Cub Scout to Eagle Scout – Scoutmaster to Sierra Club Outdoor activist to Chapter Conservation Director – meet Dennis W Schvejda

Dennis W Schvejda, a witness to Wild Nature from the four corners of North America: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to Newfoundland, to the Everglades and California Desert and many areas in between would be an asset to any local outdoor area. Committed to nature conservation and responsible hiking trail development on his own acreage and surrounding area, Dennis and his wife Tina are pillars in the National Outdoor community.

Dennis administrates SierraActivist.org, a website that serves North America with information crucial to wildlife and nature in the great outdoors! He also volunteers with the Meadowlands Conservation Trust, a public agency formed to acquire environmentally valuable land and to preserve and enhance the environment of the Hackensack Meadowlands District and the Hackensack River Watershed of which Tina is Executive Director.

Enjoy the interview, learn from his outdoor career path and get involved by visiting the sites listed below.

How and where were you introduced to the outdoors?

I’ve always had a great affinity for the outdoors and wildlife. Many children do, and unless a parent cultivates this interest, it will usually end there. I was very fortunate to have a father that was willing to spend so much of his precious time off chauffeuring and accompanying me on all sorts of outings. I later joined the Boy Scouts, became my troop’s first Eagle Scout, and enjoyed the many day hikes, weekend campouts, summers in Scout camp, backpacking Pihilmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico and a World Jamboree in Japan. As an adult I became a Scoutmaster and helped a new generation develop outdoor skills and appreciation. As I grew older, I found that skills and appreciation were not enough to prevent many of my favorite places from being lost to development. I became very active in our Sierra Club Chapter, received a national Sierra Club award in 2000 [http://www.sierraclub.org/awards/2000winners/specialschvejda.asp], and for three years was employed as Chapter Conservation Director. I also did a short stint as Advocacy Director for the New York/New Jersey Trail Conference.

What has been your favourite outdoor recreations area?

I spend weekends in the Catskills of New York and hope to retire there. Although the region abounds in trails and outdoor opportunities, and I do enjoy them, I spend the majority of time on my own property. With only a few people per square mile, my wife Tina and I can walk out the door and hike thousands of acres (including our neighbors, and of course we have permission!), enjoy the scenery, and see countless species of wildlife without seeing people. Our own version of paradise!

Beyond the Catskills, I have been able to witness Wild Nature from the four corners of North America: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to Newfoundland, to the Everglades and California Desert and many areas in between. In my opinion the wildest was the Arctic Refuge.

Please share an outdoor story related to one of the above areas.

Like so many in our modern world, I live by time restraints, living according to schedule. In the Arctic Refuge I was forced to do otherwise, live the day according to need, not time. My first morning I was up early, ready to go and frustrated that our guides seemed to be moving in slow motion. I’m from the New York area, “move it, move it, move it!” I was soon to learn and experience “Arctic time.” The sun never completely set below the horizon, there was always light. With unlimited light, time became meaningless. As the days passed, we moved when the weather was agreeable, and stayed put when not. We ate three meals a day, but there was no breakfast, lunch or dinner. We stopped and ate when opportunity arose, not when time demanded. Breakfast at midnight, dinner at 10 am and so on. It was the closest I will ever come to living as our nomadic ancestors did, a truly unique experience. And yes we were on schedule for our bush plane ride out!

Have you ever experienced a wilderness medical emergency or been lost in the wilderness? If so please describe this adventure and any lessons learned.

My wife Tina and I were members of a Sierra Club backpacking trip in Montana’s Swan Range. Most of the party had crossed a creek just above a four-foot waterfall via a slippery 30-foot log. As the group waited by the waterfall pool for the remainder to cross the natural log bridge, a woman slipped and fell. She was head first into the water, suspended upside-down from the log by her pack. Nobody moved… But with full pack I ran onto the log as my wife with full pack charged across the three and a half foot pool to her side and moved her head so she could breathe. As she did so, I picked the fallen women (and her pack) up, righted her onto the log and walked her off. It soon became evident that the woman had also suffered a superficial neck cut (dangerously close to major arteries) that none the less was bleeding profusely. We took care of that quickly also. I am a Wilderness First Responder, with all sorts of Scout/Outdoor first aid training. That helped and I encourage others to commit to training. But there are intangibles. I can (could!) move a lot of weight around, adrenaline was critical. While everyone remained frozen (even our guide), I am grateful that my wife and I were able to move quickly and help this woman.

Can you share any unique encounters with wild animals?

As a teenager backpacking in New Mexico’s Sange de Christo Mountains I was sleeping under the stars and was awakened by a porcupine licking my salt encrusted head! I’m thankful he didn’t take a bite!

In New Jersey I came upon a foraging young black bear. What I’m about to tell you is wrong and you shouldn’t do it, a feed bear is a dead bear. The bear was jaw popping and huffing, so I spoke softly to him and didn’t move any closer. Eventually, with one eye on me, he again snuffled for food through the leaves. I threw him a dried apricot, which he ate and another and so on. Now he was like a dog, sitting at my feet wanting more. I bowled an apple down the trail, and he ran after it, came back and ate it. I continued my hike with a black bear by my side, occasionally giving him a treat. After 45 minutes, the food was gone and I was getting close to a road, so I ended our walk. I stopped, took off my pack pointed to my open mouth and the upside down pack and told the bear there wasn’t any more food. Damn if he didn’t look at me, sit down and watch as I continued my hike!

Alaska’s Tongass National Forest provided the most varied wildlife. The confluence of land, sea and sky, the Tongass provides a wildlife spectacle! Brown bear (grizzly) walking along every shoreline, bald eagles common as pigeons, killer whale pods passing and surrounding your boat, sea otters and seals hiding in the shallows from this apex predator and popping up a few feet from your kayak. What a place!

If not previously mentioned, have you ever completed a thru-hike or multi-day backpacking trip and what nuggets of wisdom did you glean from it?

I guess a few. First off, it’s difficult!

I like to start very early, break camp before sunrise, eat a snack, start hiking and break for a trail breakfast at 10. I stop to camp early afternoon.

If drinking water quantity is questionable, carry it! In New Hampshire’s White Mountain Presidential Range the immediate water supply was termed “problematic.” So I carried 5 gallons for our group. In this popular hiking place I was assured by two dozen hikers that there was water ahead and I was wasting my energy carrying the water. You guessed it – the only water was a damp rock.

Take care of your feet, they get you there! Too many people seem to wear the wrong shoes. Some need heavy boots with support, some don’t. Find out what’s best for you before you’ve committed to a multi-day outing, which you may have to do in agony, on blistered feet. Not a great way to spend your vacation!

On group outings many people stay to themselves. After your camp is set, get out there and help. If not the guide with cooking and camp chores, be observant and provide assistance. There’s always something to do!

What is your favourite outdoor website?

Hmm, a loaded question. I started http://SierraActivist in the 90’s as the Internet became popular. It was a site that grew along with my Sierra Club activism and wound up with 40,000 posts and two million visits. After five years without an update and hackers destroying functionality, I’m in the process of updating the software driving the site and adding new posts. Where the Sierra Activist website will go is anybody’s guess. I have started Twitter posting (@DSchvejda) outdoor/environmental items and folks can contact me by direct messaging me there.

What is your favourite outdoor hiking gear store?

I used to live in Campmor! But I must admit to not having been there in a long time – I have so much stuff!

If you are a website administrator please add your url here.

Besides http://SierraActivist.org, I’m in the processing of designing http://MeadowlandsConservationTrust.org, which will be live hopefully by February 2010.

Any last words?

Clayton Kessler is providing a great service to the outdoor community by offering to post these interviews on his website. Thank you!

You are more than welcome Dennis. I have been very privleged to have the opportunity to have dialogue with outdoor enthusiasts worldwide and to receive their input, knowledge and enthusiasm for all things outdoors.

Wild Backpacker

The Wasatch Range, nor the Unita, La Salle, Bear River or Boulder Mountains could keep a wild backpacker from hiking an outdoor adventure. While loving all that Utah has to offer for an outdoorsman, Colton Gardner could not let the Utah Grand Canyon or any other barrier stop him from trekking around home in Utah and far away. He now features backpacking gear, food, exotic destinatinations and much more at his outdoor website, WildBackpacker.com. Following is an entertaining and educational interview with a Wild Backpacker; Colton Gardner.

*How and where were you introduced to the outdoors?
For as long as I can remember, my family was teaching me to enjoy the outdoors. We have explored all around the country with motorized vehicles and on foot. I’ve especially grown to love backpacking and hiking. I’ve been hiking all over, exploring my local mountain ranges near home in Utah and Colorado, and also traveling far to experience exotic places like the gorgeous coastal views of Kauai, the breathtaking waterfalls of Havasupai, or the luscious forests of Alaska. My parents taught me to enjoy, respect, and protect all that nature has for us. My purpose in starting Wild Backpacker has been to share my experience, to give backpackers tips that I’ve had to learn, report on hikes I’ve been on, and share recipes I’ve enjoyed.

*What has been your favorite outdoor recreational area?
My favorite outdoor recreational area… I would say a tie between Zion National Park in Utah or the island of Kauai in Hawaii. Both are magnificent in their own way. Zion National Park has handfuls of diverse hiking trails and breathtaking sights. Their trails range in difficulty from week-long backpacking trips through the Narrows to quick day hikes up Angels Landing. If you haven’t been able to experience the beauty of Zion National Park, I strongly encourage you to visit. My other favorite area is Kauai. As the “world’s wettest place,” the Hawaiian island is full of lush jungle and greenery. I love exploring the island – finding waterfalls, caves, and other hidden wonders. It is also home to my favorite backpacking trail, the Kalalau Trail!

*Please share an outdoor story related to one of the above areas.
As I said, the Kalalau Trail in Kauai, Hawaii, is my all-time favorite trail. The Kalalau Trail is a 22-mile trek, not counting detours to the waterfalls, along the Na Pali Coast of Kauai. Pictures of the valley, beach, and cathedrals are very popular and even more spectacular in person. It is a rigorous hike, but the sights are well worth it. You hike right along the coast, seeing whales in the ocean and waterfalls in the valleys. We spent two days backpacking in to take our time and enjoy it, spending the night at the Hanakapai and Kalalau beaches. I can’t even explain how amazing it was to fall asleep to crashing waves and wake up and look out of your tent into the Pacific Ocean. From eating wild mangoes to meeting crazy natives to having giant killer cockroaches crawling through our backpacks and carrying our dinner away into the jungle, it was an experience I will never forget. If you would like more information about the Kalalau Trail, check out the trail guide on Wild Backpacker.

*Have you ever experienced a wilderness emergency or been lost in the wilderness? If so please describe this adventure and any lessons learned.
I have not had any medical emergencies myself, but I have encountered others who have. While hiking in the Zion Narrows, we came upon a group that was planning on making it a simple day hike, but ended up having to stay the night with us in our camp. They weren’t prepared for something like this, but we were. We had extra food and dry clothes for them. We lent them our tent and our 4-person group squeezed into one 3-person tent. It was tight quarters in there, but the other group was able to have a place to sleep that night. This is just one of the times that being extra prepared came in handy.

*Can you share any unique encounters with wild animals?
I am a bit embarrassed about this story, but I will tell it anyway. My brother, then 18 years old, decided that he would take me, then 12 years old, one a night-time hike. Even from the beginning, everything that could go wrong went wrong. We forgot important items, I lost my map, and the batteries in our flashlight went out. Luckily, my brother was prepared and had extras. But while replacing them, all our batteries rolled down the trail and off the mountain side. So we continued our trek with one dim headlamp. While still hiking in the dark, my brother stopped me suddenly. He told me to be quiet. He whispered to me that there was a moose up ahead and that we need to wait for it to move. I asked why we couldn’t just scare it off and he explained that they can charge and be dangerous. Don’t ask me why we didn’t think about going around him or turning back, but we stood there in the middle of the trail for a good hour and a half waiting for the moose to move. By the time my brother finally was convinced that it had left, it was light enough we didn’t need our headlamp anymore. That was the longest hour and a half of my life. I specifically remember being so bored I taught myself the ABCs backwards in my head.

*What nuggets of wisdom have you learned from your multi-day backpacking trips?
Go light. The first principle in enjoying backpacking is a light pack. Even if you can’t achieve ‘ultralight’ all at once, just do what you can. Figure out what is the heaviest thing in your pack and determine if you can substitute it with a light solution. It may be that bulky heavy sleeping bag that goes first or dehydrating your food instead of packing MREs. Another common way to lighten up is to acquire a micro-sized stove and filter water instead of carrying large amounts.

*What is your favourite outdoor website?
Of course, I love my own website, www.wildbackpacker.com! It is a one-stop resource for any information a backpacker or hiker could need. But other than my own, I love the Backpacker Magazine’s website www.backpacker.com. You can spend countless hours exploring and learning with trip reports from around the world, backpacking how-to videos, and outdoor skill articles. The forum is also an amazing resource, as it has thousands of other backpackers from experienced outdoors-men to first-time hikers.

*What is your favourite outdoor hiking gear store?
Most of my online outdoor gear purchases are through REI and Wilderness Dining. REI, Recreational Equipment Incorporated, has any gear you want in any brand. They have very reasonable prices and fantastic customer service. Be sure to check them out. Wilderness Dining is where I buy most of my backpacking food and cookware. I discovered them in 2008 and have been addicted since. Have any questions to ask about their products or services? Feel free to call them – they are open to talk!

100 Hikes

I met Kolby Kirk via twitter.com/100hikes. After checking out his website at 100hikes.com, I was intrigued by the way he was able to take the scientifically proven fitness and health benefits of hiking and create a self made fitness program.

Kolby’s fitness program is one that could work for anyone who can walk. The program is one that combines creativity, nature’s wonders, accountability and much more. For accountability, Kolby committed to posting his fitness promise online “I, Kolby Kirk, promise to hike one hundred times by January 1st, 2010.” But Kolby didn’t stop with just a promise; he has also committed to posting each hike at 100hikes.com and has defined what a hike is to keep him on track:

  1. A “hike” is defined as a trek of two miles or longer over mostly unpaved paths. There will not be any “hikes” to the store.
  2. Each hike must have a definitive end before the next one starts. In other words, I can’t say that I’ve gone on two hikes because I stopped for water at the half way point of a four-mile hike. However, I might go on more than one hike in a day, such as on a camping trip or before and after work.
  3. Proof of a hike must be posted on this site to count. “Proof” is defined as a photo, video, or GPS tracking. This will keep myself from cheating (not that I would) and saying I hiked on said date when I really just sat on my ass and watched reruns of Futurama on TV or something.

Kolby has opened the 100hikes program up for anyone else to join him, if you are in Southern California, he would enjoy your company on his next hike or a new hiking trail suggestion. Get to know Kolby Kirk a little better and hear some of his extraordinary outdoor experiences through his TracksAndTrails.ca hiking interview below!

How and where were you introduced to the outdoors and how did you begin the 100 hikes program?

I have fond memories of going on weekend camping trips with the family in Oregon, where I was born and raised. We would attach the pop-up camper to car and hit the road for a weekend of camping. I remember the freedom I had in the woods to explore on my own, learning firsthand about nature. I became a pretty good frog catcher, I must admit.

We made some long-distant moves in my adolescent years – Oregon to Minnesota, Minnesota to California – and each move introduced me to completely different environments. I would spend hours exploring the natural areas near my house. My parents were big believers of getting outside for the weekend, so we went on many road trips. Although I have lived in massive urban areas since I was 10 years old, my parents showed me how unspoiled nature could only be a short drive away. I joined the Cub Scouts in Minnesota and then the Boy Scouts in California. Scouting taught me important outdoor skills, like backpacking, as well as a respect for nature. All of these things stayed with me as I grew into an adult in Southern California.

But sometimes life can get in the way of a nice walk in the woods. Earlier this year, I realized that I had not dedicated enough time to get out and hike. In 2008, I had taken a few international backpacking trips, but locally, I had only done about 20 miles of hiking for the year. Somewhere along the line, my job had taken over my life and my hiking boots had started to gather dust in the closet. In an effort to get in shape, I resolved in May that I would hike one-hundred times before 2010. (i.e. 100 hikes in 240 days) I just completed hike #57 last weekend in Utah. I’m on schedule to hike all one hundred by my deadline, December 31st.

In regards to physical fitness, how has this self made program been better / worse than other fitness programs you have used or thought about?

I have a hard time working out in the gym. I always feel like I have something to prove to the others working out, a bad habit I picked up in high school football. Also, fitness is the main reason for being in the gym whereas there are many reasons to take a hike. I’m still trying to figure out if I’m a naturalist who likes to hike or a hiker who likes to study nature. There’s a thin red line between hiking for fitness’ sake and hiking to enjoy the nature at a leisurely pace. Hiking by definition should include nature observation, but as a photographer and a very curious person, I’m always stopping on the trail to study a plant, insect, or bird. In that aspect, this 100hikes resolution isn’t the best fitness program, but it’s working for me. I’ve hiked over 250 miles in the last 4 months and I’d say I’m in better shape now than I’ve been in years.

I often go to the mountains for the peace of mind it gives; do you think that hiking for fitness is a good way to combine the mind, body and soul?

I love to hike for the physical, mental, and spiritual growth it offers. I like to tell friends that hiking has been scientifically proven to make life better: A recent study said that hiking helps increase the endorphins released into your body, which in turn has positive effects on your mood. But there’s something about hiking that is beyond science. Getting out away from the bustling city and into the wilderness is very spiritual for me. I feel at home in the wilderness and the calmness it offers. I find that I have time on the trail to meditate. I don’t mean the Eastern concept of meditation – sitting down with my eyes closed and legs crossed – but rather a calming of my mind allowing me to think about ways of self improvement. I’ve solved quite a few problems in my life by taking a hike.

What has been your favourite hiking or outdoor area?

It’s hard to decide on just one! It really depends on what I’m in the mood for or the time of year. In the spring and fall, I spend many weekends exploring Joshua Tree National Park and the Mojave National Preserve. The Mojave Desert offers naturalists and hikers a lot more than one might assume. It’s easy to think of the desert as a harsh, dead landscape, but the foliage and wildlife there is surprisingly attuned to the dry climate. Coyotes, jack rabbits, rattlesnakes, wildflowers, desert tortoises and the Dr. Seuss-ian Joshua Trees all call the Mojave Desert “home.”

During the summer, I like to visit the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which run through eastern California. Hiking among the towering ancient redwoods or the gnarled bristlecone pines – the world’s oldest continuously standing trees – is something every hiker should experience at least once in their life. For my 100hikes resolution, I’ve done seven treks in the Sierras to date, and one in the Mojave (but I’ll be doing more once the temperature drops in the fall.)

Please share an outdoor story related to one of the above areas.

One of the great things about Joshua Tree NP is that close to 80% has been designated as wilderness. Many visitors to the park stick to the paved road and official campsites, but it doesn’t take a lot of hiking to find beautiful desolation. When friends want a true backcountry experience in Joshua Tree, I take them to… well… a secret place. Just a few miles off of the main road, the small box canyon is so secret that I doubt that it gets more than a few visitors a year. I lost my pocket knife on the trail within the canyon one early spring. When I returned three months later, I found it still on the trail where I had dropped it.

Have you ever been lost in the wilderness? If so please describe this adventure and any lessons learned.

I’m a guy. Guys don’t admit to getting lost!!! 🙂 Actually, I’ve been in situations where I knew where I was but didn’t know where I was going. I love to get into those situations. That’s when the true adventure begins. I always take along the “12 essentials” when I hike – even if I expect to only be on the trail for a few hours. I don’t mind getting lost, but to be lost without the means of survival isn’t enjoyable to say the least. No, it’s rare that I would get into a situation where I didn’t know where I was, although I have taken a few wrong turns and ended up hiking on animal trails. It’s a wonderful moment to realize that you are walking on a path made by animals rather than man. There’s something primal about it.

Can you share any unique encounters with wild animals?

In 2001, I was camping by myself in California’s San Gorgonio Wilderness and was attacked by a bear. At two o’clock in the morning, I woke up to hear something sniffing around outside my one-man tent. A moment later, my tent was shaking violently from side to side… while I was in it! I yelled and the attacker scampered away back into the woods, each heavy footstep bring down my heart rate. When I couldn’t hear any more footsteps, I turned in my tent to notice that the bear had made two perfect crescent-shaped bite marks in my tent’s rain fly just above my neck. Needless to say, I had a hard time going back to sleep. I hold no grudges towards bears and have encountered many since without incident.

If not previously mentioned, have you ever completed a thru-hike or multi-day backpacking trip and what nuggets of wisdom did you glean from it?

As much as I love hearing the sound of nature while hiking, I’ve come to realize that music helps me on long hikes. A good rock song playing on my iPod rejuvenates my spirit more than any Powerbar could. For hike #42, I trekked through Onion Valley in the Eastern Sierras. During a tough section of switchbacks, the soundtrack for Into The Wild came on. What a rush! At that moment, I had just reached a large cathedral-like area surrounded by mountain peaks. My goal of Kearsarge Pass (11760 ft/3584 m) had just come into view for the first time. The moment was a highlight of that trek and the music added so much to the experience.

What is your favourite outdoor website?

ModernHiker.com – Casey gives me a lot of great SoCal hiking ideas. I also love the ease of trails.com to find trails at a moment’s notice.

What is your favourite outdoor hiking gear store?

Recreational Equipment, Inc., a popular US outdoor retailer. I’ve been an REI member for a decade. I am such a gear head, in fact, that I call my closet “REI.” Friends of mine can’t use the excuse of not camping because they don’t have the gear. Chances are, I have two of what they need. “No sleeping bag? Tent? Stove? No problem! I’ve got that for you.”