Recovery planned for body found in Río Grande Gorge

By John Miller
jmiller@taosnews.com
Posted 10/31/19

Paddling downriver on Sunday (Oct. 27), a local boater from Taos came across a cheap kayak, two halves of a paddle and the body of an unidentified man on the eastern bank of the Río Grande near the Taos Box, a notorious set of Class IV rapids that threads a remote section of the Río Grande Gorge.

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Recovery planned for body found in Río Grande Gorge

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Paddling downriver on Sunday (Oct. 27), a local boater from Taos came across a cheap kayak, two halves of a paddle and the body of an unidentified man on the eastern bank of the Río Grande near the Taos Box, a notorious set of Class IV rapids that threads a remote section of the Río Grande Gorge.

On Thursday evening (Oct. 31), a team of first responders will convene for a briefing to determine how to retrieve the man’s body from the deep canyon, whose several-hundred-foot slopes have become slick with below-freezing temperatures and recent snowfall.

“This is when my head starts hurting,” said Taos County Undersheriff Steve Miera, who is overseeing the recovery, his third and, he expects, most challenging this year. “Talking to the rafting companies, the water’s at about 300 [cubic feet per second].”

That’s one problem: The river is extremely low compared to this past spring, when a recovery crew from Miera’s office, the Bureau of Land Management and Taos Search and Rescue navigated downriver on a raft large enough to accommodate four crew members and a body of a man who had jumped from the Río Grande Gorge Bridge.

The remains found on Sunday are about a mile south from where that mission took place. A large set of power lines hangs about 800 feet above that section of river near a rapid called Dead Texan.

On Tuesday (Oct. 29), Miera said he was considering two options to get there: a high-angle recovery – using ropes and a pulley system to lift the body to the top of the canyon – or an air retrieval, where a helicopter would dip down just above the river and lift off with the body in a litter.

But on Wednesday (Oct. 30), after driving to the gorge to survey the body’s location, Miera determined that the high-angle equipment wouldn’t reach the body and a helicopter likely wouldn’t be able to clear the power lines.

Instead, Miera is firming up a plan to send in two teams, including members of the sheriff’s office and Taos Search and Rescue, which has been assigned a mission number by the state to assist in the recovery. One team will travel downriver on a kayak from John Dunn Bridge, which is just north of the Río Grande Gorge Bridge. The other will hike down the western slope of the canyon and cross the river on an inflatable raft to reach the body.

Following the hours already spent planning, the recovery itself will likely be an all-day affair that will cost thousands of dollars to complete. Miera said the risk to the recovery teams is also substantial, given the terrain one will have to traverse and the dangerous waters the other will have to paddle down.

But it’s also routine, since at least a few body recoveries take place in the gorge west of Taos each year.

For John Nettles, the kayaker who found the man’s remains on a trip with a friend on Sunday, coming across bodies in the Río Grande has also become an oddly familiar experience.

In July 2018, Nettles found the body of an Albuquerque man who had jumped from the Río Grande Gorge Bridge, which has long been a suicide destination because of its low railings and lack of any form of suicide deterrent. Crisis phone lines set up at the bridge are often dialed. First responders regularly make runs out to the bridge to respond to suicide threats reported by family members, partners or co-workers who know someone headed to the bridge with thoughts of jumping to their deaths.

Law enforcement and Nettles said it’s clear that the man found this past weekend didn’t die by suicide, however. Instead, they say it’s more likely that he kayaked into one of the Río Grande’s toughest rapids without knowing it.

A post on Taos Otter Club Saturday evening (Oct. 26) reported a man missing who had gone camping with his dog at the Orilla Verde State Park camping area and was believed to have gone down the river. The author of the post noted that they didn’t know the man’s name. As of press time Wednesday, officials could not confirm whether the man reported missing is the same person found deceased on the riverbank Sunday.

Nettles said the man appeared to have fallen from or abandoned his raft wearing nothing more than blue jeans, a flannel shirt and leather boots.

“We have top-notch gear, and we get cold,” Nettles said. “We have dry suits, we have insulated layers. He had none of that. Assuming he was a boater, it looked like he had an incident, lost his boat – maybe fell out of it – swam a little bit, got out, hiked down maybe, looked for a place to get out.”

Nettles said the man’s body was positioned in a way that made him believe the man might have fallen after trying to scale the steep eastern wall of the canyon.

“He was probably very hungry, very hypothermic and maybe lost his footing and went down the hill,” he speculated.

Nettles said the number of people who die in the gorge in boating accidents could be reduced if there were signage to warn of the dangers of the Taos Box, which can sneak up on people who float the calm waters around Taos Junction Bridge and John Dunn.

“I know of a handful of close calls from the last few years,” he said. “A couple of years ago, one of my fellow raft guides was at the John Dunn Bridge and like three father-and-son groups with three canoes were all ready to go. Somebody had told them, ‘Go to this bridge and take it down. It’s really mellow.’ And they went to the wrong bridge.”

Nettles said the guide was able to convince the boaters to change their plans that day, but he said that there are inexperienced boaters who slip into potentially deadly parts of the river every year.

While no official investigation has been completed, he said what he saw on Sunday suggests the man who died on the riverbank last weekend was likely one of them.

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