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Dispatches : Adventure

Learning A New Language Comes Easy to Kids Living Abroad

"Like my cat?" our three-year-old, Molly, asked the pre-school kids around her, holding up her drawing (a cryptic jumble of lines).

They looked at her blankly.

"Do you like my cat?" she repeated, louder.

Still the blank looks.

"DO YOU LIKE MY CAT?" she yelled.

They started to look dismayed, puzzled.

You always hear kids are sponges for language, but at three Molly just didn't get the concept—that there are more than one—and that getting louder and louder in English when everyone around you speaks Spanish, won't get you anywhere. You have to match the key to the door or you can't get in, at least not all the way. But gradually, unconsciously, it dawned on her, and she gained an understanding of language she'd have for life.

We'd enrolled Molly in Arco Iris, a preschool down the street from our rented rooftop apartment in the the ancient-Phoenician, walled town of Cadiz in Andalusia in southern Spain. I was on sabbatical from the Drama/Dance Department at the University of Montana, and our second child,  Skyler, was just five weeks old. We'd chosen Cadiz for its historic charm—its valentine-heart-colored houses, eighteenth-century stone cathedral, overflowing fish and flower markets set on a blustery spit jutting into the Atlantic—and because it wasn't too expensive and had no major diseases.

At noon each day, my husband, Peter, would pick Molly up from school and they'd cross the street to a neighborhood bar for lunch. Molly would order her favorite, tomato stew with snails, and Peter would knock back a shot of sherry—a popular local pick-me-up from Jerez, just across the bay.

In the meantime, I carted tiny Skyler, tucked into a sling, down the cobblestone street to the community center, where I'd rented a second-floor studio to choreograph. On the way, I'd stop at the flower market. I'd rest for a moment at an outdoor table amid buckets of gladiolas and roses and shore myself up with a demitasse of dense coffee. Inevitably, stern old women would tell me my baby was going to have a deformed back if I kept carrying him around in that hammock-sling thing, and to take my germ-infested pinky finger out of his mouth.

"Use a pacifier if he cries," they'd say in Spanish I barely understood, but their disapproval was unmistakable.

I had squeezed in only a couple months of Spanish tutoring before we left, thinking I was pretty good at languages and that I'd pick up more when we arrived. I was wrong. It's one thing to be traveling, figuring out how to order food and get on a bus. It's another to be living somewhere, with two highly dependent children and need to communicate complicated things with their doctors, their teachers, or the parents of their friends.

I had figured surely a few people would speak English; this was Europe after all. They didn't. When we arrived, I had just enough language to irritate the cashiers at the grocery and initiate a conversation I had no hope of understanding, though I'd desperately nod and smile as though I did.

The solo I ended up choreographing was called "First Position." There are five positions for the feet in ballet, and in those days I felt as if I couldn't even make it to first. In the mornings, I struggled to persuade Molly to get dressed. The twos had been fine, but the threes, the terrible threes. Was it so hard because of the advent of a baby brother, or because of living abroad? Was she venting her frustration at being unable to communicate at home, where she could, rather than at school where she couldn't?

I finally gave up and let her choose her own clothes, clashing reds and purples, and let her do her own hair. Who says there's anything wrong with five sprouting pigtails? The Spanish, that's who. The perfectly coiffed children with their perfectly coiffed mothers—in their neat but somehow so sexy business suits, with their matching, mother-daughter tucked ponytails clipped with starched bows—looked at us appraisingly, or so I imagined, as I raced up to the school door each morning, dragging my crazily pigtailed child and carrying my about-to-be-deformed baby. Here we are, the Americans, a disheveled heap.

Those months in Andalusia went by in a sleep-deprived blur. But it was worth it. While I, at age 40, continued to struggle to read the labels at the grocery, Molly zoomed past us in Spanish. Those months of playing color tag in the plazas and telephone at school taught her to spit out perfect Andalusian th's and order lollipops at the ubiquitous candy shops using mysterious local slang.

In that astonishing way that kids can subconsciously absorb and sort out language, Molly would now have, for life, an ear for accents and the confidence that she could always communicate, first with that "you, me—let's play" sign language and then gradually, magically, in a whole new verbal vocabulary. She'd found the key and unlocked the door just by osmosis; slipping in and bypassing all those torturous years of masculine/feminine nouns, single and plural agreements, past participles, conditionals, pluperfects, and subjunctives.

Last year, after graduating from high school, she decided to take a gap year to travel, by herself at 18 this time. Between working on an organic farm in Portugal and volunteering in a village school in Nepal, she decided to pay a visit to Cadiz.

"Mom and Dad, you won't believe who I found!" she emailed us, her excitement palpable in the exclamation points. There was a photo attached. It was of herself and Ana, her preschool teacher at Arco Iris, standing next to a photo of Molly's three-year-old self still hanging on the wall.

"We just cried and hugged and cried," she reported. They were using that other language; the one that transcends words.

Meanwhile, Skyler became a great travel baby, happily carted onto buses to visit picturesque Spanish hill towns, onto boats to cross the Strait of Gibraltar, into oven-hot cars to trek into the dunes of the Sahara, and onto the string of planes to return home five months later. Who knows what his brain made of the wash of languages, but I think it can only have made his mind more supple. His turn to slip into a new language would come when he would be dropped into a local school in Brazil and, in the same miraculous way, pop out the other side, Portuguese verb conjugations and all.

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10 Hotels in the West for Big Dogs

Big dogs need space. Space to run, eat, and sleep, of course, but also space to drool, shed, and poop. Because canines are not always the most hygenic house guests, they're often not allowed in hotels, which can make traveling tough—for owners and pets alike. But thankfully, some lodges are making exceptions, by not only allowing furry visitors, but also by offering amenities such as dog beds, food bowls, and special treats. 

These ten hotels not only welcome labs, St. Bernards, and dogs of all sizes with open arms, they're also perched in places that are primed for adventure. From Moab's red arches to boundless miles of Washington coastline, here are our favorite places to bring our four-legged pals—to let them (and us) unleash.

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Why The Polar Vortex is Good for Wolves

The Park Service website for Michigan's Isle Royale National Park describes it as "a rugged, isolated island where wolves... abound." Rugged and isolated, yes. Wolves abounding? Not quite. Only 8 wolves live on the 133,000-acre island today, down from 24 in 2009, according to Lake Superior Magazine's Phil Bencomo. The pack's isolation, and resulting lack of genetic diversity, is causing its decline. 

But the deep freezes accompanying this winter have have brought more to the upper Great Lakes that ice caves, it has formed ice bridges between the island and the nearest mainland, around 20 miles away. This is a rare event, not seen since 2008. That time, no new wolves came to the island—in fact, two collared wolves are believed to have to used the bridge leave it. Prior to 2008, the water had remained open since 1997, when an alpha male came to the island via the frozen lake. All the island's wolves alive today descend from that animal.

Rolf Peterson, a Michigan Technological University researcher who has studied Isle Royale’s wolves and moose for more than 40 years, told Bencomo that he predicts that, by 2040, Lake Superior simply won't have significant ice cover in the winter.

This might be one of the wolf pack's last chances to stem its decline—and if temperatures continue to rise as they have this week, the window is quickly closing.

Meanwhile, a major debate is brewing around whether biologists should intercede by introducing new wolves and deepening the genetic pool. Nearly the entire island is Wilderness with a capital W, and thereby protected by the Wilderness Act, so the short answer is "that's not legal."

But here’s the thing: the reason the wolves are suffering is tied directly to the fact that cold winters are exceedingly rare. So, the only way to effectively and sustainably help the island's wolves is to, basically, reverse climate change. This makes the whole argument over the legal implications of the Wilderness Act rather inconsequential.

Writes Bencomo: "Rolf [Peterson] contends that humans have already significantly impacted Isle Royale through climate change and other influences, so wilderness preservation today requires active human assistance, not merely drawing up park boundaries and stepping away. 'The 20th century notion of ‘wilderness’ is not immutable.' He argues that intervention is essential to fulfilling the NPS mission of conservation."

I expect that we are going to see more and more instances where land managers are stuck between preserving ecosystems (by leaving them alone) and trying to somehow preserve them by helping them adapt to a changing climate.

As Isle Royale's superintendent Phyllis Green said: “When you get these really large effects that are more indirect, I mean, climate change is so huge, it’s not like a situation where people went in and trapped out a species. You have this very insidious effect that’s going to happen over time to multiple species. So trying to sort out our role in that is why this decision process is taking the time it is.”

Read more about the decades-long Isle Royale wolf and moose study on this website, and sign up for email dispatches during the winter study here.

UPDATE: An Isle Royale wolf that escaped via the ice bridge has been found dead. Nicknamed "Isabelle," the collared adult female had been injuried previously in attacks by other wolves. It's not clear what ultimately killed Isabelle. She was not shot, and cause of death was not immediately apparent.

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SAR-Trained Dog Saves Avy Victim

On December 19, 2000, roughly 24 hours before opening day at British Columbia's Fernie Alpine Resort, life operator Ryan Radchenko skied off-limits on his lunch break, triggering an avalanche that carried him 450 feet before burying him alive.

A patroller who witnessed the slide put out a radio call to summon Keno, snow-safety supervisor Robin Sigger's five-year-old SAR-trained Labrador/Border collie mix, who was whisked from the base area by snowmobile.

Siggers, who was already on the mountain, took a lift to the scene and began assisting with the search. "I was well aware of the statistics," he says. "I was praying Keno would arrive soon."

There are more than 2,000 trained SAR dogs in North America, and they often prove invaluable during desperate, time-limited searches. At Fernie, despite ten rescuers frantically thrusting eight-foot probes into the debris pile, they'd turned up nothing by the time Keno arrived 18 minutes later. The dog immediately bolted 30 feet below the probe line and emerged with a leather glove in his teeth.

"He's trained to dig like crazy when he funds a person," says Siggers. "About a foot below the surface, he uncovered Ryan's hand."

The rescuers pulled Radchenko out, semiconscious but unhurt—the first live avalanche find by a rescue dog in Canada. Keno, though, had an insider's odds: The previous summer, Radchenko did carpentry work with Siggers at Fernie, telling Keno repeatedly, "Hey, you'd better get a good sniff in case you have to find me someday."

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A Sonoran Desert Rx For The Whole Family

We have been warned about the javelinas and the heat, but nothing prepares us for the best trail surprise of all. It's just after 5 p.m. on the second day of the New Year, and my husband, our two young daughters, our four-month old puppy, Pete, and I are picking our way along a rubbly stretch of desert singletrack when we first hear it: the haunting melodies of a Native American flute rising on the late-day breeze. Somewhere below us, a lone flautist is serenading Wild Burro Canyon.

The sinking sun paints the ragged, saguaro-studded Sonoran hills orange and the air is beginning to cool. This time of year, darkness settles down fast and early on the desert. With more than halfway to go, this is the point in every hike when our daughters, five and three, begin to flag and whine, and we wonder if we haven't once again overestimated their stamina. But at the first notes, Pippa and Maisy, who have been gamely scrambling over boulders unassisted, practically begin to skip, pulled forward by the soothing tones of the flute. It's hard not to be moved—literally—by the music, a plein air concert that sounds like it's just for us.

Only here at Dove Mountain, it happens every night. 

We've come to the Sonoran Desert for a much-needed post-holiday reset, a last-minute, long weekend kick-off to a new year of family adventure. Skiing was the obvious choice, but the winter storms weren't cooperating, so a few days before New Year's, we shifted to Plan B: a desert escape within driving distance of Santa Fe, where we could run and hike and swim. The forecast for Tucson was 75 and sunny. Done.

This would have been ideal conditions for "winter" camping, but after a month of pre-holiday ramp up and a houseful of guests, we needed a little R&R, so I scoured the internet for places to stay. We wanted the best of both worlds: Tucson's sere desert without the urban bustle, with easy access to plentiful trails. We didn't want to spend all our time navigating the city, or driving to find the backcountry, but we wanted to enjoy the perks of Tucson in winter (read: heated pool). A Google search of "hiking trails" and "Tucson hotels" yielded an unlikely result: The Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain.

Generally speaking, we're not resort people. Given the choice, we might opt to spend a few nights sleeping outside in a wilderness river canyon or skiing into a backcountry yurt rather than lounging around a fancy hotel and spa. Relaxing doesn't come naturally to us, especially when there are peaks to climb, rivers to raft, and trails to run. Most resorts, with their elaborate golf courses or skiing infrastructure, have a tendency to separate you from nature rather than bring you closer to it. 

But with nearly 20 miles of desert trails right out the back door, The Ritz at Dove Mountain, which opened in 2010, is that rare breed of adventure resort that gives you serious access to the backcountry, wrapped in a luxe, kid- (and dog-) friendly package. You can hike or run all morning, and then return to a heated, 85-degree pool with a 235-foot-long water slide and ice-cream sundaes—or prickly-pear margaritas—delivered to your private cabana. Set at 2,900 feet at the foot of the Tortolita Mountains, about 30 minutes northeast of Tucson, it also has a daily kids' camp and last-minute rooms in January for just over $200 a night.

As soon as we arrive, I know we're in trouble, our lives as camping enthusiasts doomed forever. This will no doubt be the swankiest backcountry adventure we've ever had. Everyone we meet is outrageously attentive, and genuinely thrilled to see us, greeting us by name (including Pete), giving us maps of the hiking trails, and encouraging five-year-old Pippa to "check in" on her own. (On a sheet designated for Ritz Kids, she scrawls her name, age, favorite color and food.)

Up in our room, they've set up a small, child-size tent for two, kitted out with a fluffy featherbed, two battery-operated lanterns, and a pair of stuffed tortoises. Our two balconies overlook the sprawling pool (and tastefully camouflaged water slide) and behind that, the wide mouth of Wild Burro Canyon.

Any five-star resort that turns its back on its manicured golf course—The Ritz's is about a mile downhill—and orients itself instead to the backcountry surely must be serious about its trails, and Dove Mountain doesn't disappoint. That first afternoon, after a requisite splash in the pool, and half a dozen screaming laps on the water slide, we head out for a sunset hike on one of seven looping routes east of the hotel.

The two-mile Lower Javelina Trail sounds promising, but with just an hour of daylight left, the concierge takes one look at our small, rambunctious children and our even smaller, more rambunctious puppy, and urges us, in the politest, Ritziest of ways, to consider the mile-long Hotel Loop instead. "You can see the resort the whole time," the young man offers helpfully, as though staring down on a five-story hotel is a plus. It's the first of many gentle, cautionary suggestions we'll receive from the hotel staff over the next few days. I can practically see the thought bubble pop up over his head: "Liability waiting to happen."

In genteel spirit of the Ritz, we nod in agreement, and I'm glad we do. The trail leaves from the front of the hotel, and right away climbs a the short but steep Atlatl Ridge, with views to the Santa Rita Mountains. There are saguaro everywhere, crawling up hillsides, reaching their stately arms into the air as though giving thanks for living in this starkly beautiful, surreal landscape. I feel the same way.

The children aren't whining or demanding shoulder rides, and Pete is scampering along, obediently keeping us in sight and staying on the trail, except when he accidentally detours straight into a teddy bear cactus, and steps on a spiny pad almost as big as my fist. Extracting it is a team effort: Steve struggles to pry out the barbs, while I restrain an agonized Pete, and the girls cover their eyes and squeal. Just as I'm thinking that Sonoran Desert hiking might be more extreme than we thought, cue the melodious flute. 

In the morning I stick a map in my pocket, fill a water bottle, and duck out early for a sunrise run out Wild Burro Trail. The first mile or so climbs gradually through the sandy wash before switchbacking up the technical, rock-strewn north side of the canyon, bringing me onto a high, open plateau where the trail turns to soft, forgiving dirt threading through a forest of saguaro. I feel like I could run forever out here forever—it stretches for more than 25 miles into the Tortolita Mountains—but I told Steve I'd be back in an hour.

So I turn around after four miles, just past a small cross propped up in a pile of rocks. The inscription reads "Molly, 1989-2012," and laments her young age and lack of a cure. I decide she must have suffered a terrible, terminal illness, and that she loved this trail so much that she wanted to be honored here.

When I get back to the room, Steve and Pete and the girls are breakfasting on the balcony in preparation for a family hike on Lower Javelina, which traverses both sides of the canyon. We fill a pack with several bottles of water and sunscreen, a pair of kids' binoculars, and a leash for Pete. The night before, it had been gently suggested to Steve that packs of wild javelina roam the canyon and might be prone to attacking small dogs, especially after dark. It was broad daylight, but when it comes to a 25-pound puppy, not to mention two small girls who don't weigh much more, you can't be too careful.

Without the flute song and in the unforgiving glare of mid-morning, the hike is less successful than the evening before, but we distract the girls with small trailside boulders which they scale again and again, and cut the hike short in the wash when the protesting begins in earnest. Pete survives, unscathed by wild pigs, and we strategically avoid dehydration and heat exhaustion (it's 70, tops) and promptly hit the pool.

The pools—in fact, there are two—are the perfect complement to the trails and vice versa. One without the other would either seem too hardcore for the first days of the new year, or too self-indulgent. But now that we've had our fresh air and adventure for the day, we can lounge guilt-free poolside all afternoon.

The water slide is steep and long enough so that you practically catch air on a couple of sections, especially when clutching a small child on your lap—an adrenaline sport in its own right—and various giant inflatable whales and turtles bob around in the shallows, fawned and fought over by a steady stream of little ones. For such an upscale resort, I'm heartened to see that The Ritz is crawling with young families, instant and willing playmates for Pippa and Maisy and more R&R for Steve and me. Even Pete is pampered here. A pool butler promptly arrives with a bowl of water and thoughtfully moves an umbrella so that he's lying in the shade, where he will sleep all afternoon. 

Resort life is easy to abide: hike or run all morning, loll and swim all afternoon. With three restaurants right on site, we don't have to drive anywhere. The girls in their tent sleep like logs for the first time in months, and therefore so do we. I've read almost an entire book and soaked up enough Vitamin D to make it through the month. And Pete, too, is noticeably calmer than when we arrived.

The next day we drop Pippa and Maisy off at Ritz Kids camp on the ground floor, where they'll spend the morning with Ranger Ron, one of three rangers employed by the hotel to lead nature hikes and teach guests about desert wildlife. They're the only children enrolled for the day, but they're so distracted by the walls lined with terrariums that they don't seem to care. When it comes time for us to leave, they're pressing their faces against the glass, shining infrared flashlights on the resident scorpions and tarantulas. They barely register our departure.

Steve and I are going running. We've plotted a 15-mile circuit along the Wild Mustang Trail, up to a goat corral at the far end of Wild Burro, and back along the south side of the canyon via the Alamo Springs Trail. "How long do you think that will take you?" Ron asks delicately, subtly sizing up our water supply, but I can see right through him: Here comes the cautionary tale. Molly, as it turns out, was a guest who went hiking with her family in the summer, took a wrong turn on the Wild Burro Trail, and ran out of water. By the time Ranger Ron arrived with the rescue crew, she'd gone into cardiac arrest. She died on her 23rd birthday, at the spot in the trail now marked with her cross.

Chastened, I think about Molly as we run. Rationally, I know we're safe—it's the dead of winter and overcast, not even 55 degrees. We're carrying plenty of water, a map, and a cell phone with a loaded battery. Our girls are in good hands, and we're experienced trail runners. Still, I have a new respect for the desert. It's lovely and humbling, strikingly beautiful country, raw and empty, except of the swarms of saguaro which have an almost human presence. The trail weaves through prickly pear and spiky sotol cactus, and the snowy ridge of Mount Lemmon looms to the south. Passing Molly's cross for the third time in two days,  I inhale the warm air and damp, winter-desert smells and give thanks for being alive and for running and for three whole hours of freedom on the trails with Steve.

To Ranger Ron's great relief, we slide into Ritz Kids right on schedule, a few minutes before noon. The girls are decked out in khaki quick-dry Junior Ranger shirts emblazoned with pins, and they're wild with stories about the morning. Ranger Ron released the tarantulas and scorpions ("not the biting kind, Mama!" Maisy assures us) and assorted snakes from their terrariums to give the girls a closer look. They stalked the resort's resident African desert tortoise, Wamba, and went on a nature walk. They learned about the Native American tribes, drew pictures, took a quiz, and earned half a dozen junior ranger badges. We can barely drag them away from the spiders and snakes for our afternoon session at the pool.

That night, our last at Dove Mountain, we drop the girls off at Ritz Kids again and go to dinner at Core, a sublime, candlelit spot overlooking the terrace, where we're doted on in classic Ritz-style. In between bites of tender butterfish, I sneak glances outside, far across the patio, to a big flashing TV screen inside the Ritz Kids suite, where our children are dining solo with Ranger Ron. So spoiled have we become that this arrangement seems like the most natural thing in the world. When we find them a couple of hours later, draped with blankets and sitting in front of a blazing chiminea, roasting s'mores with Ranger Ron, all three are laughing hysterically, and Maisy and Pippa are each clutching a brand new ranger badge they earned for roasting marshmallows, compliments of Ranger Ron.

In the morning, Pippa and Maisy and I meet in lobby for family nature hike, offered each day at 8 a.m., while Steve and Pete take to the trails on their own. Ron is off today, so Ranger Mike's on duty, and Maisy and Pippa trail behind him, obsessed with earning their final junior ranger pin. Mike guides us to a 150-year-old saguaro sprouting tiny new arms, and shows us the spongey inside of a dead one, explaining that even though the cacti are 70 percent water, you can't just cut them open and drink. Cautionary tale No. 3, or is it 4? He can't resist ending with another one, about the mountain lions that lurk in the area, and a helpful tip: Carry a small rock in each hand and be ready to throw. (A few days later, in Santa Fe, I try it on a solo run, and feel surprisingly empowered.)

Steve meets us at Core for breakfast with one of his own: At the trailhead, he and Pete ran into a women, looking shaken. She'd been out on the trails alone when she came across a pack of javelinas, so she'd turned around. He snapped the leash on Pete and forged ahead. The trail was still in shadow, but he saw no sign of the rogue pigs, and after a while he set Pete loose and kept trekking.

It's a cool morning, and the minute we arrive at the pool, the girls are greeted with butlers bearing trays of hot chocolate and a water bowl for Pete. One last swim and soak in the hot tub, and then a fond farewell to Dove Mountain and its trails, which in just a few days have come to feel like home. Somehow we've managed the impossible: an active, legitimately adventurous family base camp weekend in the lap of luxury.

After four perfect days in the desert, as promising a launch to 2014 as I can imagine, we have our own cautionary tale to report. Once you stay at The Ritz, there's no going back. You have to go back. The girls still have one final badge to earn—geo-caching will wait until they're a little older—and there are new trails in the works for us to explore. Next time.

The Ritz Carlton Dove Mountain; doubles from $206
Kids' in-room tent camping, $99
Ritz Kids camp, from $85 per session

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