Trying out for the new sport of Extreme Canning


It’s getting harder and harder to be an "extreme" athlete. The ultra-fit among us aren’t just climbing all Western peaks over 14,000 feet; they’re climbing them in less than 10 days and doing it on snowboards, skis, bikes and in-line skates.


All this requires thousands of dollars’ worth of gear and years of training. And if you want some publicity for your accomplishments, you’d better hire a agent or else blunder into an accident. The only physical stunts that garner much attention these days are Extreme Escapes, especially when combined with Extremely Gory Injuries.


So is the idea wandering off, exhausted, into the territory of cliché? I don’t think so. I think most of us want to push our limits, compete against others of similar abilities and brag about the results -- or at least read about people who do. For those of us in the West who have soaked up mountain-man, pioneer-woman, and Indian-brave tales, our taste for extremity is probably even more, well, extreme.


I think it’s our definition of extreme, not the essential concept, that’s been boxed in and tired out. For years, we’ve limited our extreme experiences to the Great Outdoors. Let’s loosen up a little, and look at where these pastimes got their start.


Most were once essential means of transportation, if not survival (OK, kite-boarding has always been optional, but you get my point). But in our search for new experiences, we’ve been ignoring old-time survival skills. These could easily be taken to ridiculous and possibly dangerous new levels, opening up limitless competitive territory. We just haven’t recognized their sporting potential, probably because they’ve historically been practiced indoors and by women. It’s time for a retro change.


Just for starters, I’ll introduce you to my household’s new sport: Extreme Canning.


"If I got my hands on enough basil," mused my husband, "I could really go into full pesto-production mode." I looked at him with concern. "Don’t you think you’ve done enough this year?" I asked, trying to play the responsible trainer. After all, he and a friend had just stacked up 36 gleaming pints of applesauce. They’d spent the day toiling over a couple of boxes of local Golden Delicious, armed only with a motley collection of jars and lids and rings, an oversized kettle of boiling water and an alarming contraption from a yard sale that promised to core and peel an apple in less than 30 seconds.


After a marathon of cooking, pulverizing, sterilizing and sealing, they added the applesauce to our already burgeoning collection of preserved produce: a winter’s supply of apricot jam, a knee-high wall of pears and a somewhat more modest row of luscious peaches. We’ve also got fat bags of roasted green chiles, dried cherries and apricots.


"Almost enough," he said, slowly spooning leftover applesauce out of the still-warm kettle and absentmindedly wiping a pink fleck from his chin. "I think I’ve still got a little left in me."


I, the trainer, abandoned my protests; why fight the championship instinct, especially when there’s pesto in the offing?


You may scoff at Extreme Canning. But think about it for a minute. The results are easy to quantify, which means that records can be clearly set and broken. There’s skill involved, since lightning-quick cherry-pitting and pear-peeling take practice and patience.


There’s also a surprising amount of jargon, useful for boisterous bar conversations: Hot pack or cold pack? Low acidity or high? Dude, did you leave enough headroom in that last batch of peaches? There are also heavy emotional challenges, especially for men (Watch out! Another gender barrier approaching!) And while Extreme Canning is not what you might call death-defying, it does involve several gallons of briskly boiling water, and an acquaintance of mine recently blew out his knee in the midst of a salsa-making operation. Now, that’s Extreme Injury.


Extreme Canning, unlike its predecessors, is also a refreshingly democratic, let-the-best-human win kind of sport: Any cheapskate can afford the required gear. But most importantly, while more familiar extreme sports might leave you with nothing but a few snapshots and an adrenaline hangover, Extreme Canning has tangible rewards.


Once you’ve stretched out your sore neck, tended to your sliced thumb and found a cool corner to store all your goods, you can spend the dark winter months sharing the results of your training with family and friends. And homemade apricot jam in January, let me tell you, is an extreme pleasure like no other.


Michelle Nijhuis is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado ( where she lives and writes.

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