Disappearing Rio Grande

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Why Follow the Rio Grande

by Colin McDonald | Feb. 11, 2015

The Rio Grande is disappearing. Demand for water is growing as snow packs shrink, rain patterns shift and average temperatures rise faster than they ever have in the past 11,000 years.

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Going Under, Day 27

The bow of Colin McDonald’s kayak disappears below a wave on a rapid in the Taos Box of the Rio Grande Gorge. Photo by: Erich Schlegel

I knew I was getting tired and that my paddle strokes were becoming sloppy.  But there was just one more rapid and, scouting from the riverbank, it looked like there was an easy line.

The rapid is known as Boulder Field, aka Pinball.  Everything went well for the first half. Then the bow of my kayak went to the right of the rock that I wanted to be on the left side of.

Then I was upside down.

I rolled upright too late and then the boat was going sideways between two boulders. I was upside down again with the kayak lodged between the rocks upstream and me flailing downstream.  The current pulled me out of the cockpit, except my sandal got caught on the seat.

My head was above water and I could breathe.  I was able to push my back against one of the boulders and get my free leg against the other. I squirmed away from the river’s grip.

Then I was on a rock, holding onto a boat half full of water that was slipping away from me toward the churning rapids below. I did not want to let go nor follow the kayak.

My paddle was lodged on the riverbank.

I leaned out over the upstream side of the boulder to pull the kayak free from the force of the river and took out the drain plug. The water shot out of the kayak like from a garden hose. The kayak started to lighten.

Cantilevered over the river and straining against the weight of the kayak, I began to tremble.  I was cold and exhausted. My coordination was becoming steadily worse.  What I did next had to work.

Finally, the kayak was light enough I could pull it all the way up on the rock.  I slid it into the water on the upriver side of the boulder and gave the kayak a shove towards an eddy near the shore. I plunged in and thrashed for the shore in hopes that I would not get swept downstream.

I reached the boat, found footing and flopped onto a rock.  My legs slipped out from under me and I pulled myself out of the river.

It was a fitting goodbye to the last big set of rapids I will see on the Rio Grande. It was a reminder this river is wild and I have to pay attention. Not only so I can simply keep moving, but also so I don’t miss things like the bighorn sheep grazing on the cliffs or the butterflies resting on a sandbar.

As I paddled out of the canyon in the afternoon, thunderstorms rolled in.  The claps of thunder reverberated between the canyon walls and the big rain drops started to fall.

I’m looking forward to walking the dry reaches.

To comment on this post or ask a question, please visit the expedition's Facebook page.

While making his way to the Gulf of Mexico, Colin will be periodically activating a device that uses satellite technology to share his current location. Use this map to see where he traveled on this day.

Check-In Time of Check-In (CST) Latitude Longitude
#1 5:49 a.m. 36.53567 -105.70824
#2 7:10 a.m. 36.48689 -105.72873
#3 9:43 a.m. 36.38367 -105.72525


To report on and understand the haphazard irrigation system the Rio Grande has become and the changes it is going through, Colin decided the best approach would be to travel the length of the Rio Grande by foot and small boat.

He knew it would give him a unique perspective on a river that few understand. It did require many long days of moving slowly and camping on muddy riverbanks, but Colin likes that sort of thing.

The benefit was it provided access to people who wanted to share their stories and experiences with the Rio Grande. Via Facebook and chance encounters, Colin made instant friends who opened their homes. They provided help from loaning their trucks to their cell phone contact lists to help tell the story of the Rio Grande.

The trip would not have been possible without their help, along with the dedicated assistance of David Lozano, Jason Jones and Daniel Dibona, who drove thousands of miles to get people and boats in place.


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