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.Read more
American Whitewater describes the Upper Box of the Rio Grande Gorge as “truly one of the classic runs in the west.”
Southwest Paddler claims it is “the premiere whitewater run in New Mexico.”
In his guidebook “The Rio Grande,” Paul Bauer calls it “a big thrill for survivors.”
I ran it today with Matthew Gontram, Neil Cheesewright and Garret Schooley from New Mexico River Adventures.
For me, it was a chance to run rapids that I would never attempt by myself.
For them, it was an exploration run to see what it is like to run the river when flows were well below what is considered runnable. Neil and Garret did the run in a two-man raft. To put that in perspective, the recommended flows for a raft are 750 cubic feet per second. Today it was flowing at less than 280 cfs.
“It was more like 'see if we could do it,’” Matthew said.
The reason this run is so highly regarded is that the river here cuts through the deepest section of the Rio Grande Gorge. It exposes lava flows and the cones of extinct volcanoes and allows springs of cold, clean water to mix with the warm, brown water that flows out of Colorado.
In the canyon, the temperatures stay a bit cooler than up on the plateau and it serves as an oasis. Here, 500-year-old trees lean out over the river. We watched an owl swoop across the river and a red-tailed hawk flee from a swarm of cliff swallows.
This reach also packs more challenges per mile than any other on the Rio Grande. The boulders form sieves that can trap an entire kayak and paddler completely underwater. The rapids have names like “Hell Hole.” The banks have poison ivy.
But with Matthew leading the way — and making timely suggestions about when portaging around the rapids was probably better than dropping off a 5-foot waterfall onto a pile of rocks — we had a blast.
Even though it was the off-season for this reach and a below average year for water levels, the guides made it work.
“We always have enough flow,” Matthew said.
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As they travel, Colin and Erich are taking water samples for the following periodic water quality tests. In partnership with The Meadows Center for Water and the Environment’s Texas Stream Team Program at Texas State University, the results will be added to a public database it helps maintain for research and monitoring water quality.
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.