as it were. 

How will society receive them? I guess we’ll find out.

 

The Aurora Beacon News | June 13th, 1976 | Page 17

The Aurora Beacon News | January 22, 1980 | Page A5

Aurora Beacon News | April 9th, 1971 | Page 1


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown with help from, Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby,  Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Logan Shannon.

Many thanks this week to Rob Winder from the Aurora Public Library in Illinois and to Steve Lord with the Beacon News for helping to fill in the gaps in the story of the Fox.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-603-223-2448. Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Music this week from Jason Leonard, Blue Dot Sessions, Podington Bear, El Palteado, and Jahzzar. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

Outside/In is a production of New Hampshire Public Radio.

Episode 27: Millionaires' Hunt Club

A quick note: this episode previously appeared in our podcast feed back in the spring of 2016, as an individual segment in one of our hour-long episodes we produced to air on New Hampshire Public Radio. So you might have already heard it, but…you might not have!

Sam is going to take us all hunting this week. Not hunting for animals, but instead, hunting for the secret of what’s behind that 26-mile fence cutting through the woods of New Hampshire, and why some people want it to stay a secret.

From my very first days as a reporter in New Hampshire, I started to hear about a place hidden up in the woods of New Hampshire. A place full of unfamiliar animals from other places, but fenced off from the rest of the state, and kept quiet. I never heard about it directly it was always through a guy who knew a guy, who had been inside but the more I heard about the place, the more unbelievable it seemed.

This massive, private park was called a “millionaires hunt club” and “the most exclusive game preserve in the United States” and yet there were many people I know who had lived their entire lives in this state, but had never heard of it. So what is the secret of what’s behind that 26-mile fence cutting through the woods of New Hampshire, and why do some people work so hard to keep it a mystery?

Helen M. Derry at corbin park central station, courtesy brian meyette. 

Officially it’s called the Blue Mountain Forest Association, but everybody who knows about it calls it Corbin Park. (Seemingly shortened from Corbin’s Park… we’ll get to the origin of the name.) It’s near the border with Vermont and it’s huge, though its exact size seems to be something of a mystery. Regardless, at somewhere between 24,000 and 26,000 acres this park is actually bigger than something like 60 percent of New Hampshire towns.

You can find the chain-link fence that encircles the entirety of the park at the end of any number of long rough dirt roads that lead to locked gates. It feels almost like like stumbling across a military base full of UFOs or some similar secret. The fence itself looks sturdy, if slightly weather-worn, and at regular intervals features small signs reprinted hundreds of times, “the enclosed park fence and signs are protected by a special law of this state and any person trespassing herein or in any way violating that law will be prosecuted.”

I got my introduction to the park from a man named Brian Meyette, a retired database administrator, who lives in an off-the-grid home, right next to the fence. “In the fall it’s cool, because you get elk bugling in here,” he said as we walked down his icy driveway,  “I actually even came down here once because I could hear one and it sounded like he was bugling just inside the fence.”

Elk, in case you didn’t know, are a Western thing. We don’t have them in New Hampshire. Except on the other side of this fence. And that’s not the only thing that’s over there.

“Any time people come up here to work or anything, they always say, ‘oh did you see the pigs?’ said Brian, laughing. When he says pigs, he’s referring to Eurasian wild boar, imported from Germany into New Hampshire.  “And no,” Brian continued, “normally you come down here and it’s just you see a bunch of trees, that’s all you ever see.”

But while you might not see them, there are elk bugling and Eurasian wild boars hustling around behind those fences.

But why?

The trouble with finding the answer to that question is that no one inside of Corbin's Park wants to talk about it. Corbin’s Park is a member’s only club. If you are a reporter, and identify yourself as such, not only do the employees of the park not want to talk to you, but the members don't want to talk to you, the people they have invited as guests don't want to talk to you, even some regular folks in town don't want to talk to you.

Meet Austin Corbin

Basically the only way to talk about Corbin's park today is to start by talking about Corbin's park 100 years ago. The farther back in time I went, the easier it was for me to find people who wanted to talk about this place, which is what brought me to Larry Cote. Cote is a retiree, and chair of the Newport Historical Society, which is where all the historical documents about Corbin’s Park have come to be kept.

“This is our 4th year and you’re the first person who’s asked about it, so I’d say it’s pretty rare that somebody’s got a lot of inquisitive-ism,” Cote told me as we dug through binders full of photos and letters.

Here are the outlines of the history of the park. It starts with a guy named Austin Corbin born in 1827, grandson of the town doctor in Newport, New Hampshire, who left home to go to Harvard as a young man. He then he went to Davenport, Iowa where he fell into real-estate and banking, and became one of the founders of the American banking industry alongside giants like J.P. Morgan.

After making a lot of money in the midwest, he then headed out to New York, where he invested in some swampy property out in an underdeveloped borough: Brooklyn. “He drained the swamp, he tore down the shacks, he built two hotels  the Oriental and the Manhattan  and that’s how Coney Island got started,” said Cote.

But as he was amassing his fortune, part of him just wanted to go back to New Hampshire. So he hired an agent to start buying up farms in the towns around his childhood home. In so doing, he didn’t exactly endear himself to the locals. “There’s people that say he was a robber and all that stuff,” said Cote, who was quick to defend Corbin, saying the farmers got fair prices for their land. Even so, there was even a rhyme that people in Croydon  one of the towns bordering the park started saying about this time:

Austin Corbin, grasping soul,

Wants this land from pole to pole.

Croydon people bless your stars,

You’ll find plenty of land on MARS.

Corbin bought sixty some-odd farms, (again, in New Hampshire, this is the size of an entire town) and he set about building his very own dream game reserve.

“The elk cost him $5,000 dollars. The Moose $1,500, the buffalo $6,000, deer and antelope $1,000, wild boar pigs $1,000 dollars, and then additional other animals were another $5,500,” said Cote as he read from a ledger from the park’s archives. Caribou, reindeer, big-horned sheep, pheasants, Himalayan Mountain goats. The park contained animals from all over the world, like an exotic, cold-weather safari.

But just when the park was really starting to shape up, Austin Corbin and his son decided to take some new horses for a day of fishing and picnics by a nearby lake. His driver hitched some new horses to the buggy, but didn’t give them blinders and when Corbin opened a parasol the horses spooked. The carriage was overturned, and both Corbin and his coachman were killed.

For a few decades, the park was operated by Austin Corbin’s son (charmingly but confusingly also named Austin Corbin) and these are what you might call the ‘Golden Years’ of the park. Famous people like Teddy Roosevelt came to hunt, and a world renowned naturalist takes up residence in the park to make observations and take notes. The park’s buffalo were at least according to some instrumental in restoring Bison to the American West.

In the early days, the park was open to the public. Every Wednesday, they were invited in to explore and there was even a winter carnival held there when the townsfolk came in for a deer hunt, ski jumping, a ball, and a banquet.

But after Austin Corbin the senior died, his fortune slowly began to ebb away. Austin Corbin the son can’t quite replicate whatever business magic his dad had, and Cote said that the when Corbin the son died in 1938, he was more or less penniless. That same year, a massive hurricane blew down huge amounts of the fence that kept the park enclosed, and boar and elk escaped in large numbers. The park fell into disrepair, until eventually in 1944 his family gave it up and a group of wealthy hunters took it over.

As time went by, the park dropped further and further from the public eye. Today, most people I talk to who are from New Hampshire have never heard of the place.

These days, whatever’s going on in Corbin’s park, stays in Corbin’s park.

Except for when not everything stays inside.

Hunting around the edges

“Back in 1987 we believe,” Sonny Martin began explaining to me over the phone, before his wife shouted from the background (“Eighty-six!”), “Oh now, my wife corrected me, ‘86.” Martin is the now retired former owner of a hardware store in Lancaster, New Hampshire some 70 miles north of Corbin’s Park.

“So, somewhere, 1st of November, I was sitting in my tree-stand. It was getting dusky, I always call it next to dark,” said Sonny, falling into the rythms of a story he’s obviously told more than a few times, “Well, the next thing I knew, out comes this wild boar, and he just moves out into the middle of the clearing. He reminded me like a train, the way his legs moving, you know, I’ve always said that. And he just stood there, and does this ‘take your best shot.’”

Martin did take his best shot, and he mounted the head of the boar that he killed that day and for years it hung on the wall behind the register at his hardware store.

gate around corbin park, photo by sam evans-brown

Wild boar can weigh more than 200 pounds, and need to eat more than 4,000 calories a day. They’re aggressive, a nuisance to farmers, and they reproduce like crazy. It’s not unusual for one sow to have six piglets per litter, and sometimes they have two litters per year. To top it all off, they’re smart and wiley. One federal wildlife control official I interviewed said once they design a fence that can hold water, it will be strong enough to hold a pig.

“I mean it was kind of… it was a little bit unbelievable to see something laying there,” Martin said of the animal.

Martin is not the only one to have killed one of the escaped pigs of Corbin park. Technically, the wild boar that escape Corbin’s Park are property of Corbin’s Park, and hunters outside the fence aren’t allowed to shoot them without permission. But the park is liable for any damage to crops or lawns that an escaped boar might cause, so from what I’ve gathered from talking to locals and neighbors, they’re fine with letting local hunters clean up the problem for them. State Fish and Game doesn’t want to issue permits to hunt the pigs because they don’t want to create a demand among hunters for a species that in other parts of the country has become an invasive pest. (Now that you know to look for it, you’ll start to regularly see headlines about men arrested for transporting and releasing wild boar to new places to get new populations going.)

So, with this unregulated hunt, there’s something of a symbiotic relationship going on: local hunters experience the thrill of hunting exotic game without being a part of Corbin’s exclusive club, and they take care of one of the park’s more troublesome issues. I’ve spoken with several people who say they’ve hunted pigs outside the fence, including one who said he shoots multiple ones every year, but none of them agreed to be interviewed in front of a microphone.

It’s another layer of secrets. Not only is what happening inside the fence shrouded in mystery, but some of the activities outside the fence are happening under the radar too. Secrets within secrets: a Russian matryoshka doll of secrets.

But what’s happening today, on the inside?

I tried for a very long-time to talk to someone who is a member of Corbin Park. I called the president of the park. I called the superintendent a bunch of times. I called two other members whose names I managed to find. I even eventually wrote a letter to the park’s general address.

image courtesy brian meyette

No response.

I did succeed in talking to a number of people who have been guests and hunted inside the park and even managed to talk to a current member, but none of these folks wanted to be interviewed in front of a microphone. I was also able to pull the park’s tax returns, because it’s a non-profit, and they file numbers of how many animals are shot each year with Fish and Game.

So here’s what I learned.

There are 30 members. We know who some of these folks are, because their names show up as directors of the park on the tax-forms: one is the CEO of a plastics company that makes things like spout on a can of whipped cream; there’s a self-made millionaire whose company built a stealth boat they’re trying to sell to the US military; there’s the owner of a major gun manufacturing company, who also happens to own Austin Corbin’s old mansion; and there’s even one of the descendents of the Von Trapp Family Singers, from the Sound of Music.

central station, corbin park. image via google maps. 

These 30 members and their guests shoot somewhere between 200 and 600 wild boar every year, and between 40 and 120 deer and elk.

From the tax forms you can see that the park makes money off of meat-cutting (members can pay to have their meat butchered for them) but most of their income comes from membership dues, which cost something in the neighborhood of $25,000 dollars a year.

To become a member, you also have to buy the shares of a former member. No one told me how much it cost them to buy into the club initially, but I was told that calling it a millionaire’s hunt club is not an exaggeration.

So why all the secrecy? These are wealthy people who don’t want to attract the attention and perhaps the resentment of those who don’t approve of their habits. And believe me, there’s plenty of resentment.

“You can’t get into it. It’s the biggest secret. It’s the millionaires hunt club. The most exclusive game preserve in the United States,” said Rene Cushing in an interview, a New Hampshire state legislator who says that on the political spectrum he leans toward the socialism, “Millionaires only, and New Hampshire peasants need not apply.”

Cushing tried to get a bill passed to require the people who hunt boar inside Corbin Park to buy a New Hampshire hunting license, which is not currently required. I asked him why he felt their exclusivity was a reason to go after the club members.

“I don’t think it’s fair that the people who go surf-casting, pay their $8, pay the Fish and Game Department, should end up subsidizing the Fish and Game Department when they have to go to Corbin Park to respond to a hunter being shot, or when they have to go up to 89 and pick up a wild boar that’s escaped from this fenced in property, and the rest of us are picking up the tab,” said Cushing, “It’s just about fairness.”

I think this is why it’s so hard to talk to members of Corbin Park.  The probably feel like just laying out the facts of this place the cost, the invasive species escaping into the state, the overwhelmingly male membership and guests will prompt a negative reaction from the Rene Cushing’s of the world.

Reporters sniffing around the fences of the park inevitably puts them into a bind, though. If they talk to reporters, it could encourage more reporters to do more stories, which means more people talking (some negatively) about this gigantic exclusive park. If they don’t talk, then the eventual stories that do come out sound like this one, where the members seem somehow shady, for exercising their right to not comment.

The members probably feel like outside the fence, they can’t win.

So what is Corbin Park?

corbin park central station, photo by sam evans-brown

It’s 26,000 acres of rocky New Hampshire land, fenced off, stocked with elk, eurasian wild boar and white-tailed deer. It’s private, but you can get in if invited by a member, or if you ask on the right day. It was built over 100 years ago, by a super-wealthy banker. Every year, hunters inside shoot somewhere between 200 and 600 wild boar, and between 40 and 120 elk and deer. The animals are fed through the winter to help keep the populations up, but you’re not allowed to hunt around the feeding sites.

Members can get the meat butchered and smoked on site. They can stay in cabins and old farmhouses - the ones that are still standing - that are sprinkled throughout the park. They can hike up Croydon and Grantham peaks, the two tallest mountains in Sullivan County, which are inside the fence.

It’s expensive to be a member, and only 30 people are allowed to be members. When someone wants to sell their shares, you’ve got to know a guy who knows a guy if you want to buy them; there’s no announcement in the papers.

And we also know that most of the people who live near this park, folks like Brian Meyette, have no problem with the place and tend to say it’s a good neighbor. The park is quiet, pays its taxes.

However you feel about all that… it’s up to you.

In the end, I don’t think Corbin Park is actually a mystery. At one point, I spoke to Heidi Murphy a lieutenant with Fish and Game, who has been inside to help the park staff with occasional issues with bears.

“It’s just you know a big huge patch of woods with some hunters that are camping out in some cabin,” she said, laughing at my insistence that it must be more interesting than that.

“It’s, you know, it’s New Hampshire woods,” she shrugged.


Outside/In was produced this week by: 

Sam Evans-Brown, with help from Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, Jimmy Gutierrez, and Logan Shannon.

Special thanks to David Allaben and Tony Musante from the USDA. By the way, if you see an escaped boar in New Hampshire, you should report it to those guys. 


Thanks also to Ken Hoff, who volunteered his time and his skills to give us an airplane ride over Corbin’s Park

This week’s episode featured tracks from [tk tk tk]. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks.

Theme music by Breakmaster Cylinder

Episode 26: HumaNature - Hoofprints on the Heart

This week on the show we’re bringing you something a little different, a story from someone else. Caroline Ballard and Micah Schweizer started HumaNature, which is based in Wyoming, and they’re part of the team responsible for bringing us the story of a man, his walk through an unfamiliar culture and an unexpected friendship, in a couple of different ways. 

Jon set out on the longest, toughest walk of his life. But along the way, he met someone who helped carry the weight.

See more photos from Jon and listen to more episodes from HumaNature at this link: HumaNaturePodcast.org


The piece was produced by Erin Jones, Anna Rader, and Micah Schweizer and hosted by Caroline Ballard. HumaNature is a production of Wyoming Public Media.

Seattle Denver Arms (Instrumental) by Loch Lomond is licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International License. Based on a work at http://needledrop.co/artists/Loch-Lomond

Episode 24: Don't Cheer For Me Argentina

Sam won’t tell you this, but he’s a really great athlete. He has another secret, too. There’s this photo of him leading a ski race, and it’s plastered on the side of a city bus in Argentina. So, how did Sam wind up on the side of a bus? This story explains. 

Hey, Is That Sam...On the Side of a Bus?

A couple of months ago, I got a surprise blast from the past, in the form of a Facebook post. One of my coworkers captured the moment on her phone.

If you’ve been listening to the show, it won’t surprise you to hear that I participate in a variety of  endurance sports. But it might surprise you to know that my participation caused me  to be plastered all over the side of a bus in Argentina.

So today, I’m going to tell the story of how I wound up on that bus, but I’m also going to tell the story of the man who got second place. A racer named Martin Bianchi, who made a split second decision in that race that would change the course of his athletic career–and his outlook on life.

Martin Bianchi Goes to Torino

Martin grew up in Ushuaia, Argentina which bills itself as the southernmost city in the world. It's so far south, it's one of the cities that scientific voyages to Antarctica depart from. He started skiing young, and during his teenage years he chased the snow. He would spend part of the year in Spain, racing the mountains of the Pyrenees. Then travel back to his  home in Argentina, go to school and have another winter ski season in the Southern Hemisphere, racing in Ushuaia.

After missing out on the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics due to a knee injury, he went to the winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, when he was 24. He only qualified for one race, “and out of about 100 competitors, I finished 86th,” he recalls, “So, I was pretty close to last place.”

All too often, this is the fate of skiers from countries without any real national teams, coaches, support networks, or competitive race circuits. They spend their whole life training, and then wind up in 86th.

But when he returned home after the Olympics, there were no Argentine athletes preparing to take up the mantle in four years, ensuring a continuous line of Olympians. So even though he’d gotten married right before the Olympics, and was thinking about having kids, he kept training.

“There’s always something that’s calling you back to the trails. At that time it was that there weren’t many athletes behind me. It was like if I quit, there wouldn’t be anybody.”

He got a job teaching part-time phys-ed to kindergartners. It wasn’t enough to support a family, but it allowed him to keep training.

Sam Goes to Ushuaia

When I was 22, I was obsessed with cross-country ski racing. I never seriously thought I was good enough to go  to the Olympics, but I was pretty into it and at one point was ranked pretty well nationally.

 

In the summer of 2008, I flew to Ushuaia to train. Remember, it’s the southern hemisphere so it was their winter. I found a gig helping out at a restaurant next to the ski trails. I slept above the kitchen, even though the building had no heat or electricity once its power generator shut off for the day. I washed dishes for a few hours in the afternoon, helped with any tourists who stayed for snowshoe tours in the evening, but the rest of the time, I skied. Hours of skiing every day.

All of that training led up to the big event in Ushuaia, a race called the Marchablanca. Historically, back before competitive cross country skiing was all about lycra and lightweight, narrow skis that require carefully groomed snow, the race used to cross over the spine of the Andes. Today it’s a pretty standard 13 mile race that has turned into a festival.

“Maybe the best way to understand our cross-country skiing culture, in Tierra del Fuego is to go to the Marchablanca,” says Martin.

Hundreds of people show up to race and watch the Marchablanca, including many who show up to compete wearing goofy costumes, but there are a few competitive racers in the pack.

And that is how I found myself on a starting line with Martin Bianchi.

Race Day

The race immediately separated out into a pack of five skiers, and then four, and then after just a few minutes, there were only three of us: Martin Bianchi; a skier who would later go on to race in the Sochi Olympics, Federico Cichero; and me.

The course of the Marchablanca is a single, 21 kilometer loop. It weaves in and out of the forest, but the majority of it travels over big open plains of frozen peat moss. And all throughout those forests and frozen bogs there’s a secret hazard lurking beneath the snow.

“In particular, in those years, we were experiencing a plague: the beaver,” Martin explains. Beavers were brought here in 1946, for fur hats and clothing. Later, when that didn’t work out, they had the bright idea of just letting them go. And when they released the 10 pairs of beavers that there were at that time, they bred and populated the entire island, and now they estimate there are more than 90,000 beavers.”

Beavers, in Tierra del Fuego, are an invasive species. How about that?

“And it has an impact on the ski trails. Often, they simply build up a dam and flood the trail. So we have to do a lot of beaver control, and back then they weren’t doing it!” says Martin.

 The start of the race. Marchablanca 2008

The start of the race. Marchablanca 2008

This lack of beaver control led to a crucial moment in our ski race, and as it turns out, in Martin’s life. Though I had no idea about any of this until I called him back up to ask him about his memories of this day. Here’s what he remembers from that moment:

“Well, if I remember right, we were trading off who was leading, as we went. And I knew that in that moment I could win because we were about on par with each other. And I had faith that in the final big climb, I could get some distance on you.

“But I got a surprise, and I’m being sincere, here, Sam. That before that climb, which they call the subida de los hacheros, I couldn’t pass you. And so I climbed the hill behind you, without being able to pass you, going a maybe a little slower than I would have liked to go, because generally I’m good at going uphill.

“When we got to the top of the climb, we had to turn sharply to the right and go down a hill. And this downhill ended by going over a beaver bog. Much to your surprise!

“The ski tracks—which normally you get into the tracks when you go down a hill— the tracks went over the beaver dam, over a part which rose up because of a rock, and the trail groomer had passed over that. So the tracks weren’t level and they sort of threw you into a jump.

“This downhill drop slope was very fast. It was short but very steep. And when we finished the climb and started to go down, we got into the tracks,  I looked ahead  and saw that the tracks went over the rock and I immediately realized there was a jump there.

This is an artist's rendering of what happened at the race. While artistic and historical license has been taken, we believe that this image is true to the essence, values, and integrity of a story that is cherished by millions of people worldwide. Artist: Taylor Quimby

“And there, still ahead of me, you hit the rock, and went off the jump and you were knocked off balance and you went off the trail. And I passed you. I was able to avoid it and go around you.

“And it was in this moment that I said, ‘Well, that’s it, it’s over.’ I passed you with all the speed from this downhill slope. So right there I took fifteen, twenty meters, from you, easy. And you still had to make your way back onto the trail and regain your momentum.

“So I had this fantastic opportunity to go, to keep hammering, and leave you behind.

“But to tell you the truth, something happened in my head that told me this wasn’t right. You had climbed the hill well, you had done the downhill well. The only thing is that you hadn’t noticed that the trail had a jump in it—a thing that shouldn’t have been there—and it was because of that jump that you went off the trail, you lost all your momentum.

“And so, to me, the right thing to do seemed to be to wait for you.”

I didn’t fall, but I was standing way off the trail, with deep, heavy, powdery snow up to my knees or so. And I remember my heart just sinking to my stomach. We weren’t far from the finish, and I was almost positive that the race was over. But then, I looked over and saw Martin had slowed down. And as he glided past, he looked back over his shoulder and I heard him call out:

“Venga, Sam!”

I flailed my way out of the powder, and frantically skied back up the hill trying to catch Martin. Given how slow he was going, it didn’t take long before the racing came back together, and it was nip and tuck again.

The rest of the race was a bit of a blur. Right before the finish, our race merged into the trail being used by the more popular event, with people skiing in costumes.

“We were sprinting,” Martin remembers, “Dodging people left and right, you were shouting, I was shouting. It was a mess. When there were just 500 meters left, this I remember, I was pretty tired, and I saw you with this drive, this energy. That’s when I realized you were going to beat me.”

And I did.

For me, that was the end of the story. I won a race. They gave me a trophy. I went home. And telling people I won the National Ski Championship of Argentina was an eccentric biographical detail I could share at parties.

But then, years later. An email arrived in my inbox from Martin.

The Aftermath

It turns out there was something else that happened that day. Something which I had completely forgotten, but which Martin reminded me of when I spoke with him.

After the race, I came up to him, and asked him why he had waited.

“I said, ‘Yeah, sure Sam, I waited because I wanted us to have a clear winner,’ and we left it at that,” he says.

Later, when we were at the awards ceremony, apparently (again, I forgot all this) I tried to hand him the trophy, which he waved off. A representative from the Argentine Olympic Committee saw this exchange and asked what it was all about, so Martin told him the whole story.

“And for that year, 2008, they decided that the most exemplary gesture of sportsmanship in all of Argentina, was this situation that happened in the Marchablanca,” says Martin, “So they invited me to Buenos Aires for a dinner—a very big deal, a gala banquet—and they gave me a prize, in front of all the Olympic medalists from Argentina.”

This included the Argentine Soccer team, who won the gold medal in Beijing that year. (Messi was not in attendance, sadly.) This would be like being presented to a room full of the most famous athletes in the country. He met his country’s equivalent of Bob Costas, the Olympics host for NBC, and an article about him was featured in the country’s biggest newspaper.

Sam's trophy.

Martin the Tiger | Photo Credit: Facundo Santana

“This is one of my best memories, so this race is going to stay with me for the rest of my life. And after getting this prize, I think it was kind of like a signal, that things were alright, I could retire, that I had done enough, I had left enough of a mark on the sport,” he says.

Now when Martin races, he does it for fun. He wears costumes, he skis with his wife, he doesn’t pressure himself. Today, he has 3 kids, a job in the ministry of tourism, which pays much better than part-time phys-ed teacher. He’s hung up his commitment to ski racing, but not his love for it.

“The next year, just to give you an idea, in 2009, I did the Marchablanca in a tiger costume,” he tells me. “I went from having been on the podium with you, second place, to the next year putting on a tiger costume and skiing the race together with my wife.”

“That was how I ended my racing career.”

And yes, years later, a photo of us together at the front of that race, was plastered all over the side of a city bus.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown and Logan Shannon, with help from Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue and Jimmy Gutierrez.

Special thanks this week to Martin Bianchi for taking the trouble to connect with us from the far end of another continent, and to Luis Antonio Perez for helping out with Spanish translation and being Martin’s voice in English.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-603-223-2448. Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

This week’s episode featured tracks from Blue Dot Sessions, Poddington Bear, and Tyler Gibbons. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists. 

Episode 19: Look Toward the Dawn

Today, we take a step back to imagine a world without a web of GPS satellites telling your smartphone where you are every second of the day. While this might sound scary, come along and maybe you’ll discover you have a secret sixth sense... one that’s been inside you all along, if you just knew how to turn it on.

Pop Quiz: Wherever you are right now, stand up and point southeast. Don’t take out your smartphone. Don’t look at a map. Just stand and point.

Ok, now you can check your phone. How did you do? If you’re someplace familiar, near a major highway or river, maybe you did ok. If you’re on the road, somewhere you don’t know well, chances are you weren’t even close.

In the grand scheme of human evolution, today’s maps, compasses, satellite enabled GPS networks, and well-marked roads and trails are a new frontier for our species. And this proliferation of new technologies has already fundamentally changed the way we perceive the world.

How did we used to get around?

You likely already know the most obvious answer to this question: the sun and the stars. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere the North Star is in the north, and in the Southern Hemisphere the Southern Cross points toward the south.

Duh.


Hubble Images Polaris
Source: Hubblesite.org

The North Star or Polaris

Crux-23x2min-20160301

The Southern Cross or Crux constellation

But even assuming you can identify the North Star and the Southern Cross (which…can you?) what do you do if it’s cloudy? What do you do if it’s the middle of the day and you’re close to the equator. If those are the only tools in your toolbox, there are times where navigation is going to get dicey, and you’re going to get lost.

In the 1970s, hoping to rediscover the art of navigating without tools, a hodgepodge of Hawaiian anthropologists and adventurers built a replica of a traditional sailing canoe, which they named the Hōkūleʻa. (Hōkūleʻa translates as “Star of Joy” and is the Hawaiian name for Arcturus, a star which—at the latitude of Hawaii passes—directly overhead every 24 hours.) Leading the way was a man named Mau Piailug - a fisherman from the tiny atoll of Satawal in Micronesia who still knew the traditional art of navigation.

Over the course of more than three decades, Piailug taught a new generation of Hawaiians how to navigate over long-distances at sea. With him—or his students—as captain, the Hōkūleʻa made a number of voyages without instruments, including a trip from Hawaii to Tahiti and subsequent trips all throughout Polynesia. Today the boat is on a 5 year journey that will take it all around the world.

Here’s the short version of how the navigators on-board the Hōkūleʻa find their way.


Photo: Courtesy of hokulea.com. Please see watermark for photo credit.

You’ve got to know your stars, cold.

If you want to sail thousands of miles without getting lost, you can’t only know the North Star and The Big Dipper. Navigators have a list of some 200 stars that they use in navigation. Day to day, they might only need 100 of them, but they know exactly where they rise, how they move across the sky and where they set.

Knowing the stars doesn’t just let you know the direction, it can also tell you your latitude. Polynesian navigators use their hands to measure the height of various stars off the horizon.

Since every navigator has different hands and different arm lengths, they all calibrate their hands to know how many degrees the width of a finger or the spread from thumb to pinky represents.

Think about this. These navigators stand out on the ocean, holding their hands up to the night sky over and over, night after night. They do it, so many times, that they knew exactly how high off the horizon certain stars should be when they hit the latitude they’re aiming for. They knew exactly what the sky should look like when they reach home.

That’s pretty cool.


You’ve got to be able to read the waves.

On the first three days of the Hōkūleʻa’s trip from Namibia to Saint Helena, the boat was completely surrounded by sea fog the entire time. Translation: no stars. Instead the navigators had to rely on being able to see the hazy glow of the sun shining through the fog in the early morning and late evening to orient themselves. In between, they navigated by the waves.

Navigators are up at dawn every day observing. Where’s the wind coming from? Where are the clouds? And then, they feel how the swells move beneath the ship in relation to their course. They lock onto that feeling. Try to memorize it. That feeling is their heading. And then when it’s cloudy, or the sun is straight up overhead, they navigate by that feeling. At sunrise and sunset they can take stock again, and adjust course if necessary.

Photo: Courtesy of hokulea.com. Please see watermark for photo credit.

You’ve got to pay attention to everything around you.

The first sign that sailors use to know they are close to their destination is not when they see the island itself; the first clue is the birds. The crew of the Hōkūleʻa look for two types of terns in particular: one which they see as many as 120 miles from land, and another flies 40 miles out to sea.

But the birds can be confusing. Nainoa Thompson (that's him in the photos below), the first Hawaiian to serve as navigator on the Hōkūleʻa, was so confused by a bird that appeared to be going the wrong way during his first trip to Tahiti, that he nearly turned the boat around. (The key was he hadn’t spotted the tiny fish in the tern’s mouth, indicating it was flying back to its nest, and they needed to follow it.)

In general, being a good navigator means constantly paying attention to all the clues the natural world is trying to give you. The direction of the wind, cloud formations, the way the horizon looks at sunrise and sunset.

Mao Piailug was said to be able to predict the weather with remarkable accuracy based solely on his observations of the clouds and light at sunrise, and to be able to point to the Southern Cross without a moment’s hesitation whenever asked. Paying attention like this hones your sense of direction until it is genuinely functioning more like a sense.

A sixth sense.

GPS is great, but what have we lost?

 Photos by Logan Shannon

Photos by Logan Shannon

I am a big fan of GPS, and I’m not saying we should ditch this technology. (I mean, it might be worth tens of billions of dollars to the global economy). But here’s the question you should ask yourself next time you plug your destination into your phone instead of trying to figure things out with good old mental maps and landmarks: what have you lost by letting go of your sense of direction?

Technology has fundamentally changed the way we think of “direction”. Paul Puliot, the speaker for the Cowasuck band of the Abenaki people points out that the words for east and west in the Abenaki language actually refer to the location of the sun. “We were either traveling into the sun away from the sun or into the sunset,” he says.

Whereas we might think of direction in relation to our bodies, people used to think about direction in relation to the planet. There are actually whole languages that don’t have words like ‘left’ and ‘right’. Instead, if they were going to warn you of danger they might say, “Hey, watch out for that snake to the north of your foot!” And you’d just know where that snake was, because you just know… because you’d been paying attention, your whole life, to which way was which. You’d never get disoriented.  

The good thing is, it’s not too late to start paying more attention to the world around you, and develop your navigational skills.

John Huth, a professor of particle physics at Harvard, decided he would learn how to navigate after being enveloped in a thick fog while kayaking in the Gulf of Maine. He managed to make his way to the shore, but the next day saw on the news that two other paddlers were caught in that same fog, got lost and died. Now he says, “I can look up in the sky and without having to name the names of stars or even having to think about it, I can find my way.” The need to exercise conscious thought to know which direction is which has fallen away.

Bruce Blankenfeld, who sailed on the Hōkūleʻa during its first few voyages and subsequently went on to become a master navigator himself, describes a similar awakening. “I remember looking at the sky as a youngster and all you’d see is like billions of dots of light up there,” he explains, “But now, you’re looking at a definite map, you know.”

I’m not suggesting that you never turn your GPS on ever again. But consider leaving it off occasionally, and starting to pay more attention to the natural cues that indicate which way is which. Maybe if you do, you’ll start to get your sixth sense back.


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown & Logan Shannon with help from Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Molly Donahue, and Jimmy Gutierrez.

If you’ve got a question for our Ask Sam hotline, give us a call! We’re always looking for rabbit holes to dive down into. Leave us a voicemail at: 1-844-GO-OTTER (1-844-466-8837). Don’t forget to leave a number so we can call you back.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder

This week’s episode featured tracks from D-Lay, La Venganza de Cheetara, and Podington Bear. Check out the Free Music Archive for more tracks from these artists. 

Episode 17: The Early Birder Gets the Bird

In 2013, Neil Hayward was depressed. He had just left the biotech company he helped start, and he was getting over the end of a very serious relationship. He had disposable income, and free time. Suddenly, he found himself doing a lot of birding. A LOT. In this episode Sam delves into the subculture of extreme bird-watching. Plus, this week’s Ask Sam is all about assassin crows.

I’m terrible at identifying birds. Not worse than someone who has never paid any attention to birds, but worse than anyone who has ever called themselves a “birder.” If I’m really being honest, I didn’t realize what it really meant to be a birder until last year when my wife and I went to a “bird weekend” on Star Island, off the coast of New Hampshire.

Here’s what I thought we were getting into: a relaxing weekend spent learning the names of some birds from a knowledgeable local naturalist, Erik Masterson. While not learning about birds during idyllic strolls through the island, we would almost certainly be eating delicious food and enjoying hot beverages on the hotel porch while reading.

The agenda was more rigorous than I expected. The first bird walk began at 6 am and continued until breakfast, around 9 am. I wake up every morning ravenous for food, and my wife prefers not to wake up in the mornings at all, so the deck was stacked against us. This “bird weekend” was not going to be our ideal vacation. Breakfast was followed by more birding, which lasted until lunch. We enjoyed a brief post-lunch break from birding, but ended the day with, you guessed it, more birding. An hour or two, just to be sure no new birds had settled onto the island throughout the day and gone unnoticed. It was so early in the season that the hotel itself,and its bright and airy dining hall, was not yet open, so we were left eating with the island’s staff in the dining room of an adjacent stone building stacked full of cardboard boxes filled with food supplies.

I should mention that Star Island is not big. If one were to jog the island’s longest trail, which goes along its perimeter, it would take no more than five minutes to complete. Over the course of two and a half days, we spent upwards of ten hours patrolling this tiny island for birds.

Screenshot from Google Maps

Now, this is not to say that it was not a lovely weekend. It was. But I had not realized the extent to which birding, for some people, is a deep obsession. The second day featured a trip to a neighboring island, Appledore Island, to see a bird banding station, where researchers were capturing song-birds in mist nets, banding them and quickly releasing them. For me, it was the highlight of the trip, but one of our new birding friends declined to join us. I asked Erik why.

“Appledore Island is in Maine, and Star Island is in New Hampshire,” Erik told me. He must have realized how far out of touch I was from birding culture at that moment, because clearly I had absolutely no idea how that was supposed to be an explanation. “He is working on his New Hampshire list,” Erik explained, “Any bird he sees in Maine won’t count.”

For some, birdwatching is as much about the numbers as it is about the birds. It’s like a game, and like any game there are rules and competitions. Rules about which birds count and which don’t, and competitions to see who can pile up the biggest lists.

 
 

 

The Big Year

In 2013, Neil Hayward was depressed. He had just left the biotech company he helped start, and he was getting over the end of a very serious relationship. He had disposable income, and free time. Suddenly, he found himself doing a lot of birding.

“I could put in a lot of hours and wait for birds, and that always paid off,” Hayward says, “I waited for eight hours for a hummingbird in southeast Arizona, and just as the sun was setting the bird came in. And I had been sitting outside through two thunderstorms and rain, and was about to give up… and it was just the end of a great day.”

Hayward, who lives in Boston, is among the birding elite. Back in 2013, he did something birders call a Big Year, trying to see as many species of birds in the US and Canada as he possibly could in twelve months. This meant he had to criss-cross US and Canada in airplanes and rental cars, leaving behind his loved ones for weeks while he huddled on windblown islands in western Alaska, all the while hoping for bad weather to blow birds across the Pacific Ocean.

In the end, the Big Year cost Hayward, “Less than I thought, but more than I’m prepared to say.” (Though he says it was somewhere in the tens of thousands of dollars range.) Meanwhile, he accumulated something on the order of 250,000 frequent flier miles.

Neil Hayward & his wife Gerri Hayward | Photo: Jimmy Gutierrez

Why birds?

Birdwatching is BIG. 60 million people told the latest census they are birdwatchers. And within that 60 million there are, of course, varying degrees of enthusiasm. Some just do it in their backyards, but there are tens of millions of people who travel, who actually go to far away places just to see different birds.

So why do so many people bird, and so few do things like head out to go “herping”?

“In New England there’s something like five or six species of frog, so it doesn’t take very long to see them all,” Hayward theorizes, “Whereas birding, it’s almost like the ideal number, you could spend your whole life birding and see new ones every year.”

 

He pauses to consider this a little more, “I think a lot of birders, they like bringing order to the universe,” he says. Collecting, categorizing, listing.

“Certain people end up birders,” explains Eric Masterson, “I’ve seen characteristics and character traits prevalent amongst a lot of the birders I know. You throw in a little bit of anxiety, throw in a little bit of obsessive compulsion, throw in a little bit of over-achievement.”

So, let me tell you how the extreme variety of elite birding works.

When a bird shows up somewhere outside its typical range, birders notice. Now this doesn’t have to be a rare bird--it could be a robin - but if it shows up somewhere it’s not supposed to be, suddenly it’s a rarity.They call this a vagrant.

And word starts to spread. Texts are sent, blogs are updated, email listservs put the word out. It doesn’t matter what time of day, it doesn’t matter what day of the week, birders drop everything to chase the bird. (In the UK, those who chase rarities are called “twitchers”, because of the way they react when rare bird alerts come in.)

 
 

 

Masterson remembers two instances of this happening that were kind of extreme. Once in Ireland, when a rather common American bird appeared. “There were jets from as far away as Geneva to see this thing. Privately chartered jets, get a few people together to privately charter a flight.”

And this is not just a European phenomenon. Earlier this year, someone spotted a European redwing on an athletic field at a New Hampshire high school and more than 500 birders from all over the country flocked to the spot.

“Now picture Hollis high school,” says Masterson, “We’re in an era when if you have 500 middle-aged men with optics descending on a high school it kind of rings alarm bells.”

Confused police officers, disgruntled neighbors: this is what extreme birding looks like.

The birding umpires

Shockingly, when December rolled around, despite having only started his Big Year in earnest back in April, Hayward had seen 740 species of birds, just eight shy of the record.  

“And it was exciting,” he says, “and I thought, well there’s a good chance that I won’t break the record and then does that mean that this is all a failure, that I didn’t do what I was supposed to do?”

In the last month Hayward traveled frantically: from Texas to way out in the Aleutian islands, then to California and Florida, then way up North to Homer Alaska trying to spot those last 8 birds. Finally, he ended the Big Year on a boat off the coast of North Carolina where he saw a Great Skua. His final count was 747 birds…one shy of the record. But he had three provisional birds-- ones never before seen in the US or Canada - which, if they were approved by the birding powers that be, would put him over the top.

If there was any doubt that birding is, in its way, a sport, the existence of the American Birding Association should lay those doubts to rest. Early on the ABA was expressly about “serious birding” (as opposed to science or conservation, which it didn’t want to get wrapped up in at first) and it maintained the official list of birds that had been seen in the US and Canada.

The ABA decided which birds count and which birds don’t. If you see a bird that’s not on the list, you’d better have a camera with you and you’d better get a good photo. Hayward saw a Eurasian Sparrowhawk and spent all day trying to get a good picture by holding his iphone camera up to his telescope lense, but ultimately his sighting was rejected .

In the end, the Big Year cost Hayward, “Less than I thought, but more than I’m prepared to say.” (Though he says it was somewhere in the tens of thousands of dollars range.) Meanwhile, he accumulated something on the order of 250,000 frequent flier miles.

 Neil Hayward & his wife Gerri Hayward | Photo: Jimmy Gutierrez

Neil Hayward & his wife Gerri Hayward | Photo: Jimmy Gutierrez

He also saw a California Condor, a bird which had nearly been wiped out, and then released back into the wild. Their population was rebounding, but according to the ABA rules: “They hadn’t been in the wild long enough,” says Hayward. “Ironically the year afterwards, then they were added to the list, so if I’d done my big year in 2014, I would have been able to count that.”


Print and color your own bird from Neil's Big Year!


So, birding: it’s got rules, it’s got competitions, and it’s got super-stars. Eventually Neil Hayward’s Big Year was declared the biggest ever (and he wrote a lovely book about the experience). A common redstart and a rufous-necked wood-rail that he saw were both accepted by the ABA, and he broke the big year record by one bird in June of 2015. His record didn’t stand for long though. This year there are two birders who have already passed his mark, and a third might still get there.

So will he try to recapture the title?

“When I started doing my Big Year, before that I told people I would never do a big year. It sounded crazy and insane and a lot of work and a lot of travel...and I ended up doing it,” Hayward says, “So even though now I say that I’ll never go back and do it again, who knows.

*An earlier version of this post stated the ABA rejected Hayward's Eurasian sparrowhawk sighting. This was incorrect. It was actually the Alaskan Records Committee*


Outside/In was produced this week by:

Sam Evans-Brown, and Jimmy Gutierrez with help from Logan Shannon, Molly Donahue, Taylor Quimby, and Maureen McMurray.

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This week’s episode featured tracks from Aaron Ximm, Broke For Free and the Blue Dot Sessions, and it came from Free Music Archive.

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.

Outside/In is a production of New Hampshire Public Radio.