Veterans Expeditions

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National Geographic Society: Innovators Project

Nick Watson: Bringing the Wilderness Solution to Vets

Mountaineering provides a powerful boost to veterans returning from war.

National Geographic Society
Text by Mark Jenkins


A climber suddenly falls into a crevasse and Nick Watson dives into the snow with his ice ax. The rope goes taut and Watson, a bearded, muscled man, digs in like an anchor, and the climber is caught.

“You OK?” shouts Watson.

There is no answer from the climber down in the hole. He is unconscious or injured, perhaps bleeding.

“Don’t worry, we’ll get you out!” yells Watson anyway.

In a matter of minutes, Watson has tied off the dangling climber, slammed two stakes into the snow, and set up a five-to-one pulley system. Using his own body weight, Watson gradually hauls the injured mountaineer out of the crevasse.

Back on the surface, the unconscious climber suddenly awakes. “Wow! That really works.”

It was a simulated mountain rescue—a teaching scenario for a group of former soldiers, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, all standing in the snow.

“This is the way you save someone’s life,” says Watson.

He’s talking about basic crevasse rescue techniques, but he might as well be talking about the organization he founded, Veterans Expeditions, or VetEx, a nonprofit that takes veterans into the outdoors.

“Vets often go from a world with deep camaraderie, commitment, and excitement to a world where they are isolated, at loose ends, and bored,” Watson says in explaining the concept behind the program. Watson speaks from experience—he is a former U.S. Army Ranger—and he knows just how psychologically perilous the military experience can be: Veterans commit suicide at more than twice the rate of civilians.

Having worked as an alpine guide and a counselor in wilderness therapy programs for over a decade, Watson, 40, also believes in the healing force of nature and was convinced that a vigorous outdoor experience would be tonic for veterans, a way for them to “reconnect with fellow soldiers, get outside, and push themselves in a healthy environment.” VetEx—created with another veteran, Stacy Bare—was the outgrowth of that conviction. In its first year, 2010, VetEx took 16 veterans into the mountains for climbing; in 2011, it was over 100; in 2013, almost 300.

Things changed for me when two of my Ranger buddies killed themselves. These were guys I grew up with. I was there in seconds after they shot themselves, but there was nothing I could do.

By consciously replacing the fellowship of arms with the fellowship of the rope, VetEx hit on a novel remedy for readjustment to civilian life—a soldier by soldier, hands-on approach that larger veterans organizations like the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) couldn’t provide.

In Watson’s family, joining the military was part of the natural progression of manhood: One grandfather served in World War II, the other in Korea; his father served in Vietnam. He spent over four years in an elite Army unit, the Third Ranger Battalion, on numerous international deployments.

“I pushed myself in the military and had many intense experiences,” says Watson, “but things changed for me when two of my Ranger buddies killed themselves. These were guys I grew up with. I was there in seconds after they shot themselves, but there was nothing I could do.”

He left the Army soon afterward, but it took years for him to recover from the trauma of those deaths. He traveled around the country, worked seasonal jobs, and slowly found solace in the wild. “A therapist I was seeing at the time, a very wise woman, said something that changed my life: ‘You aren’t your experiences; you are how you process your experiences.’”

Thoughtful and passionate, with a sturdy body and three fingers missing on his right hand from an oil rig accident, Watson has been running the organization on his own since 2011, when Bare moved on to direct the Sierra Club’s veterans programs in New England and North Carolina. “We’re a grassroots organization,” says Watson. “It’s friends telling friends.” VetEx has only one paid employee—Watson—and calls on volunteers to run the outdoor “meetups” throughout Colorado.

“Our biggest challenge right now is funding,” says Watson, who relies on his partner, journalist Chris Kassar, 37, to work as VetEx’s unpaid “PR and ‘Fun’ Raising Director.” Keen shoe company and Kahtoola Snowshoes are their only equipment sponsors. “We get new vets outdoors every month, and we’re changing their lives. We don’t need a lot of funding, just enough to keep going.”

Watson, who was named a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year for 2014, along with Stacy Bare, says his goal is to get thousands of vets outdoors by 2020, training veterans to lead trips all over the country.

Picture of Stacy Bare climbing a mountain
Stacy Bare, a former Army captain and Bronze Star recipient and VetEx co-founder, climbs Mount Rainier in Washington State. PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRIS KASSAR


“Immediate, Intense Trust”“What Veterans Expeditions does, at its core, is re-create the positive aspects of the military without all the negatives,” says Demond Mullins, 32, an Army veteran who saw combat in Iraq in 2004-2005.Meeting up with Veterans Expeditions was so important to Mullins, a professor of sociology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, that he flew across the country just to spend a couple of days climbing with fellow vets. In the snow-covered Rockies above Leadville, Colorado, they practiced technical mountaineering skills, such as moving as a roped team, self-arrest with an ice ax, crevasse rescue, crampon technique, and ascending fixed lines.Mullins has participated in more than a dozen adventures with VetEx. “On every trip I meet new vets,” he says, kneeling in the snow at 11,000 feet (3,353 meters), adjusting the carabiners on the climbing ropes for a crevasse rescue scenario. “There’s always this immediate, intense trust. We have the same point of reference. We know what it’s like to put our lives on the line for each other.”Mullins, who is built like an Olympic sprinter, loves being outdoors, “working as part of a team, relying on one another—things we all learned in the military, but [now] without the threat of violence.”Epidemic of SuicideAccording to a VA report last year, 22 veterans kill themselves every day in the U.S., double the number of suicides among nonveterans. In 2012, 349 active-duty soldiers killed themselves—more than the 295 who died in combat in Afghanistan that year. reports that 4,487 American troops died in Iraq, about half the number of soldiers who kill themselves every year. In Afghanistan, 2,229 Americans have died; more veterans than that will kill themselves at home in the U.S. before Thanksgiving this year.

One in five veterans of Afghanistan or Iraq and a stunning 30 percent of Vietnam vets have PTSD.

The U.S. military is aware of the problem, if uncertain what to do about it. The VA has set up a crisis hotline and a website offering help through direct phone contact, online chats, and other resources, but VA hospitals are notoriously backlogged and slow to respond to veterans struggling with mental illness. Brigadier General David Harris recently wrote on the Eglin Air Force Base website that “it is important for us to re-address topics such as suicide prevention and awareness.” He encourages friends and family to be alert to the “clues and warnings” of potential suicide, such as depression, drug or alcohol abuse, impulsiveness, and reclusiveness. “When we observe our wingman appearing depressed … request help early on.”

Clearly, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans aren’t the only ones overwhelmed by despair: Almost 70 percent of suicides among veterans are by Vietnam War soldiers, 50 years old or older, a community that suffered a particularly hard return to a society that was largely hostile to the war they fought.

And suicide isn’t limited to those who saw combat. A recent Department of Defense study, citing heavy drinking and depression as root problems, found that almost 80 percent of suicides are by soldiers who did not experience combat. A 2014 report in JAMA Psychiatryrevealed that almost 20 percent of Army enlistees struggled with depression, panic attacks, suicidal thoughts, or “intermittent explosive disorder”—a condition characterized by uncontrollable attacks of rage—before they joined the service.

And then there is the pervasiveness of post-traumatic stress disorder. One in five veterans of Afghanistan or Iraq and a stunning 30 percent of Vietnam vets have PTSD. Other soldiers have returned home with a traumatic brain injury (TBI), often caused by the concussive force of an improvised explosive device (IED). Unlike scars and amputations, these are the “invisible injuries” of war.

Picture of Nick Watson and veterans
Nick Watson teaches crevasse rescue to veterans in Leadville, Colorado. PHOTOGRAPH BY CAROLINE TREADWAY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC


Gut-Level UnderstandingLuke Adler, 28, who served in Afghanistan in 2007-2008 and 2009-2010, is in Leadville for the climb. He is wearing his military-issue camo backpack and heavily insulated khaki military pants made for the extreme cold. In Afghanistan, he had been hit by IEDs twice and has a TBI. “This is the thing,” he explained, as he adjusted a pulley system for hauling up an injured or unconscious climber: “You do epic things in the service. It’s life or death. When you come home to civilian life, you really miss that intensity.”After he got out of the 82nd Airborne, Adler returned to his parents’ home in Iowa and fell in with what he describes as a “bad group of vets” who were using drugs and alcohol to get through the day. “It took about a year to straighten myself out. I realized all I was doing was hurting myself and everyone who loved me.” Currently enrolled at Colorado State University, he is preparing to become a high school social studies teacher.All of the vets on the Leadville outing experienced combat. Here in the mountains, they fall easily into conversation with each other about their service. It is a singular brotherhood. Their experiences were too difficult for their civilian counterparts to fathom.Samantha Tinsley, 34, earned a degree in international relations before joining the service as an enlistee, not an officer, and was deployed all over the world for a decade. John Brumer, 27, led his own 12-man squad through the mountains of Afghanistan (and is now starting his own brewery in North Carolina). Robert “Robbie” Hayes, 28, and John Krueger, 26, were in the same unit, fighting together in Afghanistan’s opium-ridden Helmand Province. Lee Urton, 32, a former Marine, was part of the initial invasion of Afghanistan and says he “lost something in the war, but I would never take back a minute of it.”It’s a common sentiment. They have suffered, but they have no regrets about joining the military. Each man and woman did something that the vast majority of Americans will never do: defend their country with their lives. One participant sketches a scene of combat with just a few words and everyone immediately knows what he’s talking about. They nod in agreement. There is no need for apologies or bragging. “They get it,” as Watson says. “They understand each other on a gut level.”

The Climb 
The next morning, after a day of training in the snow, the VetEx team snowshoes to the Tenth Mountain Division hut below the west ridge of 13,209-foot (4,026-meter) Homestake Peak. This hut is a fitting redoubt for the team to organize their attack on Homestake, only intermittently glimpsed through the swirling blizzard.The Tenth Mountain Division was created during World War II specifically to train soldiers in winter survival, skiing, and mountain warfare. The division trained at Camp Hale, built at an elevation of 9,300 feet (2,835 kilometers), 17 miles (27 kilometers) north of Leadville. In 1945 the Tenth Mountain Division breached the Apennine Mountains and played a pivotal role in the liberation of northern Italy. Some 4,000 “ski troopers” were wounded, and 992 lost their lives.By now the vets, many of whom scarcely knew each other 24 hours ago, are good friends. They’re sharing their life stories and scheming to go climbing together in the near future. Wars are fought outdoors, and returning to the outdoors is a salve.The night before, as we bunked in the homey Leadville Hostel, Watson had told me that “something happens on these trips that I never saw with civilians. There’s this incredible bond that forms, this connection. These men and women need each other. They were trained to work together toward a common goal, and that’s exactly what mountaineering is all about.”

Picture of Nick Watson talking to veterans
Nick Watson (on left) sits with veterans Demond Mullins (center) and Lee Urton (right) as they talk about the impact of mountaineering and climbing on veterans. PHOTOGRAPH BY CAROLINE TREADWAY, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC
This summer, the vets of VetEx plan to attempt Mount Rainier and Mount Hood. In 2015 they’re mounting a difficult expedition to 20,322-foot (6,194-meter) Denali in Alaska, the highest peak in the United States. Watson, along with Chris Kassar and vet Dave Lee, 35 (who served in the modern Tenth Mountain Division in Bosnia), are heading to Denali in two weeks to attempt the West Buttress route as a scouting mission.As for Homestake, after hours of climbing, the team is stopped by a howling whiteout and forced to turn back before reaching the summit. “Couldn’t see a thing,” Watson said afterward. “It was great training. Just like military”. 

Return to Hyalite Canyon: Veterans Build Community That Stretches Beyond Mountains

Return to Hyalite Canyon: Veterans Build Community That Stretches Beyond Mountains

Veterans Expeditions Hyalite 2014 from Dan on Vimeo.

Temperatures suddenly drop and clouds dominate the skyline. Light rain morphs to flurries. The wind gains strength driving snow sideways through the canyon we’ve called home for the last week.

Some hoods go up, but other than that no one seems to notice. It’s business as usual on the last day of the 2nd Annual Veterans Expeditions Ice Climbing Camp in Hyalite Canyon outside Bozeman, Montana. Climbers move upward on the icy blue wall while belayers below remain focused on keeping their partners safe.

Photograph by Chris Kassar

Photograph by Chris Kassar

Half way up a fat, somewhat picked out waterfall, Samantha Tinsley doesn’t skip a beat even though wind and snow swirl about making it feel as if we’re in a tiny, recently shaken snow globe. She climbs steadily and pauses periodically to perform an odd ritual that involves reaching her arms overhead and clapping … five giant claps. Then, without fanfare, she resumes her ascent.

Wondering why someone would act so foolishly mid-climb? Well, because renowned climber Conrad Anker, told her to try it. And honestly, who can refuse a recommendation from one of the premier alpinists in the world? Not many and especially not someone like Tinsley, an ex- Sergeant First Class in the Army who is always up for a challenge. But, Anker’s exercise wasn’t just a fun test or a way to make her look silly. This trailblazing mountaineer with a huge heart suggested it because steadying your feet, securing tools, and clapping enthusiastically overhead mimics the balance needed to place ice screws–a skill critical to learning to lead climb.

Throughout the week, Anker humbly shared countless such climbing secrets, tons of life wisdom, loads of laughs and his cut of camp chores with this diverse team of 13 military veterans and active duty service members brought together through a partnership between Veterans Expeditions (VetEx), Sierra Club Mission Outdoors and Montana Alpine Guides.

“I didn’t serve, but there are so many guys and gals returning from Iraq and Afghanistan who deserve our respect and have a lot to offer,” says Anker who also joined the group last year in Hyalite. “Spending a week sharing my backyard with this incredible group of veterans and helping them find a sense of connection and camaraderie is my little way of helping out. It’s an honor for me to be a part of this.”

And, of course, it’s an honor for the participants to climb with Anker, known for successfully tackling some of the most technically challenging terrain in the world. “In 2013, I came as active duty and was blown away and humbled by the group, the guides and especially Conrad, whose energy was infectious. Everyone was so helpful, supportive and team-oriented including Conrad who was quick to help with the not-so-glamorous chores of chopping wood and cooking. Looking to continue a life of service post military, Conrad gives much to emulate,” says Tinsley who had only climbed ice once before joining the  inaugural Veterans Expeditions Hyalite Canyon excursion last March.

Sam Tinsley crushing it in Hyalite Canyon, Montana; Photograph by Chris Kassar

Sam Tinsley crushing it in Hyalite Canyon, Montana; Photograph by Chris Kassar

After a week in Hyalite, she was hooked on ice and on VetEx because there were no expectations or requirements to talk about feelings or experiences.  “We could just climb and have fun and let things happen naturally,” says Tinsley.  “Being outside with a group of military folks that way is amazing. There’s a shared common bond that makes us click so quickly. From the first day, it’s like we’ve known each other forever.”

So, Tinsley jumped at the chance to return this year during which she tested her skills on steep WI6 chutes, tough mixed routes and learned a bit about leading. But, she didn’t come back only–or even mostly—for the ice. She came back seeking support from friends new and old and hoping to gain the perspective required to handle one of the biggest changes in her life to date. Just days before boarding a plane to Montana, Tinsley, who logged 11½ years of service including several international deployments, officially left the service and became a veteran.

“Sam is in transition. She’s asking the same questions we’ve all asked. What comes next? What can I do as a civilian that’s even going to remotely match the excitement of what I did in the military?” says Veterans Expeditions Executive Director and co-founder, Nick Watson. “Time outdoors with VetEx helps folks like Sam find the space to make some big life decisions and since we’ve all been there, she can look to us for guidance and support.”

And, lean on folks she has. In fact, Tinsley credits the relationships formed on last year’s trip with getting her through this uncertain and difficult transition. “Once I decided to separate, I reached out to the vets I met here for advice and I didn’t feel completely lost anymore. Already having those handrails in place and that support network set up was incredible,” says Tinsley.

This is exactly what Watson and ex-Army Captain Stacy Bare envisioned VetEx would become when they founded it in 2010. They sought to unite veterans in the outdoors, but more importantly to create a community that transcends the mountains and reaches into everyday life.

“Often after leaving the service, vets are bored and lose that spark. Getting them outside, doing something meaningful on the land they defended has an enormous amount of power to reignite that spark and get them unstuck,” says Watson. “Plus, out here we’re all just climbers and climbing is a lot like serving–it’s fun, dangerous,  and at times, your life is in another’s hands. That creates the potential for strong connections that stretch beyond the rivers, peaks, deserts, crags and icy waterfalls where they are made.”


Photograph by Chris Kassar

Photograph by Chris Kassar

Bare and Watson were named 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year for turning their vision into reality, however, with over 21 million veterans living in the US, many of whom struggle with depression, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress,  and  2.5 million service members deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11 alone, they know their work has just begun.

But, they also know they are not alone since the VetEx family consists of teachers like Anker and participants like Tinsley who are dedicated to helping VetEx reach new heights and achieve its lofty goals. “The outdoors provides the elbow room to reflect on where you’ve been, where you’re at, and where you’re going,” says Tinsley. “I’m very humbled these opportunities exist for vets and am doing my part to get the message out to veterans and soon-to-be-veterans who need this experience. VetEx provides an incredible and unmatched opportunity to build community and make friends that will last a lifetime.”

To see more photos visit:

To watch a short video from our week in Hyalite at:

VetEx made 3 trips to Ouray Ice Park this Winter

Ice Ouray super bowl group

Veterans Expeditions made 3 trips to Ouray Ice Park this Winter.  These trips saw active military and veterans learn new skills as they worked hard to improve their ice climbing.  We stayed together, cooked meals together, and enjoyed old stories of military service and new stories of civilian life.  Veterans were focused on creating civilian success and active military were taking a break before the next deployment.

Curt Ouray 13

Army veteran Curt Bean Climbs Ice for the first time at Ouray Ice Park with VetEx. Curt has recently been recognized here in Colorado with the Governor’s Creative Leadership Award for his work with the Art of War Project. Way to go Curt!

We had ice climbing first timers and experienced veteran climbers sharing knowledge of all things on and off the ice.  It was great to see so many veterans going after it all day climbing and enjoying each others company in the evening.

Johnny mixed

Marine veteran Johnny Krueger mixed climbing very well.

There was great ice to be had at the Ouray Ice Park all winter long.  We climbed in the snow and in clear skies.  We climbed mixed routes, hard routes, easy routes, we climbed it all.  The community created while climbing at the ice park has followed us back home.  These ice climbing veterans have continued to climb with each other and hang out outside of VetEx.  The true test to the VetEx community is that our veterans lean on each other for support outside of our trips.  These trips build camaraderie that endures into these veterans home lives.

Ice group ouray 13

Ouray Superbowl VetEx Ice Group

At VetEx we will challenge you outside and everything else falls into place when veterans meet that challenge as a strong community.  See you out there.

ice ouray super bowl crazy

Vet group catwalk Ouray ice

Jukes Black and White

9/11 Climbing Trip 2 From Glacier Peak to Mount St. Helens WA

Glacier group w peak

The 3 Amigos. Army, Marines, Air Force Veterans getting after it!


Sometimes you get to go places on expedition and words cannot describe how amazing everything is.  The pictures from our time traveling and climbing in Washington this September 11th say a thousand words.  These volcanoes, trails, rocks, and forests were such an honor to spend quality time in and around.  Glaciers, waterfalls, and mountains were everywhere.  


Look left and see VetEx Co-Founder taking in the magnitude of this vast landscape with Glacier Peak looming in the distance.

Look left and see VetEx Co-Founder Nick Watson taking in the magnitude of this vast landscape with Glacier Peak looming in the distance.

From the lush forests of the North Cascade to the moonscape of Mount St. Helens.  We traveled, hiked, and climbed this land with our eyes wide open and smiles upon our faces.  Three veterans and one non-veteran traveling around and enjoying every second.  We hiked and climbed long, hard days and took none of it for granted.  Army, Air Force, and Marine veterans all exploring this new world together as a team.  If this sounds like fun to you, get on the next trip with VetEx.  See you all outside very soon.

St. Helens summit flag

The summit of Mount St. Helens on 9/11/13

St. Helens showing off Keens

We couldn’t do it with out the Keens on our feet.


9/11 Climbing to Mt. Olympus with SCMO and VetEx


Originally posted here


Dan, Derek and Joshua on the summit of Mt. Olympus.

By Joshua Brandon, Sierra Club Military Outdoors Organizer

We climb for many reasons. We climb to challenge ourselves and we climb for spiritual fulfillment. We climb to mark the anniversaries of our victories as well as the tragedies. Last week, our team of veterans climbed for their own personal reasons in remembrance of the events of September 11th, 2001.


Dan after his first alpine lead.

Many in our community lost friends and family in the events of that day, but far more of us mark that day as the turning point in which our lives were forever changed in the ensuing conflict of the following twelve years. Regardless of various motivations, our team marks the event by challenging ourselves in the wilderness.


Crossing the gap.

From September 7th to the 12th, I joined veteran climbers Dan Wiwczar and Derek Quintanilla in a traverse of Mount Olympus and the Ridge of the Gods in the wilderness of Washington State for the annual 911 climb.


Supper below the Blue Glacier.

Over the course of five and a half days, we walked and climbed 48 miles with 11,000 feet of elevation change on five peaks and two glaciers. We traveled through one of the largest temperate rain forests on the planet, steep sub alpine hills, and glaciated alpine vistas encompassing some of the most beautiful landscapes in our country.


Ridge of the Gods, with objectives Athena and Athens Owl to the right.

I was proud of my team as they faced every challenge the mountain threw at us. Long distances, dangerous crevasse travel, fluctuating temperatures, and exposed climbs on rotten rock only seemed to make them stronger as the trip ground on.



Parting shot of Mt. Olympus rising above the Blue Glacier.

Dan was given no quarter on his first major glacier climb, and both he and Derek rose to the challenge in completing their first alpine rock lead climbs. The tougher the conditions, the bigger their smiles, the more dangerous the route, the louder they laughed. I’ve always been lucky to have veterans like these at my side in the wilderness.


Joshua picking a line.

Over the course of the climb I was left with the following thought: Each one of us turned to the mountains to find our way when we left the ranks, and each one of us continues to lead their fellow veterans to help them find their way after the war. Like the generations of veterans who have come before us, we have returned to the lands we once defended to heal.


On the approach.

While the lands we fought for will forever be intertwined with our lives, their importance to us is far greater than our individual purposes. These lands symbolize the very heart and soul of our nation, and our warriors are once more needed to defend them.


David Brower High Camp below Olympus.

Our wildest places define America itself, and it is in these wildest places that we will define our legacy for generations to come. We spilled our blood on foreign soil to preserve them, and now we must once again lead our countrymen in fighting to protect them. Go into wilderness to find your way, fall in love with the lands you defended, and lead our country in defending them a second time.


Derek and Dan on Athena’s Owl.

I’d like to personally thank Dan Wiwczar and Derek Quintanilla, above, for an amazing climb. I can’t say enough about your great display of character in tough situations. I’d also like to thank Sierra Club Outdoors, Veterans Expeditions, and Suunto for their generous sponsorship of this climb.


Joshua on lead.

All photos are by and with permission of Dan Wiwczar (Sierra Club Mission Outdoors Outside Adventure Film School graduate).

VetEx Charter Boat Fishing Newburyport MA 8/17/13

NH MA Fish group

Our group after a day of fishing

On August 17th VetEx went charter boat fishing out of Newburyport Massachusetts.  VetEx Co-Founder Nick Watson grew up just 15 minutes down the road.  Nick’s Vietnam veteran father was present as was his brother.  Veterans from all over New England showed up to go fishing with VetEx.  The weather cooperated and provided calm seas and sunny skies for the 20 mile plus journey offshore.  

Ma NWBRYPT harbour

The North side of Newburyport harbor. 

It was one of those great days at sea.  The winds were light and the fishing was great.  Pollock, Cod, and Flounder were the fish species caught on the day.  Lots of fish were caught and of course the big ones got away.  


Ma Dan and Mike fish

Army veterans who served together in Afghanistan, fish together with VetEx

Veterans of all abilities were present.  The fishing was good.  Spirits were high and many a story was told of service and sacrifice.  Each veteran took their catch home and talked of doing it all again soon.


Brad flag stern

Army veteran holds the flag he flew in Afghanistan off the stern.

Thank you to Brian Herr  and his family for his generosity that made this trip possible.  Big thanks to Rich Brewer and One Warrior Won for all the help on this great week that saw veterans get out in the New Hampshire mountains as well as off shore fishing.






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