NAVIGATING THE RIO GRANDE
WITH THE SENDERO TEAM
In late Spring when the temps start to climb and the rivers start to fill, it’s become a Sendero tradition to pack up our paddles and plenty of cervezas to go raft the mighty Rio Grande. The good ol’ Rio stretches all the way from Colorado to Mexico— flowing down from its high-altitude headwaters in the rugged San Juan Mountains to the white rock canyons of New Mexico, gliding across the border where Texas meets Mexico in Big Bend National Park and eventually emptying out into the Gulf of Mexico. Of the Rio’s 1900 miles, we raft 14 of them on our yearly pilgrimage, sometimes adding an extra 5 miles or so to hit the Orilla Verde area. Our vessel is an 18-foot Cataract nicknamed Bart- a fitting name, as he’s not much to look at. But what Bart lacks in sex appeal, he makes up in his ability to withstand hours of getting pummeled by rocks and whitewater and to squeeze through holes.
The Lower Taos Box is one of the most iconic whitewater floats in the Southwest. Some might say it’s a whitewater Mecca. With class IV rapids and steep basalt canyon walls, once you enter the canyon you’re committed- no turning back to your mama now! The entire route offers spectacular panoramic views. The Orilla Verde, where the canyon opens into a sweeping view of the Rio Grande Gorge, is damn hard to beat. One of the more profound realizations we have every time we return for a whitewater sesh: it’s just as picturesque and thrilling as the year before.
This past year, we spent night numero uno in our tents just south of Taos, under the blanket of a crystal clear Milky Way light show. If you’ve ever thought you’ve “slept like a baby,” you haven’t fallen asleep to the sounds of the Rio Grande on a crisp Spring night- it’s gotta’ be a gateway drug to the outdoors. The first morning, as we packed up our campsite we met a fellow river rat named John and his trusty whitewater sidekick- his dog Sage. One of the great aspects of the river is having the opportunity to meet complete strangers and share an exhilarating whitewater day together like you're old pals. John and Sage call the Arkansas River of Colorado home, but they navigated the Taos Box like it was a daily routine. You never know who you are going to meet out there on the river… When we put in we had a river guide scream at us from the banks, “Hey! Is that a Sendero Hat?” We said hell yeah and threw the hat right off one of our heads. In hindsight, staring into the sun all day wasn’t a pleasant experience…
We spent the next 3 days slamming rapids sets, drinking cold beer, feasting on New Mexico green chile anything, and getting skunked on pike and trout. One of the more fun experiences we have on this river is lining up for a Class IV in between a caravan of guided trips. Bart stands out in public- he’s unique in this regard. But especially with 5 over excited outsiders sending huge rapids left and right. On one particular trip, we got high centered on the skinny side of a huge bowl- The Toilet Bowl to be exact. We spent the better part of the 15 minutes collecting the precise strength and angle to free ourselves- all in full view of a 10ish yaks on a guided trip eating their lunches. We finally dislodged and shot Bart out like a slingshot. That earned us a paddle salute, cheers, and a few beers tossed our way! This kind of excitement is the norm out here.
Whitewater paradise aside, the Rio Grande has had its fair share of controversy. Not only is this mighty river under the jurisdiction of several states, but it’s pulled between two different countries. When complex issues like drought or dams get their foot in the door, the controversy surrounding this river really gets fired up. Look no further than the 5 o’clock news in a border town to see the flavor-of-the-month hot topic. Environmental threats abound, from invasive species to raw sewage. Of the hundreds of species that call the Rio Grande home, many can’t be found anywhere else. Great strides have been made to clean up its water, though work remains.
In New Mexico, the Rio Grande and Red River section was among the original eight rivers designated by Congress as Wild and Scenic in 1968- and man, scenic is an understatement. The Rio Grande itself is the 2nd longest river in the United States, and actually has two separate sections that have been officially declared Wild and Scenic. What exactly qualifies a river to receive the title ‘Wild and Scenic'? It must have at least one of five special features: pristine water, beauty and scenery, river recreation, richness of animal and plant life, and importance to the history and culture of the United States. The Rio Grande meets several, if not all these requirements.
Thanks to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, many steps are taken to ensure the Rio Grande’s towering canyons and rushing waters are protected. A big Sendero shout out to all the people that have given their time and money to preserving awesome places like the Rio Grande- because of these people we get to break out our paddles and return year after year to this iconic river. Cheers!