"There's a shoe," said Chrissy Glander, pulling a soggy sneaker from the river weeds a few miles south of Pilar on Sunday (June 14). She held it up for the other rafters to see, as if she had just struck gold, and then chucked it into a plastic trash barrel strapped into her raft.
"That's the find of the day."
For the six other boaters who joined her this weekend on a trip from the Quartzite put-in 5 and ½ miles down to the county line, this isn't strange: Every piece of junk removed from the river is a point of pride - and whoever collects the most discarded shoes wins a six-pack of beer at the end of the day.
This year, though, there's so much refuse to be found in the river and along its banks that they quickly lost count.
By the end of the day, Glander, Scott Downs (who organized the trip), Wendy Meyer, Sean Jennings, Audrey Edinger, Carolyn Wilson and Luke Kriken, a raft guide with New Mexico River Adventures, had collected between 400 to 500 pounds of garbage from the river, which the New Mexico Bureau of Land Management in Taos packaged up and hauled away.
That's extraordinary, they say, even for one of the most trafficked sections of the Río Grande.
There's a thing today
"I've never seen it this trashed," Downs said, standing in the Quartzite parking lot Sunday morning before he and the other six put their boats in the water.
"After the high water comes and the water drops down, stuff gets caught up," he continued. "You can see what came through the water."
Downs works at Black Mesa Winery in Velarde, but the river is why he chooses to live here. Last week, he helped to organize Sunday's outing as an administrator on the "Otter Club," a Facebook page that connects boaters from around the Northern Río Grande Valley and beyond.
"It's a resource for us to collaborate and get together to do these kinds of cleanups," he said, adding that they started organizing trips to remove trash around four years ago. "I'll just put a shoutout up, like I did last week, to sign up for a river cleanup, and then people start chiming in and boom - we create a river cleanup."
Downs believes that the glut of trash on the river this year was left behind by an influx of people who all decided to get outside at once after months of staying inside under governor's orders.
Similar reports of unusual amounts of garbage have been made at other outdoor recreation areas elsewhere in the state - public parks and hiking trails and camping areas - that have been littered by an unusual number of visitors who might have otherwise staggered their trips under different circumstances.
Judging by the crowd that had gathered in the Quartzite parking lot by midmorning Sunday, the surge in traffic hasn't slowed much since. People preparing to go downriver on their own or with commercial outfits stood along the shoreline pumping air into rafts, slathering on sunscreen and clicking on life jackets.
"There's one of us," Downs said.
Jennings, a local river guide who also runs trips in the Grand Canyon, pulled up and got out of a car. "I heard there's a thing today," Jennings said.
"There's a thing today," Downs responds. "Ready to clean the river?"
Jennings in a kayak and the others in three rafts, all seven set out downstream around 11 a.m. on a low river, splashing through rapids mellowed by the low volume and stopping at the most frequented beaches along the east riverbank, which runs below State Road 68.
The proximity of the river to the major roadway connecting Río Arriba County to Taos County doesn't help the situation. Trash is an ever-present feature of the landscape. Whether or not you're looking for it, you see it peeking from deep in bushes or swirling between rocks.
At several points along the trip to the county line, certain articles of trash - mini liquor bottles, food wrappers and beer cans - seem as likely to have been flung from a car window as left behind by someone who came down to the water's edge. Old tires and car parts can be found in the weeds, too.
Fishing equipment is another common find. When the group pulls their boats into popular fishing holes, people with lines in the water seem none too pleased as the arrival of the boats roils the water and scares the fish away.
At a one spot under the Glen Woody Bridge, a remnant of an old mining operation on the eastern slopes of the canyon and an abandoned town to the west, fishing lines, hooks and bait bottles can be found everywhere on the rocks and tangled in the weeds.
Downs said this presents a danger to both people on the shore and to boaters, who in the past have been hooked by lines left strung from bridges along the river.
In a post made to the Otter Club on June 6, Meyer also expressed that trash is not just unsightly and harmful to the environment, but also dangerous to people and animals.
"I bring up this obvious and enraging issue because yesterday my dog almost stepped on a used needle right on the ramp at Quartz," she wrote. "Be careful, friends, and watch where you step. With any real monitoring or enforcement taking place, these issues are by default our issues."
The group that went out on Sunday is planning future trips this season to clean up the Orilla Verde and Bosque sections of the Río Grande as well.
In all of these areas, a lack of signage to remind visitors to "pack in, pack out" what they bring with them could be part of the problem.
"We need to let people know that the river should not be taken for granted," Downs wrote in an email after the trip was over. "When you get down to the basics, maybe some better signage at put-ins and takeouts would be great, not to mention signage for river conditions to keep everyone safe."
For other people who live in the valley, the river isn't just a place to have fun, Downs said - it's "a bloodline for farmers" as well.
"The river flows from Colorado to Mexico," he added. "It is an important part of our ecosystem biodiversity. A place to find yourself when you have lost yourself in the outside world. It's a place of cleansing and relief from the outside world. There is a special bond with this river community that I have not experienced elsewhere."
Of course, the group that went on Sunday had a good time, too
They'd all take just about any excuse to go down the river, but trips like this one are special, since they're intended to ensure that the Río Grande remains a viable place to recreate for themselves and the thousands of others who visit its waters each year.