The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Adventure

The New Travel Amenity: Clean, Local, Plastic-Free Water

If the pages of your passport bear stamps from countries the world over, you certainly have a trove of great travel tales. You also most likely have a few nightmarish stories about abdominal distress, courtesy of the local water.

Still, relying on bottled water, shipped in over thousands of miles and packaged in plastic bottles for which you're unlikely to find recycling bins, also leaves a bad taste in your mouth. A less bad taste, but bad nonetheless. Of course, this is merely part of a much larger problem, and one that makes your latest case of Montezuma's Revenge seem rather inconsequential. According to the United Nations, 783 million people worldwide do not have access to clean water and 2.5 billion lack access to adequate sanitation infrastructure.

On Friday, which marks the United Nations' annual World Water Day, a start-up called Whole World Water is launching a program that it says can raise $1 billion annually to improve clean water infrastructure around the world. Its approach: partnering with resorts to create on-site bottling systems that provide an alternative to imported bottled water for its guests, while also sharing proceeds of water sales with projects to improve access outside the resort's boundaries.

The duo behind Whole World Water, entrepreneurially-minded environmentalists Karena Albers and Jenifer Willig, have the support of some marquee figures from the worlds of environmental activism, design, and tourism. Entrepreneur and travel industry magnate Richard Branson is a prominent supporter, and will be bottling and selling Whole World Water at Virgin Hotels. The glass bottle in which the water is packaged (and which resorts will recollect, clean, and reuse continuously) is the work of renowned industrial designer Yves Behar. Actor Edward Norton and environmentalist David de Rothschild are also serving as advisors.

I asked Albers and Willig if tap water at its participating resorts really needs extra filtering, or if they just think guests are more likely to drink water that they buy. It depends largely on the location of the resort, they said. At urban hotels in the developed world, no, guests are more likely to drink tap water. However, in many parts of the world "the municipal water isn't all that safe," says Albers. "And our hotel members are everywhere in the world."

In many places, "people are buying bottled water more than they are asking for tap water," says Willig. "So ours is a simple idea: the bottles are reusable and made of recycled glass. By filtering water onsite we're eliminating plastic and food miles" associated with shipping bottled water into the resorts.

The resorts stand to profit from the scheme, too—boosting their bottled water sales by as much as 22 percent, thanks to the lower cost of filtering versus importing water and avoiding disposal costs from empty plastic bottles.

With so many travelers now aware of the impact that plastic pollution has on marine life, and with so many resorts located in coastal areas, Albers and Willig believe guests are ready and eager to make the transition away from plastic, but they still want to know the water is safe to drink.

"We all have to ask ourselves: when did we get bamboozled into drinking bottled water to begin with?" Albers asks. "But we did. It became the thing to do, especially at high-end resorts, where you are getting bottled water and it is generally coming from a million miles away."

The resorts that join Whole World Water and begin filtering, bottling, and selling local water are not bound to sell this water exclusively—they can still choose to offer single-use plastic branded water. "We said, let's offer a brand that satisfied the request [for bottled water] and this way we can wean them off branded bottled water. This is a palatable first step. It's not someone making a mandate," says Albers.

But the hope is that as new resorts join the effort and especially open new locations, they will stop importing water in single-use plastic before they start, and instead they'll start filtering local water as a first step.

"Some of the new adventure-focused locations are absolutely embracing this," she says. "A lot of our initial members are camps in Africa. They're taking this on as how they want to start. Africa has water resources, but has low access to clean because of bad management. If these new resorts never even sold bottled water, they have nothing to re-educate their guests about."

Whole World Water is partnering with ClimateCare, which works with corporations and NGOs to build sustainable water and energy systems, to develop clean water infrastructure in the regions where member resorts operate. The resorts donate 10 percent of proceeds from the sales of the bottled water—though member resort Soneva, which has properties in the Maldives and Thailand, donates 50 percent of its local filter water sales proceeds to clean water projects.

In the long run, Albers and Willig would like to expand the Whole World Water model and apply it to other aspects of resort operations. Local food, anyone? They see the travel and tourism industry, which the World Travel & Tourism Council says generates around $6 trillion yearly, as a powerful catalyst.

As Richard Branson says about Whole World Water: Hospitality and tourism is a "a multi-trillion dollar industry. We have the means to help, now we just need the will."

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Danielle Katz and John Dye Are Paddling With a Purpose

In 2009, Danielle Katz paddled the length of the Mississippi River as part of a fundraising effort aimed at improving clean water access in Rwanda.

"I came into that trip with these grandiose ideas about how we can work with communities," she says. "But there is a big disconnect, between communities in Minnesota and Mississippi, that this is the same river, or that what is happening with the pig farmers in Ohio is effecting the dead zone in the Gulf. It was incredible to travel this river from source for sea, step back and look at the big picture. [Conservation] organizations are doing amazing work in small units, but they're sort of losing sight of what is happening upstream and downstream."

With that in mind, Katz began mulling other source-to-sea river trips. Over the course of 2012, Katz and a handful of other boaters attempted to ply 12 vital California rivers from their headwaters to the Pacific Ocean. They were largely successful, completing nine of the trips while three rivers could not be paddled end-to-end due to issues such as restricted access and low water.

The expedition was planned by Rivers for Change, a non-profit that Katz and fellow boater John Dye founded in order to magnify their efforts to tie recreational boating with environmental education.

"It was a test case for us," says Dye of the expedition. "We learned what we could and could not do." Among the hurdles, he says, was fundraising. But Rivers for Change has been successful in making linkages between conservationists, scientists, and recreationalists.

Specifically, the paddlers were able to collect algae samples during the 12 Rivers in 2012 expedition. The samples were then sent to a freshwater ecologist who studies flow, temperature, and water quality in California rivers. The ecologist, linked to Katz and Dye through the citizen science group Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, then analyzed the samples as part of his research into climate change and pollutants dissolved in the water column.

Katz and Dye have also lent their boating know-how to California's Native Plants Society, which they helped discover six previously unknown plant species in the San Francisco delta.

Boaters can choose from a range of ultra distance paddle-sport races in the United States, ranging from the Colorado River 100 in Texas to the 444-mile Yukon River. But none of the organizers of those races are taking the very obvious opportunity to use the events as a call to action to help preserve and protect the watersheds in which they are held.

Rivers for Change is trying to change that with the California 100, a century paddle race from Redding to Chico along the Sacramento River. Katz and Dye are working to make the inaugural event, on May 25, an opportunity to get paddlers involved in conservation work.

"After we paddled the Sacramento as part of 12 Rivers in 2012, it dawned on Danielle and I that we could do a race on the river, so we started working with the California Paddle Sports Council" to pull it together, says Dye.

The race event will include a beach clean-up in Chico at a party spot for college kids known as Beer Can Beach. The group is hoping it can turn paddlers into advocates for healthy, free-flowing rivers by showing them not just the impacts of pollution but the larger issues, especially around the Sacramento river delta, of agriculture, irrigation, fisheries, and hydropower.

The controversial Bay Delta Conservation Plan to move water from the delta into the Central Valley through twin 35-mile tunnels is among the topics Katz and Dye are advancing among racers, as is a proposal to raise the Shasta Dam, which would flood upper parts of the Sacramento and McCloud rivers.

Next year, Rivers for Change will expand its focus on the Sacramento River, and the larger issues of agricultural and urban demands on water throughout California, with another source-to-sea paddle. It will actually begin with a climb up Mount Shasta and will end at Golden Gate Bridge, a journey of around 300 miles.

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John Huston on Polar Expeditions and Polar Bears

John Huston is a pretty common name for a pretty uncommon man. The Huston that I talked to has just left for the Canadian Arctic. He is on a three-month expedition on the remote Ellesmere Island, where he will see more polar bears than people. Huston spoke with us about what it takes to make it in one of the wildest places on the planet.

Why do you go on polar expeditions?
It’s not easy to be concise about this. I like expeditions because they challenge me in ways I like—to solve problems, work with people around the globe. I like the long-term challenges you face and that you have to commit to it. I love the simple life. It goes beyond beauty and thrill, which fade. I love forced creativity. You develop a special camaraderie that takes work and time to create. You never know exactly what is going to happen until you get on the ice, and I love that.

How do you train for a three-month journey?
Our loads are going to be about 150 pounds. It’s really important to do a lot of core-strengthening multi-joint exercises to avoid injury. My body is not as forgiving as it was in the past, but I have changed my training to accommodate that. I lose my pectoral muscles quickly as my body starts to burn calories more quickly in the cold.

The other part of my training is for endurance. I walk around on the grass and snow on the shore of Lake Michigan and pull tires. This basically simulates the motions of pulling my sled. It’s super-boring, but it also preps me psychologically. You can go crazy out there pulling for hours, but with training you just let your mind go.

That ties into the last part of my training, the mental side. I have to think of problems that we may encounter and how we can solve them. If you’re not training, I doubt your commitment.

What do you eat while you train?
I eat a mostly vegetarian diet, but I put butter on everything. I need to gain as much weight as possible in order to not starve out there. I will make milkshakes with peanut butter and fudge, but it can be a lot of stress just to eat enough.

Why do you travel to the Arctic in general?
I’m a cold-weather specialist and I love the brisk weather. The Arctic is incomparable to anywhere else, but it’s kind of like a desert. I want to see the changes occurring because of climate change before this beautiful biome disappears.

The starkness of the Arctic has isolated humans for centuries. I get to visit places that have been untouched by man. It can be very abstract to most people who don’t go there.

How did you get excited about this? What is your inspiration?
I was inspired by the experience of polar explorers, not the glory. I read Shackleton as a kid and the most interesting thing was the journals full of positive experiences and success even though many were sailors with no expedition experience.

That’s expedition life. The home logistics are gone. You can dial in and focus because time moves at a different pace. We live in a fast-paced society. Although I’m not trying to find it, I find the whole experience meditative.

Ellesmere Island is like a mythical jewel of Arctic wilderness. There are huge glaciers and deep mountain valleys with icy fjords.

We want to celebrate the last major expedition there by Otto Svedrup. He is an unsung hero and I want to bring his story to life. We are going to create a documentary about how an expedition works, to advocate for climate change education and to celebrate him.

What are you most excited about for this trip?
Ellesmere is extraordinarily remote. There’s very minimal human presence. You can travel for two months and never see people. The wildlife is also less afraid of humans; they’re much more curious because they’ve never been hunted before.

I want to get to know the land and the ice. The world up there is constantly shifting in a dance with the Arctic Ocean. It gives you a sense of your humanity.

What are you most nervous about?
I’m nervous about two things: our mode of travel and our route. No one has ever kite-skied on Ellesmere Island before and there are a lot of propulsion variables. There aren’t specific destinations we want to reach. I’m also nervous about route stress. This isn’t like going to the North Pole where I had a set goal.

Ellesmere also has the densest polar bear population in the world. I don’t have any experience with bears yet, and you can get comfortable and then next thing you hear a bear. That’s why we are bringing the dogs; they are the best bear-alert system possible. They will run free while we are ski-sailing and then hunker down with us at camp.

What’s the hardest aspect of an expedition for you?
Food stress always gets me. I spend all my time daydreaming about food on the ice. I'm going to miss avocados so much.

What’s your favorite moment when you’re out in the wilderness?
It happens at the end of a long ski day. The sun doesn’t go down all the way, but the light is constantly shifting on the ice. It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. You get your camp set up and the exhaustion and the emptiness just get to you. You sit and watch the sun float on the horizon for hours.

To follow along with Huston's journey, check out his website, Facebook, and Twitter.

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5 Tips for Hut Tripping With Kids

After I posted my recent story about skiing into Spruce Hole, I realized it may have had the opposite effect of what I intended. Sure, the two-mile ski in was challenging, but it no way overshadowed the sheer bliss of escaping into the backcountry for two days. A little hardship always makes for a more interesting adventure, and we'd do it again in a second. That said, hut tripping with kids—winter or summer—never has to feel like a sufferfest if you follow a few common sense guidelines.

One or two miles may sound kind of wimpy before you go, but when you're lugging 60 pounds of kids or gear, even short approaches can feel burly. Generally speaking, less than three miles and relatively flat are best for hut trips with young ones who can't ski in on their own. You'll feel remote but will still be within easy range of your car if you need to pull the plug.

That said, our philosophy in the backcountry is to try to stick it out through tantrums or sleepless nights. The first 24 hours are usually the most challenging and by day two, everybody's in a groove. If you do leave early, you'll likely miss the best part. In New Mexico, the Enchanted Forest Cross Country Ski Area's yurt, and the Tenth Mountain Division's Point Breeze and Continental Divide Cabins, Spruce Hole, and St. Paul Ski Hut in Colorado, are all within a mile of the main road with minimal elevation gain.

Is the hut or yurt in avalanche terrain? Does the route to the hut cross avalanche terrain? How is the hut heated? Don't be afraid to come off as a nervous parent. Assessing safety and managing risks is your number one job when bringing kids into the backcountry. You'll feel better if you know what you're getting into. Of course, there will always be unknowns, but you can minimize risks if you do your homework, know your backup plans, and stay informed.

When kids are involved, it's easy to fall into magical thinking and space on the most important truth of the whole trip: You will be hauling in every ounce you bring—both directions—and the weight of your load can set the tone for the whole trip. Be sure you need it, want it, absolutely must have it before you cram it in. For personal gear, you'll need at least two sets of synthetic long underwear layers per person: one to wear while the other is drying in front of the wood stove.

Double up on mittens and hats, too.

Those get soggy fast while sledding and building snow caves. Don't bother bringing PJs or apres-ski clothes—you'll be living in your long underwear. Slippers are a nice touch while your ski boots dry, but check before you go: Spruce Hole has a stash, so we could have left ours at home. If the hut provides a packing checklist, use it. We got halfway through Spruce Hole's list before we got distracted, and never finished. At the trailhead, Steve spent 10 minutes rooting around the truck for a lighter or a book of matches, but came up empty. Fortunately, we found about a hundred boxes waiting for us at the yurt when we got there.

You don't have to go quite so extreme as dehydrated meals, but you're better off taking a cue from backpackers, not river runners. Example: Leave the jar of peanut butter at home and opt for Ramen noodles instead. We brought a box of mac and cheese for the girls (light) but carelessly crammed in tupperware of leftover Thai noodles for us (bulky and big).

It's nice to end the day with a beer or glass of wine, but if you're the one schlepping it in, you might opt for a little flask of something instead. At the very least, bring beer in cans—you can crush them for the ski out. When it comes to keeping kids happy, packets of hot chocolate are worth their weight in gold, as are a few bags of M&Ms. Bribery goes a long way in the backcountry.

Don't wait until you get to the trailhead to set up your kids' ski trailer or gear-carriers for the first time. I recently heard of a family that tried to rig theirs at the start of an overnight, only to discover that a key part of the kit was sold separately, and they hadn't bought it. Game over. Take the trailers out for a trial run with the kids so they get a feel for what they'll be riding in for a few hours. If they're big enough to trek in under their own steam—lucky you—make sure you get them out on XC skis or snowshoes a few times before you go.

Even if it's a short distance and you're familiar with the route, negotiating trails in a storm while fully loaded down is a stressful—and potentially dangerous—way to start the trip. We were supposed to ski in on a Sunday, but when we checked, a blizzard with whiteout conditions and negative windchill were forecast for the region all day.

Fortunately, our schedule was flexible, so we pushed the trip back by a day. And though we second-guessed our decision when we woke up on Sunday to blue skies, once we started skiing on Monday, I knew we'd made the right decision. It was arduous enough to pull all that weight without having to contend with frigid temperatures and low visibility, especially because our two-year-old, when left to her own devices, likes to take off her mittens and jacket. Not a good scene on super cold days. When checking forecasts, make sure you're looking at the closest location at a similar altitude. A nearby town at lower elevations may have radically different weather than the mountain hut.

Finally, accept the fact it's natural to feel anxious about traveling in the backcountry with kids, especially in winter. Don't beat yourself up for worrying, or take worry as a sign you shouldn't go. It comes with the territory. Do your homework, get your system dialed, and then you can relax knowing you're well prepared. I might spend a week freaking out privately before the trip, but once we're out there, the stress usually fades away, and I can be fully present with my family, playing outside. And that, of course, is the best reason to go.

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Plaid and Canvas: Audubon's Birds of America

Right now, somewhere in New York City, some corner of Texas, the mountains of North Carolina, or in a house in Portland, Oregon, the story of contemporary America is being written about, filmed, or painted. The art of today will be the historical documents of tomorrow, telling future generations what the here and now was like.

When you read Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, you get so much more than a story about a fanatical captain chasing a whale; you get the story of our country less than a century after its founding. You get a sense of America’s growing pains and confusion in the years leading up to a war that would divide the country in half. Norman Rockwell painted scenes of an everyday America during the World Wars, while playwrights like Arthur Miller and essayists like Joan Didion helped tell the story of the post-war American Dream gone wrong. You can get to know the people of America from its inception all the way to today through art; you might not understand the entire country, but our paintings, books, films, and songs help to give us an idea of what life was like throughout our young nation’s lifetime.

Yet, no artist, living or dead, has done more to showcase the natural beauty of America quite like John James Audubon did.

AUDUBON WAS, AND STILL is, the greatest documentarian of American wildlife. And now, 162 years after his passing in 1851, we are living in a sort of re-golden age of the man’s work, thanks to a three-part exhibition of Audubon’s watercolors of the birds of America being shown at the New York Historical Society. Beautifully presented in book form, these selected pieces are some of most beautiful collections of the American icon’s work in Audubon’s Aviary (Rizzoli). Simply put: these are good days for those who already know and cherish Audubon’s work, and a perfect time for those unfamiliar to find out.

The first part of the exhibition at the New York Historical Society (running now until May 19), will feature all 474 watercolors related to The Birds of America, Audubon’s series published between 1827 and 1838. Visitors will be able to get up close to view every detail in his famous rendering of the Snowy Owl, or his 1821 painting of two red-tailed hawks fighting over a still-alive, and very frightened (as evidenced by the fact that it is defecating itself) rabbit, clutched inside the talon of one of the birds of prey. Long before television programs on the National Geographic channel showed us the violent beauty that is nature, John James Audubon was painting it, and giving future generations of Americans a chance to see American birds that have since become extinct.

For those who can’t make the pilgrimage, there’s still the massive book, which is well worth the $85 price tag. Hundreds of pages of Audubon’s watercolors and the stories behind them make this one of the finest collections of his works. Audubon’s Aviary serves as a historical document comparable to any great work of literature, painting, film, music, or any other kind of American-made art. Beautiful and unparalleled in creating and preserving what we know about natural America, the work of John James Audubon will always be in style. 

Jason Diamond lives in New York. He has a wife, a dog, two cats, and a Twitter account that can be found at @ImJasonDiamond.

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