Great outdoors

River rafting: Feel the pulse of the Río Grande

By Cindy Brown
Posted 3/27/19

The secrets of the Río Grande are revealed to those who paddle its waterways.

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Great outdoors

River rafting: Feel the pulse of the Río Grande

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The secrets of the Río Grande are revealed to those who paddle its waterways. Ducks, eagles and otters accompany the boats as they float downstream and bighorn sheep graze on the banks. Petroglyphs visible only from the water tell ancient stories of nearby springs, animals and people who have passed this way. All is silent, except for the sound of the wind and the oars in the water. Humans become part of the flow of the river and all its life.

On a recent late March day, the weather was perfect for a float on the river. Temperatures in the 50s and the sun peeking from the clouds balanced the splash from the Río Grande, still cold from melting snow.

New Mexico River Adventures was running both half- and full-day trips on the river, which is lightly traveled during the early part of the season. I had the chance to join them for a half-day float on the section of the river between Pilar and Rinconada.

The Racecourse

One of the most popular trips for all the river guiding companies, the Racecourse is about five river miles that includes class II and III rapids. It is a good choice for families and people who are just starting out, because it is a relatively short float with some exciting rapids, but none as difficult as the rapids of the legendary Taos Box. The Racecourse is named for the Mother's Day Río Grande Whitewater Races, an event which has been happening for more than 60 years and is among the oldest organized river races in the country.

I had the pleasure of floating with river guide Wendy Meyer of New Mexico River Adventures. With 12 years of experience guiding on the Río Grande, she was able to maneuver through the rapids expertly and turn the boat so that we could watch others make the descent through the whitewater.

Running the river that day in a second boat, guided by Zach Smith, was an extended family from Texas and New Mexico - grandparents Russell and Cené Gold, their daughter Alisa, her husband, Tony, and their two sons - Jaylen and Braden Boyd. The was the third trip for Alisa and the second one for the rest of the family, who were returning to see the river at higher flows than on Memorial Day 2018 when they last were on the river. The guides confirmed that the water was quite a bit higher than last year. They are hoping for a gradual warming in the high country so that the river rises slowly, and the season lasts a long time. During this time of year, the minimum age to run the Racecourse is 5 years old, but that age can rise as the water does later in the spring.

The trip

After getting outfitted with wetsuits, splash jackets, life jackets and helmets, the trip began at the Quartzite launch site on State Road 68, near Pilar. The launch site is named for the quartzite found in the Pilar Cliffs. According to geologist Paul Bauer in his book, "The Río Grande: A River Guide to the Geology and Landscapes of Northern New Mexico," the quartzite is part of the Ortega Formation that began as fine beach sand. This layer is found above the Glenwoody Formation that was created as a blanket of red hot ash and gas from a Precambrian volcano.

The cliffs that day glistened in the sunshine showing the red and pink quartzite and creating a dramatic backdrop for the river trip. After unloading the boats from a trailer and giving a safety briefing, the guides loaded the rafters into two boats and pushed off from shore. Two other NMRA boats, part of a full-day float, joined us here and accompanied us down the river.

What followed was a calm float punctuated by rapids with names like the Maze, the Narrows, Eye of the Needle and Herringbone Rapids. When approaching the whitewater, the river takes on a deceptively glassy smooth appearance that gives way to bubbling waves and drops through the rapids. The guides have become expert in picking out the right line to avoid rocks that have their own names like Fang and Mother. They know how to navigate sections including the Big Rock Rapids, around the 360-ton boulder known as Baby Huey - and to stay out of whirlpools like the Toilet Bowl.

The final rapid, Souse Hole, is known for its ability to flip rafts, and here the guides must take particular care not to turn the boats over, especially during the early season when the river is cold. Our boat makes the passage safely and we turn to watch the other three boats come through. The guides call out commands and there is furious paddling to stay in the right line. Each boat comes through with a big splash, lots of applause and a general feeling of relief.

As we head back to the rafting company's office, everyone agrees that bigger water equals bigger fun. We warm up in the van - tired, hungry and happy to have spent the day outside on the river.

Stories of the river

The alternating rhythm of smooth sections with rapids allows the guides to share information about the history, geology, flora and fauna of the area. The Río Grande is a migration corridor for many birds. The bald eagles are departing to make their way north and there are falcons, golden eagles and migrating bright orange and yellow western tanagers, great blue herons and others that make an appearance throughout the year. On the day of our trip we saw numerous pairs of mallard ducks. We made one stop to view river-side petroglyphs that may depict a nearby fresh water spring, along with lizards and humanlike images.

Along the way, the guides also share their own experiences and passion for the river. For guide Meyer, the world is always right when she is on the river. "The river turns down the volume and washes away worries. It is a place to reconnect with the rhythms of nature; my place for mental health."

This kind of river therapy is known among the guides as "going to church."

This season

All the river companies are looking forward to a stellar season of rafting this year. "We are expecting an above-average year on the Río Grande with higher than normal flows April through June," says Wendy Gontram of NMRA. "It should be a spectacular season for rafting. The long-term forecasts are calling for it to dry out in April, and for us to have slightly higher than average temperatures throughout the summer."

At the beginning of March, the snowpack in the Río Grande Basin was at 99 percent of the median averaged over the last three decades; that's compared to a paltry snowpack in 2018 that was 35 percent of average at the same time, according to the monthly Water Supply Forecast from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Kathy Miller of New Wave Rafting observes, "It's always up to the water gods as to how high and how long the water will last but it's looking epic with the snowpack close to 150 percent of normal."

Record setter

For Cisco Guevara of Los Rios River Runners, the oldest river rafting company in New Mexico, this season has the potential to be a record setter. "Even the senior rafting guides haven't seen this much water in many years," he says.

At Los Ríos, the guides are preparing for the season and have been out scouting the Taos Box to learn its new patterns created by rock slides that occurred over the winter. He says that this section of river is considered one of the best white water runs in the country.

Due to the high water and new current patterns, Guevara wants people to be extra safe. "Go with someone who know what they are doing; there are several professional outfits here. Wear a good life jacket thatfits you properly," he suggests.

The river companies are hoping for a long season. Bill Blackstock of Far Flung Adventures, just back from a trip on the Racecourse, was optimistic about river conditions this year. "It looks like snowpack is above average and we are hoping to raft into October," he says.

Chasing sunshine

Billy Miller, of Big River Raft Trips, is a fourth-generation New Mexican who grew up in Clovis and has been guiding for 28 years. His company has begun their season with trips on the Racecourse. He reminds everyone that the weather is usually warmer in Pilar.

In describing rafting, he says, "It is a really special experience. You are moved by natural elements like the water current and gravity, feeling the wind and the sunshine. When I first started rafting, I saw that I could either chase money or chase the sunshine. I chose sunshine and I think it was a good choice. It is a way to feel of pulse of life through you. Life is big - get out and do it!"

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