She Learned to Bike at 20. Now She’s a Champion.

30 May

On May 31, Alexandera Houchin will line up with 66 men and 15 women for the start of the second annual Dirty Kanza Extra Large. The 350-mile, invitation-only, ultra-endurance gravel-cycling challenge may sound benign enough—it’s in Kansas, after all—but this year’s race climbs more than 15,433 feet through the state’s often wind-whipped, mud-soaked Flint Hills. It’s masochistic by any cyclist’s standards, but Houchin isn’t fazed.

“I pretty much only eat Snickers and drink Powerade because these shorter races are a solid push-through,” she says. “I don’t bring sleeping gear, and I never wear padded shorts. I’ll just wear my cutoffs and my boots. I always ride with flat pedals.”

Last July, Houchin, who is a member of the Fond Du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in northeastern Minnesota, was the first woman to finish the Tour Divide, a 2,745-mile race that started in Banff, Alberta, and ended in Antelope Wells, New Mexico, an effort that took her 23 days 3 hours. It’s a big win, but it’s unlikely that anyone who doesn’t closely follow endurance cycling has seen or heard of Houchin. She’s vehemently opposed to social media and can’t post selfies because, as she says, she still rocks a flip phone. To see her speak in person, however, as I did one frigid night last winter at a Duluth Explorers Club meeting, is to know that she’s unlike anyone the cycling world has ever seen.

“Alexandera is a positive force of nature that people gravitate toward,” says George Kapitz, the owner of Broken Spoke Bike Studio in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and one of Houchin’s two sponsors. (The other is the Austin, Texas, custom-bike manufacturer Chumba.) “No challenge is too much. In fact, the harder the better. She has determination and the ability to persevere.”

Houchin’s training, racing, and school schedule is packed. Over the winter she set the women’s course record on Wisconsin’s 80-mile Tuscobia Winter Ultra despite having eight flats; scratched out of the 300-mile Arizona Trail Race in April after a series of logistical snafus; and, two weeks before the Dirty Kanza, crushed the 390-mile course at the under-the-radar Almanzo event in southern Minnesota on her fat bike. All this while finishing a full semester of classes in quantitative analysis, physics, organic chemistry, and American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She hopes to graduate next year.

Despite her frenetic life, the 29-year-old agrees to meet me for coffee on a blustery spring day before she commutes—often by bike—35 miles back to the reservation, where she lives with her mom after having reestablished a relationship with her mother and Ojibwe roots as an adult, to talk about last summer’s win and the upcoming DKXL.

“I can just go, go, go,” laughs Houchin, who is wearing a choker necklace, a nose ring, and a Broken Spoke Bike Studio sweatshirt. “I might not be the fastest person, but I can definitely go longer than you. Doing these races, it’s just you against the elements and the wild. I have this great relationship with the earth and the weather.”

Houchin didn’t always have that bond with nature. She grew up in a trailer park with her divorced single father in Janesville, Wisconsin, and weighed more than 300 pounds when she graduated from high school. Her first experience riding a bike was commuting on a heavy old Schwinn she spray-painted purple and rode 20 miles round-trip to her job at the University Hospital in Madison.

“I was 20 years old and 70 pounds overweight,” she says. “It would take two hours to ride ten miles.”

When her bike was stolen, Houchin searched Craigslist, bought a fixed gear, and rode it home.

“That’s when I realized there were no brakes on my new bike, but I kept riding it because it was the only bike I had,” she says. Her prowess with the fixie impressed a cyclist friend, which led her to getting a bike-delivery job for Jimmy John’s, which led her to lose more weight, which led her to dream up a bike tour from Tucson to Canada with a bike-messenger friend. Her plan was to pedal to Canada, then race the Tour Divide back to Tucson. Instead, Houchin fell in love with her friend, ran out of money by the time she reached Whitefish, Montana, and lost her race mojo.     

“It felt so bad to quit because in everything I do I try to live and breathe what I say, and I didn’t, so I had to make a comeback for myself,” Houchin says. She made a pact with herself to compete in eight races in her 28th year, including the Smoke and Fire Ultra, a 400-mile race through Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, and made another attempt at the Tour Divide, this time with success.   

“I had a really big realization this year,” Houchin tells me. “I won the Tour Divide and a bunch of opportunities presented themselves, but I was torn. I could be a better bike racer if I could spend more time on my bike, but it’s pretty important that I make an impact in Indian country by giving back to my community.”

After college, Houchin plans to go to dental school and become the first registered member of the Fond du Lac band to be a practicing dentist on the reservation. According to the Society of American Indian Dentists, there are fewer than 200 enrolled tribal members who are dentists, yet there’s a need for 3,000 nationwide.

“I don’t like the spin that reservations are poor, impoverished places, but I do see people really struggling here,” says Houchin of her own home. “I wouldn’t have been able to go to college without my tribe’s support. We’re still a nation within this big mechanism of the United States after all these years. When I ride my bike, I think about that. We still exist because we never give up.”

An Ode to the Disappearing Whip-poor-will

17 May

The northern United States lags a few months behind the rest of the country in welcoming spring. A late-April blizzard can postpone the transformation from monochrome whites and grays to fresh hues of green for weeks, as it did this year. It’s Mother Nature as the ultimate tease before she turns on the blooming crocuses, budding maple leaves, and cascading waterfalls, which emerge like a miracle from the death throes of ice and snow. This visual dearth is why audio cues like birdsong are so essential to human ears in northern climates. The birds let us know, in case we’ve forgotten, that the world is once again alive.

Or is it? The other day, a small article about the “crashing” populations of Eastern whip-poor-wills—those unassuming, mottled-brown nocturnal birds who serenade campfires with their looping whistle—caught my eye. From northern Louisiana to southern Canada, the whip-poor-will’s call is synonymous with languorous summer nights. The Ute Tribe believed the bird’s call had the power to transform a frog into the moon. Henry David Thoreau wrote that “the note of the whip-poor-will borne over the fields is the voice with which the woods and moonlight woo me.”

The birds fly around at night with their mouths wide open, swallowing moths and other insects. No one really knows why their populations are declining, but one theory is that moth populations are crashing, so the birds don’t have much left to eat. The good news, I read, is that with an estimated 1.2 million Eastern whip-poor-wills left in the U.S., the species isn’t yet considered endangered, so I breathed a sigh of relief and, like so many of us who don’t know how to cope with such loss, moved on.

But I began to wonder how many other bird species are threatened, specifically in Minnesota, where I live. Audubon’s list of Minnesota’s Climate Sensitive Birds isn’t an inspiring read. An analysis of 298 of the 314 commonly found birds in Minnesota concluded that 73 are at risk of “severe declines,” meaning that more than 50 percent of each of those 73 species are projected to be gone by 2050. On that list are the common loon, the bald eagle, and the mallard, a duck so ubiquitous that I see one almost daily, squawking at me from a giant puddle of melted snow on the side of a busy Duluth street. These birds are celebrated icons of Minnesota, poster animals for life in the raw, wild North Woods.

A few days after I read the Minnesota Audubon report, the internet blew up with news of pending doom for species worldwide. As most everyone on the planet has now read, a million species are threatened with extinction by 2050, “more than ever before in human history,” as the report put it. It’s hard to find a redeeming spin for that story line, because there is none.

This spring, however, the birds have arrived to see me to the end of what has felt like an impossibly prolonged winter. This morning two crows in heated conversation outside my window woke me before the rising sun. Yesterday, over a solitary lunch break in my backyard, I closed my eyes to better hear the rich song of an American robin hiding in a white pine. Last Sunday, after I finished chores at my cabin and took a sauna to sweat away the grime, I splashed into the nearby frigid water that was covered by ice just a week ago and sat on a bench to bring my temperature back to equilibrium. That’s when I heard my first common loon call of the season. Its haunting, complicated trill reminded me of a prescient line Thoreau wrote in 1851: “The whip-poor-wills now begin to sing in earnest about half an hour before sunrise, as if making haste to improve the short time that is left them.”

Can these birds sense the planet’s demise? I wonder. It seems we humans don’t have that capacity.      

The World’s Best Summer Camps of 2019

16 May

Summer camp is an American rite of tradition and a favorite Hollywood trope for teen humor, hormones, and horror. With all due respect to American Pie and Friday the 13th, our picks are way cooler than band camp and a lot safer than Camp Crystal Lake.

Adults, we know you’re just overgrown kids, so we’re leading off with a few of the best places to stretch your skills, detox from life, or digress to simpler days. For those who want to create memories with your children, we threw in some of our favorite family options. And because parents can definitely appreciate having the house to themselves for a few weeks in the summer, we have options for just the kids, from learning how to sail in the Caribbean to paddling in Minnesota to creating an adventure mountain-biking film in Vermont.

For this list of camps across the globe, we relied on word-of-mouth reputation, interviews with camp staff, research, and, most importantly, we picked places that we want to go. Camps today are increasingly sophisticated in their offerings, from the skills they teach—like fishing and sailing—to the skills the staff exhibits when working with campers on a myriad of issues, like how to navigate being an LGBQT teen, nutrition, or just getting off the grid. But just for old times’ sake, we also added the best tried-and-true classics. 

Happy camping.

Camps for Adults

Mountain Trek, Nelson, British Columbia (From $5,400

Part hardcore boot camp, part holistic health retreat, part spa oasis, Mountain Trek has mastered the triumvirate of wellness. Based out of a luxurious lodge in B.C.’s beautiful Kootenay Range, the daily routine includes a gentle 6 A.M. wake-up call followed by yoga and three to four hours of daily, rigorous nordic hiking, with a break for a picnic lunch in between. Back at the lodge, the expert staff lectures on the five pillars of health: fitness, sleep, nutrition, stress management, and detoxification. After dinner it’s back to the yoga studio for one more fitness class and then a massage or a dip in the outdoor spa. All meals are sugar-, starch-, and processed-food-free, and no drinking is allowed. That’s OK. The natural high is plenty.

Kalama Kamp, Namotu, Fiji (From $5,700)

For anyone who harbors the fantasy of learning how to foil, Kalama Camp is the place to make that dream a reality. The first-ever foil camp, which includes instruction in foil stand-up paddleboarding and foil prone surfing, is coached by legendary waterman Dave Kalama and his expert team. Kalama is not only half aquatic species, but he also has a wicked sense of humor that makes even failing fun. If you find that foiling isn’t your thing, this sleepy South Pacific dot is a paradise surrounded by world-class breaks for surfing or SUPing, reefs for snorkeling, and fish for catching. With a private Fijian chef and rustic island huts for sleeping, the camp allows guests to maximize their water time. Yoga, hiking nearby islands, and chilling out in a hammock are also in the mix. September 7 to 14.

Camp Wandawega, Elkhorn, Wisconsin ($550 per night)

A one-time speakeasy and mobster hideaway turned church camp turned lake resort, this 1920s-era classic American oasis features vintage log cabins, tepees, treehouses, bunkhouses, and hipster campers for accommodations. “Camp” is a loosely defined term here. There is no program per se, but the vibe is fun, and relaxation can be had in the form of lake swimming, hiking, biking, campfires, and mixing cocktails. The rustic cabins have limited modern amenities, and there’s no restaurant on-site. Luckily, there is good eating in neighboring towns, like at the Elegant Farmer in Mukwonago, world-famous for its apple pie baked in a paper bag. For those who prefer modern amenities, the beautifully renovated Wandawega Hillhouse, overlooking the rest of camp, has an expansive deck, a fireplace, a full kitchen and Wi-Fi. 

Trek Ride Camp, Fredericksburg, Texas (From $1,299)

Need a pre- or postseason pick-me-up? Trek’s new four-day Texas training camp takes advantage of the rolling Hill Country surrounding Fredricksburg, offering 16,000 feet of climbing over 356 miles of well-paved, quiet country roads. Yes, there are some punchy ascents, and the camp is designed to push even experienced cyclists’ limits, but this is wine country, so you can’t take yourself too seriously. Day three is the most challenging, with 79 miles and 3,900 feet of climbing. But guests can kick back every evening at Fredericksburg Inn and Suites, set on five acres alongside a creek. It emanates southern charm and hospitality, with an open-air gazebo, a heated outdoor pool, and a family-size hot tub.

Camps for Families

Rockywold Deephaven Camps, Holderness, New Hampshire (From $6,090)

Established in 1987, this classic East Coast idyll was, and still is, a respite from busy city lives. Families can gather here to fish, swim, paddle canoes, or find a quiet corner and read. It’s not traditional programming. Every minute of every day isn't planned, but there are opportunities for hikes in the White Mountains, and almost every day of the week there’s something on the calendar, like Monday-night games of capture the flag, Tuesday-morning nature walks for kids with staff from the Squam Lakes Natural Science Center, and the Thursday wacky canoe race. Teens have their own special fun, such as a weekly excursion to the aptly named Jumping Rock. Lakefront cottages are reserved on a weekly basis, and all cabins offer a private dock, a fireplace, a screened-in porch, and an old-school icebox. 

Mashpi Lodge, Mashpi, Ecuador (From $1,098 per night)

This stunning National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World, set in a 3,200-acre private reserve deep in the Andean cloudforest in the megadiverse Choco bioregion, recently launched a forest-steward program for visiting families. Designed to more fully engage kids during family activities (not as in-house babysitting), the program is led by Mashpi’s team of native rangers who were born and raised in local communities. It offers age-old techniques for walking safely through the forest, learning how to use tree leaves as whistles for birdcalls, visiting a butterfly farm, “sky biking” along a cable suspended high in the lush canopy, and working in a special “kid lab” next to the real researchers. Having understood the anatomy of animal species likely to be spotted on trail, as well as the specifics of leaf prints and patterns of various plants, kids walk away as amateur biologists. Price includes meals, activities, and excursions. 

Orvis Fly-Fishing School at Snake River Sporting Club, Jackson, Wyoming (From $179)

When the instructor is two-time Wyoming Top Guide winner Spencer Morton, even rank beginners have a shot at catching a trophy cutthroat trout. The setting for this one- or two-day school is the Snake River Sporting Club, a nearly 1,000-acre former ranch turned vacation paradise 20 miles south of Jackson on the shores of the legendary Snake River. Guests who book one of the brand-new four-bedroom lodges at the club can practically roll out of bed and be on the river. Skills covered at school include fly-casting, choosing the right tackle, leaders and knots, fly selection, and safe release. Price includes lunch at the clubhouse and the use of top-notch fly-fishing gear. 

Camps for Kids and Teens

Camp Brave Trails, Southern California and Maryland (From $995)

This five-year-old camp, with one campus in the mountains an hour and a half from Los Angeles and one in western Maryland, is a safe place for kids ages 12 to 18 who identify as LGBTQ to explore their gender identity, offering everything from archery and hiking to workshops in makeup and drag. The LGBTQ leadership and activism training, however, is where the camp really shines, featuring seminars on topics like body positivity, gender identity, and how to identify queer-friendly colleges. Its Passion to Action program teaches campers how to form and tell their own personal stories, then take those experiences to influence and change the world. Financial assistance available. 

Camp Widjiwagen, Ely, Minnesota (From $565)

Based on the rugged Burntside Lake, at the edge of Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness near Ely, this YMCA camp is renowned for its “Widgi progression”: the youngest campers start in sixth grade with a five-day camp, where they learn basic paddling, water safety, camping, and team-building skills. The program culminates in an overnight canoe trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Over the next seven summers, kids learn more complicated skills and progress to more remote terrain, the ultimate being the invitation-only 25-to-52-day paddling or hiking trips up to the Alaskan or Canadian Arctic. Scholarships available.

Socapa Mountain Camp, Burke Mountain, Vermont (From $2,685)

The formula here is simple yet awesome: ride bikes and make movies. With direct access to northeast Vermont’s more than 100 miles of Kingdom Trails, plus the features at Burke Mountain Bike Park, the two-week mountain-bike camp is a dream for cyclists ages 11 to 17. They ride with World Cup pro coaches in the morning, then take afternoon classes in cinematography and picture and sound editing, and ultimately walk away with a sweet, short action film debuted at the Showcase Festival on the final evening. Kids aren’t exactly roughing it. They stay at the swank, new $65 million Burke Mountain Hotel and Conference Center. Scholarships available. 

Camp Chief Ouray, Colorado (From $820)

Boredom is not an option at this 110-year-old camp that sits at an elevation of 8,750 feet on 5,100-acre Snow Mountain Ranch, 80 miles west of Denver. The goal at the “YMCA of the Rockies” is to offer kids ages 13 to 16 challenging experiences that instill confidence and interpersonal skills in a safe, imaginative, natural setting. Chief Ouray’s most popular offerings are the one-week adventure camps, whether it’s adventure backpacking, adventure horsepacking, adventure rafting, adventure fusion (biking, rafting, hiking, and a high ropes course), or adventure odyssey (backpacking, climbing, mountain biking, and rafting). Each camp spends a couple days at the ranch, then three to four days in the Colorado wilderness, where campers learn to work as a group and live in harmony with their environment. Scholarships available. 

Camp Lake Hubert/Camp Lincoln, Lake Hubert, Minnesota (From $3,250)

In a nod to “Minnesota nice” and the classic summer-camp movies of the eighties (think Dirty Dancing, not Friday the 13th), these idyllic, century-old boys’ and girls’ camps (Camp Lake Hubert for girls and Camp Lincoln for boys) sit across a spring-fed, sandy-bottomed lake from one another. But there’s a lot more to do than figure out how to sneak to the other side. The two camps cover more than 400 acres and offer 40 activities, including mountain biking, sailing, windsurfing, climbing, kayaking, paddleboarding, and a ropes course. From two to eight weeks long, kids live in rustic log cabins and learn a litany of camp songs. For those looking for dance partners, the camp also offers offer a co-ed version at Camp Lincoln, complete with dance parties. Scholarships available. 

Mountain Meadow Ranch, Susanville, California (From $3,450)

Operated by a third-generation camping family, this 64-year-old ranch sits on 900 acres north of Lake Tahoe (an hour and a half from the airport in Reno, Nevada) and offers programming like high ropes courses, hiking in the Sierra, and horseback riding, all of which focus on “inclusivity, empathy, integrity, stewardship, authenticity, and mindfulness” for kids ages 7 to 16. Returning to camp programming this year, due to popular demand, is the ranch’s animal-husbandry program, where kids take part in caring for horses, pig farming, and raising lambs, sheep, and chickens. With a two- and four-week option, the camp has a 70 percent return rate, so new spots are hard to come by. Two-week sessions start at $3,450. 

Sail Caribbean, British Virgin Islands and Leeward Islands (From $4,395)

Yes, kids sail the Caribbean in a 45-foot catamaran or 50-foot single-hull yacht, but it isn’t just a vacation. This camp’s True Course curriculum is designed to build leadership and teamwork skills as well as confidence. That means that in addition to learning how to sail, students, ages 13 to 18, are also responsible for cooking, cleaning, getting along with other participants in tight quarters, and everything else it takes to live on the ocean for multiple days. Each itinerary has a slightly different focus, from a 21-day conservation-oriented program where kids tag sea turtles, perform community service, sail, and hike, to a 14-day PADI dive-master course for 18-plus-year-olds, to a 68-day sailing internship for college students. Scholarships available.

American Cyclists Killed by ISIS In Tajikistan

31 Jul

“We wanted more peaceful pedaling through gorgeous landscapes, more sleeping in open fields under clear skies, more quiet sunsets, and more friendly people….” Those words introduce Simply Cycling, a blog written by Lauren Munoz and Jay Austin, the two American cyclists who were tragically attacked and killed on Sunday while riding through Danghara, a mountainous district in Tajikistan, 60 miles northeast of the capital city of Dushanbe. They were with five other cyclists they had met on their journey along the Pamir Highway, a bucket-list bike touring road that threads through the Pamir mountains of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.        

In a blurry and graphic video, a Daewoo sedan swerved from the opposite side of the road to hit the cyclists, one of whom is seen being catapulted off the road by the force of the impact. Witnesses say the assailants then jumped out of the car and stabbed the two Americans, as well as Markus Hummel, a cyclist from Switzerland, and Rene Wokke, a cyclist from the Netherlands, with knives. The three other cyclists survived the attack, at least one with injuries. The U.S. embassy reported that the ministry of internal affairs has detained one suspect and killed at least three others.

According to NPR, ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attack. On Monday, the Islamic State issued a bulletin through its news agency describing the attackers as “soldiers of the Islamic State.” According to the BBC, it also released a video with Tajik and Arabic subtitles of five young militant men, purportedly the attackers, sitting under a tree, pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Nothing was said in the video, however, of the specific attack on the cyclists.  

Austin was featured in a 2015 Washington Post article for his innovative problem-solving approach as the chief idea administrator at the Office of Strategic Management and Planning at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. He left his the sustainable tiny house he built in Washington, D.C., and quit his job to pursue his round-the-world cycling dream.

According to her blog bio, Munoz grew up in California “occasionally cycling around the Rose Bowl” with her family, but didn’t become a serious cyclist until she moved to D.C. and became an avid bike commuter, “falling in love with the efficiency, accessibility, wellness, open air, vulnerability, community, intimacy, and joy of bicycle riding.”

Munoz and Austin started their journey in South Africa in July 2017, winding their way up to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, then flying to Morocco to pedal through eastern Europe before cycling through Central Asia. They planned to dip down to Australia and fly to South America where they would cycle back toward the United States.

Most of the couple’s blog posts express the joys of living simply from the seat of a bike. The final post, however, written by Austin from Kyrgyzstan on July 11, reads ominously:

“We don’t make it very far. A gold sedan skirts by us once more. It parks up ahead. This time, two men exit the vehicle. They stand in the middle of the road blocking our path. Pozhaluysta! the first man says, and I can't tell if it’s an earnest plea or a cruel sneer. In Russian, a lot of things can sound like a cruel sneer.

Nyet! we shout. Leave us alone!

Lauren’s in front and she threads her way in between the two men. She keeps going. I make to follow. I gnash on my pedals, lean to the left, and get in between them.

And then the man on the right pushes me off my bike.”