The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Nature

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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How Water Makes Us Healthier, Happier, and More Successful

This month, California biologist and former Outside cover subject Wallace J. Nichols publishes his first book, Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do (Little, Brown, $27).

Billed as a “Big Idea” book that will change the way you think, Nichols’s debut effort combines everything from neuroscience to real estate pricing. (A full review is available in the August issue.) Abe Streep caught up with Nichols to discuss the book and how water can impact human happiness.

OUTSIDE: In the book you’re breaking down very complex science. You’re also combining anecdotal reporting throughout the world, real estate prices, and how-to journalism, suggesting ways in which people can improve their lives. What was the process of putting it together like?
NICHOLS: I read a book somewhere that said that writing a book is like creating a sculpture. This felt like creating a sculpture from water. As you mention, it’s writing a book about the brain, which is the most complex thing we know in the universe, and water, which produces life in the universe, and combining those two things—well, it’s a broad topic to say the least. I wrote the title as a placeholder and its subtitle as an outline. Then it was just about going out and finding the best researchers and some great protagonists. And making sure that they were not all surfers. Although, of course, there are several. 

In the book you constantly refer to the ocean as a great healer for many societal ills. How? 
The big conversation is the “red mind” vs. “blue mind” comparison. We live our indoor lives and our workspace lives and our family lives often in what I call a “red-mind” mode. We’re overstimulated, we’re captivated, we’re connected, we’re stressed. We’re behind. We’re trying to catch up. We’re out of money. We’re at deadlines. And we’re surrounded by screams.

Stress isn’t new, but this kind of chronic, constant stress is. Every medical doctor knows that stress is connected to disease. Diseases are exacerbated or caused by stress. So reducing that stress in some way is useful. There are a lot of conversations going around about different kinds of meditation. Sometimes the word meditation isn’t used—different relaxation techniques.

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Athletes use them all the time to reach peak performance. And I’d just add that being by water meditates you. It puts you in that relaxed state. You don’t need to study or practice meditation. You just need to pay attention to the water around you. You can do it in the bathtub, the hot tub, the swimming pool, the creek, the lake, the river, the ocean.

When you unplug and let go, disconnect from a clock altogether, you do what neuroscientists call mind wandering. Rather than data crunching, you’re letting things come and connect. You’re letting innovation happen. We see over and over, people say, ‘This is where I get my best ideas—when I let my brain do that.’ And a lot of times there’s water involved.

You run an annual Blue Mind conference, in which you bring together conservationists, water advocates, and neuroscientists to discuss the ocean’s effect on the brain. How is it working? Do you meet skepticism among the scientific community?
Social neuroscience continues to expand. Neuromarketing is now happening. Executives at Google are having neuroscientists come in and teach them how to be innovative. The greatest source of happiness, of relaxation, [and] of mental stimulation is the outdoors. And we’re still behind. There are people looking into it, through brain-on-nature questions.

But we’re late to the game. There’s a conference I attend every year on neuroscience and music. It’s the eighth year of that conference. There’s Blue Mind, but there’s not an equivalent gathering of neuroscientists and people who are interested in the future of wild places. I still don’t get the buy-in from the ocean community. I think part of it is neuroscience is just a big, hairy difficult, intellectually challenging field. And some people just don’t like to say ‘I don’t understand.’ Instead of saying, ‘I don’t understand,’ they just kind of roll their eyes.

You’re organizing a conference, publishing a book. You have to talk to people like me. How do you create the time to meander in your own life?
I’m certainly not the guru on the rock on the top of the mountain saying, ‘Here’s how you do it, I’ve got this nailed.’ I’m living the red-mind, blue-mind roller coaster right along with the people who will read this book. I benefit greatly from being by the ocean and living next to a creek. It’s called Mill Creek. I hear it every morning, and I go to sleep to its sound every night. What I’ve learned is to pay attention to that. It’s a creek, it’s beautiful. You see the fish come up the creek after a rain. You know that in a few hours the creek is emptying into the Pacific Ocean. All those things you pay attention to. 

Did one anecdote from your reporting surprise you particularly?
I can hang it all on one story. This guy named Bobby Lane, who served in the Gulf, had three different traumatic brain injury episodes. He came back to Texas with his world upside down. He was not speaking clearly, suffering from post-traumatic stress, being overmedicated, becoming addicted to those medications. He lost the desire to live. He tried to commit suicide through what he called “death by cop.” Which is essentially when you do something that gets the cop to come and kill you. Because as a warrior, he said he couldn’t do it himself.

So he tried that, and they shot him with rubber bullets, which really pissed him off, and really hurt, and really messed him up. He ended up going and doing something called Operation Surf, an experimental fringe program for people like him [in Santa Cruz]. He came to Santa Cruz and he had an experience: three tries and he was standing up on his board. Then he saw his life ahead. After having the experience he decided that he wanted to stay around and to live. 

What’s next for Blue Mind?
The goal is to increase perceived value of healthy oceans and waterways. If realtors were to knowledgeably and consciously sell the cognitive and emotional benefits of water, they would become the front line communicators for healthy water.

If health practitioners are saying, ‘I’m prescribing a walk on the beach and a surf session and half the dose of those pills,’ they’re sharing the blue-mind message. That’s the idea. What the environmental movement typically does is say, ‘Here’s something you’re doing that you shouldn’t do. I’m going to tell you why and probably make you feel bad.’ That’s not always the best place to start a conversation. We’re [saying], ‘Here’s something about you that you should know that you don’t know.’

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Rwanda's Mountain-Misted Jungle Paradise

For fans of extra-large primates, there’s arguably no more coveted experience than viewing a mountain gorilla in its natural habitat. If you fall into this camp, consider a bucket-list trek to the upscale Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge in Rwanda’s northwest Volcanoes National Park—a mountainous, jungle-covered area made famous by the late naturalist Dian Fossey and her mountain gorilla pals.

Today, Rwanda is home to about 400 of the endangered apes, with another 400 to 600 spread between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/sabtinto-rwanda-national-park_fe.jpg","caption":"Volcanoes National Park is home to five of the eight Virunga Mountain volcanoes."}%}

Sabyinyo’s eight stone cottages sit in the foothills of the Virunga Mountain range and just two miles from park headquarters. Each is decked out with a terracotta roof, fireplace, a spa-like bathroom, and sheltered veranda. You’ll find a restaurant and lounge in the main lodge, as well as an information center and small shop. In case you’re concerned about where your Rwandan francs are going, know that Sabyinyo isn’t just some fancy pet project for outsider investors. The lodge is owned by an area community trust that funnels some of its profits into local conservation and socioeconomic initiatives.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/sabyinyo-rwanda-bedroom-cottage_fe.jpg","caption":"Relax on a private sheltered veranda after a day of exploring the bamboo-covered rainforest."}%}

The Details: Sabyinyo is a two-hour drive from the Rwandan capital of Kigali. Room rates vary depending on the season—right now, they range from $775 to $970 per person per night. Only 80 visitors per day are allowed in the park, so make your reservation early and be prepared to buy a $750 permit for the gorilla hike.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/sabyinyo-living-room-cottage-rwanda_fe.jpg","caption":"The cottages of Sabyinyo provide guests with quiet luxury."}%}

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The Last of the Desert Dwellers

Namibia, some would say, is an African country that actually gets wildlife conservation. So much so that a conservation mandate is actually written into its constitution. Which makes it all the more perplexing why the Namibian government has issued permits to hunt its iconic desert elephants. 

That policy has certainly sparked a lot of Internet outrage. There's a campaign on Facebook devoted to saving the elephants, and a recent entry expounds on the killing of a 17-year-old bull named Delta, apparently the first elephant shot because of the permits: 

“Delta was killed close to his family, and a short distance from a school, where there had been peaceful co-existence between humans and animals for some time.” 

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/namibia-desert-elephants-mom-baby_fe.jpg","caption":"Desert elephants can now only be found in Namibia and Mali."}%}

The furor is predominantly based on the fact that only 100 of these animals remain in Nambia, according to Laura Brown, a scientist and the director of Desert Lion and Elephant Conservation. And since word broke about the permits, there have been conflicting news reports, allegations of government secrecy, and suggestions—and counter-claims—that the permits were issued in exchange for political votes. So what’s really going on?

The answer is murky, but it starts with how Namibia manages wildlife. In 1996, the Nature Conservation Amendment Act spawned the formation of conservancies, which essentially gave rural communities consumptive and non-consumptive rights to wildlife. There are 79 conservancies, with 240,000 people living in them.

According to Colgar Silkopo, Director of Regional Services and Parks Management at Namibia’s Ministry of Environment Tourism, permit allocations for wildlife occur at the beginning of each year. This year, MET allotted nine elephant hunting permits to six local conservancies in the Kunene and Erongo regions in the northwest—areas where the desert elephants live. 

Seven of these permits are trophy-hunting permits. And the other two are “own use, which means, they can be used for meat,” explain Silkopo. However, these “non- trophy animals can be hunted by the conservancies themselves or a professional hunter or company they have a contract with.”

But is this actually antithetical to Namibia’s conservation ethos? Like most things about elephants in Africa, it depends on whom you talk to.

Dr. Margaret Jacobsohn is a trustee at Namibia’s Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC) and a Namibian anthropologist who has been working in community based conservation for three decades.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/namibia-desert-elephants-three_fe.jpg","caption":"Desert dwellers were once more widespread across Africa, until hunting in the 1980's caused numbers to plummet."}%}

She recently wrote an opinion piece for Africa Geographic stating she’s against any elephant hunting, but says that doesn’t mean there’s an irony at play: “No, there’s no irony here. The irony is not in the trophy hunting. Rather, it is that the public—those who do not live with wildlife—is attacking the country with one of the best conservation records in all of Africa.”

CJ Carrington, a South African freelance writer who wrote about the controversy for the organization Conservation Action Trust, says she does find Namibia’s actions antithetical to its conservation mandate, especially because she believes the government has tried to keep the permits on the down-low. “Attempting to keep it secret and then scurrying to provide flimsy excuses—these are not the actions of an institution with nothing to hide.”

What is clear is that the whole concept of wildlife conservation in Africa is altogether complicated. “Listen,” says, Brown, who has been closely studying some 70 of the remaining desert-dwelling elephants for nearly a decade, “there are many different ways African nations maintain wildlife. Some governments throw all the animals into a national park and keep the people out. Some don’t have national parks and all the wildlife is gone. And Namibia has an in-between, where you have these conservancies where people decide the use of the wildlife.” 

Brown makes a point of explaining that hunting isn’t new in Namibia, just all the sudden attention to it. “Hunting has always been allowed in Namibia. It is always been able to issue permits to hunting. It just hasn’t been highly talked about. In fact, Namibia has been very much ignored [in the conversation about Africa’s elephants] until very recently.”

Brown says that eventually, her organization would like to see people deter elephants with non-lethal means. “That is something we are working towards. “But at this point,” she adds, “the country just isn’t there, yet.”

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