Sports

Matthew Dickerson: The dangers of virtual meetings and travel to remote places

It was two years ago this month that the Outdoor Writers Association of America had its most recent in-person conference. We gathered in Little Rock, Ark., in a hotel on the banks of a flooded Arkansas River. I met representatives of tourist bureaus from Arkansas and Alabama, through whom I was able to plan my first guided fishing trip on Arkansas’s famous White River (at Bull Shoals) and my first trip of any kind to Alabama, where I was able to fish for trout (in the state’s only year-round trout fishery) and for redfish (in the Gulf of Mexico around the mouth of Mobile Bay). At the conference I also met the editor for Backcountry Journal — a meeting that led to three published fishing stories, one set in Addison County about wild brook trout in the Green Mountain National Forest. (The other two were set in Maine’s White Mountain National Forest and in Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest in the Wind River Range.)

So I was very much looking forward to the 2020 OWAA annual meeting scheduled for a year ago this month. The conference was to be held right here in Vermont, at Jay Peak. I wouldn’t even have to travel by plane. I signed up for a pair of conference outings to explore and learn about fisheries and wildlife refuges in northern Vermont.

Then the pandemic happened.

The June 2020 conference was postponed until June of 2021. And when spring of 2021 rolled around, and the critical decision-making deadline hit, the organizers realized it was too early to predict a viable conference even for this June. The conference was bumped back to October.

Not that it was all a complete loss. The organization replaced one in-person meeting with two virtual ones: one in summer and one in winter. That provided more opportunities to meet folks in the outdoor industry. In June of 2020, one of the presentations was from a representative of Olympus camera, speaking about the benefits (and disadvantages) of mirrorless cameras. Through the rep, I was able to arrange a short-term loaner of a new OM-D camera to take with me for a research and writing trip to Alaska in the late summer. It was the only travel I’ve done in the past 16 months, made possible because of the remoteness and lack of human contacts in the places I was visiting. And I quickly fell in love with the camera. (A couple photos I took with it will appear in a magazine this month.) Which made me a bit sadder when I had to return the camera to Olympus the day after I got back from Alaska.

In the winter 2021 virtual conference, organizers tried something new. They gave gear manufacturers a chance to do rapid fire sales pitches for their best new outdoor products. A virtual event turns out to be a great venue for that sort of presentation. All the products were great. The “Best in Show” competition was won by SOL (“Survive Outdoors Longer”) for their new fuel-free plasma lighter. For those who haven’t seen one, they are only slightly larger than a traditional lighter, and they don’t require any fuel. They run on a built-in rechargeable battery that powers a little plasma arc. (Fuel-free means you can carry one on an airplane to your next camping trip!) I managed to claim one at the end of the virtual conference — who can resist playing with fire? And yes, a plasma lighter is absolutely as cool as it sounds. Just about anything flammable, you can light with it.

At the summer 2020 conference, I also put in a few bids on a silent auction. Silent auctions are interesting phenomena. When you end up with the highest bid, you are told that you’ve “won” — as though it were a raffle, or a door prize. Unlike with a raffle or door prize, however, they tell you you’ve “won” while also asking for the money you owe. It’s a bit like going shopping, and being told upon entering the store that you’ve won — and are now required to buy one of the sales items.

Nonetheless, I bid on a float trip in Maine. It looked like a lot of fun, and just a long morning’s drive away from here to a river I’ve often wanted to explore. I didn’t “win”; a photographer from Arizona outbid me. I also bid on a hammock tent. I didn’t “win” that either. I even put in the starting bid on a four-day float trip on the Snake River, through Hell’s Canyon along the Idaho-Oregon border. My bid was for the minimum amount allowed. It was about one fifth the actual cost of a two-person trip. I decided from the start I wouldn’t bid any higher. Just one, single, low bid that wouldn’t last on the board more than a few hours.

Except it turned out nobody else bid. Perhaps all of the other outdoor writers recognized just how foolish it was to bid on something requiring travel in the middle of a pandemic. Or perhaps, being more experienced and more familiar with the west, they knew how difficult it is to get to rural Idaho. Actually, I had considered the first of those, but I was assured in advance that we did not have to take the trip in 2020. We postponed it to late June of 2021, figuring that if the pandemic was still making travel impossible at that time we’d postpone it again.

The pandemic, however, is not making travel impossible at present. The nearly impossible part turned out just to be getting to rural western Idaho — and then getting home again afterward from another town several hours away. Just about the time I was able to get it all figured out, the airlines changed all their flights and our itinerary was no longer going to work. Somehow, though, cobbling together all our unused frequent flyer miles, and with lots of planning time, my wife and I have managed to schedule the trip. We will be heading out to Idaho to spend four days and three nights floating through the deepest canyon in the United States. Every time I was feeling overwhelmed trying to work out the logistics, though, I’d just look at photos of the breathtaking scenery, and that kept me at it.

Also, the fishing is apparently pretty good.

As to whether or not I “won” something, you’ll have to ask me when I get back. I won’t have an Olympus camera to take photos for my article. But if we somehow get left behind somewhere by the rafting company, I’ll be able to start a fire.

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