The Outside Blog

Politics : Paddling

The Same River Twice

Every family has a favorite place. One of ours is the Rio Chama, a 31-mile stretch of wilderness whitewater that slices through the red-rock canyons of northern New Mexico. I've rafted, kayaked, or otherwise floated the Chama nearly every summer since I moved to Santa Fe 19 years ago, for what was supposed to be a three-month internship. My husband and I have camped and run and biked along the river, and when our daughters were born, we started bringing them, too.

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It's not hard to love the Rio Chama. Its banks are lined with 100-foot-tall ponderosas, peachy cliffs that Georgia O'Keefe used to paint, and striated, 700-foot sandstone walls with the faintest outlines of arches beginning to form. Nearly 25 miles have been designated a Wild & Scenic River, flowing through Class II-III rapids and a roadless wilderness that's one of the few places left in the country where you're guaranteed not to get cell service. Floating the canyon—for one day or three—is the ultimate mental reset.

This year, we scored a permit to raft the Chama for three days in the end of May. The first call we made was to our boating friends from Durango, Rob and Amy, and their two adolescent kids. They'd accompanied us on our first multiday float with our then 10-month-old daughter, on the remote San Juan River, in southern Utah, reassuring us the whole way that we weren't insane for bringing an infant. On that trip, they became our de facto family rafting mentors, and we've done a trip with them, sometimes two, nearly every year since.

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Amy and their son, Henry, couldn't come, but Rob and his 11-year-old daughter, Ainsley, and her 10-year-old cousin, Max jumped at the chance to raft the Chama for the first time. They invited their friend Kevin, and his four-year-old-daughter, Sage, whom we'd met two years ago on the San Juan with Rob. From Santa Fe, we enlisted our friend Win, a Grand Canyon river guide who would have brought his wife and their two-year-old daughter if they hadn't been out of town.

Our group of ten launched from just below El Vado Dam, almost exactly a year to the date that Steve and I and the girls set off last year. After late-spring snow, it felt like the first real weekend of summer, and we drifted downstream, through the first small riffles and into the wilder, deeper canyon. So much was the same, and yet even more was different. We had Pete now, our black Lab puppy, who like our daughters, was making his maiden raft voyage at ten months old. Our three-year-old, Maisy, had broken her foot jumping off a wall a month ago and was wearing a walking cast that seemed destined to be destroyed by three days of mud and river water.

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Like children, rivers mark time. No matter how familiar and dear to us they may be, they are constantly in flux, never the same from one week to the next. River levels rise and fall, revealing sand bar camps at low water and then reclaiming them at high water, swollen by spring runoff or summer flash floods. Side canyons disgorge boulders, altering rapids, making them bigger or smaller or more technical or less, and sometimes completely unrecognizable. Logs and branches sail downstream on the current, forming snags that catch more flotsam, stray fishing bobbers and tangled tree stumps, soggy old baseball caps. Someone's wrapped a canoe around a rock in the middle of a long and bony Class III rapid; it will stay there until it gets pushed off or its owner comes to claim it.

Children on river trips only underscore the water's natural fluctuations. They are a month older, or a year older. They have a broken foot. They've started reading. They are stronger swimmers. They can get by, but barely, without their afternoon nap. They've figured out how to reach the zippers on the tent and crawl out on their own. They demand S'Mores, not bottles, before bed. They jump from one raft to another, ride with the big kids in the inflatable kayaks, and are strong enough to paddle the SUP standing up through tiny wave trains. 

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At the first night's camp—by coincidence, the same wedge of beach on a wide bend where we camped last year—we set up our chairs in the sand and watched the stars come out. I marveled about how much had changed since our first family river trip. Putting Pippa to bed in a Pack 'n Play in the tent, swaddled in a sleep sack and soothed by pacifiers—a small army of them, invariably sandy and all too often misplaced. Nursing her in the middle of the night, hoping her hungry bleats wouldn't wake the whole camp. The season when we wedged not one, but two portable cribs into our massive two-room tent, pacing outside in the fading light to make sure all was quiet. The fall trip on the San Juan when 14-month-old Maisy weaned herself, too busy to bother with the distraction of nursing and unimpressed with breast milk that tasted suspiciously like muddy desert river water. And now this trip, when both girls lie side by side in sleeping bags in their own tent (attached to ours), one reading to the other until, exhausted, there's only silence.

In a good summer, we might take three or, if we're lucky, four river trips. That's maybe 12 nights sleeping outside under gnarled old junipers, among the sage, sheltered beneath canyon walls, deep in the backcountry. In the scheme of things, this is not much time. You could argue, and people have, that young children and babies, as ours were when we began, don't belong in the backcountry and are too young to appreciate wilderness rivers; that it's selfish to bring them, that they won't remember the few days they spent bobbing through gentle rapids, held in arms, sleeping against our chests, soft toddler arms taking a turn at the oars. That the risks far outweigh the benefits of those few days.

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But as we sat under layers and layers of stars, and the thinnest wisp a moon hung above the canyon rim, with Saturn beaming beside it, I knew these trips, those few fleeting days, add up to so much more. Our girls are growing up on the river. With each year, the Chama and the San Juan, the Green and the Rio Grande, are becoming familiar to them, known and beloved, like the rafting friends we see year after year. The rivers—like all favorite places and family traditions—hold our memories and mark our milestones. They release us from the busy clutches of routine life, the overstimulation, the schedules, the screens, and offer us deep comfort within ourselves and the world.

Our days on the Rio Chama blended one to the next as the river miles slid by. Maisy crawled barefoot in the mud at the edge of the water, rafted Class III Aragon for the first time, and managed not to trash her boot cast after all. We inched past a rattlesnake, its tail going clackety-clack from its safe haven under a rock ledge, and hiked a slot canyon, the youngest among us clamoring up the pour-overs. And Pete, after desperately flinging himself from the raft into the very first rapid and coming up bobbing like a little black mink, learned to sit stoically at Steve's feet while he rowed. He's becoming a river dog now. 

We can boat the same backyard river twice, three times, a dozen or more, and it will never get old. No two trips on the Rio Chama will ever be the same, because the river is always changing, just as we are. This is why we keep going back—why wilderness will always be a constant in our life—to be reminded that nothing stays at it is, the beautiful impermanence of it all, and to be glad for what we have right now.

No, 12 days is not nearly enough.

Three Perfect Family "Lightwater" Raft Trips

Rio Chama, New Mexico
Do-it-yourself with a lottery permit from the BLM, or hook up with Los Rios Riverrunners, which provides luxury walled safari tents for the two-night, three-day Class III trip.

San Juan River, Four Corners
Like the Rio Chama, the 84-mile stretch of San Juan from Bluff to Clay Hills requires a private-boater permit. Class II-III rapids make this a fun, splashy river for families. Break the distance into the Upper or Lower trips, or float the entire length in seven days. O.A.R.S and Wild River Expeditions offer family trips.

Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons, Green River, Utah
There's not a single rapid in 100 river miles between Ruby Ranch, through Canyonlands National Park, to the confluence with the Colorado River, making this the most mellow of family flat-water floats. As on other desert rivers, summer heat can be intense. DIY in rental canoes or rafts (permits required through Canyonlands or contact Tex's Riverways for guided trips. 

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Just Add Water

It's hot. Time to take to the water. But before you hit the beach, the river, or the bar, make sure you're ready for the sun and the sand. These 10 products will help:  

Battenwear Overhang Shorts ($207)

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Battenwear’s 100 percent cotton Overhang shorts look like casual sixties surf trunks, but they’re cut to move: an extra diamond-shaped panel in the inseam allows for deep knee bends. Add a nylon belt and zippered pocket in the front, and you’ve got the only layer you need for that beach-volleyball-bouldering-BBQ triathlon.

Helinox Chair One ($100)

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/helinox-chair-one-waterproof-gear.jpg","size":"large"}%}

Camp chairs are typically uncomfortable or heavy or clunky—or all of the above. Not the Helinox Chair One. With minimal effort, it transforms from a hoagie-size bag into a sturdy mesh lounger. The aluminum poles are strong enough to hold a 320-pounder, while the chair itself weighs only two pounds. Most important, it’s damned comfortable. Taut shock cord makes the bomber seat feel spring loaded, and the backrest has just the right amount of give.

Carlisle Taboo Paddle ($85)

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/carlisle-taboo-paddle-waterproof-gear.jpg","size":"large"}%}

You’ll be hard pressed to find a paddle that’s more versatile than the aluminum Carlisle Taboo. Others may weigh less, but the 13-ounce Taboo’s detachable parts let you reconfigure it from a kayak paddle into a 75- or 82-inch SUP stick. Even better: it won’t break the bank.

La Maquina Longboard ($995)

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These days, many surfboards are mass-produced by machines. But most beach communities still have a few dedicated local shapers—guys like Kyle “Juicebox” Johnson, who has been handcrafting longboards in Santa Cruz, California, for the past four years. His La Maquina longboard has the look and feel of a traditional log, but the way it accelerates after takeoff is decidedly modern. Credit the flat nose and wide front half, which increases the planing area as you move up the board. It trims great down the line and still turns like butter.

Jackson Karma RG Kayak ($1,249)

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The initials in Jackson’s Karma RG kayak stand for “rock gardening”—where paddlers use whitewater skills to play in coastal surf zones. But this boat’s utility goes way beyond dodging submerged boulders and charging sea caves. The flat hull is great for beginners, while deck rigging and a nine-inch rear hatch make it perfect for multi-day river trips.

Alite Meadow Mat ($39)

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Sure, a cotton blanket is a decent picnic ground cover—until it gets wet. That’s why we like the Alite Meadow mat for any outing that involves boats or swim trunks. It’s mostly waterproof, looks and feels nicer than a tarp, and features tie-down loops to keep the wind from blowing lunch into the river.

Watershed Goforth Drybag ($100)

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Watershed makes some of the burliest bags around, so it’s no surprise that the U.S. Navy had it design one for soldiers. The beefed-up Goforth drybag is lined with 420-denier ripstop Cordura and can be strapped to your waist or the rigging of a SUP.

Dafin Fins ($65)

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Using rubbers of varying stiffness, designer Andy Cochran formed these exceptionally powerful and lightweight Dafin fins to be rigid and flexible in exactly the right spots. No surprise they’re the official swim fin of the U.S. Lifesaving Association.

Hydro Flask Growler ($50)

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Sunshine and fresh air create a natural thirst for craft beer. They’re also beer’s worst enemies. Thankfully, we discovered the Hydro Flask growler, made from double-walled, vacuum-sealed stainless steel. We were able to fill the 64-ounce vessel the night before a rafting trip and still enjoy pints of cold, hoppy beer at the end of a hot day.

Surf Grass Mat ($40)

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/surf-grass-mat-waterproof-gear.jpg","size":"large"}%}

Peeling off your wetsuit while standing on asphalt or gravel is one 
of the worst things you can do for its longevity. We’ve been known to strip down inside plastic tubs, but the purpose-made Surf Grass mat offers 
a tidier experience. The inch-thick synthetic turf is also good for getting sand off your feet.

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The Outdoor Exchange: Never Buy Gear Again

If your friends’ lack of kayaks keeps spoiling your dreams of organizing flotillas in nearby lakes, weep no more: last week, a small group of New Jersey men formally quit their jobs to focus on The Outdoor Exchange (OX), a subscription-based gear closet.

The brainchild of outdoor enthusiast and startup veteran Dariusz Jamiolkowski, five-week-old OX gives subscribers access to a catalog of high-end, expensive gear. Basic subscriptions to OX (there are a few options, the cheapest of which is $100) allow users to rent one item per week. You can rent more items at 10 percent of each additional product’s value. OX recently started an Indiegogo campaign to boost its membership, and expects to be “fully operational” by July, after which point basic subscription costs will double. 

So far, most of the rentals come from New Jersey (OX is based in Fairlawn), but subscribers hail from California, Colorado, Florida, and even England. Jamiolkowski estimates the young company rents about 10 items per week, and he hopes to attract more than 1,000 total subscribers by the end of summer, mainly by preaching the company's cause at big events like the Philly Folk music festival and relying on word of mouth. 

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But while OX is still young (currently it only has a couple hundred paying members), it's run by seven business- and tech-savy teammates whose resumes are padded with names like Lockheed Martin and Novo Nordisk. Jamiolkowski officially left his position as Handybook’s vice president of finance in February after being accepted into startup incubator TechLaunch, while marketing lead Adam Hackett quit his day job on June 6.

That team has come up with a unique gear-sharing model. Unlike GearCommons—another peer-to-peer program that depends on its users to supply gear—OX stocked its warehouse full of gear by working directly with manufacturers and distributors. The majority of the 300 products in its inventory were provided by companies like Black Diamond, Hobie, Maverick, and Folbot, a foldable kayak manufacturer. It's a relationship that benefits both parties. 

“The issue (Folbot’s) having is that they have a great product, but it's hard for somebody who hasn't been in a foldable kayak to spend $1,200 on a foldable kayak,” Jamiolkowski said. “So we're putting butts in the seats for these guys. We're gonna get people to try the product and nine out of 10 people are gonna try it and say it was great, but one person is gonna end up purchasing the kayak...And our customers are going to be happy because they get to use a premium product at a low entry-point.”

The company is still working out some kinks, including how to streamline shipping costs. For New Jersey residents, OX will drop off and set up gear at trailheads within 25 miles of its warehouse for $20. But the idea of spending $100 a year on shared gear doesn’t sound as good if you have to pay an additonal $200 in shipping.

This week, OX began testing what its founder calls the Trailblazer Program. For a set $74 per year, subscribers can ship all their rentals for free within the continental United States. Ultimately, the team hopes to open local warehouses where subscriptions are most concentrated to help defray costs. 

You may be wondering, “What happens if the gear gets damaged?” Well, Jamiolkowski and his team have set up a system to incentivize good gear treatment. OX rates both customers and gear internally when products are returned. If a customer gets low enough marks, she can’t rent gear anymore. “In order for this to work, it's gotta work both ways,” says Jamiolkowski. “Have you seen Meet the Fockers? We're building the Circle of Trust.

“We have families to support and mortgages to pay for, but we strongly believe in what we're doing, based on everything we've done so far to build a very successful, not only business, but a community for outdoor enthusiasts,” he says. 

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The $1 Million Gear Shed

These days you can share almost everything, from couches to cars. But outdoor gear? The idea hadn’t really been explored until three entrepreneurs launched GearCommons last August.

Mike Brown and fellow Tufts graduate James Rogers wanted to bring gear to the people. Along with friend Joel Weber, they created GearCommons—a sharing network that helps gear owners find people who want to rent their tents, kayaks, and other equipment that otherwise might spend lots of time in storage.

The basic premise is simple. The GearCommons web portal lets users search for rentable gear by type and location. If you see a product you need, you can review its specs and history, as well as the owner’s. Users first connect and make payments online, but gear transactions and returns have to take place between neighbors, in person. That way, the company claims, users get to meet people with similar interests, building a real-life social network of outdoor enthusiasts. 

Brown realized the potential of a “sharing economy” when he started blogging for Shareable* at the beginning of 2013. A biomedical engineer by trade, Brown’s a zealous outdoorsman with startup aspirations. After using car-sharing company Zipcar’s services in college, he realized that shared technology could curb inefficient spending and material use. It could also make outdoor recreation possible for people who either couldn’t afford, or didn’t have room to store, their own gear.   

“We’re trying to build a community of people who will share gear and reduce their impact on the environment,” Brown says. “We think it’s kind of a waste to be buying equipment you know you’re only going to use once—for, say, a music festival or a one-week hiking trip.”

Musing about a world of shared gear is one thing. Actually creating a social network that connects people and gear nationwide is a whole other animal, requiring immense amounts of research and skill. But outdoor gear is a $120 billion industry, and the trio was determined to tap into it.

The company does have some major hurdles to overcome—chief among them is expanding its user base. A cursory look at the GearCommons website and social accounts shows that the enterprise is still in its early stages.

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GearCommons has about $50,000 worth of gear in Boston, but activity is essentially confined so far to that locale—where Brown and his colleagues are based. Even then, site searches for essential gear show that only a few owners have gotten on board. A handful live in western states like Colorado and California, but no one offers gear yet in New Mexico (to our dismay). GearCommons has declined to say how many people have signed up for its services.

Still, some users say the slow extension westward isn’t indicative of the company’s value. “I think the startup has a really great idea. I know that when they are big enough, they could go nationwide—maybe even worldwide,” says member Neil Suttora, a unicyclist and Northeastern University student. Suttora put a tent, unicycle, and sleeping pad on the site after a mutual friend introduced him to Brown a year ago. But he hasn’t found renters for any of his listings yet. 

Some transactions have gone down, Brown says, although the company won’t say just how many. The other obvious obstacle has to do with liability. No one wants to rent out their personal gear if it’s going to come back damaged—or not come back at all. To address these concerns, Brown and his colleagues allow owners to apply security deposits to their gear up front. Renters pay the security deposit at the start and get their money back when they return equipment (in good condition) to its owners. 

Though other businesses in the sharing economy have run into a mess of regulatory hurdles and lawsuits, Brown says that “there’s really not much in the way legally of an idea like this spreading.” Not yet, anyway. 

{%{"quote":"“We have a vision for what we’re calling the Million-Dollar Gear Closet. By joining GearCommons, you’ll have access to a $1 million in outdoor gear from your peers. We’re not there yet, but I don’t think it will take long to reach that goal.”"}%}

Despite a slow start, some business professionals see potential in GearCommons—or, at least, in the idea behind it. 

Perry Klebahn, a consulting professor in Stanford’s engineering school who helps young entrepreneurs get their startups off the ground, predicts GearCommons can carve out its own niche. “Any sort of manufacturer who’s not taking note of what GearCommons is doing and figuring out how they can be involved with the company, or figuring out how they can be involved with reuse of their own products, is nuts,” he says.

But Klebahn isn’t sure creating a new social platform was the way to go. “I might have started on somebody else’s platform, like eBay, and created a store within eBay to prototype the idea,” he explains. “I’m not convinced why the consumer wants another thing in their life.” Instead of immediately opening GearCommons up to all interested parties, says Klebahn, the team should have developed a stronger base of users in Boston before presenting their product nationally. 

Growing pains aside, other big names are seeing great potential in GearCommons as well. The team, which came in second in this year’s Tufts $100,000 Business Plan Competition, has already been in talks with companies like Patagonia about affiliate programs. GearCommons expects to mine user data to benefit such outfitters and gear developers. 

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/gearcommons-team_fe.jpg","align":"left","size":"medium","caption":"Two founding members of GearCommons, and an athletic banana."}%}

“If you rate a tent highly, we can then suggest that you go buy it. And so that is kind of like a sharing economy–retail hybrid,” Brown says, adding that there might be discounts on items found through GearCommons. “You know, we’re not trying to keep people from buying outdoor gear. We just want them to make more efficient use of it.” 

Over the next few months, Brown thinks that continuing in earnest with social media campaigns and hosting campus and community events is the way to go. However, the team is considering starting a GearCommons community-rep program that would build brand recognition and get word out in person in key locations—in the ethos of the peer-to-peer model. 

This short-term plan doesn’t reflect the team’s long-term vision, however: understanding your potential isn’t the same thing as realizing it. One hurdle will be staying levelheaded. Though many startups explode over a period of months, GearCommons hasn’t so far done that. The company is barely off the ground, and Brown is already thinking big. 

“Over the next several years, we hope to see GearCommons get people outside in every context,” Brown says, mentioning GearCommons-sponsored travel packages, sport lessons, and the like. “We just happen to be starting with access to gear.” 

“We have a vision for what we’re calling the Million-Dollar Gear Closet,” he explains. “By joining GearCommons, you’ll have access to a $1 million in outdoor gear from your peers. We’re not there yet—but, once the word gets out, I don’t think it will take long to reach that goal.”

*Outside previously reported that Brown wrote for Social Solutions Collective, not Shareable, though the link has always been to Brown's Shareable pieces. 

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