White-water rafting on the Rio Grande in New Mexico is a huge rush and a little scary, too
White-water rafting on the Rio Grande in New Mexico combines adrenalin rushes with scenic beauty that can't be seen from the highway.
"I think I'm most proud of the stark beauty of the Rio Grande Gorge," says New Mexican native John Weinmeister. As owner of Known World Guide Service, Weinmeister has been taking visitors down the river for more than 15 years.
Depending on the amount of water in the river, the rafting season on the Rio Grande can run from April to October. An ideal flow is 600 cubic feet per second to 700cfs, and most commercial activity on the river is suspended at 450cfs.
"This has been a good year," says Chamisa Weinmeister, John's wife and fellow river guide. "But it's impossible to predict what the river will do." Summer traditionally has the lowest river levels.
The Rio Grande can be divided into five recreational segments from the Colorado-New Mexico border to north of Santa Fe. On a recent trip sponsored by the New Mexico Tourism Department, I tried the Racecourse and Lower Taos Box, two of the most popular sections of the river.
Named after an annual Mother's Day race, the Racecourse starts just south of Pilar, N.M., and follows Highway 68. "We call this our three-hour tour," Chamisa says. At average flow, the 5-mile section of the river is a fun ride. The river is littered with boulders, creating some class III rapids, but most are classes I and II. At high water, this section of the river becomes a continuous rapid.
My favorite of the two runs was the six-hour trip through the Lower Taos Box beginning north of Taos, passing under the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, and ending at the Orilla Verde Recreation Area outside of Pilar. From above, the gorge looks like a long gash across the flat desert. Once you start down the box canyon, there is no escape over the 600- to 800-foot cliff walls.
The inflatable rafts are Zodiac-like boats without the motors. Oar boats are my preference over paddling boats because the passengers get to spend more time looking at the scenery. In the oar boat, the guide controls the raft with two long oars, except in turbulent waters when he needs an extra burst of power. Then the passengers dig with a paddle as the waves crash onto the boat.
The high-walled rafts are incredibly stable and can bounce off most rocks. In fact, one section of white water is called Pinball, for obvious reasons. Another is called Dead Texans Rapids, but John assured me I had nothing to worry about. In all there are 12 named rapids on the 16-mile run. Only two or three are scary class IV rapids.
In our party of three boats, we had passengers go overboard twice. The first swimmer was a woman who had lost her grip. Her boat mates quickly pulled her back into the boat by the life jacket, in textbook fashion.
The second incident happened when one of the rafts came through Boat Reamer Rapids. After splashing through the turbulent water, the boat slid sideways onto a big, volcanic rock in the middle of the stream called Old Fogey.
The drill when a raft gets stuck sideways in the current is called "high side." All of the passengers move to the high side of the boat. This is supposed to prevent the low side from getting sucked under by the current and the boat from flipping. Unfortunately, not everyone on the raft moved fast enough, and the high end rose out of the water ejecting the passengers.
One of the swimmers exclaimed it was the most scared she had ever been in her life and the biggest adrenalin rush, as well. Just another day in the Lower Taos Box.
I've traveled with Known World Guide Service three times now and found their equipment in excellent condition and their guides very professional. They can be reached at 800/983-7756 or www.knownworldguides.com.
The New Mexico Tourism Department has a list of other accredited outfitters, plus river flow rates at www.newmexico.org. Rio Grande guided-trip prices range from around $55 for a half-day trip to $100 for an all-day trip.
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