Ask people why they live here, and they're bound to bring up the outdoors in their first breath. Inland Northwesterners love their mountains and rivers and lakes and rolling hills, and kayaks and bikes are common sights around here, even if they're strapped to the tops of Hummers. Everybody's got their favorite trail, their favorite climbing spot, their favorite fishing hole.
Our readers are outdoors experts; they're going to earn their Outdoors badge whether we tell them to or not. So instead of pointing out the usual, we thought we'd offer up a couple of new ideas for ways to get out there - things that maybe you haven't heard of yet, or that you haven't yet gotten around to trying.
Pacifists and lousy shots, listen up: Summer might be a fine time to bag a bird or a bear, but there are other prey out there, too.
Consider geocaching. Only a few years old, the sport has become hugely popular with the outdoorsy set. That's partially because it's so simple. Basically, it's a treasure hunt, with objects hidden around the globe (171,451 of them active in 215 countries, according to geocaching.org) that you find using a GPS device. The device, which runs anywhere between $100 and $1,000, gives you the coordinates of the cache item - a stuffed animal, a toy, whatever - and you go find it. When you do, you either bring something to replace it, or you just sign your name in a logbook.
Finding caches is only half the fun. You can also hide your own. Be creative, find a place that's going to pose a challenge to hunters. Maybe place it on the side of a cliff, so they have to be rock-climbers to get there. Or underwater, so they have to scuba-dive for it. When you're done, upload the coordinates to geocaching.com, and then check back periodically to see who's found it.
Either way, there's plenty to do. We searched the Web site for caches within a five-mile radius of Spokane's 99201 area code and got 156 results.
Less high-tech than geocaching is letterboxing, which foregoes GPS technology for cryptic narrative clues. Log onto letterboxing.org and look for letterboxes in the Inland Northwest (we found 24 in Spokane). Click on one and you'll find clues, sometimes straightforward, sometimes oblique, sometimes in riddle form. When you finally track down your target - usually a well-hidden waterproof box - you stamp the logbook inside and move on to your next target. Again, it sounds easy, but experts insist it's a lot tougher than you'd think.
And if you're one of those Luddites who still thinks the Information Superhighway is a toll-road outside of Topeka, here's another idea: mushroom hunting. Unfortunately, midsummer is not the ideal time for those delicious morels, chanterelles or porcinis, but it is good for puffballs. And Jim Johnson, an associate professor from Central Washington University, can not only help you find them, he can help you avert an Ipecac moment by teaching you which ones are safe to eat.
Join him and the Spokane Mushroom Club on Monday, June 27, at 7 pm in the San Souci Rec Room, 3231 W. Boone Ave.
Sports Gone Wild
When a lot of people think of summer, they think of quiet, pastoral sports like golf and croquet and bocce ball.
But those people are wussies.
Don't get me wrong. I love those games as much as anyone. There's little I enjoy more on a sunny summer day than a game of backyard croquet, a mallet in one hand and a (hard) lemonade in the other.
But we in the Inland Empire pride ourselves on our lust for the outdoors - the wild and natural and beautiful. And spending your afternoon on a manicured golf course or rigidly defined bocce ball court doesn't exactly scream "Near Nature, Near Perfect."
So why not take your summer pastimes to the next level this season?
Instead of golf, try disc golf. The rules and terminology are relatively the same. You tee off with your disc and try to make it to the hole (a three- or four-foot-high trap made of metal and chain) in as few throws as possible. The difference, besides the motion, is that this game gets you out there, interacting with nature, rather than just admiring it from the green. The best courses in the Northwest force you to thread your disc through thick stands of cedar trees (as in Bellingham's Cornwall Park) or climb enormous hills just to find the hole (as in Portland's Pier Park). It's no different here in the Inland Northwest, where a handful of public and private courses (Spokane's Downriver course and NIC's in Coeur d'Alene, among others) push happy golfers over the river and through the woods all year round. For more on disc golf, see www.pdga.com and www.sdga.us.
How about bocce? If you're going to play, get crazy with it. Convince your Mafiosi friends to ditch their heavily-fortified palazzi and bring the action to the park blocks on Riverside Avenue, out in front of the Inlander office. Or up and down the hills in Riverfront Park.
One of our favorite zany adaptations of an otherwise genteel sport is extreme croquet, developed into an art form by a bunch of Connecticutians in the 1980s. The game retains almost all the trappings of the original, but it's played year-round, using only slightly modified equipment, in forests, over rocks and through streams. The balls are cold-weather-shatterproof plastic, the wickets (some of them two stories high for bonus points) are solid zinc and the mallets are made of birch, polycarbonate and steel rods, with a standard face on one side and a wedge on the other (for chip shots). The name of the game is spite; sending your opponent's ball deep into the profundity of the forest is, apparently, an unparalleled joy.
You could also go with a more local twist and take up Mondo Croquet, invented in Portland in 1996. They forgo mallets and balls altogether. Their weapons of choice? Sledgehammers and bowling balls.
For bocce and croquet, see Wikipedia's entry on bocce ball or visit www.extremecroquet.org and www.mondocroquet.com.
You've got a three-day weekend, so you pack up your car with a cooler, a tent, a camp-stove, some hot dog buns, a whole mess of plasticware and a map of the nearest national forest. And just as you're pulling out of your driveway, you catch the eye of your hardcore, GoreTex-embalmed outdoor-snob neighbor, who tells you that car camping isn't true camping: Real campers hike into the wild with all their belongings on their backs.
You know the feeling. Camping purists love to rain on the car-camper's weekend parade. But there's another way - a camping style that both motorists and backpackers could agree on (provided they have some change to burn).
Since the arrival of spring, some of the fly boys at Fairchild have been whispering to us about "airplane camping" in Idaho's Panhandle National Forest. Here's the gist of their whispers: The forests of North Idaho have a number of informal air strips used for official planes (firefighters, rangers, etc.), so what people have been doing is hiring charter planes to pick up themselves and a few friends, plus all their gear, fly them into the wilds of the forest and drop them in the middle of nowhere with all their stuff.
This way you've got that primitive, undeveloped, sh**-in-the-woods feeling of backpack camping and you get to keep your camp-stove, folding chairs and Eddie Bauer custom-made marshmallow sticks.
How practicable or even legal this is remains unclear. IPNF spokesman Dave O'Brien says that he doesn't know of a lot of airstrips in his forest; they mostly use helicopters to get in and out, and those require much smaller clearings. He says adventurous campers might be better off hiring a sea plane to drop them at Upper Priest Lake.
O'Brien doesn't seem to be bothered with the idea, so long as the proper permits are filed. And if it's your own plane, you might not even need a permit. (Paying a guide to fly you in would require one, though). He says that maybe people are doing this and he doesn't even know about it -- it wouldn't be the first time. (He admits to never having heard about geocaching until someone came into his office to ask about the park's policy on geocaching.)
Ask around, talk to the pilots at Fairchild, call a few charter companies. Before you know it, you could be roasting weenies without having to hike a mile.
Tour de Force
OK, cycling is hardly an unusual pastime, but just as watching the summer Olympics inspires us to get out and run, and the winter Olympics reignite our misplaced passion for the luge, summer - and the Tour de France on TV - brings out our inner cyclists.
Fortunately, summer also provides lots of outlets for that urge, in the form of some of the year's biggest rides.
The first ride is the 21st annual Cannonball, on Saturday, June 18. A 275-mile jaunt starting in Seattle and ending here in the Lilac City, this should be more than ample preparation for the big rides ahead. But if it's too much too soon, check out the 25-, 45-, 65- and 100-mile loops through the Yakima Valley, happening the same day. Visit www.redmondcyclingclub.org for the Cannonball or www.desertvalley.com/rides for Yakima).
Then prepare yourself for the aptly titled Midsummer Nightmare, a 200-mile tour through the Inland Northwest, put on by the Spokane Bicycling Club, which will also put on the somewhat kinder 100-mile Autumn Century on Sept. 11. Visit www.spokanebicycleclub.org or call 448-6271.
Once you've survived those battles, the 26th annual Seattle-to-Portland Bicycle Classic on July 9-10 should be a cinch. The granddaddy of all Washington rides, the STP gives you two days to cover the 200 miles from city to city, and you get to commiserate with 8,000 other riders along the way.
The last big ride of the cycling season in the Northwest, Cycle Oregon, falls just at the tail end of the summer, but it's worth the wait. In its 18th year, it will take riders along the path of Lewis and Clark, along the Columbia River from Boardman to Astoria - 425 miles in seven days. That makes your legs ache just thinking about, I know. But consider that all along the route you've got full technical support, beautiful campsites, gourmet meals, Oregon wines and microbrews, hot showers, massage and yoga, and it starts to sound like paradise. Visit www.cycleoregon.com.
But if all of this sounds like a pain in the ass/wallet/planner, check out the Spokane Bicycle Club, which, besides hosting larger rides, also puts on -- every week -- as many as eight lighter, less formal rides.
If even that sounds like too much, though, satisfy yourself with this: The Tour de France runs from July 2-24 on the Outdoor Life Network.