SCUBA Diving Raja Ampat, Indonesia

Lynn, my parents, my sister and I board a Hello Kitty jet in a daze of sleep deprivation and time zone punch-drunkenness, Christmas music playing over the speakers in early March. We’ve already put in solid 12 hours to get to Taipei, where we wandered between themed boarding gates and endless Sony stores. We have a flight to Singapore and three more ahead of us.

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Photo by Lynn Baungartner

The Hello Kitty themed everything starts to sink into our heads as safety instructions are rattled off in other languages, and both Lynn and Lexi go straight for a Hello Kitty barf bag, also eying the Hello Kitty toilet paper.

That was only a small part of the roughly 48 hours of travel time it took to get to Raja Ampat, Indonesia, with three two-hour flights from Singapore to Jakarta to Makassar to Sorong in the middle of the night, preventing any kind of sleep, still to go.

At a hotel in Sorong, we’re too tired to figure out how the patio door closed (like a door, it turned out the next morning), and without even a fighting chance and a few days worth of malaria pills in my system, I’m already covered in mosquito bites.

Then came a boat ride, around two-hours long, sweating, enclosed in a plastic canopy, stinking of fish – a seasickness patch stamped behind my ear.

And it was all worth it.

It’s been my dad’s mission, for the last few years, to find, and get us all to, the best dive location on earth. For him that means the best coral reefs, the most biodiversity, the place, of all places, you’ve got to see before rising sea levels and temperatures take it all away. Go to Netflix right now, and click on the series Planet Earth. You remember, the one with all the mind-blowing footage of wildlife around the globe. Pick the episode titled “Shallow Seas” and after David Attenborough quickly notes the enormity of the Great Barrier Reef, he ushers the viewer to where the real splendor is. Raja Ampat.

Meaning “Four Kings” for four of the major island, the seas, now protected by Indonesia, are thought to be the birth-place of the modern coral reef, and on a bright note, a reef system that seems to be holding up a little better than the rest to coral bleaching in our warming oceans. Called the heart of the coral triangle, it’s home to 1,508 fish species and 537 coral species (more than 70 percent of the species on earth), making it the most biologically rich and diverse reef in the world.

We are greeted by Papuan song and dance as the boat pulled up to the jetty at Papua Explorers Resort, our home for the next 10 days, followed by coconuts with straws protruding from them. A young French man named Arno gives us the rundown – everything from dinner to dive operations, and we take off our shoes for the last time in 10 days.

Papua Explorers Resort

Lynn and me on our deck, Papua Explorers Resort.

A soft sand path wanders behind the 15 guest pondoks – thatched huts stilted with dark tropical wood over the warm turquoise ocean, an imposing limestone and jungle wall to the other side. The walk is set to the most musical bird songs I’ve ever heard, and each boardwalk to each room has a small faucet to rinse the sand off your feet before entering.

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Looking at the Pondoks at Papua Explorers Resort – the room, the deck, and the view.

Lynn and I settle onto the deck of our room, her in a red hammock swinging in the warm tropical breeze, a flat, tranquil straight of blue water between us on the island of Gam and the islands of Pulau Mansuar and Kri across from us. Schools of hundreds of tiny tropical fish leap from the water in a shimmering rainbow arch, hardly disturbing the water with a splash on reentry. I’ve never seen so many fish so keen to take to the air, and that’s not even counting the flying fish.

Papua Explorers Resort, Raja Ampat Sunset

Over the next 10 days, we would trade that view – in thunderstorms and bright sun, sunrise and sunset, high tide and low – with boat rides around the rich blue straight and beyond to different dive sites, each offering up at least one stunning example of tropical reef that trounces anything I’d seen before.

I’ve been to the Great Barrier Reef, Bunaken in Indonesia, Bonaire, Tobago and Roatan in the Caribbean. This was a whole new world, in the most literal sense possible without leaving the planet.

Hard corals and Doctor Seussian soft corals in every color, schools of fish that form solid walls of flickering metallic light, octopus that instantly change color, texture and shape – not only as camouflage, but when he or she showed us a solid-white strip, must have been trying to tell us something – along with turtles, rays and so much more.

Tiny dolphins play in our bow waves as we move from dive site to dive site. And between dives, we are delivered to pristine white-sand beaches, jetties hanging above the reef, or overlooks with sweeping views of surreal mushroom-shaped tiny islands.

Raja Ampat Scuba Diving

Photo by Andy Howard

Breakfast, lunch and dinner were at communal tables with fellow divers from Germany, Australia and elsewhere. We got to know the Turkish family that owns the resort – their two amazing children who ate just about every meal with us and told us about growing up in Jakarta, Raja Ampat, and soon, Sydney. A visiting relative from Turkey turned out to be a fellow journalist who loved basketball. While we were there, he’d find out his newspaper had been taken over and dissolved by the government – yet Donald Trump would make ours the country regarded with the most dubiousness while we were there.

Us in a cave in an area called the passage, a river-like dive with lots of current.

Us in a cave in an area called the passage, a river-like dive with lots of current.

The Papuan dive guides and workers play music and sing, and each night we would fall asleep to the sounds of the ocean under our mosquito-netted bed (I think the only mosquito bites I got were in Sorong, didn’t see any at the resort).

We had our challenges – Lynn, as a new diver, took a couple dives to dial in her buoyancy control – occasionally getting to the surface at the end of a dive before she intended to. I was kept out of the water for what at the time was a melancholy two days with an ear infection. But Lynn quickly gained control over her BCD, easily outdoing more experienced divers also at the resort, and I made it back into the water for one last day before we had to leave. And what a day.

Raja Ampat scuba diving

Examples of the reef from clown fish (upper left) to a wobbegong shark (upper right), giant clams and turtles. Photos by Andy Howard, Lexi Troll and myself.

Me, swinging in the breeze at a white-sand beach in Raja Ampat. Photo by Lexi Troll.

Me, swinging in the breeze at a white-sand beach in Raja Ampat. Photo by Lexi Troll.

Arno knew I was disappointed I’d missed out on Blue Magic, a dive with a lot of current where Lynn and my family saw manta rays. He, a marine biologist who holds ecological preservation above tourist attractions, wouldn’t go for the easy way to see these incredible creatures if it impacted them, but he took us to a cleaning station, where mantas come to have small fish clean them.

When we arrive to find small dive boats from live-aboard ships circling, Arno’s brow furrows. He jumps in the water with mask and snorkel, assessing the scene. Divers are smack-dab in the middle of the cleaning station, risking scaring off the rays for good. He talks with their guides, taking pictures of their boats for follow up, and gives us a strict set of rules for watching mantas at the cleaning station.

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Manta Rays at Manta Sandy cleaning station, along with Arno (upper left) and me (lower left). Photos by me and Lexi Troll.

We descend to a sandy bottom, staying behind a line of dead coral, and wait. Just as we get ready to give up and swim toward another section of reef, they appear. Like some alien creature, with wingspans of up to 20 feet, they circle and loop in the cleaning station, and we watch with wide eyes. We end up seeing five rays before surfacing.

As the trip came to a close, I scoured my memory of the trip, trying to shore up the fleeting pictures competing for space and blurring in my mind. The boat ride through a narrow passage – like a river between a bay and the open ocean. Lynn’s first night dive at the resort’s reef. The smile and laughter of the Papuan guides as the teased “crocodile! Crocodile!” Or “selfie! Selfie!” The one-foot-tall picturesque island of Arborek and its grinning children. The gestured and multi-lingual conversations with other divers from around the world. The birdsong and sunsets.

Papua Explorers Resort

Arno’s citizen science project for reporting spotted sea creatures, the dive center, dive briefing and map of dive sites.

Inevitably, we’re on the boat back to Sorong, three flights through the vastness of Indonesia, and back to Singapore, where best-laid plans become plan B become a hotel stay in the red light district. Five flights on two different airlines in each direction and we didn’t lose a checked bag, and the hardest airport experience was reserved for America’s immigration, where we waited almost two hours for our stamps back in.

To sum it up, this place is truly one of the world’s great treasures. If you dive, go there now. As fast as you can. If you don’t dive, learn, then go there. Despite the jet lag, airline food, hot and humid tropical airports and mosquito bites, it’ll be worth it.

My dad, Lynn, me, Lynn, Lexi and my mom at Fam Island.

My dad, Lynn, me, Lynn, Lexi and my mom at Fam Island.

Fam Island, Raja Ampat

Learn From Our Experience

  • Take care of travel immunizations early – we were up against the clock on some series of shots that had to be a month apart.
  • Quick drying clothes, but nothing fancy – we constantly fought to dry out damp clothing, but don’t overspend just to have it mildew over.
  • Don’t forget desiccants for camera housing – Our cameras fogged up often. On another note my Light & Motion Sidekick light for my Gopro was great for photo and video, if only the Gopro itself were as good.
  • Reef Safe Sunscreen – Keep your skin nice and pale, but don’t turn the reef white too.
  • Be ready for current – Raja Ampat has currents at many dive sites, and resorts or guides will likely issue reef hooks. Buoyancy control is critical.

Quick Trip: Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks

I grew up in California, going to Yosemite at least once a year since I was born. I live in Truckee, explored the Tahoe region, Downieville, the Sierra Valley, the Eastern Sierra from Bridgeport to Lonepine, and lots of places in between.

So how I’ve missed Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks up until now is a bit of a mystery.

Lynn had some site visits for work with the U.S. Forest Service and the Sequoia Riverlands Trust, so I decided to tag along with plans to take a quick side trip into the Southern Sierra Parks.

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Sequoia Riverlands Trust was a great stop in and of itself, where we visited a green and blooming oak preserve in the foothills. Driving through a verdant Yokohl Valley to Three Rivers was worth the trip on its own. But then we started to climb, switchbacking up into the park, getting views of granitic outcroppings like the one above.

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While I’d never been to these parks, it wasn’t like I’d never seen a sequoia tree – they’re in Yosemite and other parts of the Sierra. But there’s a reason a National Park is built around these ones. Lynn patiently put up with my sprinting bursts around tourists and quiet staring into the distant tree tops.

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I know there are good ways to take pictures of giant trees, but I wasn’t equiped. It’s tough to express through pixels or words the impact of standing in front of a giant sequoia.

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Most trees were fenced off, protecting their shallow root system, but I found myself staring at the intricate bark patterns almost as much as the trees’ immensity.

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It was a short afternoon trip, hemmed in by scheduling and not-yet melted out snow higher, but I definitely look forward to coming this way again soon.

Transition Patrol Demo Review + Galbraith Ride

Transition Bikes have been on Lynn’s and my radar for a while now, not only because they’re from her neck of the woods, but because we’ve seen a lot of solid reviews and get a vibe from the company that we both appreciate – fun first.

With a trip up to Bellingham, Washington planned, Lynn called ahead to see if we could demo some bikes – for her, to find out if the Transition Smuggler was what she wanted in a 29er trail bike (we rode the Trek Remedy and Trek Fuel a while back), and for me to ride whatever awesome bike I felt like, in this case the Transition Patrol.

We walked into their unassuming warehouse on a drizzly Friday afternoon, got our pedals on, suspension dialed in and seats adjusted, then handed them $20 each that goes entirely to local trails.

That was a $20 well spent, it turns out, as Galbraith, a dense and extensive network of Bellingham trails, was awesome.

We went full enduro with clear-lensed Smith Squad MTB goggles (more on those down the road) and pedaled up the trail. This was my first time on a really slack (65 degree head angle) enduro-y bike with a super short stem and 800 mm bar, and I was curious if the archetype lived up to the hype, or if they were wasted on all but the most extreme terrain.

While I can’t speak for the whole 6-inch travel slack, long and low genre, the Transition Patrol was definitely not hype.

Climbing was a pleasant surprise, which, for my 6’3″ self at least, was largely due to the steep seat tube angle, which kept me over the cranks, not hanging out over the rear hub. The suspension always moved slightly with each pedal stroke, no matter the position of the climb lever, but never excessively, or to the detriment of forward progress.

Even the long, slack front end didn’t wander as much I worried it would. Being generally out of shape and not having a lot of time on one-by drivetrains, I was wishing for an easier gear or two, but other than that, there isn’t much to say about the way up.

Then we got to a trail named Family Fun Center on our way to SST and Golden Spike, where the fun really began. My bike, a Giant Trance 27.5 isn’t some old-school XC geometry relic. In fact it’s pretty awesome. But the stupid stuff the Patrol let me get away with left me grinning ear to ear – whether it was dipping a bar into a bermed turn or letting it roll over a steep drop without really checking out what happened on the other side.

Quick in the corners yet stable enough to save my bacon in some rough spots, playful yet burly, it would be fair to say this short ride left me impressed. Next time I’d set up the suspension a touch softer (never bottomed out on either end), and had no idea how to make a 1-point turn around a couple of switch backs at the end of the ride, but I can see how this bike could be a quiver-of-one for many riders.

Tight chainstays are all the rage these days, and while I’m no manualing monster, it made small corrections and steering from the hips a little easier than on bikes like my Trance or the Remedy.

As for the trail itself – a couple slick, muddy spots were to be expected this time of year, but the mix of tech and flow were really something. I can see why backyard trails like these shaped Transition bikes the way they have.

I’m not in the market for a new bike, but I’ll be taking some lessons away from my time on the Transition, with plans for a shorter stem, wider bars and a couple suspension tweaks in the works. If I were in the market, my usually conservative tastes might be swayed by this big goofy-fun bike.

As for Lynn, who was testing for more serious purposes – well I’m sure she’ll write up here own review, but I think the Smuggler may have unseated the Remedy for her number one contender.

Photo credit: Lynn Baungartner

Marin Museum of Bicycling & Mountain Bike Hall of Fame

Over the holidays Lynn and I decided to make a side trip to the Marin Museum of Bicycling in Fairfax, about a 40 minute drive from Point Reyes.

I’ve written previously about how mountain biking came to be the first sport I really fell in love with, and I remember pouring over bike magazines and dreaming of some of the wild and wacky mountain bike designs that came out of the sports adolescence. Around the same time I found out about the museum, I was tasked with some research for the proposed Squaw Valley Olympic Heritage Museum.

I called down to the folks in Fairfax to find out what it was like getting started, raise funds, and decide on displays, events and other aspects of running a museum dedicated to outdoor sports. To say I was surprised when I was given a phone number for Joe Breeze, a founding father of mountain biking, would be an understatement. We played phone tag at first – he was doing trivial things like attending Interbike and giving one of his bikes to the Pope – but we eventually connected, and he was incredibly helpful, friendly and just plane fun to talk to.

Lynn suggested the trip over to Fairfax from Point Reyes where we were spending the holidays, and we took the pretty, redwood-lined drive down Sir Francis Drake Blvd, parked, took pictures with the monster Ibis Mojo, and went inside.

The museum has two basic displays Рone taking visitors through the early history of the bicycle, from wood-spoked velocipedes and tall penny-farthings  to the first bicycles resembling the modern, and a second working its way through the history of mountain bikes from the first fat tired franken-bike to about the late 90s or early 2000s. There were treasures like the first Kestrel carbon fiber mountain bike, a Trek Y-bike (my first full suspension), the beautiful Ibis BowTi, my late 90s dream bike the Mountain Cycles San Andreas, an early Mert Lawill suspension designed Gary Fisher and many more.

Both were fascinating, but we spent more time poring over the mountain bike display with its rich history of the Larkpur Canyon Gang, the Repack downhill, the first attempts at things like suspension, composite materials and better brakes were all fascinating and nostalgic for me.

The volunteer staff were friendly and excited to share information, trade stories and show mountain bike videos while we were there.

The museum is a must-see for any mountain biker. Lynn and I will definitely be back, next time with bikes in tow to ride the historic Repack or the newer Tamarancho trails.

Fall Trip Down the Eastern Sierra

A few weeks ago, Lynn had to go to Bishop for work, and we decided to make a weekend out of it. Snow had recently fallen, always a welcome addition to the Eastern Sierra, and we hadn’t been in months.

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As we went up Conway Summit, north of Mono Lake, a big bird of prey took off in parallel to the highway, and I pulled over just as it landed in a juniper. We debated golden eagle vs immature bald eagle (tough lot, being immature and bald) – and landed on the latter.

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Mono Lake with a long lens.

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We spent Sunday in the Happy Boulders, and while there were more cars than we’d ever seen there, all the people were clustered around two or three main boulders. This gal skated up this route after to ripped shirtless dudes were shut down by it. At the top, she asked where the down climb was – so it wasn’t evidently a well-practiced route for her.

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Lynn messes around on a fun boulder in the Buttermilks in her new approach shoes.

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Me goofing around on an overhanging problem on one of the big boulders.

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While Lynn worked, I drove around with the camera, and made it up Highway 168 to snowline – around 7,500 or 8,000 feet.

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The view on the drive back north, from near Crowley Lake.

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While we were in town, we went to the Craggin Classic, saw a UFO missile launch, spent time at the fantastic Mountain Rambler Brewery and hung out with some of Lynn’s friends. Bishop is one of my favorites, and getting down their in cool fall weather reminded me why, once again.

Donner Ski Ranch Mountain Bike Park

Earlier this summer, I stumbled across a Facebook page titled “The Bike Park at DSR” and was excited to see Donner Ski Ranch appeared to be building a mountain bike park, and I started making some calls.

I eventually was put in touch with Jim “Hacksaw” Severt, the builder behind the new park, who invited Lynn and I out to shuttle the new trails as they prepared to open next summer. I wrote a story in the Sierra Sun detailing how the plan came to be and what it will look like when lifts spin next summer.

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We offloaded at the top where Severt and Clif McMilan, another trailbuilder, lead the group down the two trails. The first pitch was steep and I was nervous going first with my big camera on my back, but the trail was smooth and fun.

Clif on the trail.

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Our Own Worst Enemies

I chuckle every time I read mountain bikers grousing about the Sierra Club, backcountry skiers complaining about losing parking to Caltrans or climbers losing access to evil private land owners.

Not because these aren’t real problems – access for these sports is an ongoing struggle. But it isn’t environmentalists, the government, property owners or even equestrians that are our worst enemies. We are.

I’m talking about backcountry skiers cutting down trees. Or climbers littering in the Buttermilks, or also chopping down trees. Mountain bikers? We really can’t get out of our own way, skidding trails in every video, miles of poorly designed illegal trail or the perception issues surrounding the Redbull Rampage.

And yet so many take to the internet to complain about the forces that be ruining our sports. The real forces are those who show up, participate. Work with trail stewardship groups, land trusts or the Access Fund.

The picture TAMBA posted – click the image to see the Facebook post.

We need that kind of responsibility and leadership if we want progress with land owners and policy makers. Tantrums aren’t going to do it, and illegally cutting down trees will only set us back.

Recently the Tahoe Area Mountain Bike Association wrote: “‘Quit sanitizing the trails’ is a common online cry, usually by people rarely seen at trail days. Here’s our latest section of trail built on the Stanford Rock reroute we’ve been working on this summer. Safe, sustainable, and challenging, but not sanitized.” on Facebook.

I think that post speaks volumes about the two types of people in these outdoor sports, and in life in general.

The organizations like TAMBA that can make a positive changes are out there. The fruitful partnerships with the U.S. Forest Service and other property managers are being made. We just need to chip in and participate. Unfortunately, some of us may need to get out of our own way first.