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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. Now 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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Discover the Outdoors in America's Most Secret Town

Earlier this week, the tiny town of Los Alamos, New Mexico, won Liveability’s “Best Small Town” contest for its diversity, education, population growth, health, and civic engagement. Although we agree that the Atomic City scores well in these areas, it’s the area’s outdoor scene that really blows us away (no pun intended). In fact, Los Alamos scored a whopping 84 on Outside’s Best Towns index (see below for judging criteria), on par, per capita, with places such as Missoula and Anchorage.

Here’s what you need to know about America’s most secret town.

Thirty-five miles northwest of Santa Fe, Los Alamos straddles a series of canyons that feed into the Rio Grande Valley below. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains loom on the eastern horizon, and the rugged Jemez range towers immediately to the west. This landscape is particularly gorgeous at the beginning or end of the day, when the sun is rising or setting above one range and reflecting off the other.

It was on this high desert plateau that the atomic bomb was developed during World War II. The crowning achievement of Robert Oppenheimer, the bomb solidified the town’s place in history, and—as the Manhattan Project morphed into the famous Los Alamos National Laboratory—ensured that Los Alamos would remain shrouded in mystery. Today, it remains a town of secret nuclear experiments and over-the-top security, where plutonium is (falsely) rumored to seep into the drinking water and the local science museum boasts full-scale replicas of Fat Man and Little Boy.

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Eleven thousand of the world’s best scientists living together in the mountains makes for a very intelligent and diverse (not to mention socially awkward) community. But this culture and brilliance are exactly what set Los Alamos apart from anywhere else in New Mexico—and the world. Well, that and the fact that its location offers unparalleled opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts. You don’t have to be a scientist to appreciate the 37 percent grade of Pajarito Mountain or the volcanic-rock singletrack that is oh-so-good for mountain biking. 

Here are six Atomic City events to check out:

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Jemez Mountain Trail Runs

Held every Memorial Day weekend, the Jemez races—a half marathon, 50K, and 50-miler, now in their ninth year—are considered among the toughest in the country. Technical trails, substantial elevation changes, steep climbs, torturous descents, scree fields, stream crossings, and more—all at altitude—make for a tough but scenic race. Anton Krupicka, who won the 2014 50-miler, called the stretch between miles 45 and 50 “spectacular. A carpety trail traversed along the gently descending ridge for miles and miles at a grade perfectly suited for running downhill fast. Seriously, it is one of the more quality descents I’ve experienced in the sport.”

Runners can enjoy well-stocked aid stations along the way but should carry their own water—the only cups in this race are handmade pots from nearby Jemez Pueblo that runners can claim at the end. “The finish was a perfect example of the intimate, community feel to this event, which was a big reason I wanted to run it,” Krupicka wrote. “Selfless volunteers, tables and tables of very good Southwestern food, and general mirth defined the atmosphere.”

Out of town on Memorial Day? Save the date for Pajarito Trail Fest, held on the ski hill in October. Run 15 mile or 10K under golden aspen and, more often than not, snow.

Refuel: The deli at the Los Alamos Cooperative Market is full of fresh, local, organic options that range from breakfast burritos to green chile enchiladas. Be sure to check out the baked goods, which include tasty treats for vegan and gluten-free customers.

Co-op baked goods and coffee are also available at Fusion Multisport, the only bike and running shop in town.

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EnduroFest

If going downhill fast is your idea of a good time, the inaugural three-day Los Alamos Rock 'n Roll EnduroFest in early August is not to be missed. Start at the top of 10,440-foot Pajarito Mountain and zip down 7.5 miles and 3,900 vertical feet of free-ride and XC trails until you hit smooth singletrack. Then, catch the shuttle and do it all again, or just hang out on the ski hill and enjoy live music and local beer from Marble, Santa Fe Brewing, and La Cumbre Brewery.

Sponsored in part by the Los Alamos Tuffriders (the local IMBA chapter), the weekend also features clinics, guided rides, barbecue, and a kids’ race.

Road bikes more your thing? Don’t miss the Tour of Los Alamos, the oldest bicycle race in the Southwest. 

Refuel: On the ski hill, order a burger from the Pajarito Mountain Cafe and sit on the lodge deck to watch cyclists scream down the slopes. Back in town, stop by Pajarito Brewpub and Grill for a bison burger and one (or more) of the 30 beers on tap.

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Los Alamos Triathlon

Like a lot of things in the Secret City, the mid-August Los Alamos Triathon is just a little off: It starts with the bike. But no one seems to mind—now in its 40th year, the race is the oldest continuously run triathlon in the country. Riders start at 7,400 feet at the Walkup Aquatic Center and charge hard to “the back gate,” as locals call the end of lab property on the west side of town. Once back in the transition area, the swim is 400 meters in the highest-altitude Olympic-sized pool in the country, and the run is a mostly flat out-and-back 5K with stunning views of the Jemez on the out.  

Sound too watered down for you? Opt instead for the Atomic Man Duathlon, hosted by local multisport club the Triatomics, with two course options named Fat Man and Little Boy. (To geek out even more on World War II history, afterward visit the Bradbury Science Museum, which offers more than 40 interactive exhibits about the Manhattan Project and the lab’s role in national security.)

Refuel: Ruby K’s Bagel Cafe is just a half-mile walk from the race finish and offers plenty of homemade bagels, soups, and salads. Get the full Los Alamos experience: Order the “Up & Atom,” eggs and sausage topped with salsa and melted cheddar on a green chile bagel.

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If shredding powder instead of singletrack is more your style, keep Pajarito in mind during ski season. The snow has not been great lately, but on a good year the mountain has about 300 acres of skiable terrain, including tree, bump, and Nordic skiing. At the top of the mountain, take a rest in the giant blue chair. You’ll have a clear view of the Sangres to the east and the lab below—but that doesn’t mean you'll know what’s going on down there.

Los Alamos by the Numbers

(judging criteria for Outside’s Best Towns index)

  • Population: 18,191
  • Income: $124,335
  • House price: $296,597
  • Unemployment: 3.9%
  • Acres of greenspace within city limits: 84
  • Number of farmer’s markets and how many hours each are open: 1; 5.5 hours/week
  • Miles of trails in the city limits (paved an unpaved): 63
  • Number of breweries, yoga studios, and bike shops: 11
  • Miles of bike lanes within the city: 12.3

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Go Pet Your Jealous Dog

Next time your dog gets rowdy when you start cuddling your friend's puppy, you'll know what's up. A research team from the University of California, San Diego discovered that Fang might experience jealousy, though not quite like you and I do.

UC San Diego psychologist Christine Harris has been studying human jealousy for years. She became curious about the possibility of jealousy in dogs when she noticed her two border collies fought for her attention when she gave it to just one. Researchers are split on whether dogs are capable of experiencing true emotions, because they aren't capable of higher-level thinking, so Harris went about evaluating canine jealousy similarly to how the emotion is tested in another less-cerebral group: human babies. 

Harris and her team collected dogs and their owners and had them engage in two activities. First, dog owners were asked to pet and talk to realistic stuffed dogs that made noises while their own dogs looked on. According to the New York Times, this behavior got a rise out of the real dogs, which barked and pushed the stuffed dogs out of the way. 

However, the second activity didn't elicit as much of a reaction. After playing with fake dogs, dog owners read books to and petted jack-o'-lanterns to see if dogs became envious of any and all attention. Turns out they don't. In her recent paper published in PLOS ONE, Harris concluded that "jealousy has some 'primordial' form that exists in human infants and in at least one other social species besides humans."

What occured might look a lot like jealousy, but there's a reason Harris hedges in her conclusion. The test confirms that a lack of attention in the presence of some elicits a reaction, but it doesn't prove genuine jealousy. What it does show is that if attention is being given out, your dog wants it—especially if a rival is on the receiving end.

Tests like this, researchers told the Times, could support the idea that emotions such as jealousy are innate across species—and could inform whether we should seek to eliminate it or learn to manage it better.

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Selfies Make You Stronger

Living in the age of #fitness junkies, activity trackers, and sports bra selfies was bound to lead to this: a new fitness app called PumpUp.

PumpUp allows users to not only post their workouts and meals for others to see, but also share progress photos to keep themselves inspired and on track. "Consumers today are looking for inspiration and guidance regarding their physical activity and eating habits without being overwhelmed by a plethora of applications," said Niko Bonatso, a principal at General Catalyst Partners, according to the Boston Business Journal

The new application also includes classic fitness app features that build custom exercise plans, give coaching feedback, and track activity such as calories burned (a la FitBit or Jawbone). But with 1.7 million users already getting pumped up about the app, the ability to build a social media community to share fitness photos and healthy recipes with other users seems to be the one-up PumpUp has over wearable tech or Strava.

The app's creators claim that fitness-selfie-sharing users are five times more likely to stay on track with fitness goals. More than 90 percent of current users are female, but co-founder Garrett Gottlieb said that the new app is just scratching the surface of the fitness community. "With PumpUp, we're leveraging mobile technology to connect like-minded individuals across the planet who would have never met otherwise,” he said in a company statement.

But the science behind it says that at the end of the day, we all just want someone to notice how hot we are.

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Famous Hermaphrodite Albino Tree Is Saved

Chalk one up for albino trees. Back in March, we reported on an albino redwood growing perilously close to a railroad right-of-way that looked like it was destined for the chipper. Now, after a prolonged battle to save this ultra-rare specimen of the Sequoioideae species, residents of Cotati, California, can rest easy. The tree will be dug up and replanted at a nearby location, thus spared the ignominious fate of being turned into mulch.

"This is a huge victory for the tree," says local arborist Tom Stapleton in the SFGate. "I'm happy to see that SMART [Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit] has decided to save this truly unique redwood."

In this case, "truly unique" is certainly an apt description. This redwood has two kinds of DNA, albino and regular, a rare genetic constitution that qualifies it as a chimera. Stapleton says that, worldwide, there are only about 10 known samples of this type of tree, which has the unique ability to produce both male and female cones.

A local resident planted the tree 60 years ago. Now 52 feet tall, it has become a cherished neighborhood treasure.

"We heard from the public that this coast redwood was important to the community in Cotati," said Judy Arnold, chairperson of the SMART board of directors. "We felt it was worth the effort to see if there was a way to relocate the tree instead of cutting it down."

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