As a child growing up in Steamboat Springs, Aaron Scott would sometimes walk from his home in the Fairview neighborhood past the Sulfur Cave at Howelsen Hill as he headed to town with his friends.
Scott, 41, remembers a time when he would try to imagine what mysteries the cave held as he made his way past it.
“Whenever we’d walk into town from Fairview down the ski trail, we would peer into it,” said Scott, who today is co-host of National Public Radio.‘s daily science podcast, “Short Wave.” “We would dare each other to go in, but none of us were brave enough or stupid enough to do it.”
That was a good thing because the atmosphere inside the cave is a deadly mix of hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. Scientist say that one or two breaths could knock a person out, and a longer exposure could be fatal.
But this summer, some 30 years later, with the aid of special breathing apparatus and protective clothing, Scott had an opportunity to explore the cave he could only imagine as a child.
Scott’s trip into the cave was led by Dave Steinmann, a biologist at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science who discovered a new species of worms more than a decade ago..
“I can’t say it was a dream come true,” said Scott, who shared the experience NPR’s nationwide podcast, which he co-hosts with Emily Kwong.. “It’s not like I’d spent years dreaming about what was in the cave, but it was deeply gratifying to have this place that had been a mystery to me as a kid, and then, as part of my job, get to go explore. it and find out that it’s just as fantastic of a place as you could dream up.”
The podcast, “Worm Blobs From The Bowels Of The Earth,” was released Sept. 2 and is among the many different topics and issues that are addressed by “Short Wave,” which explores new discoveries, everyday mysteries and the science behind the headlines.
“Every day I get to learn something and talk about somebody who is out there exploring the world — it’s absolutely a dream job,” Scott said. “Half of the episodes are NPR science and environment reporters coming on the show, and we do longer versions of the stories that they’re reporting for ‘All Things Considered’ and ‘Morning Edition.’
“We kind of dive deeper into the stories and do extended versions of their recording or have them on to talk about the news of the day — like the new James Webb Telescope photographs, or we have something coming up on an attempt to redirect an asteroid. — so that’s kind of the way we cover more newsy topics. (Other) episodes are us going out and talking to scientists that we’re really excited about, and that we’re hosting individually.”
The cave was the latest adventure for Scott, who grew up and lived in Steamboat Springs. When his parents got a divorce, he started splitting his time between Steamboat and the Pacific Northwest.
He graduated from Columbia River High School in Vancouver, Washington, in 1999 and attended Grinnell College in Iowa, where he got his bachelor’s degree in religious studies with a concentration in gender and women’s studies in 2003. holds master’s degrees in broadcast journalism and science journalism from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.
Scott said his curiosity has driven his journalism career, which included a stint covering arts and entertainment, along with the outdoors and nature.
“I’ve had the fortune to be a jack of all trades — working for a magazine, working for multiple radio shows, working for a television show covering the arts and covering science,” Scott said. “I think what really drives me is just curiosity, and getting to meet people doing really interesting things and pursuing their passion in the world.”
Before joining NPR in 2022, Scott was a producer and reporter for Oregon Public Broadcasting’s science and environment team and the nature TV show, “Oregon Field Guide.,” where he climbed mountains with microbiologists, bushwhacked old-growth forests with ornithologists, snorkeled remote rivers with conservationists and otherwise wandered the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest.
In 2020, Scott reported and hosted Oregon Public Broadcasting’s 10-part podcast “Timber Wars,” which told the story of how a small group of scientists and environmentalists forever changed the way we see forests and the natural world, as a way of marking the 30th anniversary of the spotted owl being placed on the endangered species list.
“Timber Wars” examined the issues from all perspectives, Scott said, and it has been incorporated into college classes around the country. It also won multiple awards, including being the first audio work to receive the MIT Knight Science Journalism Program’s Victor K. McElheny Award.
“I think this science and the nature part to me can definitely be traced back to growing up in Steamboat and going hiking with my dad,” Scott said. “He was a mining engineer by trade, so he would always point out geological formations and could name every flower we would pass.”
Scott also remembers collecting tadpoles and salamanders at summer camp in Steamboat, and he said the active outdoor lifestyle that many people enjoy here has fueled his passion for the outdoors and science.
“The summer camps as we grew up became more rock climbing and going on backpacking trips, and rafting and kayaking,” Scott said. “Being able to explore all the natural wonder around Steamboat instilled in me a love of the natural world.”
Scott started his journalism career covering the arts in dark theaters, and while he enjoyed that role, he said he always found himself drawn back science and opportunities to get back to nature.
“One day I decided that I’ve spent enough time in the city, in dark theaters, and that I wanted to get back into nature,” Scott said. “I wanted to be out exploring the landscapes — the incredibly diverse landscape we have here in America — and I wanted to spend time with the people who are out there studying it, and trying to learn more about it and our place in it.”
That led him to “Short Wave” and back home. In late July, he interviewed a group of graduate students from Georgia Tech who were being led by Steinmann into the Sulfur Cave.
However, tragedy hit the Scott family a few weeks later when David Scott, Aaron’s father, passed away on Aug. 12 while hiking near Mica Lake in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area. Scott dedicated the Sulfur Cave episode to his dad.
“My dad was a forest ranger at heart, and that definitely imbued in me a love of the natural world and then a curiosity to not just look at something and snap a photo and pass by, but to ask, ‘Why does it look that way? Like, what are the geological forces that make it look that way?’”
Scott said his father’s desire to live in Steamboat Springs, to be close to nature and to always stay connected to his family also left a mark.
“He made the choice that he wanted to live in Steamboat on the Western Slope of the Colorado Rockies above all else,” Scott said. “He turned down promotions, he turned down job transfers because he wanted to stay here. It was a very valuable lesson because I feel like I’ve done a very similar thing with Portland. I want to live in this city, in this community of friends and family that I have, and I know I will always be able to find a job.”
Scott was happy he got the chance to come home this summer, and he said he had been looking forward to sharing the Sulfur Cave episode with his father.
“It makes me sad that he didn’t make it to listen to the Sulfur Cave story,” Scott said. “When I knew I was going to be doing that story, it felt like it was a gift that I could give to him. It would let me come into this area where he raised me, and I was going to get to do a story about it for National Public Radio. It’s one piece of the heartbreak to know that he’s not going to get to hear it.”
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.