Neil Schulman

6 Critters That Are Smarter Than You Think

We humans love to think that we’re the sharpest tools in the shed, having invented indispensable items like Chia Pets, turducken, and 8-track cassettes. But there are also some serious brains in the animal kingdom. Some otherwise spineless blobs and our most unassuming neighbors back some pretty serious mental ability. Here are some of the MENSAs of the animal world.

OctopusoctopusPeter Godfrey Smith, a diver and professor, likened meeting an Octopus to meeting an intelligent alien. Octopi pack some serious brainpower, and one in a German aquarium famous for doing a better job of picking World Cup winners than sports experts. Octopi are slow and lack sharp teeth, claws, armor, and spines which would help them defend themselves. So they survive by their wits—using their camouflage ability to mimic shapes and colors around them, and their squishiness to maneuver themselves into narrow crevices for protection or find food. Aquarium keepers share stories of octopuses that have snuck out of their cage at night to steal crabs from other tanks that recognize particular people that feed them, and that routinely solve puzzles to get to their food. They use tools—a blanket octopus rips poisonous tentacles off of jellyfish and wields it like a sword. An odd fact—the neural storage in octopuses also seems to be in their 8 arms, as well as their brain.

CrowscrowCombining some serious brainpower with complex social structures, crows thrive in urban and wild areas alike. John Marzluff’s studies of Seattle’s crows revealed that they recognize and remember faces: after catching a number of crows and fixing them with radio transmitters, he found himself dive-bombed whenever he walked across the UW campus. He believes crows also distinguish between friend, foe, and neutral humans and convey that information to other crows. Crows have learned to use car traffic to crush nuts for easy snacks, read traffic signals and crosswalks, and learn individual people’s names. They also communicated that information to their brethren. Having long since solved the easy problems about how to survive and find food, they now have that most dangerous of things: free time. Like the smart kid not challenged in school, they spend time messing around and getting into trouble.

SquirrelssquirrelIt’s easy to think that squirrels make their way in the world by being acrobatic and adept climbers. But they have two things that are clearly hallmarks for animal intelligence: memory and abstract thinking. Memory is more obvious: we know squirrels bury nuts, and remember both their caches and good sources of food from year to year. Abstract thinking comes in with how they actively deceive each other. They’ll happily steal from each other’s caches. To deter thieves, squirrels will rebury nuts over and over. If they sense they are being watched by a competitor, they’ll pretend to bury a nut and then stash it somewhere else when alone: tactical deception previously thought to be exclusive to primates.

OrcasorcaSporting the second-biggest brains among marine mammals, and a brain-to-body weight ratio similar to chimpanzees, orcas are clearly very bright. They have languages with different dialects, complex social structures, teach and learn from each other, complex knowledge about places, people, and hunting techniques passed down through generations—and all these things can differ among different populations. Studies of orca and human brains may indicate that orca may even be processing a wider range of emotions than humans. With an intelligence clearly ranking very high in the animal kingdom, they may just be a pair of opposable thumbs away from world domination.

RaccoonsracoonLike crows, raccoons are generalists who benefit from the presence of humans. Anyone who’s ever tried to keep a raccoon away from their garbage know they’re dexterous, persistent, and good at problem-solving. How much of their problem solving is due to those dexterous hands or their brains is open to debate. One thing is clear—city raccoons are cleverer than their rural cousins. Studies of Toronto’s garbage-raiding raccoons reveal a series of systematic approaches to various kinds of garbage can lids, which the raccoons learned to recognize and went straight to a strategy that worked on that particular design. The more complex latches, lids, and contraptions we come up with, the smarter the raccoons will become as time goes on.


You probably don’t even know what a cuttlefish is. We’ll, their cephalopods, related to squid and the chambered nautilus, and they live in tropical and subtropical seas in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia. Like octopi, they are soft, defenseless, and rely on camouflage and their ability to rapidly change color and blend in. Like the Orca, it’s brain to body size is huge, they navigate and remember mazes, and are much more social learners than their solitary octopus cousins. Like squirrels, they show a calculated intent to deceive: males wooing a lady will show female patterns on the other side of its color-changeable skin, to convince other males that it’s really a female and not a rival.

Next time you’re wandering around the animal world, remember that just because you’re a human doesn’t mean you’re that smart. That crow watching you is probably thinking “What a tool. He’s been feeding me and housing me for months and doesn’t even know it.” He’s probably bored, so try and tell him something interesting.

How to Not Piss Off Riverside Landowners

When paddlers, floaters, fishermen and women, and other river lovers spend time on rivers, we inevitably interact with riverside landowners. Those interactions range from friendly to strained. The law about what’s public access and what isn’t is unclear on many rivers in the US. But doing these things will help

At the end of the day, we all have something in common: we love the river.

You’re Not Mario Andretti
The biggest complaint from riverside landowners, according to American Whitewater, is kayakers driving too fast while running shuttle. River roads are twisty. Regardless of how eager you are to get to the river, the pedal-to-the-metal approach is dumb when someone’s likely walking their dog or getting their mail.

Signs of the Times
When someone puts up a “no trespassing” sign, they mean it. On many rivers, there’s a public easement for use below the high-water mark. But sometimes it’s contested. But No Trespassing signs above the high water mark are legit, and you’re inviting conflict if you ignore them.

Nobody Wants to Watch You Pee
When you’re running a river, you’ll inevitably need to stop for a bladder break. Don’t take your break in front of someone’s window. Walk the extra twenty feet to get out of sight.

Don’t Change Clothes in Public
Kayakers are notorious for changing out of wet clothes wrapped in towels in parking lots. It’s acceptable in the paddling subculture (mostly), but it’s not what locals want to see. Don’t make them see what they don’t want to.

Don’t Park Like A Doofus
Parking gets tight at riverside parks and along narrow roads, and can also causes conflict. It even sparked a bill in the Washington legislature this year. Drop off your group and then find a sensible place to park instead of blocking part of the road. And if your quest for parking leads you into local neighborhoods, spread it around, so you’re not jamming up the one street closest to the river.

Don’t Leave Garbage
I really don’t need to say this, do I?

Talk To Them
All too often, landowners and river users’ relationships never get past quick nod. Start a conversation, and see where it goes—a friendly chat can go a long ways to helping relationships. At the very least, wave.

8 Ways to Enjoy a Winter Without Snow

The flowers in my front yard are already poking out of their buds. And there isn’t enough snow to go skiing yet. Here’s how to make the most of a snowless winter.

Let’s face in, siting around whining about the lack of snow, while tempting, will do nothing except annoy your friends. Go for a hike. It will get you up into the mountains, get your lungs and legs in shape, so when (or if) you have a chance to ski, you’ll be ready for it.

Get As Muddy As Possible
Cyclocross racing was invented to keep road bikers in shape during the off-season. There’s no reason it can’t work for skiers too. It works the quads, and takes place during the fall and winter. And it packages mud, competition, chances to fall down in dramatic fashion, and a die-hard crowd of good folks to cheer you on, and beer afterwards. In fact, it sounds a lot like skiing.

Slide Down Non-Frozen Water
Skiing is sliding down water. The water just happens to be frozen. You can still slide down water when it’s in liquid form. It just goes by another name: whitewater kayaking. It packs a lot of thrills, gives you a new sport, and with it, of course, a chance to buy more new gear.

And Do That Early, Dude
If the snowpack is low, chances are the rivers will be low in the summer. If you are going whitewater boating, do it early, before the rivers start to dry up.

Ski on Pavement
If you really want to skis, do it in the city on roller skis. You’ll get lots of puzzled looks from neighbors as you ski by on the street on skis with wheels. They’ll think you’re either training for the Olympics, just a total weirdo, or both. Roller skis are used by Nordic skiers to train when…there’s no snow. It’s fun and a great workout—as long as you don’t go splat on the pavement.

Get Used to It, Pal
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the fact of the matter is that snowpack has been dwindling for a while. Climate change is to blame, and we all need to adapt to a world with less snow. The ski resorts know it, which is why they’ve been investing in all kind of other ventures, from mountain bike courses to alpine slides and who knows what else. Turns out Al Gore was right.

Enjoy Not Shoveling
If there’s a silver lining to the mild winters and the lack of snow, it’s that you don’t have to wake up and shovel it as much. At least you can be glad for that.

Buy A Plane Ticket
If you really want to ski, you may need to buy plane tickets or drive a ways to get to consistent snow. Or move to Antarctica, where there will be snow at least for a while (And no crowds!) While you’re training for that job at McMurdo station, best to pick up some less snowy hobbies.

There won’t always be snow. There might not even always be winter. But there will always be fun.

By Neil Schulman

8 Tricks to Composing Better Photos

Photos are only as good as the person taking them. Whether you’re using a fancy pro SLR or a simple smartphone. Here are 8 tricks to composing good photo that you can use for making giant landscapes to mount on your wall or images to post on social media.

Understand Where the Eye Goes
The human eye is far more sophisticated than the camera, and it sees in slightly different ways. We see moving images with binocular vision, so it’s no surprise when still two-dimensional still images fail to inspire us. And when we look at images, our reactions occur nearly instantaneously, hard-wired in our primitive midbrain through millions of year of evolution.

The eye will look at a photograph in a particular order:

  • The area of greatest contrast, then the highlights, then the midtones, and then the shadows
  • Warm colors before cool colors
  • Sharp objects before blurry objects
  • Isolated elements before clumped elements
  • Things that appear to be moving, before things that appear still
  • Things that appear closer before things that appear far away
  • Humans before non-human elements

So if you have an area of high contrast that ‘s not the main subject, it will be a distraction. Watch out for that guy in the background wearing a red jacket, and make sure the areas of sharpest focus is the critical part of your image.

Don’t Use the Center…Unless You Really Want To
You’ve probably heard of the “rule of thirds”: dividing the frame like a tic-tac-toe board and putting major elements on the corners. This framing gives elements i room to move side to side and up and own, either in or out of the frame. When we place an item in the center, there’s only one way it can move: directly toward or away from the viewer. For that reason, center placement works well with close-up portraits with direct eye contact, but not for landscapes, action shots, or any image where there are interactions between elements within the photo.

When in doubt, keep it simple. Your eye can make sense of the cluttered background, colors, and movement—but remember, your eye is a far superior tool. Decide what’s important to the story you’re telling, and eliminate everything else you can.

Get Closer
War photographer Robert Capa said “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” (Remember that Capa died capturing images of the Vietnam War.) This is still true, even in the age of giant lenses.. Get as close as you can to the main subject. It will yield a better result than zooming in.

Digital SLR camera on a tripod shooting a sunset in a snowy landscape


Learn Your Lines
In photos, lines have meaning. Horizontal lines convey stability, rest, and being grounded. Vertical lines signify strength, power, and dominance. Diagonal lines are about motion from A to B, and converging diagonals draw the eye powerfully to where they converge. Curves also move, but far more fluidly and sensually, flow through the frame rather than directly from point to point.

Create Motion
If you want to make seem have a sensation of moving in a still image, you’ll want to use diagonals or curves. But you’ll want to do more than that. Give the subject room to move: empty space in the frame where it’s heading. The tighter you box it, the less of a sense of motion it will have. In some cases you won’t want to do this: see Tip# 8.

Add Depth
You’ll want to make the two-dimensional image resemble the three- dimensional world you saw. There are a couple of ways to create depth. One is with a strong foreground-background relationship, usually by getting close to a large element, and zooming out to wide-angle. Another is by managing depth of field if your camera allows. You can also use color. Warm colors like red, orange, and yellow will come forward, while cool colors like blues and greens will recede to the background. A fourth is to have the foreground more strongly lit than the background.

Break the Rules When It Suits You
The “Rules of Composition” aren’t really rules at all: nobody’s been arrested for breaking them. But they are hard wired deep in our consciousness: when we follow the “rules,” our brain instinctively relaxes. That works if you’re trying to convey peace, comfort, or beauty. It doesn’t work if you want to convey stress, tension, drama, or fear. When I’m photographing outdoor sports, where intensity and fear are key emotions, I often break the rules by tilting horizons, boxing subjects tight against the frame edges, and using darkness and high contrast to convey that tension.

Most of all, get out and shoot—and then asked an unbiased person what they think. Then go out and shoot again.

by Neil Schulman

A Winter Photography Guide

Winter photography is tough. Snow fools meters, cold saps batteries, and lugging cameras around in the snow and operating them with cold hands is hard work. But the austere winter environment is ripe for photography if you can master the elements. Here are some ideas to make your photos of a wintry world do the season justice.

Tell A Story
Photos should tell stories or evoke emotions. What’s your story about winter? The pure beauty of untracked powder? Settling in next to the fireplace? Struggling to dig your car out of the snow? Before you can make a good image, you need a story.

Be Smarter Than Your Camera
Despite all the computer wizardry in cameras and smartphones, one situations still always fools their light meters: snow. Camera light meters are meant to turn the image “neutral”, or 18% grey. If your scene is mostly filled with snow, it will turn that grey too. You’ll need to override your camera’s auto settings to add between 1 and 2 stops of light.

Use the Reflector
Once you conquer the camera’s desire to underexpose snow, you can use it in another way. Midday light usually creates hard shadows, where faces under helmets or hats go black. Snow is a giant reflector. By paying attention to the angles of the sun, you can use it to bounce light back into the shadows much like a flash or beauty dish.

Use the Blankness
White snow has many meanings: purity, cleanliness, the blank slate waiting to be written on, or a blanket covering the earth. Use the associations of whiteness in your images: think of the skier about to plunge into an untracked valley, the austere clarity blue sky and white snow, and use them to spark the imagination.

Seek Warm Colors
Winter is commonly composed of three tones: white snow, blue sky, and grey in either old snow or cloudy skies. This simplified palette can evoke the clarity and austerity of winter. However, the absence of warm colors (red, yellow, magenta and gold), which come forward in the frame, limits the ability to create a three-dimensional feeling. Find ways to inject depth-creating warm colors whenever you can.

Use Shadows
Short days are a perverse advantage to the winter photographer. It creates morning and evening shadows closer to the middle of the day, and these shadows can add depth to an oversimplified snowy landscape.

Take Care of Equipment
Intense cold saps the energy of both the photographer and the equipment. Batteries produce less power, especially in consumer-level cameras: keep a spare or two in an inner pocket. Glove combinations that allow the fine manipulations of dials, lenses, and filters are a vital piece of equipment, as is plenty of warm clothing to allow you to stand still and wait for light. Be especially careful when bringing a camera inside from the cold: sudden warmth and condensation are no friend to optics and electronics. Before stepping inside, put your camera inside a plastic bag or inside your jacket to reduce condensation.

Have Fun
You won’t make good images if all you’re thinking about is when you can go inside and be warm. Embrace the winter.

When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Along

Anyone can get along in the wilderness when it’s 75 degrees, sunny, your Bluetooth speaker is kicking out the jams, and there’s a great swimming hole. It’s a different story on the third day of cold driving rain, or when you have to cover long miles in rough weather.

Experienced wilderness travelers talk about something vaguely called “expedition dynamics.” NOLS calls it ”Expedition Behavior”: a set of practices that keep a group cohesive. Here are my tips to keeping groups operating smoothly through rain, snow, sleet, long miles, bugs, and other adversity.

Group Comes First
Strong groups are more than a collection of individuals. To prosper through the warp and weft of a hard journey, groups need to have a clear goal and group members must be wiling to make the group’s goals their priority.

Personal Goals
That doesn’t mean that individuals won’t have their own goals—from seeing a particular part of the world to climbing peaks or surfing waves on a remote beach. It just means that they’re secondary. If individual members get too much summit fever, group dynamics tend to fall apart.

Take Care of Yourself
Each member must also take care of their own needs. If people get dehydrated, exhausted, or injured, the margin of safety shrinks and the group’s goals are more likely to be out of reach.

Everyone’s Responsible for Assessment
Assessing risk in the outdoors is a complex judgment process. While there’s a tendency to defer to experience, the reality is that everyone in the group will be running that rapid or traversing that ridge. Self-assessing one’s own abilities is even harder than evaluating external risk, so everyone should develop their judgment.

That doesn’t mean that the most experienced members of a group don’t hold sway. They may overrule the group consensus based on their experience. There should be redundancy in critical skills like route-finding: any group reliant on one person’s ability is at risk.

Help Others, But Don’t Do Their Work For Them
Everyone will have responsibilities, and there will be times when someone needs a hand.  The whole purpose of operating in a group is to be able to support each other when needed and to allow the group to achieve what individuals can’t. Helping out, however, is not an invitation to slack off.

Personalities Meet in the Middle
When you’ll be crammed together in stressful situations, moderating personalities helps the group endure challenges without getting on each others’ nerves. The manic or deeply introverted personalities that work fine or can be funny when everything is going well can become grating when times get tough. A moderate combination of placid calm and positive energy, will help the group weather rough seas and endure over time.

Conserve Energy
On an expedition, you never know when you’ll need a reserve of energy: a midnight storm or a late night setting up camp. Keep some fuel left in the tank.

Expect Everyone to Mess Up….Including You
High-altitude mountaineers operate under the assumption that due to the combination of oxygen deprivation, fatigue, and summit fever, everyone will make both physical and mental mistakes. Even if you’re not in the 8000-meter zone, double-checking ropes, compass bearings, and other critical functions is a good practice. Once a group accepts that it’s operating in a challenging environment under stress, this redundancy will feel less like an implication of incompetence and more like a basic pre-flight check.

Have Fun
This list doesn’t mean that expeditions are all work and no play. It’s just a different kind of fun in some of the wildest places in the world.

8 Reasons to Become a Nautical Chart Nerd

Neophytes call them “maps”. But any old salt can tell you a nautical chart is a different beast entirely. For starters, they’re huge, and covered with lots of weird symbols numbers.  No, those aren’t the secret messages from the Illuminati for people who have read too many Dan Brown books.  But those symbols mean stuff, and once you understand them you’ll never look at a body of water in the same way. Here’s why you should become a nautical chart nerd.

When I started hiking and mountaineering, I learned to read topographic maps, so I could navigate off-trail and learn to read the contours of the land to find good routes.  When I started coastal sea kayaking, I needed to do the same thing: find good routes and landing spots through offshore rocks, coastal swell, and current. Unlike the land, the sea is always moving. The chart is the key to the mystery of how it moves.

The Top and the Bottom
Most of those symbols on a nautical chart describe the bottom of sea or river you’re in.  They describe the depth, rocks lurking just below the surface, and channels that dry to mud when the tide is out.  The shape of the bottom of the sea controls the surface behaves. Gentle wells turn into breaking waves when they hits shallows areas.  Wind across deep water will cause ripples, but creates rough water when it pushes water across shallow subsurface rocks, Understanding the bottom helps you stay safe on the top of the sea.

Find the Nozzles
Nautical charts help you predict the water will do really strange things.  Tide changes generate currents, and these currents will accelerate through narrow passages, form swirling eddies around headlands, and create surf waves where they pour over rock shelves.  At its worst, you can end up fighting a strong current or swept into a bad spot. At it’s best, you can get a free ride and find great spots to play.

1571 nautical chart from Portuguese cartographer Fernão Vaz Dourado

1571 nautical chart from Portuguese cartographer Fernão Vaz Dourado

Don’t Get Squashed
Nautical charts aren’t just topo maps of the sea. They’re also a road map. Giant ships ply our waterways. If you’re a kayak, sailboat, dingy, or anything smaller than an oil tanker, you don’t want to play in the middle of the interstate. Learn where the shipping channels are, and look both ways before you cross the street.

When fog rolls you’ll suddenly find yourself traveling blind. The ability to read a chart here becomes critical. Knowing directions, reading landmarks from quick glimpses through the pea soup, and knowing how to navigate by compass will keep you off the rocks.

My friend Jason, a kayak-fishing expert, always stresses that his most important piece of fishing gear is a nautical chart. It shows him the undersea rocks where fish gather, and how deep they are.  There’s no point in dropping your lure twelve feet when the rock is twenty feet down.

Impress Your Friends
When the conditions get wacky, chart reading quickly goes from nerdiness to wisdom.  I’ve helped groups find an offshore island in the fog, guided them through tiny passages protected from big ocean swell, and anticipated tidal rapids where none were marked.

It’s way cooler than GPS
On one long fogbound crossing off the west coast of British Columbia, I challenged a friend of mine with a GPS to see who could plot a more accurate course to an offshore island. We landed right next to each other. And a nautical chart won’t run out of batteries or short out when you accidentally drop it in the drink.

They’re Free
The government would rather not have to come get you in a bright orange Coast Guard helicopter. As a result, American charts are fee online. Now you can nerd out to your heart’s content for free. You can also download Chart #1, which tells you what all those funky symbols mean.