As a kid growing up in Steamboat Springs, Aaron Scott would sometimes walk past Sulfur Cave on Howelsen Hill from his home in the Fairview neighborhood while driving into town with his friends.
Scott, 41, recalls a time when he tried to imagine what mysteries the cave held as he walked past it.
“Whenever we walked down the ski trail from Fairview into town, we peeked in,” said Scott, who is now co-host of National Public Radio‘s daily science podcast “Short Wave.” “We would dare each other to go in, but neither of us were brave enough or foolish enough to do it.”
That was good, because the atmosphere in the cave is a lethal mixture of hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide. Scientists say a breath or two could knock a person out, and prolonged exposure could be deadly.
But this summer, some 30 years later, with the help of a special breathing apparatus and protective gear, Scott had the opportunity to explore the cave he only imagined as a child.
Scott’s foray into the cave was led by Dave Steinmann, a biologist at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science who discovered a new species of worm more than a decade ago.
“I can’t say it was a dream come true,” said Scott, who shared the experience on NPR’s national podcast, which he co-hosts with Emily Kwong. “It’s not like I spent years dreaming about what’s inside the cave, but it was deeply satisfying to have this place that was a mystery to me as a child, and then explore it as part of my job to be able to do it and find that it is as amazing a place as you can ever dream.”
Worm Blobs From The Bowels Of The Earth Podcast was released on September 2nd and is among the many different subjects and topics addressed by “Short Wave,” which explores new discoveries, everyday mysteries, and the science behind the headlines.
“Every day I’m learning something and speaking about someone who is out there exploring the world – it’s absolutely a dream job,” said Scott. “Half the episodes are NPR science and environmental reporters who come on the show, and we do longer versions of the stories they cover for ‘All Things Considered’ and ‘Morning Edition.’
“We delve deeper into the stories and do extended versions of their recordings, or have them talk about the day’s news — like the new photos from the James Webb telescope, or we’re up to something in an attempt to deflect an asteroid — that is the way we deal with more topical issues. In (other) episodes, we go out and talk to scientists that we’re really excited about and moderate individually.”
The cave was the latest adventure for Scott, who grew up and lived in Steamboat Springs. When his parents divorced, he began dividing 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 received his bachelor’s degree in religious studies with a focus on gender and women’s studies in 2003. He holds master’s degrees in broadcast journalism and science journalism from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.
Scott said his curiosity propelled his journalism career, which spanned arts and entertainment alongside nature and the outdoors.
“I was fortunate to be a jack of all trades — I worked for a magazine, worked for several radio shows, worked for a TV show that covered arts and science,” Scott said. “I think what really drives me is just being curious and meeting people who are doing really interesting things and are passionate about the world.”
Before joining NPR in 2022, Scott was a producer and reporter for Oregon Public Broadcasting’s science and environmental team and the nature TV show Oregon Field Guide“ where he climbed mountains with microbiologists, roamed old growth forests with ornithologists, snorkeled remote rivers with conservationists, and otherwise hiked the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest.
In 2020, Scott reported and hosted the ten-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 nature around the 30th of Decemberth Anniversary of the spotted owl’s entry on the Endangered Species List.
“Timber Wars” explored the issues from all perspectives, Scott said, and it’s been taken to college classes across the country. It has also received multiple awards, including being the first audio work to receive the MIT Knight Science Journalism Program’s Victor K. McElheny Award.
“I think that science and nature part for 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 was always pointing out geological formations and could name every flower we passed.”
Scott also remembers collecting tadpoles and salamanders at summer camp at Steamboat, and he said the active, outdoor lifestyle enjoyed by many here fueled his passion for the outdoors and science.
“Summer camps growing up became more about rock climbing and backpacking, rafting and kayaking,” Scott said. “Having the opportunity to explore all of the natural wonders around Steamboat inspired me to love the outdoors.”
Scott began his journalism career covering the arts in dark theaters, and while he enjoyed that role, he said he always felt withdrawn from science and opportunities to return to nature.
“One day I decided that I had spent enough time in the city, in dark theaters, and that I wanted to get back to nature,” Scott said. “I wanted to explore the landscapes – the incredibly diverse landscape that we have here in America – and I wanted to spend time with the people who study them and try to learn more about them and our place in it.”
That led him to “Short Wave” and back home. In late July, he interviewed a group of Georgia Tech graduate students who were being led into Sulfur Cave by Steinmann.
A few weeks later, however, tragedy struck the Scott family when David Scott, Aaron’s father, died on August 12 while hiking near Mica Lake in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area. Scott dedicated the Sulfur Cave episode to his father.
“My dad was a forester at heart, and that definitely instilled in me a love of nature and then a curiosity to not just look at something and take a picture and walk by, but to be like, ‘Why does it look like that? Path? What are the geological forces that make it look like this?’”
Scott said his father’s desire to live in Steamboat Springs, be close to nature, and always stay connected with his family also left a mark.
“He made a decision that what he wanted most was to live in Steamboat on the western slope of the Colorado Rockies,” 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 did 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 find a job.”
Scott was glad he had the chance to come home this summer and said he was looking forward to sharing the Sulfur Cave episode with his dad.
“It saddens me that he didn’t get to hear the Sulfur Cave story,” Scott said. “Knowing I was going to do this story felt like it was a gift I could give him. It would take me to this area where he raised me and I would do a story about it for National Public Radio. It’s part of the heartache knowing he won’t hear it.”
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.