Is the wilderness wired?
It is, of course. It's now possible to trip over the insulated threads of the World Wide Web in any nook of the globe, even in places where the dominant piece of electronics has long been the flashlight. I'm not always glad. I recently watched disapprovingly as a friend checked his e-mail via satellite phone from our camp in a remote Cambodian wilderness. And I think the mystique of Everest is a bit cheapened by the constant, chattering Internet contact we have with mountaineering teams nowadays. More and more, the Internet is part of what I go into the wilds to escape.
Having said that, I'm finding the net to be an increasingly useful part of my outdoors kit -- at least when used before I head out.
Like any hobby, being an outdoors aficionado includes its own set of off-duty diversions: reading glossy accounts of other people's derring-do, thumbing dreamily through gear catalogs, scouring maps for ideal routes through wilderness you'll probably never see. Now you can do all that online (and at your desk during the workday, no less), as well as gain access to some genuinely useful planning information. One example: Last spring, because of a brush fire, a ranger from the Okefenokee called to cancel my hard-won reservation to camp in the swamp. But by calling up an Okefenokee map on the Web, I was able to instantly plot an alternative route that satisfied the ranger and salvaged my paddling trip.
So if this (so-far) desultory winter has driven you indoors, here are some bookmarks that may help keep you in an outside frame of mind:
GORP -- gorp.com This is the most generally useful outdoor recreation site I've found. It's a good starting point for any musing-cum-planning you're doing for trips anywhere in the country (and, increasingly, around the world). Founded in New York by adventure-starved Wall Streeters, GORP breaks the world down geographically and in each location offers a decent menu of local outdoor options. Thinking of heading over to West Virginia? GORP divides the state into three sections and details the major hiking, biking, skiing options therein. Usually -- and this is my favorite feature -- all federal and state forests are listed, complete with contact info, additional links and a basic overview of recreational opportunities. If you're more into browsing than specific destinations, GORP cross-indexes the outdoor universe into attractions (national parks, wilderness, wildlife, beaches, etc.) and activities (paddling, diving, camping, etc.). There are all the other standard Web site features: articles (of widely divergent quality), shopping, book and gear reviews. But the most powerful tools are the forums. This is a surprisingly good way to get firsthand tips on where to go and what to do in specific areas from people who have been there. A few years ago, for instance, I was led to a truly spectacular unposted campsite near Moab, Utah, by eavesdropping on a thread in GORP's Arches and Canyonlands forum.
POTOMAC APPALACHIAN TRAIL CLUB -- patc.net PATC is the heavy lifter of all things trail-related in the Washington area. The club's reach extends far beyond the Appalachian Trail proper, so it's no surprise their comprehensive Web site offers some of the best one-stop info on our local outdoors. PATC -- effective as it is in maintaining trails from Southern Virginia to Pennsylvania -- is volunteer-dependent, so the Web site is a vast improvement over the infrequently staffed phone lines of old. Click here to sign up for PATC's popular cabin program, for late-breaking bulletins on trail conditions and for the rolling schedule of hikes, rock climbs and (this time of year) cross-country skiing trips they put on almost every weekend. The forum here is a pleasant surprise -- easy to use and boasting an impressive, spam-free dialogue on local outdoor issues. And don't miss (tucked at the bottom of the main page) a useful list of stuff tailored to local conditions: black bear etiquette, camping in a Blue Ridge winter, Native American lore, etc.
WASHINGTON WOMEN OUTDOORS -- patriot.net/%7Ewwo/main.html WWO is a long-established, active group offering outdoor skills training and trips for women around Washington. If you're a woman looking for a comfortable introduction to backpacking, paddling, climbing, cycling or skiing, the site details WWO's full schedule of outings. What I regularly use the site for -- not being part of WWO's target constituency -- is the truly excellent list of outdoor-oriented links, almost a hundred of them from area outdoor clubs, retailers and wilderness schools. The list is called Outdoors Internet Resources, at patriot.net/%7 Ewwo/OutdoorInfo.html.
REI OUTLET -- rei-outlet.com Okay, this is where I really spend most of my time online. It's the bargain corner of outdoor gear giant REI, and it really does occasionally cough up a great deal (I once came within two clicks of ordering a canoe here before my wife wrestled the mouse out of my hands). But mainly this is where I do my serious Windows shopping. The site features an ever-changing stock of seconds and remainders, with their prices falling the longer they are unsold. What to do but keep coming back to look some more? One gizmo hasn't worked: I signed up for the site's "sleuth" feature, which purported to notify me by e-mail whenever certain pieces of gear (kayaking stuff, mainly) I am looking for become available. No notices yet, even though I've seen some of those items pass through.
FEDERAL LANDS -- www.recreation.gov This is one I discovered only recently while searching for information on Bureau of Land Management properties. (BLM lands are the great secret of western camping.) What I found was that some smart bureaucrat has assembled recreation facts on all the great land-holding federal agencies, including BLM, the Park Service, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife and the Bureau of Reclamation. You can search state-by-state in more than 20 categories (hiking, water sports, horseback riding, wildlife, hunting, etc). Searching bicycling in Maryland, for example, turns up eight federal parks good for peddling, including a new one on me, Youghiogheny River Lake, administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. One drawback -- it seems to stick slavishly to state borders, so a search of "District of Columbia" won't always include Maryland and Virginia.
DC online -- washdc.org/parks. html A good list of often overlooked state and county parks in the region, like Piscataway on the Potomac and Mason Neck in Fairfax County. Look here on a sunny Saturday morning if you have a yen to get out and see someplace new.
NATIONAL FORESTS -- www.fs.fed. us/recreation/states/us.shtml The USDA Forest Service has collected links to all of its holdings, organized here by state. Each listing also includes the designated wilderness areas within each forest. These are often the safest bets for an unspoiled natural experience -- if you have no other insight into promising spots, look for the wilderness areas.
NATIONAL PARKS -- www.nps.gov This National Park Service clearinghouse will link you to all sites covering the more than 370 units, 80 million acres of the park system. Browse this one just to get a sense of the astonishing complexity of our most popular public lands agency.
And of course there are more every day -- more vendors, more clubs, more energetic enthusiasts adding to the Web's outdoor offerings. Most of the magazines have an Internet presence (www.backpacker.com, www.canoekayak.com, outsidemag.com), every sort of hobby is represented (find local caving info at the Potomac Speleological Club, users.erols.com/dccrens/PSC/) as is every community (gay and lesbian outdoors? home.att.net/~cvoutdoors). Outfitters, ecotourism operators, survival gurus, map-makers. There's so much of the outdoors squeezed onto your computer screen ... you may never have to leave your house again.