The Mountaintop: A Family Odyssey


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But finally, we jumped in the car and headed north. On September 3, , Rob, Betty, Ella and Julian thirteen and seven at the time arrived at Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where they pitched their tent—affectionately called Big Agnes—on a high, cold plateau with wide-ranging views of the Atlantic Ocean. Cape Breton is home to a national park that stretches from one side of the island to the other. And we would hike down to the shore and just sit silently and watch. Most of the land in Nova Scotia is owned or leased by private timber companies, which feed their mills with the forests. The people who live there view these companies with a mixture of distrust and acceptance.

As you might imagine, the wheeling and dealing necessary to achieve such a goal can be complicated. While in Nova Scotia, Baldwin met with a pair of conservationists— David McKinnon and Peter Bush—who were using habitat corridor and biodiversity maps to prioritize which lands offered the maximum benefits.

Conservationists were working directly with private landowners, who in return would often provide valuable information. You should go look at that. Like its sister province, Quebec also has an influential timber industry.


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But a much larger percentage of the land is publicly owned. Canadians, as a whole, adore the outdoors, and the colder it gets, the more they want to commune with nature. Baldwin and his family set up camp in Forillon National Park, which is located at the outer tip of the peninsula. The managers of the spectacular park impressed Baldwin with their enthusiasm and diligence, but he found that not all was positive about this remote area of the world.


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  7. And there are very few people. They just harvest for miles. But some wildlife do benefit, particularly those that like early succession. Two months later, they watched another population of bears eating the same type of berries in the Smoky Mountains. It shows the ecological affinities at both ends of the Appalachians. The park has several core wilderness areas, but it also has more than its share of logging. Baldwin was relieved to find that the multiple uses were managed according to a regional conservation and recreation plan.

    Throughout the Appalachians, we need to take the threat of rapid-onset climate change due to human-released carbon dioxide very seriously. The experience I had with the caribou may not be one my grandchildren can have.

    This was another interesting parallel with the southern Apps, where elk have been reintroduced. At both ends of the spectrum, we have large mammals attempting to thrive. We have thousands of people enjoying the wilderness. We have multiple uses: timber harvest, trapping, recreation. Or, for that matter, finding fir and spruce on the tops of the Smoky Mountains. After several weeks of camping in the cold dampness of Canada, Baldwin and his family were pleased to return to the United States and sleep in real beds in his home state of Maine.

    During his stay in the state where he was raised and educated, Baldwin met with a pair of his longtime friends, Malcolm Hunter and Aram Calhoun, who are renowned conservation scientists. Hunter and Calhoun provided another interesting example of public and private conservation collaboration. For most of their adult lives, they had worked to protect thousands of acres of privately owned land.

    As he hiked there, he realized that few people knew or cared about these hills and wetlands in Down East Maine. Big changes in land ownership patterns began to occur in the late s and continued through the s, with big timber companies entering the real estate business by selling lucrative parcels of pristine wilderness land. In many areas of the United States, mansion-sized vacation homes were being built next to ponds and rivers and on the tops of ridges.

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    But because of their diligence, the majority of the land is now protected. But there are some places that they know are important ecologically and that they want to protect. And this gives them a viable reason to do this from a corporate point of view. In the United States, more than 80 percent of the land is in private hands.

    Appalachian Odyssey | research and creative discovery | Clemson University

    Conservation cannot progress without landowners who are engaged. After saying goodbye to his relatives, Baldwin and his family went to Vermont, a small but vibrant state with a spirited history of public engagement in conservation. They stayed in several state parks and were pleased to see evidence of conservation everywhere. There was an extreme public consciousness and sensitivity about the land, with an extra emphasis on locally produced foods and other products.

    And so it was interesting to learn that the people of Vermont were wild harvesting and making significant money. Baldwin visited with Nancy Patch, a county forester who works extensively with landowners in northern Vermont. Using habitat connectivity maps that Baldwin helped create, Patch has been, well, patching together a corridor between northern Vermont and Canada. Another Vermont conservation scientist named Sue Morse has been training landowners and volunteers to hike into the wilderness to identify and report animal tracks.

    This has resulted in a vast database of movement habits. And she has skulls and skeletons that she lets the kids look at and pick up. After their stay in Vermont, the Baldwins left the Appalachians for the first time and headed across Lake Champlain to the Adirondacks, a ring of remote mountains in northern New York.

    There they spent five days exploring vast blocks of the largest wilderness area in the eastern United States. This is a huge, thinly populated area. The family left the deep wilderness behind and traveled to western Massachusetts, which, like Vermont, is also intensely committed to local conservation. The state contains thousands of easements that have been cleverly arranged to protect habitats over large areas. And more importantly, most of the easements are well managed. Then they are selling them as local lumber and using those funds to support the management of the easements.

    When I talk to my students about this here at Clemson, it always seems to blow them away. See how we used our miniaturized cameras to help our hosts explore a hidden extension to the cave. Archeologist Christopher Henshilwood delicately excavating the remains of a 75, year old meal of tortoise, in Blombos Cave, Southb Africa. Filming the dense strata of human occupation and blown sand sediment inside Blombos Cave, South Africa. Niobe and crew look down into the excavations at the entrance to Blombos Cave. This coast, stretching out from South Africa's Cape, was a refuge from climate change in the interior.

    Human populations in Africa bottlenecked during a cool, dry period from , to , years ago. Caves along South Africa's coast may have saved the few survivors. Pinnacle Point's caves may have been a critical refuge to humans during our near exctinction about , years ago. The film crew explores a South African cave for signs of ancient life, becoming archeologists for a day.

    When our film crew travels to the Russia Arctic for the spring melt, Russian bureaucracy, filthy weather and hungry dogs undo the best-laid plans.

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    Especially when the crew is co-ed. Palau was a complete defeat. See how our crew filmed a shaman dancing on an Arctic mountaintop, surrounded by a melting sea. Or an Inuit hunter hopping between ice floes… and falling through the ice!

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    For Director Niobe Thompson, visiting the desert homeland of the Bedouin Howeitat was a dream fulfilled. Watch the Episodes Watch the Trailer. Niobe Thompson. How did our ancestors look?

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